April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. I wasn’t aware that this was a thing. With many women, even men, being more open about their experiences with sexual abuse, in a world that typically is unfriendly towards the issue, I thought I would share my own story.
When I was 21, I was in a relationship with someone who wasn’t that mature. Granted, we were happy together for some time before things went sour. A few months into our relationship, I would start panicking every time we had sex, and I didn’t understand why. He never gave me any reason to feel this way. He never pressured me into doing something I didn’t want to do. Not long after, I started having nightmares about being sexually assaulted. I would wake up screaming, crying and sweating.
After that relationship ended, I was unsurprisingly depressed. My therapist recommended that I obtain a higher level of care, so I started going to group therapy five times a week for about three months. When I spoke to the psychiatrist who was assigned to me, I casually told her that I was sexually assaulted by my father as a teenager. She diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder.
This diagnosis confused me, because I never considered what my father did to me to be significantly traumatic. But it all started to make sense: panicking when I would have sex with my ex-boyfriend, being hypervigilant, responding negatively to casual touching, being mistrustful of men, being detached. From ages 16 to 22, I felt like I wasn’t in my own body. I call these the “autopilot years.” Someone else was calling the shots while the real me needed a break from the world.
When I told my mother about my diagnosis, she was unsupportive. She knew about what my father had done to me. This drove a deeper wedge into our already complicated relationship. This cut deep because my mother at that point was the only support I had. It made me feel even more alone.
The summer I was diagnosed with PTSD was a lonely one. I wanted to create meaningful friendships so badly, but I was so afraid of getting hurt that I never even bothered. I met other people in group therapy who had similar experiences, but like me, they were in their own worlds, just trying to find ways to cope.
For about two years after that summer, I refused to have any sort of sexual relationship with any man. I did not let anyone touch me. I was so afraid of intimacy that I refused to listen to songs about love, movies that depicted sex scenes and muting accounts on social media that posted anything remotely sexual. At one point, I even muted friends who would send me similar content.
When the second year of my “voluntary” abstinence came around, I felt so frustrated that I still didn’t feel comfortable being close to a man, even platonically. I talked to my therapist about these frustrations, and she recommended that I try to engage in romantic relationships with men. It scared the life out of me to do so because at that point I refused to be vulnerable with anyone. But I didn’t want to go on letting what my father did to me define the rest of my life.
I reconnected with some guy friends and started exploring my sexuality without feeling guilty about it. This was for me, not for them. Little by little, I started feeling comfortable with being vulnerable and intimacy in general.
Eventually, I met a really great guy, but breaking down my walls for the sake of that relationship was the hardest thing I’d ever done. Allowing myself to enjoy the intimate parts of a relationship was something I never thought I’d be able to do again. Feeling safe with someone I love, and who loves me back, was exactly what I needed after feeling so dehumanized for six years.
Recently, I watched Taylor Swift’s documentary on Netflix, “Miss Americana.” In one part of the film, she talks about her 2017 sexual assault trial. She described how, sitting in the witness chair, the defendant looked at her as if Swift did something to him. As if she’s inconveniencing him by accusing him of sexual assault. The jury ended up siding in Swift’s favor, but in the film, she describes how it didn’t feel like a victory. In the end, she felt defeated. Even though there were seven witnesses, and there was a photo of the alleged act, people still questioned her. That’s how it felt when I started opening up to people about my experience.
It’s surprising how reluctant people are to believe you when you tell them you’ve been sexually assaulted, especially when you disclose the name of the person who assaulted you. This goes for men and women. When you’re a woman who has been assaulted, people question what you did to let this happen to you. When you’re a man, people assume you can handle the situation because, as a man, you’re supposed to say yes when a woman wants to have sex with you. To say no would insinuate that you’re not man enough or that you’re gay.
Being sexually assaulted is dehumanizing. It makes you question everything you know about intimacy and sex. It makes sex look like the scariest thing in the world. It makes having sex with your partner so much more difficult because it can bring you back to that dark place. It’s not just about saying, “This person did this to me.” It’s about releasing that darkness that you’ve kept inside for so long.
I understand that it can be difficult to believe victims because they often omit certain details, but this is not done purposely. Truthfully, there are parts of my own experience with sexual assault that I don’t remember. But I do remember feeling violated, robbed of my self-confidence and humiliated. And I don’t want to remember everything. I know what happened to me is real and my feelings are valid.
I’m not writing this to gain sympathy. In light of Harvey Weinstein’s conviction and the sexual assault lawsuit against the former vice president of BCC, Brian Agnew, it got me thinking about how often victims are silenced. I commend the woman who filed the lawsuit because I know how hard it is to come forward with something so humiliating and personal.
Even though I was assaulted when I was 16, I never formally pressed charges, and I still stand by that decision. I was fortunate enough to be able to leave that situation when it happened. I understand that every person is different, and I don’t want my decision of not pressing charges to deter other victims from doing the same. Do what feels right for you. It won’t be easy, it never is, no matter which route you take, but if it’ll help you sleep better at night, then it’s 100% worth it.