As I sit in the library before class and stare at my computer, the blank screen and blinking cursor torment my brain. For this assignment, I know I need to take a stance on an issue that I can talk about without researching it, and there are really only two issues that I am passionate enough about to be able to do this: toxic (abusive) relationships and sexual harassment. I also know that I shouldn’t write something that I would not feel comfortable sharing with the whole class. So I sit here in the library and stare; I’ve written variations of the first paragraph over and over, trying various topics, but I keep coming back to the same idea. So I guess there is only one argument here for me to make: no form of sexual harassment is okay, and therefore, there is never a justification for rape.
Rape is a huge problem within the United States that is not as widely addressed as it should be. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in every five women in America will be raped in their lifetime, and of those rapes, fifty percent of them will go unreported and over ninety-five percent of the rapists will get away with their crime without any sort of repercussions. To make these rape statistics more real and easy to visualize, consider that you are attending a lecture for your major this semester. That lecture has two hundred students in it, one hundred females and one hundred males. If you look around, approximately twenty of the females that sit in that lecture have been or will be raped in their lifetime, as well as two or three of the males. Of these twenty-some students, maybe ten of them will report their instance of sexual violence, and with those reports, potentially one of the rapists will be reprimanded. The thought of something so traumatic happening to so many people around me without my realizing it just scares me. It should worry everyone.
My entire life, well my life since I hit puberty, I have worried that something traumatic would happen to me. At thirteen, I became more aware of everything that was happening in the world, and my mother would always warn me to be careful. “Don’t go out past dark… Don’t hang out in that neighborhood… Don’t ever walk alone.” I heard these phrases every time I asked to leave the house. The other children would laugh and say that my mother was overprotective, but the idea of something happening to me scared the hell out of me, and it still does.
But even though my mother frightened me by just telling me the reality of being a girl, I never really understood who I needed to watch out for. To this day, whenever I leave the house, I am frightened. At home, even walking past places I would always go and in broad daylight, I would be scared. The men I would pass on the streets would stare and call out to me, sexualizing me, and the only thought that would run through my head would be “Ignore them; if you act like you can’t hear them, they will leave you alone.” But even as I thought that, I would get a sinking feeling in my stomach that what if today was the day that the men got angry at me for ignoring them to the point where I ended up as just another statistic, just another news story that would scare women into not wanting to leave their houses alone.
The looming threat of rape was like a corset wrapped around my waist. Every time I passed a group of guys, the strings would tighten to the point where I felt I couldn’t breathe. The relief would come only after I was safely away from them and the corset strings could drop loosely around my hips. It wasn’t until I reached high school that I realized that I had to be restrained by the tightening corset all the time.
My natural body shape attracted the attention of my peers in the halls at school, and the boys acted as if I were a prize to be won. I heard the gossip as I walked; boys would make bets to see who would get in my pants first and tell jokes about how they could force me into sex with them. I never told anyone about it because when this happened, the corset strings were tightened so much that my ribs were reshaped. My face would redden from my inability to catch a breath, and I often felt the desire to hide away. On days when the boys’ comments got to me, I couldn’t wait to rush home to change into my pajamas, wipe off the day, rip off the corset, and just cry into my bed. Perhaps these high school boys thought it was okay to make jokes with me as the punchline because they were never taught differently. Maybe they didn’t understand that their jokes scared females, who then would not speak up against the comments. Still, I never felt like anything would truly happen to me with these kids because I lived far enough away, and didn’t ever go out alone at night. I really thought that I would be safe from ever adding to the rape statistics.
And then my junior year of high school, I found my first REAL boyfriend. We dated for four months before breaking up, and during this time I never had sex with him. While not religious and not really believing in waiting until marriage to engage in intercourse, I wasn’t comfortable in the idea of having sex with a boy that I didn’t love and feel truly comfortable with. I told him I didn’t want to have sex with him. He ceded graciously. Ever since I started being with him, I thought I could take the corset off. There was no reason for me to ever feel like I was in danger around him, so I allowed myself to breathe.
After I broke up with him, we remained close friends because our breakup had only been the result of my falling into a depressive episode (which I had also never discussed with anyone else, which emphasized how comfortable I felt with him). After a couple months of awkward friendship, this boy and I ended up falling back into our old routine and unofficially dating. I became happy again and willingly consented to have sex with him. After a few more weeks, we proceeded to start our relationship again. We fell in love and spending time with him was the highlight of my week.
Then one night, as we hung out at his house, we got into a fight. It wasn’t bad, we always fought over the same things, so it wasn’t hard to talk it out. But instead of continuing to talk after resolving our fight, he came onto me. I was still upset from what had happened, but I truly did love that boy, so I went with it. But as we kissed, he started trying to move up my dress.
“No, please, no. I don’t feel like it right now,” I said, over and over.
He chimed in return, “Come on, come on.”
“Please stop” was the only thing I could reply. It had been over a year since I had felt the corset. But in this moment, he forced himself on me; I wasn’t strong enough to fight him and I was too ashamed to call out so I just had to accept what was going to happen. Despite my best efforts, I was a thirteen-year-old again, walking down a street on my own, unable to breathe. I felt no emotions for the rest of the night while my boyfriend was too affectionate. When I went home, I showered and just went to bed without saying anything to my parents about my day, the corset restricting me. It wrapped so tightly around my waist that I had no choice but to stand up straight and look “perfect” as I walked through my days.
Every day following this event, I kept silent; I could hardly breathe, so how could I get a word out? In my mind, the scenario played over and over again. I didn’t even consider the possibility that this instance could constitute rape. We were in love, and he would never do anything to hurt me, I thought. I had consented to sex so many other times that maybe he just didn’t understand. The first time we dated, he was so gracious about following my request to not engage in intercourse, why would this time be different? His mom had taught him right. He was so protective of his little sister. I knew he wouldn’t actually do anything to me. He was just a nice boy. He loved me. All of these excuses played through my mind over and over, even as the same situation happened on many more occasions during future months.
It wasn’t until my psychology professor read out a similar situation to our class one day—and I immediately agreed with everyone that the girl was raped—that I realized I had become the statistic. In the story, I refuted all the excuses I had made for my boyfriend as they were made for this boy because I knew, the boy in the story took something from that girl. I had been so worried about random guys in creepy alleyways that I didn’t realize the harm was right in front of me. My boyfriend had taken a piece of me. And I still didn’t say anything. My love for him had become the knot that permanently tied the corset tightly around my waist.
It wasn’t until we broke up the second time that I said anything to him about these occurrences. I was done making excuses for him, and I had accepted what had happened to me. I never used the “R” word as I spoke to him, but I did my best to describe how I felt in those moments and why that was wrong. He apologized repeatedly, saying he hadn’t meant to hurt me, but it didn’t change what had happened. I have accepted that this occurred to me, and I was done with him, but I couldn’t bring myself to report him. I was a star student and athlete, the prom queen, and this would have killed my parents. So I never shared it with anyone, but I hope other girls will have a strength I didn’t have. You should never have to make excuses for a rapist. Rapists were the ones who did what they did; the victim is not at fault. While it took me a while to understand this, I make it a point to make sure others know it. And as I type this final paragraph, completing my untold story, it feels like I have taken scissors to that corset. I am finally able to take a deep breath with ease.