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I do not remember what happened the night of my rape. The last thing I remember was walking alone towards a bus stop, after school. I learned the gruesome details of the attack from a police report.
"Dragged into a nearby construction site…. raped… beaten… unconscious… found with lesions and contusions about the body by a citizen walking a dog."
At the age of 16, I was beaten, raped and practically left for dead for by a man who would go on to victimize countless other women in the DC area. For years, I struggled with the guilt and shame of being a victim of rape. I thought it was my fault. I thought I could've done something differently that day; not walked alone, perhaps been more vigilante? Or maybe if my jeans were looser and less form fitting, I would not have attracted the attention of my attacker?
“What were you wearing?” People constantly inquired when they learned of my attack.
“Well, jeans and a sweater and a leather jacket,” I would respond, still believing that somehow their question had merit or deserved a response.
Maybe if I had only waited for my mom or dad to pick me up? If my sweater was baggier, I would’ve been spared? Like Erykah Badu recently said on Twitter, "Men automatically are attracted to women of childbearing age," and "young girls are attractive. Some males are distracted.”
Badu argued that young girls wearing short skirts are the reason why some male teachers prey on their female students. Many were critical of her comments, labeling them (correctly, in my opinion) as victim-blaming. Yet, others — especially men — rushed to her defense. To them, young girls’ attractiveness somehow gives men who sexually abuse them a pass.
Perhaps on the day I was attacked, I was trying too hard to be attractive?
When the case finally made it to court, I was forced to not only face my attacker, but also his lawyer and the sexism and misogyny that women are burdened with in a society constantly looking to excuse predatory male behavior.
“You were flirting with him and gave him the wrong impression!” The lawyer accused. “This young woman knew my client from the neighborhood and led him on,” he claimed.
Medical records revealed that I was attacked from behind. The facts were clear: I did not know the man who raped me. I had never seen him in my life. He was a serial rapist who victimized multiple women and the jury felt obligated to send him to prison for life. But just the mere idea that anyone would justify a man attacking a woman because she “led him on” or “gave him the wrong impression” or dressed “without propriety” always haunted me.
For years, I buried those feelings within me and they were eating me from inside out. I was fortunate enough to have access to counseling and therapy to work through my feelings of guilt that stemmed from the idea that I was somehow responsible for my rapist's action.
“We have to stop making excuses for men," my therapist explained, “every human being is responsible for having self control.” Now, as a 33-year-old rape survivor, I can unequivocally say that she was absolutely right. No matter what young women wear or do, until we hold men accountable for their abuse of young women and girls — and stop shifting the blame and focus from the abusers to the victims — the rates of abuse, especially among young girls of color, will only continue to climb.
Currently, young black women are facing an epidemic. A recent study by Black Women's Blueprint found that sixty percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of black men before reaching the age of 18. A similar study by The Black Women's Health Imperative found that number to be about forty percent, pointing to an increase in the victimization rates of young black girls.
These black girls who were attacked were not merely numbers, statistics, or bodies. They were young girls in jeans and a sweater, walking home from school, like I was. Some were girls in their homes — wearing Hello Kitty or Spongebob Squarepants pajamas — when a male family member intruded on their personal space and stole their innocence. Some wore school uniforms. Some may have been strippers or working in the sex industry. Others could have invited a boy over who refused to stop, even when asked. These girls may have all come from different circumstances, but one thing is for certain: They all had a right to their autonomy, dignity, choice, and safety. They all had the right to be viewed as children first, not merely bodies or mannequins upon which the world thrusts its dress codes or expectations. And they were all stripped of these rights, left naked and vulnerable.
My rapist did not care about his victim’s clothes. Among the nine women he raped, the only thing we had in common was that we were alone standing at a bus stop. One of the women he victimized was 69-years-old. and I am almost certain she was not wearing a short skirt. Many of the others may have never came forward because of the guilt and shame they felt, because like myself and countless other girls and women, they were socialized to believe it was their fault — that they should’ve done something different.
There is nothing different we could’ve done. The man who chose to victimize us did so at his own behest. He used his free will to purloin ours.
As a society, is the best we can do to advocate for girls to claim that they should have been more aware? Dressed with more propriety? Not be so distracting?
No. No, Erykah. No, society. It's not. We can do better.