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Before he raped me, I considered Sean my friend. I decorated a cake for his birthday. I played my songs for him. He shared his closet-grown weed with me. He giggled as I jumped in a pile of leaves.
I trusted him.
And then, two days after Thanksgiving, I asked Sean to accompany me to an all-ages show at the Bug Jar, a bar near my Rochester apartment. Since I was 19 and couldn't drink at the venue, we met at my place to pregame. I drank half a liter of UV Blue in 15 minutes.
By the time we got to the Bug Jar, I was slurring. Halfway into the first band's set, I could hardly stand up. I told Sean I needed to leave, and he walked me back to my apartment. I offered him my couch, headed for my bedroom, and blacked out.
I don't know how much time passed before I woke up to find Sean grinding on top of me. I was on my period and could feel Sean forcing my tampon high inside my body. He was grunting. I was struggling to form sentences. My words were taffy stuck to the roof of my mouth.
"N-n-no, no. Sean, p-please, no."
"I thought you were supposed to be good at this," he said.
I was too drunk to move, too numb to cry. I leaned into the alcoholic haze as he finished, whimpering myself to sleep.
In the morning, I tried to remember where I was, what happened after the show, and why Sean was naked and smiling at me. When I saw my own clothes strewn around my bed, the pieces came back.
I excused myself and ran to my roommate's bedroom, my eyes bulging. Leah asked what was wrong. I told her I didn't know, I just felt weird. She suggested we all go to breakfast at Mark's Texas Hots, the diner where Sean and I first met.
Sean sat next to me in the booth. I ordered a julienne salad with blue cheese dressing, and he stuck his stubby fingers in it, stealing my American cheese like he was my boyfriend.
Two hours later, I lay spread eagle on the living room hardwood, cringing as Leah's fingers inched inside me in search of my tampon because I couldn't get it out myself. Thirty seconds in, she gasped, her face contorting.
"Oh God, Emily. I'm sorry."
She pulled out a used condom. Behind it, the tampon. My words and tears came simultaneously.
"Leah, I think I was raped."
I was first sexually assaulted at 13 years old. I punished myself, embracing anorexia, self-harm, and isolation instead of seeking help. I believed the assault was my fault; I was too flirty and complicit and 17-year-old boys couldn't help themselves.
When Sean raped me, I knew my survival depended on creating an alternate ending. After years of wearing shame like a self-fastened straight jacket, I finally trusted that the assaults were not my fault.
And I was livid.
I knew the police wouldn't help. I had heard of friends going to the police, only to blamed or slut-shamed. I assumed I would be met with similar accusations, since I was drunk and considered Sean my friend.
I could already hear the questions: You let him sleep at your house, didn't you? ... Why did you ask him to go to the show with you if you weren't interested? ... If you were that drunk, how can you be sure you didn't consent?
I knew that even if I did have a strong case, justice would require months of being re-traumatized by the repeated telling of my story. The defense would probably slut-shame me. I would have to see Sean in court. And if I wanted to be taken seriously, I would have had to go to the emergency room for a rape kit, subjecting myself to further violation.
I was inspired by stories of women who sought vengeance. There was Lisbeth Salander, the fictional hero of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, who tattooed "I AM A SADISTIC PIG, A PERVERT, AND A RAPIST" on her abuser. There was the pregnant woman in Turkey who decapitated her repeat rapist and brought his head to town. There was the woman who set her daughter's rapist on fire outside of a bar. And there was Lorena Bobbitt, who cut her rapist husband's penis off.
I was tired of feeling like a victim and internalizing my pain. Instead of working within a system that repeatedly fails sexual assault victims, I decided I would take justice into my own hands.
I called my ex-boyfriend, a relative, and a friend, told them I had been raped, and asked the three of them to come to Rochester. I said I had a plan. They didn't ask questions.
My ex hopped a train from Indiana to Rochester and the others came in from Chicago. Over the next three days, we held private discussions in my bedroom, met up with Sean's roommates, and talked to his friends. The consensus was that our plan was fair.
Two weeks after the assault, we were ready.
My ex-boyfriend and I drove to Sean's house blasting Tupac's "Hail Mary" and rapping along to the intro: "I ain't a killer, but don't push me. Revenge is like the sweetest joy..."
The other two drove separately. We parked our cars a few blocks away from Sean's house, adjusted our ski masks, and clenched our fists.
We walked through snow flurries to Sean's street. I approached the front door and knocked. Sean answered. Before he could say anything, my ex-boyfriend punched him twice in the face, picked him up, and threw him into a glass coffee table. The four of us ran to where he fell and administered blind punches and kicks, as though button-mashing in Street Fighter. I bludgeoned Sean's pudgy body with a sock-n-lock as my ex-boyfriend screamed, "You don't rape our friends and get away with it!"
Sean said nothing throughout the attack, just looked at the ceiling. Maybe he knew he deserved it. Maybe he was busy learning how it felt to be violated.
As the others headed for the front door, I turned around once more and screamed "FUCK YOU" in my own voice — the voice Sean had tried to take away from me. I lifted my weapon and whipped it hard into his stomach.
After the attack, we drove to a local tattoo shop, where I got the words "Burn It To The Ground" tattooed on my chest. Later, the words were joined by two tattooed praying mantises, one of which holds a bleeding mantis head in its hands.
Bruises heal. Rape gets lodged in your stomach, mind, and spirit. Rape rears its ugly head in empty stares and cluttered thoughts and shallow sex. Rape does not end with revenge, however cathartic it is. Rape is a poison slowly working through the body. It is water torture — drip (remember) drip (remember) drip (remember). Rape continues to live in my bed, in my limbs, and in my interactions with lovers and friends.
I know my past actions are controversial. Pacifists like my mother will read this and think, How is this any better than rape itself? or, Why fight violence with violence? Some people will attempt to put me in the same category as Sean, labeling me as violent and irrational.
But then there are people like my father, who countered my mother's disappointment with, "Pam, this man raped your daughter." And there are arguments that my mother has finally come to understand; for example, the choice to seek personal justice in the face of an indifferent legal system.
I share this story because I want women to know that there are alternatives to slut-shaming, rape kits, and re-traumatization. You can call out your attacker on Facebook. You can make fliers and post them around town. You can spread the word amongst your friends. There are limitless options.
If taking the legal route feels more comfortable, go for it. I am by no means suggesting that anyone should follow in my footsteps, but I think stories like mine need to be shared for the sake of encouraging empowerment. Some people never speak out against their rapists; choosing to remain silent doesn't make someone weaker than those who fight back, but it further elucidates the extent to which our society fails to protect victims.
Five years after avenging myself, I stand by my decision to attack my rapist. Beyond giving victims their power back, actions like mine serve as warnings to former, current, and future rapists. People like Sean believe they can get away with assault because our legal system has imposed a culture of silence around sexual violence. Our society is swarming with rape apologists.
I will never apologize, even when it means being insulted, abandoned, or condemned for my actions. I burned my white flag a long time ago.
This story is for the survivors who feel silenced. I promise you still have a voice inside of you.