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I always knew I was supposed to be happy that my rapist spent any time in jail.
It was $25,000 in bail and three days more than 99% of sex offenders would ever land. It might even read as some kind of success story, until you hear the follow up, where his record was expunged, where he went home to his loving wife, 3-year-old son and stable job. I spent 14 hours in the emergency room, and the next year regretting ever calling the police. No one wants to hear that involving law enforcement may not have been the best option for me.
But when someone close to me asks if I would do it all again, my answer is an immediate and resounding, “Hell to the no.” My therapist has reassured me, time and time again, that it is not uncommon for a survivor to find reporting rape, and the proceedings that follow, to be more traumatic than the incident itself.
Society tries to silence us, and that’s part of why I decided to go through with the legal battle. Ironically, I ended up more silenced than I ever would have been otherwise. My lawyers advised me to never speak of the incident again, certainly never write about it online.
The evidence had been perfectly laid out. There was more blood than I appreciated. It was all over the sheets I sat on once I was safe again, and presumably all over his sheets, too. Suddenly, our hotel rooms (mine and his) were crime scenes out of a horror film. I spotted for the next two weeks; it was an additional, constant reminder of what had happened, and worse, what was still happening. The physical pain was constant; it hurt to sit down.
There were bruises, cuts, bites, tears and abrasions, all of which were photographed by a woman from the police department with a strange, oversized camera. The door of my hospital room was left open while this happened. I guess that seemed appropriate. Maybe the secretaries and police officers were supposed to see the fascinating, naked rape victim during her photo shoot.
But I was doing the right thing by sitting there in that fluorescent light, after being drugged and awake for over 24 hours, sobbing into the shoulder of my hospital advocate as two different detectives questioned me. Right?
There ended up being the special gem of DNA, which is rarely found (thank you, rape kit). There was the fact that he admitted to having been drinking. (Supposedly, this was going to work in my favor. Spoiler alert: Later on, the fact that he was an “alcoholic” worked in his favor.)
He was a stranger to me and in his 40s. I was 18 at the time. We were in an extremely liberal city in an extremely liberal state; I was foolish enough to think this would help. The nurse, attending physician, and advocate all felt strongly about my case. Even the detectives, regardless of how aggressively they questioned me, and despite accusing me of his counterclaim (a counterclaim to rape?) of having stolen his wallet and ring, reassured me they’d do everything in their power to put this guy in prison. Note: They found the wallet and ring in his hotel room later on.
But none of this mattered. At all. Even the management at the hotel banned my friend and me from the grounds, saying we would be arrested for trespassing if we tried to return.
Anyway, I showed up at court the day we were going to attempt indicting him. I was met by my advocate in a small room where we waited for over an hour. Neither of us knew what was happening until she finally got a call from the assistant district attorney saying there had been a change of plans. I realized there were tissue boxes everywhere. I was probably supposed to be crying. Did I not seem upset enough?
We headed upstairs to the ADA’s office, and I sat down next to my advocate, glancing at her for reassurance. She gave me the look that I needed. The ADA walked in with perfectly orange makeup and hair waxed back with precision. He opened his mouth and said, “There’s a 99% chance we’ll lose this case. I just won’t be able to win this one for you. They’re going to use the slut defense and it’s going to work.”
Slut defense? Is this official legal terminology now?
I froze. If this had been the Internet, I would have replied with a “LOL WAT.” When I finally regained my ability to speak, all I could say was, “Why?” What he said next read straight from a Feminism 101 text on how victims of sexual assault are treated by society. I’d heard it all before; I should have expected it.
Why had I thought I’d be immune to being called a slut, whore, homewrecker, protected from having my motives and intentions questioned, from being treated as if I were the criminal? And by my own attorney, no less. Whose side was he on here? I certainly was not immune, and orange-faced-waxy-hair proved that to me. Suddenly, I needed the tissues that were, thankfully, all over the place. I guess my tears made him uncomfortable, because he walked out without a word.
This was all at the beginning of 2011, and everything that occurred after the ADA walked out doesn’t actually matter. There were months and months of formalities, papers, contracts, fees, lawyers, detectives and advocates that followed. We ended up settling outside of court, whatever that means in this case. It was a decision I made for myself and my mental stability, despite feeling defeated.
Things went to utter shit before they got better, but on September 6, 2011, I made a huge choice to turn my life around. And turn it around, I did. I got completely sober (that’s for another article); I moved across the country; I began to focus on my mental health; I deliberately made positive changes in my life. I worked introspectively on coming to terms with everything I’d gone through, and I finally went back to brunette. (Right after this all began, I bleached my hair to platinum blonde. An identity change had been necessary.)
Recently, I began volunteering as a rape crisis counselor/advocate at a local hospital. This is where the story really begins.
During one of the intensive training sessions, a survivor was brought in to share her experiences. I started immediately tearing up as she spoke. I felt viscerally close to her.
Initially, going into this program, I imagined most of the volunteers were going to be survivors. I was very mistaken, and I’m not sure why I formed that assumption to begin with. Instead, these folks spoke about my experiences in technical terms and asked questions that made me want to break things. They said, “Well, I’ve never gone through this, so I don’t know, but...”
She continued to speak, laugh, tell her story, and my eyes were teary the entire time. She knew. She knew. Her story eventually took a turn away from mine. I saw where things were going. Suddenly, I didn’t know if I was on her side anymore. And it happened. She said what I had been fearing: “And now he’s spending 10 years in prison.”
I started crying and had to leave the room. Was I actually jealous? Was I angry that she got the closure I didn’t?
Later that night, as I was on the 6 train home, I had (what seems like an obvious) realization. She and I were the same; a victory for my sister was a victory for me. There is no winner or loser when it comes to rape. One person will always be the rapist and perpetrator, and the other will always be the survivor. We survived a heinous crime that uses a sexual act as a tool of power, control, violence and hatred. Nothing will ever change that. A rapist in prison for 10 years is a success for every survivor, with every kind of story. And a rapist who has gone free is not a failure for us, merely evidence of a flawed system. We are all one.
What it took until my Union Square stop for me to remember is that the facilitator at the training session had to prompt her to disclose what happened after making her report. She seemed unconvinced, uneasy. A 10-year sentence will never change what happened, and indeed, is unlikely to change the course of a path to healing. She had known every pain I had. She probably feels about the 20 months she spent in and out of court the same way I do about settling outside of court.
Rape culture pits us against our own sisters and brothers, has us compare ourselves to those who share our stories; we disbelieve each other, resent each other, when all we should be doing is sustaining one another. A rapist will be a rapist for the rest of their lives, regardless of prison time. Nothing can take away that title.
As survivors, we must stand strong next to one another, and loudly share our stories, loudly say this was not our fault, and loudly disclose the names of our perpetrators (if we won’t be sued or in danger for it). The healing of a survivor is what's important -- whether that involves the police, or doesn’t; whether that involves a hospital, or doesn’t; whether that involves prison, or doesn’t. Your journey may involves tears or laughter, years of silence or immediate disclosure.
There is no right way to heal, and no right way to prosecute sexual assault: do not regret what you did or didn’t do.
Soon after the lengthy ordeal was over, I got a tattoo that said, “Never going back again.” (Taken from a Tori Amos song, not Fleetwood Mac.) This represented many things for me, but it was a reminder that I would not and could not go back to the dark times in my life. That, more importantly, I didn’t need to.
Nothing was taken from me in my assault, nothing was stolen, and no part of me was irreparably broken. My story is one of survival. That’s all that matters.