"Oh my God. You think I'm raping you!"
My (now ex-) boyfriend Shawn* looked down at me. I stared back at him, my eyes wide and bottom lip trembling. Only seconds before, he had been thrusting into me while I cried and tried to focus all my attention on the ceiling, too afraid to utter "No" or "Stop." I dared not protest against him for several reasons.
For one, I was scared of what would happen if I didn’t have sex with him. Prior to penetrating me, he had brought his palm to my cheek in a slap that rendered me silent in disbelief. He told me I was a slut, then pushed me onto my futon and held my chin as he forcefully kissed me.
Second, after what I had done to make Shawn angry, I felt too guilty to defend myself. At the time, I thought I deserved to be punished. Lastly, I loved this boy. He had promised to marry me and he had never hurt me before. I had betrayed the person closest to me and ruined everything between us. Shawn was heartbroken and I was to blame.
Maybe he was doing this out of passion, I told myself; Maybe this was like that angry make-up sex always featured in romantic comedies.
Except it wasn't "angry make-up sex." It wasn't passionate, romantic, or respectful. It wasn't consensual. It was rape.
Looking back, there were plenty of red flags that indicated Shawn had the potential to seriously hurt me. I first met him during freshman orientation at my university. Out of all the orientation groups on campus, we had been placed in Group 36 together. During one of the ice-breaker exercises, Shawn made a rape joke. I called him out on it, which prompted a quarrel. Shawn would later tell me that that argument was what sparked his attraction to me. For me, our banter had the opposite effect, and I found myself repulsed by him.
As the semester continued, I became pretty involved on campus. I joined an awesome feminist club. One day, I was advocating for change in our school's sexual assault policy with other club members. For an hour, I approached students with a clipboard in hand, asking them if they would sign our petition. Many people refused, which left me discouraged.
Then, Shawn rolled along on his longboard. I asked him to sign our petition to change the university's current definition of consent from "no means no" to "yes means yes” -- in other words, the petition sought to recognize the importance of affirmative, enthusiastic consent. Smiling, Shawn signed the petition without hesitation. (I didn't realize the irony of this action until I began writing this piece).
Months passed, and I was struggling with managing the transition to my new college environment. I rarely attended class and I found myself feeling depressed and anxious. Even though I was only about an hour away from home, I was homesick. I had trouble making friends and keeping up with my homework.
My boyfriend at the time, Ryan*, was concerned and often let me sleep over in his dorm to keep my spirits up. While juggling my studies, my mental health, and my relationship with Ryan, Shawn still found a way to squeeze himself into my life. He would shout at me as I passed him on campus, and flirt with me on Facebook. Usually I ignored him, although I occasionally countered his advances with some sort of insult. I wasn't interested in him and I wanted to be left alone.
Eventually, Ryan broke up with me. I was devastated and decided to leave school. I was vulnerable, heartbroken, and looking for a rebound. Shawn pounced on this opportunity, and after relentless text messages from him, I agreed to have sex with him.
Shawn told me that I was beautiful and that Ryan had made a huge mistake by dumping me. I traveled back down to my university one weekend, commuting just a little under an hour, and slept with Shawn. I was in so much emotional pain at the time that having sex with someone I hated didn’t seem like such a bad idea.
Ryan, who was already in a relationship with a new girl, heard what had happened and warned me not to get involved with Shawn. To spite Ryan and combat my own loneliness, I decided to enter a relationship with Shawn.
I was surprised to find myself very happy with my new boyfriend, especially considering how much I'd abhorred him just a few months earlier. A few weeks after we began dating, Shawn confessed that he loved me. We had just had sex on the floor of his dorm's bathroom, so it wasn't exactly the most romantic setting. However, his words were just what I wanted to hear after my recent breakup. I accepted his affection without thinking twice.
Summer came and Shawn returned to his home in a neighboring state. Separated by about three hours worth of distance and an intimidating bridge, we nursed our newfound love with plenty of Skype, Hallmark cards and steamy texts. We were unstoppable, even talking about the possibility of marriage and children after we both finished undergrad. Everything was happening so fast, and I couldn’t have been more thrilled.
And then Andrew* came along.
I'll spare you the details of my affair. All you need to know is that I found myself attracted to Andrew, a professor who taught one of my classes at a nearby community college. For reasons I still don't understand, I acted on that attraction and cheated on Shawn. I like to think that deep down I was intimidated by Shawn’s talk of our future together, but honestly, I may have just been lustful. I wasn't very careful about covering my tracks, instead saving messages from Andrew so I could look at them later and revel in the memories of our "forbidden romance."
One Friday afternoon, Shawn came to visit me for a few days. While my friend Sara* and I sat outside on my back deck, Shawn went inside my house. Sara was one of the few people I had told about Andrew, and we took our moment of privacy to talk about my infidelity. After a few minutes, we realized Shawn had yet to return to the deck. I went downstairs to investigate, and found Shawn in my room. My laptop was opened to a Facebook message from Andrew.
"I knew it!" Shawn yelled.
I said nothing. I couldn't justify being unfaithful.
"When were you going to tell me?! Did you have sex with him?! Is his dick bigger than mine?! Do you love him?!" Shawn bombarded me with questions and all I could do was apologize. Hearing the commotion, Sara clambered downstairs to check on us. I told her to leave.
I really wish I hadn't.
Shawn raped me after Sara’s departure and continued to stay at my house for the remainder of the weekend. I told my mom that I had cheated on him but I deliberately neglected to tell her about how Shawn had assaulted me. My mom suggested the Shawn and I go kayaking so we could talk about our relationship in peace.
Images of my body floating in a lake with finger-shaped bruises on my neck flashed through my head. I knew what Shawn was capable of and I didn't want to be alone with him, but I was terrified of causing further conflict, so we went kayaking. We both cried and shouted during our time on the water without coming to any conclusions about our relationship.
While we were driving back to my house, Shawn sped and swerved as I pleaded with him to slow down. He'd discovered that he could control me with violence and fear, and he was going to take full advantage of this new power.
When the weekend was over and I returned to my summer job on Monday, I was shell-shocked. During a break, I broke down and told a co-worker what happened.
"I think I was raped," I sputtered between sobs.
After class that night, I told Andrew about what my boyfriend did. We stopped having sex after that.
Shawn and I stayed together for six more months after the initial assault. I dismissed the rape as a miscommunication and assured Shawn that he hadn't done anything wrong. I made excuses for what had happened. I didn't fight back, I didn't scream "no", I didn't try to get away. I felt as if I called what happened "rape" then it would be an insult to everyone who had been "really raped." I convinced myself that this was my fault and I needed to accept it.
Throughout the rest of the relationship, Shawn used all sorts of tactics to hurt me. He demanded I give him my passwords to various accounts so he could monitor whether or not I was cheating on him. He constantly put me down for leaving university and going to community college. In his mind, I was a loser because I prioritized my mental well-being over school. I grew accustomed to cruel names ("bitch," "whore," "slut"). "I hate you" and “You’re pathetic” became common phrases.
One time, after I fell asleep during a Skype call with him, he woke me up because he claimed he heard a guy performing oral sex on me under the covers. On another occasion, Shawn became furious with me for going out to lunch with my grieving friends after an old classmate’s funeral.
When we visited each other, he spit on me, peed on me, and insisted we have sex several times a day even if I said no. I grew disinterested in sex with him, and he claimed that my low libido was evidence that I was cheating on him again (I wasn't). He forbade me from taking trips to the city by myself because he found it suspicious. He threatened to beat up my male friends and even my brother. He said me he was going to commit suicide whenever we fought. And he blamed all of this on me.
"You did this to me," he would say. "You made me crazy. You broke my heart."
The scariest moment occurred when we were waiting at a red light while driving home after a date. I was looking out the window of his car when Shawn admitted that he had a desperate urge to kill somebody and was fairly certain he wouldn't feel remorseful.
I finally gathered the courage to leave Shawn in the spring. The process was long and difficult. I weaned myself gently, suggesting we "take a break" before ultimately ending our relationship.
Once I was away from him I was able to clearly see what had happened to me. I had been emotionally, physically and sexually abused. I spent the spring crying, smoking marijuana, cutting myself and sleeping with random guys. I even bought myself a cake adorned with a wax number 10 to celebrate how many guys I'd had sex with.
I just wanted to normalize sex again and try to distinguish it from rape, but most mornings I would wake up unable to even recall what I'd done the night before. My therapist told me that I was dissociating during sex as my brain tried to cope with the trauma Shawn had inflicted upon me.
That trauma continued even though Shawn and I had gone our separate ways. I refused to answer the door whenever anyone knocked, froze if I saw unfamiliar cars outside of my house, and suffered from graphic nightmares. Even though I had blocked Shawn from contacting me on my phone and all of my social networking sites, I still felt like he was going to come after me. Weekly appointments with my therapist, who didn't take my insurance, just wouldn't cut it. I needed to talk to more people about this.
I disclosed the details of the abuse to my family. They offered love, but they didn't think I should try to take Shawn to court when I brought up taking legal action. My mom, who shared that she'd been a victim of rape herself when she was younger, said that she didn't believe in "revenge."
I joined an intensive outpatient program, but I stopped attending after a member told me that if I didn't want to end up alone, I needed to stop “acting crazy.” I told a campus police officer about my story. Like my parents, she discouraged me from pressing charges. She mentioned getting a protective order, but assured me that I was probably safe.
I didn't feel safe. I felt isolated, ignored, frightened, and confused.
Everything finally collapsed upon itself when summer started and the days grew longer. The summer heat intensified my emotions and I was unable to manage my feelings. I was triggered constantly. I drafted a suicide note and researched different ways to overdose. I was fired from one of my jobs after continually missing shifts. I tearfully told my boss that I wanted to kill myself. She embraced me, and I melted into her arms after signing my discharge forms.
Soon after, I left for inpatient care. I was fired from my second job while I was in the hospital and my boss told me I could come back to work when I was "ready to be responsible."
My experience in the hospital was the hardest thing I have ever endured (but that's another story). When I was ready for a less intense level of care, I spent several weeks in a wonderful outpatient facility. After that, I began working as a teaching assistant for a professor whom I regard as a second mother. Her hugs, understanding nature, and field trips helped me heal.
I reconnected with one of my dearest friends, who distracted me with funny videos and heaping bowls of noodle soup. I even went out on a date with someone. It didn't work out in the end, but it made me see that I could like a boy without having him mistreat me. I was getting better and looking forward to the future.
But I still wanted justice.
While I was falling apart and rebuilding myself, Shawn had decided to make a few changes. He had transferred to a different university shortly after the initial rape (prior to our breakup), where he was given a fresh start and a new pack of loyal friends. He'd joined a fraternity, rented a house, gotten a research job, and adopted a dog. He started seeing a girl whom he'd been talking to while we were still dating. His success made me sick. How could he be so happy after all that he'd done to me? Why wasn't he behind bars?
I reached out to friends and professionals for answers, but everyone said the same thing: Choosing to press charges was painful and would not likely result in any legal consequences. It was merely my word against his.
Except I had more than that: I had written evidence. I had plenty of examples of Shawn's abuse via phone, Skype, and Facebook. He had texted me after we broke up and admitted to raping me, among other things. I have his horrible words documented over a series of messages.
Even Shawn's ex-girlfriend made a contribution, sharing stories of how he had also abused her. I have the files saved on practically every device I own in case I ever decide to go forward with prosecuting Shawn.
At this point, I am not sure what I will do. I don't know what to expect in court and don't know how I'd react if things don't work out in my favor. Ideally, I'd love to see Shawn go to prison. Realistically, after what everyone has told me, I don't think anything will happen.
Some days I feel like driving down to my local police station and handing them a folder of the evidence I've collected. Other days, I feel like giving up and forgetting anything ever happened.
For now, I'm just waiting and figuring everything out. I'm proud of how far I've come, but I still have a long way to go. Dealing with my abuse has been complex and I'm often ambivalent about where to turn next. But there's one thing I'm sure of: I didn't deserve to be raped. Nobody does. Until society realizes this, we're going to continue living in a rape culture. After seeing what this culture can create, I refuse to be a part of it.
*Names have been changed