I had always blamed myself. It wasn’t until I hit university, later than the average age, that I started to actually unpack what happened.
I had moved out when I should have been in high school. An unstable home life and a mother with mental health issues put me in a pretty chaotic way of life. My own depression and simultaneous rebelliousness compacted these, and I ended up kind of alone and confused and an easy target, or so I told myself.
The worst thing about it was that it was my first time — with someone 10 years older than me, who got me super-drunk. And though I always felt I should have been more adamant about my resistance, I realize now that the simple “no” and “I don’t want to” should have been enough.
At the time, I didn’t really deal with it. I didn’t have anyone I could really go to, and the two friends I told didn’t know how to react. We were pretty young, and it was a hugely uncomfortable topic. I felt if I didn’t make a big deal out of it, I could just pretend it didn’t actually happen; if I didn’t think of sex as something important, then my rape wouldn’t be either. It took me a long time to realize how this made things infinitely worse and laid a very rotten foundation for the next sexual relationship that would eventually transpire almost a decade later.
After it happened, I was scared and grossed out by sex. I had no healthy understanding of my own body or desire, and my sexual urges manifested in things like overeating and being really weird and resentful towards people in happy, healthy relationships. I had crushes, but I had no idea what to do with them, and I was really immature about them. I couldn’t really get close to anyone in part because my extreme self-loathing acted as a tight barrier. I abstained from intercourse for a long time, and gained a fair amount of weight due to an unhealthy diet and alcoholism.
By the time I met Hamish*, the smart, sexy, rebellious student union president (over time I became very involved in the active student federation), I was in a pretty rotten place emotionally. But I was being exposed to so many new ideas and incredible experiences in undergrad that I was able to temporarily put aside the romantic side of my life, and even my entire past to an extent. I’ll never forget the second I met him, though; my first thought was that a guy like this would never find me attractive. Not usually where my mind goes, so it caught me off guard. It was almost some weird kind of personal foreshadowing.
A year or so later, Hamish and I were walking across campus and somehow the topic of rape came up. He was so insistent that it was never a woman’s fault. But I couldn’t digest that. I had always rationalized my experience by blaming myself, because it somehow felt easier to believe that than to accept a world where things like that could just happen unjustly. I immediately felt safe with him.
Our friendship grew, as did my relationship with others, and my political analysis sharpened. Hamish was instrumental to me as a leader and ally. I’d never met anyone so charismatic. The entire campus either wanted to be him or be with him. I was in major denial about my feelings for him because they would be utterly pointless, for so many reasons. Instead, I took solace in learning from him as a sort of mentor, and deluded myself into pretending I was one of the only girls immune to his endless charms.
During this time, I continued to deal with my sexual history and repression while slowly reworking my beliefs and values, which shifted my identity into a more concrete version of the feminist I am today. I was mostly just sad and felt like damaged goods. I had legitimately come to believe that I would never again be in a sexual relationship, that no one would ever want me or find me desirable, that I would never experience any kind of true physical intimacy with a person. Everyone around me seemed to be in loving supportive partnerships, something I’d never really seen while growing up. I was resentful and jealous, but I was also filled with such deep hatred towards myself. I saw myself as hideous and completely undeserving of love.
It was the most vile of cycles. I had done so much to try to build a new life for myself, despite being a high school dropout and presumed loser, but I didn't realize how many of my physical and emotional needs I’d discounted by pretending everything was fine in this area of my life.
More time passed, and I went on an exchange trip to India, which was really difficult for me in all facets. I lost close to 25 pounds in three months. The upside of this, as shitty and unhealthy as it was, was that I was more confident with men, including Hamish, who had taken notice of both this new confidence and my growing political devotion. The first time he said something overly flirtatious to me, we were at a house party, I literally turned scarlet and had to look away.
We started sleeping together (bet you didn’t see that one coming!), but I didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with a casual relationship. All the buildup, plus my exceptionally low self-esteem unleashed a pandora’s box of suppressed feelings and past pain. I became heavily attached and then obsessive and then, when I wasn’t getting what I wanted from him, incredibly depressed. I stopped caring about everything else: friends, family, classes, work, hobbies, interests, goals, dreams — you name it. I bought him overly expensive and inappropriate gifts, attempted to wine and dine him. I read a thousand articles on how to give him the best sex he’d ever had.
Eventually, I got very angry at him for claiming to be a feminist but then treating me like garbage. I felt he should have been more honest with me, or been more responsible for my emotions as he had so much more experience and could see I'd fallen way too hard and too fast; but I also know that he too was in a vulnerable place and I took advantage of that to an extent.
Still, I was determined to hold onto him because I had come to let being with him define my self worth. After learning so much about the world around me and myself in undergrad, I still was not able to give myself, or seek out in any way, the kind of emotional support I needed to actually heal and move on from the now-distant past. Instead, I did everything I could to "win" him, and when I couldn’t, that plus all the things I had let slip away caused a serious mental break down that took years to recover from.
I’m healing now, but it’s taken a very long time. I’ve had to do a lot of self-reflection and be very honest with myself. My friendship with him as well as many others suffered intense collateral damage throughout all this, and I don’t believe I’ll ever recover those things, which has been very difficult to accept. I made a lot of mistakes, but I’ve finally come to a point where I can forgive myself for being so foolish. Though I want to take accountability for my actions (and maybe he should too), I also need to show myself some compassion and understanding as to why my behavior became so irrational and out of control. I was a ticking timebomb.
I now know that putting men on pedestals isn’t fair to them or myself, and will not result in a sustainable relationship. I still struggle in celebrating friends who have happy relationships and I still make the mistake of trying to overcompensate because I don’t feel good enough for someone, but I am finally starting to really believe that I am capable of an intimate relationship and deserving of love. As that happens, I see my levels of self-respect and sexual confidence increase. It sucks because I feel like all my intimate experiences will be tainted by my first, but it's up to me to change that by dismantling the stifling culture around virginity and by valuing myself above men's opinions of me.