Everything had been going smoothly. Despite the breath I was holding in my chest, there was nothing uncomfortable about this date. He was nice and handsome and attentive. He looked me in the eyes and spoke with intent. Nothing gave me any indication to run, not even the knots in my stomach, but I still made sure to pinpoint where the exit signs were. I didn’t want to get comfortable and forget what happened the last time I felt too safe. After all, I knew dating again after my sexual assault would be complicated.
It took me a while to realize I wasn’t paying attention to the man sitting across from me. He was talking about his new job, but I couldn’t focus. Memories of my assault replayed in my head. It still felt like it had happened just yesterday, even though it had been two months. All I could think about were the three exit signs that glowed in the darkness during my assault, looking right at me, begging to be used, taunting me with their freedom. But all I could do was stare at them; my limbs numb.
My assault wasn’t violent. It was nothing like what I’d been warned about. There was no stranger or dark alleyway. My clothes weren’t ever ripped. I was assaulted by a friend — someone I cared about; someone I had willingly invited into my space and my home; someone who also didn’t understand the meaning of the word “no.” At first, I didn’t want to admit that my assault even happened. To me, it didn’t make sense — not this way, and not with a close friend. But when I released my denial, I made the decision to start doing the work I felt necessary for my healing. I spent six weeks with a therapist who helped me assess my needs after my trauma, and yet, I still didn’t feel fully healed. By the fourth week of therapy, I confronted my assailant in a safe and calm space, where I eventually came to an understanding of what had happened and how to move forward.
He had violated a sacred space: our friendship, and me, as a person. For us to move forward from this experience separately, he had to not only acknowledge his actions, but feel remorse for them and implement personal actions to prevent this from happening again in the future.
Healing is a privilege, and one I feel fortunate to have experienced. I’d done everything I could in terms of restorative justice (the practice of a survivor confronting their attacker with the help of a therapist in order to begin repairing the harm inflicted by the attacker, according to Vox), but I still didn’t feel as though I’d now be able to continue my life as normal. Something sacred had been taken from me — my power to choose.
Two months after my assault, I felt compelled to date again… or at least, to try to date again. I felt lonely. But sitting at dinner with a stranger felt uncomfortable, like trying to keep broken glass together. The person who assaulted me was kind too, just like my date. What if my date assaulted me too? As these thoughts consumed me, he could tell I was uncomfortable. “Are you OK?” he asked. I wasn’t. I still felt paranoid, consumed by watching everyone move around me, dodging every glance. I sat silently before answering him, and finally, said, “I think it’s too soon.” Then I got up and left.
Looking back, part of me wanted to erase the memories of my assault with newer, better ones, which I thought dating again would help solve. But frankly, part of me felt compelled to date again because of how the patriarchy has shaped my experiences as a black woman. Through messaging from my lived experience, such as TV, news, movies and even familial suggestions, my worth has felt tied to my ability to create and maintain romantic relationships. But after that first date following my assault, I recognized I needed time to think about just how much my sexual assault had morphed my ability to be comfortable in a space occupied by men. It was hard for me to feel safe because I didn’t know how to not feel anxious or worried around them. I was unsure of how to not search for escape routes everywhere I went.
So instead, I decided to stop forcing myself to be ready to date again. I enjoyed alone time, and thought about what I wanted my life to look like while balancing growth, romance, and my own self-preservation. I asked myself how I could date again with the risk of assault hanging over me, and realized that the solution was in my hands. That’s when I decided to stop molding myself for men, and instead, ask and expect them to mold themselves for me. Rather than thinking there was something I could do about my paranoia, I thought about what men coming into my life could do to make me feel comfortable around them. I had to acknowledge the work I’d done to heal, and recognize the work potential partners would have to do if they wanted to be a part of my life.
At first, setting higher standards seemed unrealistic and silly. It seemed loneliness would follow me if I chose this route. But knowing I had the power to decide what type of person gets to come into my life made me realize there was no need to fear loneliness. I had to unlearn the idea that my worth was inherently tied to whether or not men found me desirable. I knew the paranoia that someone could hurt me wouldn’t go away immediately and that most men wouldn’t care if I happened to be less inviting than other women, but the point was that it was no longer about them. It was about me, and what I need to feel safe and comfortable while dating again.
I wanted to believe in a world where a romantic, safe, and healthy relationship was feasible and accessible for me. So, I denied the notion that loneliness was something to fear and instead, I changed my thinking. I decided to be particular about who I allowed into my space and into my life. I didn’t want to date before I felt ready, so I didn’t. And I acknowledged that, for me, “readiness” might only come in waves, never staying for more than a few moments. I had to accept this was OK, too. I let go of the notion of a “deadline” and let my body and mind guide me.
When I finally went on another date six months later, I felt more prepared. I was nervous, but I didn’t immediately search for the exit signs. This time, I knew I was there for me, and only me. My paranoia settled once I realized that the choice is mine first. My date was kind this time around as well, but instead of focusing on the ways he reminded me of my assailant, I focused on the energy between us. We ended our date by planning another one.
Dating on my own terms when I was actually ready reminded me I’m allowed to say “too soon” when I need to, and that the people I choose to surround myself with should understand that. I am allowed to avoid things I feel obligated to do, especially if the narrative no longer serves me. I am allowed to say no. I’m allowed to turn down dates if I’m not ready, or if I’m just not interested. I’m allowed to choose.
While I know my healing will never really end, I also know I’ve made progress, and right now, that’s enough for me. The more time I give myself, the less those exit signs will taunt me. Perhaps, the less I rely on them for comfort, the more powerful I’ll become.
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.