An account of sexual assault
I am writing this not because I know exactly what words are the most right to say, but because I know it is important: I know it is important, and I know that I am not alone.
I graduated from MIT nearly two years ago, with a relatively normal, MIT life. I lived in a dorm, double majored, was involved in various student groups, and spent most of my spare time doing research. In the spring of my junior year, I was raped by an older colleague within my research group, losing my virginity.
I viewed the man as a mentor and close friend, and I felt a great deal of respect and trust for him, as a mentor. A dinner that I thought was going to be about discussing science turned into something extremely wrong.
For over a year–a year of confusion and deep depression — I remained primarily silent. My grades and focus suffered tremendously, but I was too embarrassed to tell any of my professors or teachers, or even most of my friends and family, what I was going through.
Only in the weeks leading to my graduation, I reported the case, formally, to the police, with the support of MIT’s extremely supportive Violence Prevention and Response program (VPN). I was afraid of reporting, for not being believed, for making the man who had done it to me angry, for potentially ruining a former friend’s life (when all I wanted to do was protect other students), and even for the ungrounded fear of losing all respect from my research advisor.
After three months of repeatedly explaining my story first to the supportive MIT police, then to the supportive local police, and finally to an unsupportive Assistant District Attorney, I was eventually told by the ADA that I had merely had “traumatic sex” and that the man was “sick” and “an *sshole.” But, “it was not illegal for [him] to want sex,” she said. She told me that there was not a clear enough of a struggle, and that “consent is not like signing a contract” (that my standards for consent were too high).
Although I now know with 100 percent certainty that I did the right thing for myself and my situation — in reporting the rape to authorities — I was even more deeply traumatized by the experience, at the time. I have since decided that silence would have been the most painful type of humiliation to bear, especially over time. But it was the concern for the well-being of other young, trusting and equally vulnerable students that initially drove me into action: action to report and now action to speak publicly.
After years of therapy, the love of my family and close friends, travel, and self-care, I am beginning to feel whole again. I am sharing this story here, because I want to give hope to any individual — male or female — who may currently feel voiceless, confused, worthless or hopeless, due to sexual violence. You are not alone and your amount of worth is infinite. Be gentle and patient with yourself.
Here is my story.
It is as raw and unedited as when I first put words to my experience — in the weeks before I reported my rape to the police — over two years ago:
Junior spring. Sex without adequate warning. Sex without my consent. Sex in a clearly imbalanced power scenario. A man 10 years my senior. Deeply disturbing and nauseating. Coworker. R---?
It is so much easier to deny than to say.
As a “strong” woman, I initially wanted to forget it had ever happened: I believed that I was an extraordinarily naïve person who had fell into a foxhole. At the time, I did not consider how it was fundamentally flawed to view myself as prey, and him, a socially acceptable predator. I wanted to believe that night was a glitch that may or may not have happened: it was left to me to decide.
Regardless of whether his primary ammunition was his net of words or the dead weight of his body on top of me, I initially accepted that this was the way things were, and I noted my inadequacy in navigating the system–in all of my shock and numbness. It was too bizarre to possibly ever understand.
The most important reality, I thought, was that nothing had happened, as far as the rest of the world knew. I was still alive and that’s all that really mattered. I could go on with my life, however I would choose. I believed that the only seed of shame produced that night was firmly planted in me — not him — and if I could hide it well enough, no one would need to see its spec of ugliness.
Yet, I had asked him to stop multiple times and tried to push him off of me. I knew this. He ignored me, but who was to blame? I had not spit in his face or tried to claw his eyes out. Instead I lay on his bed naked — with my clothes peeled off — trying to calmly explain that I would not, I could not, have sex with him. The rapid, forceful, and completely foreign advances were too much already. My “stop” was immediately silenced with “your body wants me so bad.” When he didn’t listen, my brain failed to believe it was actually happening and shut down. I felt deep guilt and shame that my subsequent silence was interpreted as a waving white flag: mistaken for consent.
I told him “stop” and I truthfully told him that I was a virgin. Yet, when he was finished, hours later, he pushed me aside saying, “You were never a virgin anyways” (what did he even mean? I still do not know). He damned my desire for rationality to a hell of pure absurdity; he suddenly became not a person but a wall.
I could not process why suddenly, after years of working alongside him, why my words and opinions were suddenly inadequate. Instead, I wondered when, exactly, did I stop existing as a student? Had I always been this silent to him? I did not fully consider why he wanted to watch me wash myself. Comparing this familiar action to the previous night’s unfamiliar events, it seemed like an act of charity and not a means of self-preserving insurance.
“I can’t help but feel that I took advantage of you and it’s not really fair,” he later wrote. That was as close to an apology as I would ever get, and those words seemed to come from an entirely different spring: one which was vaguely familiar and contained traces of logic. But regardless, what exactly was not fair he never explicitly stated or clarified. I would never understand.
The first person I described my experience to (the day I had been dropped off at my dorm room) was another student, who I viewed as a more-experienced friend whose judgment I then respected more than my own. But when I began to describe what had happened, she interrupted me with kind laughter and gently touched my shoulder saying, “no one can be that stupid” (in response to my description of how I was alone with him, to begin with). “The next time you’re in a situation and you don’t know what it means, you call me,” she said. I reminded her that I had lost my cell phone, weeks before.
Extending her advice, she told me “I know it feels weird now that he was much older than you, that he wasn’t your boyfriend, and that you were uncomfortable with wanting it at the moment,” she paused “But at least did you get any sexual pleasure from it?”
“No,” I had not.
That didn’t seem to matter.
She said she had to work on some homework and hugged me goodbye. I remembered I had to do the same.
Even then — even in a stage that I now call shock and denial — I realized that my sexual experience was physically painful, his words were taunting and hurtful, his neglect for my opinion was belittling, and his seemingly older and wiser advice that “I could tell no one” was humiliating. The abuse of his power was evident; he was ten years my senior and in a higher-ranked position at my workplace. As an opening to the night, he bragged that only weeks before had he “helped secure” a multi-million dollar grant, which he described over an uncomfortably overpriced dinner that he insisted on buying me. It was because of his work, he said, that people could do much needed-research, probably in things like cancer. Here, he was the true ethical hero, he said: focusing on the big picture and what really mattered.
The morning after, he reminded me that other girls always enjoyed “it” more than I had. He suggested I should get to know my body more, and then I wouldn’t feel so uneasy next time. I needed to learn how to “let go” of myself, he said, if I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to believe he was wrong — part of me always wanted to believe that I wasn’t the reason for my own confusion and lack of control—but as he pointed out, I was now uncertain of everything, and should be.
His words: “F**king tease,” “you want it,” “stop fighting it,” “let it feel good,” “relax,” “yes,” “this is just like porn,” “you want this,” and “I’m sorry I never told you how cute you are” cycled through my head and taunted me relentlessly. I wanted to believe that his words, and my inability to process them–rather than the act of rape itself — were the real enemy. It was easier that way.
But my body and my subconscious forced me to believe otherwise.
In the days following, I could not eat. I could not sleep. I could not cry. I could not move. I failed my only final that marking period, and I barely finished my other classes’ final projects. I upset my dorm’s housemasters by not moving out of my room on time, and I missed my first flight home. Most everyone I knew had already moved out and left for the summer. In the following days, I would miss three more rescheduled flights. At least, I could not be bothered to care.
Finally, a friend unaware of what had happened and who lived in the area, helped me box all of my belongings and move them into the basement. She wanted to say goodbye before the summer began, and she noticed I needed help when she unexpectedly stopped by. For the first time in days, I ate. I had a reason to get out of bed and reclaim the movement of my limbs. Like most of my friends, I told her nothing. She will unlikely ever know how much she saved me that day.
Nearly a year later, my nightmares have not ceased, but my story is no longer one that I carry alone. I have finally accepted that I cannot forget, and I should not forget. But perhaps what is most interesting, is only now have I begun to feel true fear. I still wake up each morning, unable to discern that the hand resting on my shoulder is my own, and not another’s. I continue to half-sleep each night, fully-clothed, with all of my lights on. I spend the first moments of each morning in unquenchable nausea and fear.
But, what I worry of more, is what will happen if I remain silent. I am beginning to question what I can do, or what I should do, with what I can remember. I have accepted that I will never be able to tell if I am reacting too little or not enough. I realize that all that I can be from now on is what remnants I have chosen to keep of myself: what I remember, what I feel, and what I think is worth speaking for.
Before, as a consequence of post-traumatic stress, I dreamed every night that a different man raped me. In excruciating detail, I dreamed myself being raped by my closest friends, men I have loved and trusted, my family, and men I have purely imagined. Faithfully, every night, men would sink into my dreams and find me. Each night was a new and complex scenario; each rape I was unprepared for and took me by surprise. I woke up each morning, shaking, crying, and needing to throw-up everything I had eaten the previous evening.
Even in the daylight, and even now, I am constantly startled. I constantly forget things, and I constantly drop things I am holding, without even noticing. I have let many of my peer-aged friendships disintegrate, which I am now trying to restore and re-patch. I no longer get joy in eating at elaborate dinner-dates in their company (I realize, the more I eat, the more I will vomit the next morning), and I hate men’s stares and walking alone to my apartment.
I now realize this makes things difficult, but not impossible. I became convinced that if a man ever forced himself on me again, I would rather die fighting than live in an eternal night of loneliness, confusion, nightmares and vomit. More so, however, I became more and more aware that no other woman, man, or child should ever feel so hopelessly trapped and alone, in the same way that I have. I now worry more for the health of other people; people perhaps like me.
Most of all, I have come to realize that when one cannot distinguish a deeply disturbing emotional and physical hell from what is the socially accepted “norm,” there must be something about the norm, in reality, which is seriously flawed.
Now, my dreams have not ceased, but the content has dramatically changed. I dream of telling my boss, the police, and my entire family of what happened. In my nightmares, no one believes me, and I am thrown out of the room. I never know precisely who to tell, or how. My words are never adequate or sufficient. I am tormented by this worry in both my waking and sleeping hours alike.
Trusted friends assure me this is a largely irrational fear, and I wish I could believe them. But I think this — this question of whether her point holds any real validity, or even if it should — means that I am making progress.
This account is anonymous to protect the identity of the author.