Hard to Realize, Harder to Forget
The summer following her freshman year was, for Sarah*, the beginning of something beautiful. Until it wasn’t. At the age of 14, she entered an eight-month relationship in which she was emotionally blackmailed, abused and raped multiple times. It took until after her relationship had ended to realize what she had experienced was rape.
“It was an emotionally abusive relationship, and I was raped a number of times,” Sarah said. “A lot of people will say that I consented to have sex, whether or not it was on my own terms, because I was in a relationship. Even I, at first, didn’t identify it as rape. But as I came to terms with what happened and was able to identify it as what it was, I realized that I wasn’t the one with the problem in the situation.”
In the time following the end of the relationship, Sarah faced problems with both mental illness and stalking by her rapist, which amounted to both depression and revelation. She was eventually admitted to a hospital for a suicide attempt, and in the self-care and therapy that followed, the true impact of what she had experienced came to light.
“Once you learn how to take care of yourself, you can look back and say ‘that wasn’t what that should’ve looked like,’” Sarah said. “Coming to terms with the fact that what happened to me was abuse and was rape was a really long process in general. In the couple of months that it took me to realize that, I just hated myself, because I blamed myself for every bit of it, and there was nothing in me that said that I shouldn’t.”
In society today, there is stigma surrounding women who open up about sexual abuse or assault – a stigma that Sarah is no stranger to. It comes in the form of victim-blaming, refusal to believe victims’ stories, insistence that victims either “asked for it” or enjoyed it and a number of other forms. In some cases, this hostility towards survivors of sexual abuse and/or assault may even become internalized, which can wreak havoc on recovery and coping.
“Survivors have always had my greatest sympathies, because there’s really not much worse you can go through,” Sarah said. “And then to have it not believed or to be blamed for it yourself is just awful. Logically, I know that it’s not my fault, because it’s never the victim’s fault. It’s easy to blame me and say I should’ve been smarter. It’s also easy to look at him and say you shouldn’t rape people, and that’s the right approach to take.”
Despite the fact that years have passed since the relationship ended, Sarah still faces problems brought upon her by her experience. She is uncomfortable with physical touch, especially without warning or permission, and always feels hyper-aware of her surroundings and the people around her. According to her, saying and hearing the word “rape” makes her physically uncomfortable, and rape jokes have taken on a new edge of seriousness.
“It’s kind of a human quality, where tragic things happen and we joke about them, and that’s how we cope,” Sarah said. “But I think as people talk about it more and more, the word becomes misused more and more frequently. The word has become so commonly used that people don’t realize how serious it is. It’s not one of those words with a visceral reaction attached anymore. It’s a real thing that happens, and it should make people uncomfortable, because that’s not something that should be normalized.”
She believes that there is a solution to the normalization and trivialization of rape, or “rape culture,” and that is simply seeing rape for what it is – a violation and something that isn’t to be normalized – and having a little empathy for others, regardless of who they are or what they’ve been through.
“I think a little bit of empathy never hurt anyone,” she said. “I think that that’s something we’re very much lacking. Everything has turned into a political statement, or something self-serving. I think that if we as people were more empathetic, we’d be able to empathize with survivors, we would believe them more, and we wouldn’t blame them, so survivors would have a much easier time. And honestly, if you empathize with someone, I don’t know that you could rape them.”
As time goes by, Sarah finds herself making peace with what happened to her, and chooses to look at what she’s learned. She now uses her experience to help others in similar situations when she can. She still faces days where she blames herself for what happened, or cannot stand any physical contact, but they are growing less and less common.
“Honestly, every day it’s becoming a little easier to distance myself from it,” Sarah said. “I’m very proud of myself. I’m still recovering, and I’ll still have days where I can’t be touched, and I sit around blaming myself, but it’s once in a blue moon at this point. And I know that eventually those days are going to go away entirely – I’ll still have bad days, but they won’t be like that. I’m very much looking forward to a time where I can be completely healed.”
*a pseudonym is used for privacy purposes