Rape changed me forever. It changed the way I walked on my campus, the way I dress, and it has changed the way I drink socially. In July 2015, I was raped for the first time. Afterwards, I remained silent. I was ashamed. As a full-time student-athlete running track in college, I felt there was no room to tarnish my image. So, I let that night eat me alive. I never could have imagined I would be sexually assaulted twice. But three years later, when it happened again, I took action — I reported my sexual assault.
In the process of healing after my first rape, I fell in love with activism. I wanted to help other survivors feel less alone in the wake of their trauma. I opened up to my best friend — a fellow survivor — and together, we made it our mission to regain what we called our “Sparkle,” a term we coined to mean happiness, passion, and self-worth. Towards the end of our sophomore year of college, we became trained advocates for on-campus sexual violence programs, so students could confide in us. I became a confidential peer educator through a pilot program called Believe|Reclaim|Advocate|Vocalize|Empower (BRAVE), an organization that uses education to raise awareness around issues of gender-based violence. We learned about Title IX, a civil rights law that protects students from gender violence and sex discrimination, and began studying the cases of victims who received a Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner (SANE exam, also known as a “rape kit”), and what happened when these students reported their assaults.
I tried to put my past behind me. I wanted to make a difference in ending gender-based violence. But one morning, in August 2018, I woke up to a familiar nightmare. I looked down at the t-shirt I was wearing, and realized it was not my own. I stared at the stranger sleeping next to me. I could recall pieces of the night before, shaking my head and saying, “No, I want to go home.” I looked around the room for my scattered clothes. I screamed at him in disbelief, searching for my missing bra, only to find it outside of the house, next to a pair of men’s underwear.
As I rode in an Uber back to my beach house in New Jersey, I recalled what I could from the night before. I'd arrived at a bar with my parents. I went downstairs, where there were people my own age. I sat alone at the bar towards the back of the room so I could listen to the live band play. It wasn’t until after I'd ordered a drink that a man I didn’t know started talking to me. I never learned his name. I cannot remember how I ended up in a shore town 30 minutes away from the one I was originally in.
Looking back, I wish I had told my parents what had happened right away. I wish I had immediately gone to the hospital. But instead, despite my training, I slipped into a familiar pattern of silence. On my drive home, my anxiety resurfaced. I called my best friend, near hysterical. Her father grabbed the phone from her and instructed me to go to the hospital, get an exam, and file a report as soon as possible. He reminded me of my training and urged me to fight for justice. I hung up, heart racing. Five minutes later, I called another friend and asked her to take me to the hospital.
I decided to go to Penn State St. Joseph’s hospital in Pennsylvania, where I’m from, even though it was in a different town and state than where the crime occurred. I wanted to be close to home. I was already set up in a bed when the nurses told me that in this hospital, they couldn't take pictures of any of my injuries because the hospital didn't have a database where they could store them safely. I wasn’t yet planning to report the assault, but I knew that evidence from a full SANE exam would be vital in case I ever did decide to report. I hoped to give myself options.
First, I completed the mandatory paperwork and asked if the hospital bill would show up on my insurance. I am under my parents’ healthcare plan. I didn’t want my mother to find out through a letter in the mail. I didn't want my family to find out — I was worried they wouldn’t believe this could happen to me twice. Luckily, the state of Pennsylvania has a victim’s grant, which covers the cost of a SANE exam for those who can’t afford to pay the hospital bill. Since I was over 18, I was able to have my medical records sent directly to me.
Before the exam, the hospital provided me with a certified advocate from Safe Berks, a local organization helping victims of sexual assault and domestic violence by finding them safety in living arrangements, legal procedures, and much more. She outlined all of my options in case I decided I wanted to report at a later date, and explained that the first step I would take that day was to make the initial report. The detectives would then gather evidence to present to the District Attorney (DA), where they would determine if there was enough information to press charges and go to court. She also provided a hand to hold during the exam.
Next, the nurse from the hospital informed me that in order to conduct the exam, Pennsylvania law required me to report my assault to the police, so my statement would be on record. Even if I didn’t want to press charges now, this would be crucial if I ever decided to later on. We called the Avalon, New Jersey police station and I made it clear that at the time, I wasn’t going to press charges. The nurse then said we were ready to start the exam. She asked a few more questions about what had happened and opted not to drug test me.
The SANE exam felt like both a waking nightmare and a trip to the OB/GYN. I laid down, freezing in my hospital gown, and tried to stay still as I was touched in places I never wanted to be touched in again. It hurt more than a normal trip to the doctor because there were unknown cuts in my private parts. The nurses took swab after swab — in my mouth, vagina, pressing on my lower abdomen — while checking for signs of unusual pain. Tears poured out of my eyes as the nurse documented everything she saw: the cuts, the yeast infection, the swelling. The pages of notes the nurse wrote down would later be sent to the police as evidence. They would only test my kit for evidence if I decided to file a police report. The swabs would be the only indication if spermatozoa (the reproductive cell found in male semen) or anything else like lube or ointments were found.
Because it was evident that something had happened, I was given a morning-after pill to reduce my risk of pregnancy as well as antibiotics, in case I had contracted any STDs or STIs. The nurse collected my clothes and underwear in a plastic bag and informed me the Avalon police would pick up the kit and send it to the lab where it would be stored in case I ever wanted to submit it for testing — it cannot be mailed.
Two days later, as scheduled, I moved to New York City and tried to focus on finishing my undergraduate degree. I tried to bury my distress from what had happened to start my new life in the city. I hid my feelings by focusing on my career, and when I couldn't, I fell into a dark and lonely place.
Two months after the incident, I was in my apartment when I received a call from an unknown number with an area code from Avalon. My throat clenched. It was a nurse calling from the lab. She informed me they had received my rape kit and wanted to confirm I didn't want to have it sent out for testing. Before I knew it, I told her everything. She asked me why I had decided to get a rape kit in the first place, and I didn’t know the answer. But I realized I didn't want my attacker to have another opportunity to hurt someone else. So I told her to send my kit in for testing, and I called the Avalon police to give my official statement.
About a week later, I found myself in an interview room, recounting my assault. The only evidence I had that could possibly be used to identify my perpetrator was a phone number punched into my cell phone from that night. No name, just an outgoing call. As I finished telling my story to the detective, he asked if I knew a man by the name of name Keith.* I told him I didn't, and seconds later, he laid a picture on the desk. I looked in disbelief. It was the same man I'd met at that bar. I began to hysterically cry. After answering a few more questions, I left knowing that this would be the start of a very long process. The first step was waiting for the results of the rape kit.
In December, approximately two and half months later, I still hadn’t heard anything. I called the police station several times, and always received the same response: We're waiting on the results, which can take up to five months to finish testing. I couldn’t deal with the wait. I explained how mentally detrimental it can be for a survivor to sit with no answers. I got a call a few days later. The results were in, and they had found spermatozoa in the vaginal swab of my kit, which indicated that intercourse had taken place. I immediately felt sick. Additionally, the police wanted me to come in so I could be set up with a prosecutor, which was provided pro bono. My lawyer would coach me on how to make a call to my attacker on a secure recorded line with the intention of getting him to confess.
Last week, I took a trip to Avalon where I sat with two detectives and a prosecutor. They felt it would be best to let one of the female detectives talk, posing as me, believing my perpetrator wouldn’t remember my voice. They were able to place a call from a cell phone with the same area code as my own to make it seem more real. We sat in a recorded room as the call took place. Keith claimed he didn't remember anything from that night.
Next, the attacker will be forced to turn over the sample, and then the DNA from her kit will be tested against it and from there, he'll be interviewed. Others who might have witnessed the events that transpired that night will also be interviewed: the friends I initially told, and possibly the bartender who served me. My lawyers will continue to gather evidence, and if there’s enough to build a case for the District Attorney to review, I'll to go to court. I know this might take months, or even years. If they don't find enough evidence to build a case, it will be closed and my attacker will walk free.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women will be raped in their lifetime. Additionally, according to Rape Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 230 out of 1,000 cases will go unreported. It sometimes feels difficult to fight for this process knowing that statistically, 995 perpetrators out of 1,000 will walk free, but I won’t stop fighting until my case is closed. Now that i've regained my "Sparkle," I'll never let anyone take it away from me again.
*Names have been changed.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673) or visit online.rainn.org.