[Trigger Warning: Rape/Sexual Assault, Substance Abuse/Drug Use, Eating Disorder]
I’m sharing my story for a number of reasons.
The first reason is that on the most basic level, it helps to share. Sometimes we survivors feel very alone. We might tell ourselves that no one understands, or that no one wants to hear what we have to say. I would like you to know that you are not alone. Your pain is valid and legitimate and there are so many others out there who love and support you. We don’t need you to prove anything to us. We don’t need you to fulfill an expectation, because we know how hard it is to feel like you’re going to let down the ones you love. We simply love you.
The second reason is that being a queer survivor has its own unique bundle of burdens and trials, and when looking for support, it was hard for me to find resources on how to deal with gender and sexuality as a survivor. I hope my story lends a perspective where it’s needed. I don’t have all the answers, but I’m willing to give my testimony in their place.
The third reason is that sometimes I need help. Sometimes my days are very dark and it’s hard for me to express the ways in which I need to be treated, or talked to, or left alone. For those of us who have trouble asking for assistance, or knowing when it’s time to ask for it, maybe this testimony will help explain what’s going on. And if you’re an ally, maybe you’ll find ways to be even better for the survivors in your life.
I turned eighteen in August of 2008. There are pictures of me on my birthday: the least flattering haircut of my life, my hands thrust into my Bryn Mawr sweatshirt, giving the camera a shit-eating grin from the hood of my friend’s car. I clung to the future like an IV line, feeding off the rush of the potential, the almost-there-but-not-quite. I wanted to get out of my podunk town. I wanted to read a library’s worth of books. I wanted to talk to people who had big thoughts, and learn to have big thoughts of my own. I thought maybe, just maybe, I would no longer be the awkward girl I’d always seen in the mirror, the one who had chronic acne and a long list of fears. I would be someone worthwhile, the someone I was supposed to be.
For two months that fall, I experienced a strange and beautiful period of my life. I lived on my own for the first time. I fell hard for the girl down the hall who would later be my first girlfriend. I drank cheap liquor because I didn’t know any better, and danced at sweaty parties until my legs gave out. I went into my first real city and saw paintings and big stores and people who looked nothing like the people from my town. The entire world swirled around me at a frenetic and thrilling pace, and I forgot to call my parents, forgot that anything had ever existed before I’d stepped into this incredible new life.
And then, without warning, the world stopped spinning.
On November 1st of 2008, I walked a man into my dorm room. When I asked him to leave, he locked the door and raped me.
I didn’t use the word rape for a long time. I called it sexual assault at first. Sexual assault seemed less damning, less permanent. I told absolutely no one the exact details. If I had to tell, I told vague half-truths. I didn’t want to believe it had happened. I didn’t want it to be real, so I told myself it wasn’t. I made up a version of it that didn’t make me as terrified and miserable, and that’s the version my closest friends heard. It took me two years to use the word rape. And it took me two and a half to admit that I had been violated in a very violent and very wrong way. It’s taken me five years to believe I didn’t deserve it, and it will probably take me even more to realize that I’m a stable and totally fine person.
This is all okay. This is a natural thing that we do to deal with trauma. I understand why I did it, and why others do it, and I know now that it’s part of the healing process. I know why I could never quite tell that story, and I’m okay with that. If you aren’t ready to tell your story, that’s okay. Your story is yours to do with as you choose. If you need to live in your story for a while, to keep it close to your heart so it stays warm, that’s okay. You don’t need to share it right now, or ever, if you’d like.
I had half-truths about this, too: I had only been kissed twice before that moment, and nothing more than that, though you will hear conflicting accounts. I boasted to my high school friends about heavy petting and handjobs, but those were lies to cover for my complete and terrifying lack of attraction to the handful of boys I tripped over in my adolescence, and later lies I added in the wake of my rape. I found that lying about the body is as easy as lying to it. I also found that somewhere along that blind journey to recovery, I had internalized the messages that pamphlets and psychiatrists and therapists and social workers and cops and friends and family had been projecting: that this incident had robbed me of my “innocence.” I had come to believe that this act had left me “broken” and “ruined,” specifically because I had not been touched before.
So I began to add sexual encounters to my past, as if their phantom bodies could somehow cushion the impact of his hands on my skin, as if my bruises could be covered by layers of imagined hands, groping teenage fingers. I added tenderness to these encounters, and a sense of adolescent clumsiness. There was something comforting about this fantasy. It felt much better to believe that my body had first come to terms with sexuality not though a violent and bloody encounter, but through naive teenage tangles, even if they weren’t the right gender for me.
By social conventions, I was a virgin. I had never had a sexual encounter. By my own definition, I was a virgin. Due to the extreme trauma to the area, especially given the blood loss, it is difficult to tell if my hymen was broken during the act, or if it had already been broken by an unassuming tampon or stretch. I’ve heard feminists refer to the hymen as a “mythical membrane,” but it’s been a difficult concept to internalize when you’ve spent such a long time thinking of yourself as “broken.”
Not that rape is a sexual act. I want that message to be very clear: Rape is not sex. My rape was not a sexual encounter. Rape never is.
At the same time, I have to understand that rape and sexuality are irrevocably intertwined. And this is what I want to ultimately talk about: where does my queerness intersect with my being a survivor?
Rape is impact: there will be aftershocks, ripple upon ripple of side effects, cyclical reminders. You will see your body, or not see it at all. It may become a dry husk you struggle to fill, or something to tear down every few hours. Sometimes you will hurt your body to remind yourself that it is there. You will need to see blood to know that there is, in fact, something keeping you tethered to life. And when you add another body to this equation, things get much more complicated.
Almost exactly a month after the rape, I had sex for the first time. For better or for much worse, my entire sexual awakening took place in the very near wake of the rape. I came out to my parents a few weeks after they heard about what had happened to me, although the version they received included no details, and to this day my mother believes that it is “just sexual assault, not rape,” a distinction she made that seems to comfort her. I will never correct her. My parents also wanted to know if my sexuality was a result of what happened to me, if this was a phase or a coping mechanism or a symptom of my “wild year.” The rape made this coming out illegitimate, invalid. To this day, there is a distance between myself and my family that bears the distinct mark of my queerness. I don’t know if they have ever chosen to see it in a different light. I have chosen to never revisit this topic with them.
I got into bed with my first girlfriend because I’d had flashbacks every single night, and couldn’t sleep without sobbing. I needed someone to hold me because I was too afraid to sleep alone. Trusting someone else with my body was something I did not know if I could do, but I tried anyway. And that led to losing my virginity, and entering into a sexual relationship.
Sex is complicated no matter the circumstances. It is beautiful, but it is still complicated. I have never known sex as anyone but a survivor. That burden has always been on my shoulders as a sexual being, and those scars have always marked how I approach every single sexual encounter. I used to envy those people who entered sex with trust, with excitement, without fear or pain or dread. I’ve since learned that sex is strange and new for everyone, no matter what they’ve been through. We’re all a little bit scared the first time we undress someone else, even if it’s the good kind of scared that makes your chest flutter.
Sex became my way of understanding what happened to me. I had other methods, but they were not as successful. I journaled, and took a lot of self-portraits with the camera I’d been given for Christmas. I filled notebooks with drawings and smearings of my own blood – I had a lot of nosebleeds during that time for various reasons, and I figured out a way to induce them. But mostly, I was having a lot of sex. Sex that involved different kinds of sensations, sex that involved a lot of trust. I wanted to test the ways in which I could feel my aliveness. I wanted to understand how to feel pain and pleasure when I was in direct control of those elements. My body had become a stranger that spoke to me in a strange language, so sex became my translator. Having sex, specifically queer sex, was helping me to see all the small and glorious beauties of humanity that one person had made me forget.
I learned that I felt the most comfortable with my body when it was giving pleasure to other bodies. I learned to flirt, and flirted a lot. I eventually cut off my hair, and wore the clothes that made me feel better. I had girlfriends, and then I didn’t have girlfriends, but mostly I had one night stands and fuckbuddies who came and went. I loved each and every one of them in their own way, for a few minutes or a few days or months at a time. It was through their bodies that I learned about my own. I’d never had the chance to find my way through sexuality without the weight of these scars, and their skin was smooth and warm. Their arms were inviting and never reminded me of the past. They weren’t like my body, and I cried sometimes knowing that they still wanted me, that they desired my most broken pieces, even for a few hours.
At the same time, I was playing a dangerous game. I am an anxious person by nature, and a people pleaser. I trusted absolutely no one. Sex, to me, was a different kind of trust than the kind it took to let someone else even halfway into my heart. Sex didn’t require talking about my feelings, or my dreams, or the little things I turned over in my head before I fell asleep. My body dysphoria was (and still sometimes is) consuming, and I didn’t always want to be touched during sex, or take off my clothes. Sometimes this was not understood or well-received. Sometimes this made me question if my dysphoria came from a gender issue, or a survivor issue, or from a little bit of both. In the meantime, I was treading the line between helping myself heal and giving people something they wanted regardless of my needs. Sometimes I couldn’t tell if I truly desired the person, or if their desire for me had made me feel that I was obligated to give myself to them.
I found myself in a place where my vulnerabilities had transformed into ways for me to be abused. And they were frequently abused, and I felt even more broken than before, and it hurt. Every time I felt like I was crawling out of the hole, there was a day when I was back at the bottom again.
I saw a few therapists during this time. Half were competent, the other half made me feel even worse about what had happened. Our conversations only made me question and hate myself more, especially when we talked about my sexuality. I was put on a multitude of medications, most of them to treat anxiety and depression. I had a hypnotherapist, and underwent memory replacement therapy. What I couldn’t find in therapy, I sought in self-medication. When I felt really bad, I didn’t want to bring someone else into it. I had convinced myself that I was a toxic person who would poison others with this side of me, so I pushed others away in those instances. Instead, I found substances that could heal those particular moments. I kept using them, even when they affected my health, even when I stopped going to class, even when I locked myself in my room and spent hours with a pair of scissors. I didn’t eat for a very long time. If I did eat, I ate from a jar of peanuts I kept by my bed, and counted them out. I am someone who naturally carries their weight around 135-140 lbs. I weighed 112 by December of 2009. When I look at pictures of myself from that time, I can’t believe my body was ever like that. I can’t believe what I was capable of doing to myself, that I could cause as much damage as he did with my own two hands.
We queers are a navel-gazing bunch, but with good measure. We form our identities outside of the mainstream; we recognize ourselves as different and therefore we have to work extra hard to understand these differences, to know the boundaries between us and the rest. We often look back at the narrative of our lives to better understand how these identities form, and as a result, we spend a lot of time in self-examination. Going through something like this means you naturally doubt yourself. You question your life, your choices, the reason you do what you do. Coming to terms with my sexual identity while navigating the very slow process of recovery made this questioning particularly awful.
I am a masculine-presenting person. I feel good when I’m wearing menswear, or all my bright cut-off shirts, or my studded flannel vest. I like my expression to be something I can play with, something that reflects the way I feel and fuck and see the world. Androgyny feels right on me. I’m not quite female and not quite male. My gender is fluid, something I like to shrug off when it feels too tight, or wrap around me when I need the comfort. I don’t like the label “lesbian” because I don’t feel like a woman who loves other women. I do use “dyke” because it feels like a fist in my mouth. It feels like spitting glass and wiping the blood from your lips. I identify first and foremost as “queer” because I fell in love with queer theory, because it feels exactly the way I feel my gender and desire. I’ve spent years coming to terms with all of these statements that I can now rattle off when needed. Yes, I am this. Yes, I like to wear these things. Yes, I am attracted to these bodies. On the days when it’s hard to know if I’m up, down, or deserving of a place in the world, I take solace in the fact that I can say a few things about myself and know that they are true, or that their ability to change and morph is totally okay.
Most of the time I’m about 30% okay with my body, but when I am confident in my boiness, I can feel attractive and desirable for a while. I can get up to a 60%, or maybe an 85% on a super good day. I like the way girls look at me. I like the way I make them feel. I like that I can feel as if people want to be with my body, that my body is not an awful and toxic thing that should be rejected. I like feeling desired, wanted, attractive, beautiful. Everyone likes to feel this way. I especially like feeling this way because most of the time I’m telling myself that I am none of those things, since that violent act tipped an already anxious and self-deprecating personality over the edge of self-loathing.
I question so many things in my life. I question my presentation. I enjoy rejecting male attention with my masculine presentation, but I wonder if I do so because I associate male attention with the rape. I wonder if I sometimes bind because I enjoy fucking with gender, or if I’m trying to hide away parts of me that he touched. I wonder if this is the same reason I don’t always take off all my clothes during sex. On my worst days, I question my sexuality. I spend hours ruminating over things that shouldn’t ever cross my mind. Am I only attracted to women because of what happened to me? Do I seek out the partners that are the opposite of him? Do I sleep with the people I wish I was, the stable and beautiful ones who haven’t known this kind of pain? Is anything I do legitimate?
But I know none of this is really true. Sometimes this is the hardest thing to remember and understand. Sometimes it feels like all the things that make me queer are things that could be responses to what happened to me. And sometimes I really need to know that I am legitimate and valid and everything I do is okay, no matter their source. I have to remember that I was attracted to girls before this happened to me. I have to remember that as long as the way I conduct my life makes me happy, it is okay. I have to remember that all bodies are legitimate, and valid, and I should be very good to myself because I deserve to be very good to myself. As you should be so very good to yourself, because you deserve all of that and more.
Some days, the bravest thing we do is get out of bed. Sometimes it takes all the courage in our tiny beating hearts to button up the shirt that makes us feel good, to meet our own eyes in the mirror. Sometimes we forget to congratulate ourselves for the incredible victories we achieve every single day, like walking to work, or cleaning our rooms, or choosing to stay under the covers and watch our favorite show. We are survivors. That means that we got through the very worst, that we are still alive and we will go on being alive. That means that the very fact we are living our lives is a beautiful and precious thing. We should celebrate every single minute that we keep putting one glorious foot in front of the other. And we’re queer, so we’ve got this other beautiful and precious thing that makes us extra celebratory.
There are moments when I am filled with tear-inducing rage because this happened to me, because it has happened to so many of us, because I know too many queers whose trust and control was wrenched from them with fists and kicks and hands that wouldn’t let go. Too many who blamed themselves, who wondered if they should have said no, if they should have screamed, if it still counted because this person was their partner or their friend. When your body is different, when your body does different things, it’s your body they’ll come after. Our queer bodies are the most beautiful things in the world. We have made entire universes inside of our skin. We have had to battle time and time again to make our bodies and the things our bodies do legitimate by the standards of a society that doesn’t hug back. We have been repaid in lost blood and lost lives. Being queer means we are already fighting to love, and to love ourselves. Being a queer survivor means we must do the impossible over and over again.
If you’re not a survivor, there are still so many ways to be a helpful ally. You don’t need to know a survivor, but I bet you do. Every two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted. Think about how many survivors that is since you started reading this article. The most important thing an ally can do is actively listen without judgment. Become the best listener in the world, as well as a supportive shoulder, a hand to hold, or someone who will leave when they’re asked to leave. Listen when you are told that a space is survivor-only, and needs to be respected. Listen for rape jokes, and call them out. The second most important thing you can do is believe survivors. So many people will shut their story down, or not understand. Please, please believe us. Even if we doubt ourselves, even if we cannot tell you the details and even if the story changes, please believe us. The worst thing you can do is contribute to our fear that we are not valid in our experience. The third most important thing is to accept us. We will be going through many difficult changes that may have an effect on our relationship. Accept that there will be differences now. Accept that we will have bad days and good days, and that sometimes after a long period of good days, a trigger might set us back to the bad. Accept that you cannot always help us, and that we need space, and that you should not take this personally. Accept that this is normal and okay. Accept that we are strong and beautiful beings, and help reassure us when we forget.
Every single day I put one foot in front of the other. I will keep going. Because I deserve each step. Because I have found life to be stunning. Because it is the only thing I can do. You will keep going, too. Every single day, you are getting a little bit better. Maybe you can’t tell just yet, but this healing is like getting taller. One day you’ll look at those pictures and wonder how you were ever so small. One day, this sadness will be a memory. Your scars will be harder to see, and even if you never forget that they’re there, you’ll know they don’t define you. You’ll understand how all that pain ended up making you stronger. You will meet your own glance in the mirror and you’ll see an incredibly beautiful person staring back. You will never be prouder.
For you, for people who care about you, for help needed now or in the future.
1-800-656-HOPE – 24/7 support hotline
RAINN – national support network
LGBTQ Survivors – resources for queer survivors
Survivor Resources by Location – find support groups and local resources in your immediate area
How To Report Rape / Sexual Violence – if you decide to pursue legal action, all the information you need
Ally Resources – how to be the best possible ally to survivors
Special Note: Autostraddle’s “First Person” personal essays do not necessarily reflect the ideals of Autostraddle or its editors, nor do any First Person writers intend to speak on behalf of anyone other than themselves. First Person writers are simply speaking honestly from their own hearts.