Trigger Warning: This post describes sexual assault.
On August 31st, 2019, I was raped by a stranger I met at a nightclub in London. Today, I am telling that story. But before I do, it’s worth explaining why I want to share, and why I chose to do so in such a public manner.
The need to share, and often to share repeatedly, is part of the healing process for trauma. This article from Psychology Today lists the many benefits of speaking about your trauma. Telling your story can help you make sense of what happened to you, and allow you to take back control over your narrative. It can be empowering. When people react with support it can help you dismiss feelings of shame or the idea that you are weak. The act of sharing can connect you to others who have been through the same thing, and break you out of your own head and self-contained world view. Because when you deal with trauma alone, it can feel like the world is only as big as the room it happened in.
Sharing is the only way we can get the help and support we need, but it also involves risk. Sharing with the wrong people can aggravate existing feelings of shame, guilt, and self-blame. It can cause people to draw away from you, or even become angry with you. To tell someone you have been raped is to give them a burden that many just aren’t prepared or willing to handle. Some people will assume you are attention-seeking or question your timing and motives, especially when you share publicly. Even those who try to help may not know how, and will often do more damage than good. That’s why it’s so important to seek professional help (even if you think you don’t need it) and to be very selective about who you share your story with, at least at first.
I have slowly been sharing my story with trusted friends and family ever since it happened, and each time it gets a little bit easier. It’s taken me many months and hundreds of revisions before I felt I was ready to share this post, but as I continued to heal and get stronger, I felt more and more that I had a duty to share my story publicly. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), another American is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds, and 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. The #MeToo Movement brought the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment to the forefront of the national conversation for a time, but change is slow to occur.
I hope that by sharing my story publicly, I can encourage others who have been through something similar to seek help and see that they are not alone. Additionally, I believe that the more stories like mine are shared, the more people will begin to understand what rape is actually like, under what circumstances it can occur, how deeply it can affect survivors, and what the long healing process looks like. I believe honest, personal stories like mine will change the culture more effectively than any argument.
My story is not like the ones you see in movies or hear about on the news. I was not attacked. I initially consented to sex with the man who raped me, and I think it’s important to share my story as an example of how quickly an encounter that starts consensually can turn into rape. Date rape is one of the most common forms of rape, and it can be extra confusing because it often occurs with someone the victim knows and likes, and who they may have even wanted to sleep with under other circumstances.
Consent to “sex” does not mean consent to any and all kinds of sexual activities, and you can change your mind anytime. You should not have to yell, push, or explain. Anyone who does not listen to you when you say you want to stop, or who tries to coerce you by telling you you want something when you don’t, is raping you. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way.
It was the night before I was meant to take the train from London to Oxford to start my month-long publishing course. I was frustrated that I had spent the past several days in London cooped up in my hotel room reading a manuscript for the course. I wanted to get out and do something fun on my last night in the city. I decided to go to Camden, my favorite part of London, and attend an indie-rock club night at the Underworld. I wore jeans and my oversized Panic! At the Disco t-shirt, and put on some dark eyeliner.
When I got there I ordered a Desperados and found a spot against the balcony rail overlooking the dance floor. I planted there for the majority of the night, only occasionally leaving to get another beer or use the restroom. I watched the people on the dance floor, but being alone and pretty sober I was too intimidated to go out there myself. I was content just to dance lazily against the rail. I observed a tall man with dark hair who looked like he hadn’t shaved in a few days. He was wearing a green and blue striped shirt and dancing with a very pretty blonde girl. I thought he was cute but otherwise didn’t pay much attention.
Hours later, this man had found his way next to me when the DJ put on Bohemian Rhapsody. The pretty blonde girl was dancing with someone else at that point, and I realized they must not have come together. As everyone excitedly began to sing along, the man grabbed me and said “Come sing with me on the stage.” So we joined the crowd and sang and danced and put our arms around the shoulders of the people next to us. When the song ended he pulled me aside to some seats and we began to talk. I’m sure he told me his name, but I can’t remember it, and to this day I’m not sure if I simply forgot, or if my mind blocked it out.
He said, “Let’s play a game. Rock, paper, scissors. If I win, I get to kiss you; if you win, you get to kiss me.” I laughed and said sure. I won and kissed him. I know we talked a while longer, but I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. Eventually, he said his place was right around the corner and asked if I wanted to go there. I didn’t go out that night with the intention of hooking up with anyone, but I wasn’t entirely opposed to the idea either. After all, I had been hoping to meet a cute British man during my studies. I told him I shouldn’t, I had to get up early to pack and check out of my hotel in the morning so I could make my train to Oxford. He said he lived close and I didn’t have to stay long, I would be back before I needed to get ready. I said I was on my period (which was true), thinking that would turn him off. He said he didn’t mind, but we didn’t have to do anything if I wasn’t comfortable. We could just hang out, maybe make out a bit, whatever I wanted.
So I agreed.
…I have spent so much time beating myself up about that decision. But I am done accusing and slut-shaming my past self. There is no way I could have known. I had no bad gut feeling about him and I didn’t feel pressured. I was into him, and he seemed nice and normal enough. I had never had a one-night stand with a stranger before, but all my sexual experiences up to this point had been positive ones. I felt safe and comfortable enough. “Why not?” I thought. Had he been someone different, or had he made different choices that night, I would have gone home perfectly happy and fine. The blame for what happened next lays entirely with him.
It turned out his place was not as close as he had made it seem. We had been walking for about 20 minutes when I jokingly asked him “You’re not going to rape me, right?” He scoffed and acted offended. He jokingly fell on the ground as if I had wounded him. While this didn’t exactly reassure me, it didn’t strike me as concerning either. It had been a joking question, I hadn’t expected a serious answer. The irony of that moment still haunts me.
Despite his insistence that we didn’t have to do anything, he was pretty aggressively sexual on that walk back. I stopped at one point to look at a poster outside of a music venue we were passing and he slipped his hands under my shirt. This was a little much for a public place, even if no one was around.
These were the only indications I had that something was off. But despite my rising uneasiness at moving away from an area of London I knew and into one I didn’t, I did not feel that I was in any real danger. I liked the guy. He was tall, handsome, and charming. I had pretty much already made up my mind to sleep with him when we left the club.
When we got to his place things started to progress quickly. I was into it at first, but it wasn’t long until my feelings changed.
He started to do things to me I wasn’t comfortable with. Things we did not discuss ahead of time or even in the moment. He just did them. Without going into too much detail, the physical actions were things that might have been pretty standard in the world of BDSM. But there was a major difference. Generally, when two people want to participate in those kinds of sexual activities, they know each other well and trust each other. They have established boundaries ahead of time and they respect those boundaries. They have a safe word. One person might play at giving up control, but in reality they can take it back at any time.
What he did to me was not play. I had no control over the situation, but it took me a while to realize it. My immediate reaction when he started doing things I didn’t like was not to say, “Hey, you’re raping me, stop, get off!” It was to try to ask him to change what he was doing, to lead him back towards things I did like. Sometimes he seemed to listen for a few minutes, but he would always inevitably go back to doing whatever he wanted to do.
He controlled me using “dirty talk.” I realize now it wasn’t “dirty talk” at all, but a form of coercion. He made me say I wanted or liked certain things he was doing. He would give me a phrase and make me repeat it. If I didn’t he would keep pressuring me until I did. If I went off-script and said something else, he would ignore it, or sometimes he would slap me and physically harm me until I did what he wanted.
Eventually, I realized I was not enjoying any aspect of the encounter anymore, and there was no salvaging it. I gave up on trying to guide him back towards things I wanted and I decided I was done. At that point, I still had no idea how little control over the situation I had. I told him I didn’t want to anymore. I told him I wanted to stop. I told him I wanted to go to sleep. I told him I wanted to go back to my hotel. I told him I couldn’t do it anymore, he was hurting me. I told him all this repeatedly. He would seem to listen for a minute or two, even saying “Sure, we can go to bed, get under the covers, I’ll turn out the light.” Then he would start up again: “No, I think you can go longer. I bet I can make you orgasm again. This is the best sex you’ve ever had, isn’t it? Say it’s the best you’ve ever had. Say it. Say it again.”
I forcefully pried his fingers off of my privates over and over again. I would fake orgasms in the hope that would make things end quicker, or at least give me a break. But it slowly became clear we weren’t going to be done until he was. By the end, I was no longer interacting with him at all, just letting him do what he wanted to me. It seemed to go on forever. Towards the end, he pointed at the clock and said, “Look, I’ve been making you come for three hours.”
When he finally finished, he turned over and went to sleep, as if I wasn’t even there. I stumbled around for my clothes in the dark, then tried to clean myself up in his bathroom. I left without saying anything and stood on the curb outside his flat waiting for an Uber to take me back to my hotel. It was around four in the morning. I shivered in the cold and listened to the sound of some foxes fighting with each other in the distance. I have never felt more alone than I did at that moment.
In the Uber on the way back, I texted a friend stateside and told him, “I made a mistake.” I described what happened. “That sounds like rape,” he said. “No,” I said, “it was just bad sex.”
That was just the start of my denial. In my next post, I will talk about the aftermath of my assault, and my struggle with PTSD and depression.
There is a common misconception that people who rape do so because they couldn’t have gotten sex consensually, or because they misunderstood their partner’s feelings. But this simply isn’t the case. Rape is about power and control. Rapists know what they’re doing when they do it. They’re not evil demons lurking in the night, monsters fated to behave terribly because it’s in their nature. No, they’re humans. Usually men—men who we know and like and maybe even love—who choose to do something wrong, because power sure does feel nice, doesn’t it?
The man who raped me was a man like this. A man for whom it wasn’t enough just to have sex, willingly given. He needed to control me. He needed to dominate me. I had been warned to look out for monsters. All my life I was taught to defend myself against them. But this man wasn’t a monster, and I refuse to let him be seen as such because that makes it too easy to dismiss his responsibility for what he did to me. He was an autonomous, thinking individual with control over his actions, just like you or me. As long as we keep teaching our daughters to safeguard against monsters instead of teaching our sons how to not behave like them, things will never change.
I’m tired of the rhetoric that rapists will always exist and there is nothing we can do about it, and that, as women, we should just try to make sure we aren’t one of the victims. Don’t be the drunkest girl at the party. Don’t dress the most provocatively. Don’t walk alone at night. If someone has to be raped, let it be some other girl, not you. But when 1 out of every 6 of us inevitably fails to evade assault, we sit there and wonder what we did wrong, how could we have protected ourselves better? We are trained to feel immense shame and guilt over something that wasn’t our fault. I’m sick of it.
I hope that by sharing my story today I can help flip the script on this way of thinking. Or, at the very least, save some girls (and guys) some time and therapy by telling them what it took months for me to figure out: It is not your fault. It is not your responsibility to be on guard all the time; it is his responsibility to not rape you. It was rape, and he knew what he was doing. There is nothing you could have or should have done differently. It is not your fault. Period.
If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, RAINN is an excellent resource. You can speak to someone on their hotline, read up on statistics, and read survivor stories. This HelpGuide was also immensely helpful in showing me that what I was going through was normal, and helping me understand what I was feeling.