Those aren’t the words I’m using to describe the rapes that I experienced while a graduate student at Columbia University. They are the words I am using to describe the feeling of my government dismissing experiences of sexual assault from which I have endured lasting trauma.
To be sure, the two rapes that I experienced have cost me greatly – years of productivity at work, years of happiness, an amount of time and money in therapy that would be too depressing to count, and it nearly cost me my life as my depression and PTSD symptoms escalated to suicidality. I have told friends. I have told doctors. I have told therapists. But I never reported to the police, and I knew that I never would.
The first rape was November 8, 2012 – six years to the day before sexual predator Donald Trump won the presidency. I was out celebrating President Obama’s reelection, having just returned to NYC from the campaign in Pennsylvania, where I worked for the home stretch of the election. Beers were followed by tequila shots, which were followed by Jager Bombs, which were followed by more beers. A cute man just a few years older than I smiled and bought me a drink. We flirted and kissed briefly.
Then I stood up, and as the room continued to spin wildly around me, I fell to the floor, then crawled my way to the bathroom, where I vomited profusely. Careening out of the bathroom and through the bar toward the exit, I paid my tab and told the man that I drank too much and was going home. As I reached for my coat, I fell to the ground again, noticing its stickiness now coated to hands, and regaining my footing, I walked out in search of a cab for the 25 blocks uptown to my apartment. He insisted that he take me home. I deliriously kept saying simply, “I’m just going home,” and I got a cab, and it took me a few minutes to realize that he was in the cab beside me, where I spent most of the ride trying (with mixed success) not to vomit more. When we arrived at my building, I did not invite him upstairs, and simply kept saying, “I’m just going home. I’m just going to bed.” Those are the only words I remember saying as I strained to make my way up the stairs to my 6th floor apartment (the elevator was out of service, with progress toward fixing it delayed by Hurricane Sandy). And then I passed out fully clothed on my bed.
When I woke up (I don’t know how long later), he was on top of me and inside me, and as I began to realize what was happening and struggled, he covered my mouth with his hand, before moving on to a type of sex with which I had at the time been inexperienced and that elicited a blinding pain. When he finished, I told him to leave. Leaving his name and number on my dresser as though it were a consensual hookup, he walked out the door, and I cried.
The next morning, I did all of the wrong things. I stripped the bed, wanting to be rid of his scent. I took the longest shower of my life, weeping as water beat down my trembling, bruised, and bleeding body and as I struggled to catch my breath. And when I went to the campus health center to find out whether I should be tested for STDs or whether they should preemptively treat for them, the doctor’s first question had been whether I had been drinking and whether I was sure that I said no. And that was it. (The doctor spent so much time researching the risks/benefits of STD testing vs. preemptive treatment that they ran out of time and sent me off without anything but a number for their counseling services.)
It was demoralizing. I knew rationally that it was not consensual. I had not invited him in to my apartment. I had been falling down and vomiting and passed out (a state in which I rarely find myself, thankfully, but it was a special occasion), so clearly I was not in a condition to consent. When I began to regain consciousness, he resisted my struggles. He did not use a condom. Yet the doctor viewed this as a drinking issue rather than a sexual assault issue, an exchange that hardly inspired in me the confidence to report anything further. I went to the graduate student workspace on campus, pretending to work but unable to concentrate, and after meeting with my advisor regarding a work matter, I had lunch at Tom’s Restaurant with a close friend from graduate school and I told him. And he listened. And I cried. And he let me cry.
For months, I threw myself into work as a distraction, sometimes working over 100 hours a week on data collection so as to leave less room in my mind for flashbacks. My relationship suffered, because even as loving and sensitive as my boyfriend was, sex had become loaded with negative associations, with flashbacks, with panic attacks. And when the relationship ended and the structure of the semester as well, the amount of space in my room to fixate on those events of November 8, 2012 terrified me.
And it confused me, because I felt as though a bad sexual experience should be more easily overcome, even forgotten. (Though of course I know that it’s not simply sex, but rather issues of power and control). All I knew was the shock and panic with which I reacted when touched unexpectedly, and the difficulty with which I was able to build trust with people, especially men, even though I didn’t fully understand why I experienced this with such magnitude. And I wanted to convince myself that sex was meaningless, something unworthy of derailing my personal and professional life.
So I had sex. A lot of sex. With a lot of people. (Sorry, mom.) Hell, I was single in my mid-to-late 20s in New York City, so why not? I told myself that it was meaningless, so that remembering November 8, 2012 wouldn’t hurt so much, though it didn’t quite work out that way. And these antics were consequence-free for a while – I was always safe, and met nice people with whom I was simply not pursuing anything serious. But as I began a new antidepressant and prepared to go on the academic job market, I decided to lay low for a while and focus on work.
Until June 1, 2014, when I was watching the last 4 innings of a Mets/Phillies game in the Flatiron, waiting for a friend who due to MTA delays had decided at the last minute to do a raincheck. I met someone who seemed friendly, and we talked for an hour or so, and I stopped drinking so that I would be (more or less) sober for whatever followed. He invited me over for a glass of wine and I said yes, and when we arrived at his apartment, we opened a bottle of wine and began to talk (I don’t remember about what), then kiss, hands beginning to wander a bit. When I told him that I wanted to make it an early night and didn’t want to have sex, he was visibly annoyed, and hoping to talk me out of it as he reached up my skirt and I pushed his hand away. His kissing got rougher, and I pulled away, reaching for my purse so that I could try to make an exit, but he pushed me on to the bed, pulling down my clothes and holding me down firmly, enough for bruises to form around my neck and wrists. He turned me over so that I was lying on my stomach, his hands pressed on my back so that my face was smashed into his pillow until he finished.
And then I dressed and left, sobbing and trembling as I walked from his East Harlem apartment to my West Harlem apartment sometime around midnight. And as I curled up in a ball in my bed – the same bed on which my first rape occurred – I cried myself to sleep. The next morning, I put concealer over my bruises and taught my summer session course on constitutional law.
Again, I did not report. Especially given the campus health center’s callous reaction to the first assault, I could not imagine the number of questions that I would be forced to endure if I did so. Was I drinking? (Only a little – two drinks over four hours.). What was I wearing? (A skirt and t- shirt – nothing too alluring, not that it should matter.) How many sexual partners had I had? (Probably irrelevant.) If I didn’t want to have sex with him, why did I agree to a drink in his apartment? (Because I assumed – I thought reasonably – that there could be a few steps between a drink and flirtation and sex, and most men I knew understood and respected the word “no.”.) Why was this the time that I decided I didn’t want to have sex? (Because I simply didn’t want to, and every time I resisted, he got violent, which reinforced that I was not with someone who would respect my boundaries.)
I wanted to forget it all, though no amount of therapy and medication could help me to not feel their touch when I was with other men, even other men I trusted. And it is difficult to explain to a new partner why I have such visceral reactions to one moving too quickly or too aggressively (even within the realm of consent), or why certain sexual activities won’t be on the menu with me. My physical health worsened as I became worse at keeping up with medication regimens and appointments, and I contemplated dropping out of graduate school altogether. And eventually, it seemed easier to not exist than it was to heal, though my multiple severe intentional overdoses have shown to me that I’m not very good at ceasing to exist either.
I have struggled for years (with mixed success) to forget, to forgive, to heal. My depression has led me to an ICU with a tube down my throat. But even at my worst, I felt as though I was struggling because I had the misfortune of experiencing the bad the actions of a couple of bad people, in a world where people were generally on my side. Republicans’ defense of Donald Trump after the Access Hollywood tape, and now again as they dismiss Dr. Ford’s attempted rape allegations against Judge Brett Kavanaugh, is the time when I have felt most violated because it is my government legitimizing the actions of my rapists. This government is now saying that rapes that were a certain amount of time ago don’t matter, and that the most consequential legal and policy issues our nation faces should be able to be handled by people who themselves have committed sexual assault.
I do not know all that Dr. Ford has gone through, and I won’t pretend to. But I know the feeling of powerlessness and fear that consumes one when a man lies on top of you, stifling your cries for help, and not knowing what will happen next. I know the ambivalence of wanting closure versus wanting to erase the memories altogether. I know the anger toward men in bars and other such places when they more innocuously disregard consent with a wandering hand and the ignoring of personal space, and not knowing whether the anger is more from the present encounter or from the prior assault. I know the lasting fear in future sexual encounters, and the uncertainty of how to rebuild trust with people. I understand that while some moments from those nights feel as so vivid that they could have happened just yesterday, others are hazy memories (whether from alcohol or defense mechanisms, or some combination). And I understand a reticence about painful and uncomfortable reporting about sexual assault, lest one be subjected to uncomfortably personal questioning, accusations of crying rape when simply regretting the sexual encounter, or being ignored altogether so as to protect the reputation and career of the accused.
Indeed, looking at the probability with which those committing sexual assault are held accountable, there is very little incentive for survivors to endure the retraumatization of reporting.
I am grateful for Dr. Ford demonstrating the courage that I lacked (though as far as I know, those who assaulted me are not in politics or prominent positions of power). She should be rewarded for speaking out about someone who not only would be the deciding vote on women’s health care in a lifetime position on our nation’s highest court, but has himself been nominated by someone who boasted about committing sexual assault. That reward for testifying should not come in the form of being patronizing, with Lindsey Graham saying, “I’ll listen to the lady, but we’re going to bring this to a close.” Dr. Ford should not simply be given time in which to testify, but she should be respected, and she should be heard.
When the government signals that it is on the side of those who commit sexual assault, perpetrators win, because they see a world of consequence-free assault. And while the #MeToo movement has certainly empowered many of us to actively assert our rights, the message on November 8, 2016 was loud and clear: committing sexual assault is not a disqualifying characteristic for the President of the United States.
In 1991, America similarly saw the Senate’s callous disregard for the compelling testimony that Anita Hill provided regarding sexual harassment by then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas. It would be nice if the Senate could show that it has evolved since then, but the upcoming hearings are being treated with even less seriousness in terms of the witnesses involved and the Senators’ comments regarding their determination to confirm Judge Kavanaugh despite these serious allegations. With Senator Graham and others expressing concern about ruining the life of Judge Kavanaugh by investigating these claims, it is crystal clear that the Senate Republicans are forgetting the life that was really ruined: Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, and the sexual assault survivors across the nation who are wondering if their government or communities would protect them, and if not, whether they should keep secret the sexual violence to which we’ve been subjected.
When the Republican men on the Senate Judiciary Committee ask in the upcoming hearings why Dr. Ford didn’t report the incident at the time that it happened, I hope that they have some mirrors handy.