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Trigger warning: description of sexual assault.
My head pounded as I slowly pushed myself up off the bed, running my tongue along teeth that were a little fuzzy from not brushing them. My entire body ached in that vague "what the heck were you doing last night?" kind of way, and I picked up my bra from the floor on the way to the shower.
"You look rough. How're you feeling?" she asked as I stopped at the vanity just outside the cheap hotel-room bathroom.
"Not so hot. I'm going to hop in the shower. I have to get to work soon," I told her, finding a towel and wrapping it around myself. I peeked my head back around the corner. "I have to get ready to go. I'll see you out there, OK?" implying that she shouldn't still be in the room when I got out. She asked me for a kiss before I got in the shower. I obliged, then returned to the bathroom and locked the door.
Thankfully, she left.
It took me some time to unpack exactly what happened that night, and there are parts of it that are forever lost to me. I don't remember telling my boss I wasn't OK to continue working that night; I don't remember my coworker standing up to this woman, one of their regular customers and a friend, and telling her to leave me alone; I don't remember sitting with her and her friends at their table, engaging in her flirty behavior that I'm told eventually turned into touching. What I do know is that what eventually happened that night was sexual assault.
It was supposed to be a weekend away at a work event in a gorgeous, rustic location. Five hours away from where I was living, I was excited to be taking a trip for my new job and only a little disappointed that my boyfriend at the time, Keith*, wouldn't be able to come with me. It would have been nice to have the company, but there was a ton of work to be done, and I was glad that I wouldn't need to worry about him not having enough to do or getting in the way.
The first event would be taking place that Friday night at a local brewery, and it was meant to kick off the whole weekend's festivities. This kind of party had been thrown many times in the past, and they were notoriously rowdy. It was not uncommon for people to get sick, be picked up by local police for drunken conduct, or for rumors to fly about partygoers who went home with inappropriate partners. I knew this going in.
I arrived in the late afternoon, hours before the guests were expected, to help set up. I was going to be taking photos throughout the night to publish later on our website and social media. I had a few drinks while I was wandering around with my camera, trying to blend in while simultaneously doing my job.
One woman, Becky*, was a regular there. She took a shine to me that night.
At some point, my memory completely ceases. I would later look through my phone and find photos and videos I don't remember taking. I have a vague recollection of some of the walk home, probably because I was outside in the late fall with no jacket while temperatures hovered around the freezing mark. I don't remember getting to my hotel room.
When I came back into my body, I was in my bed, naked except for my underwear, and Becky was on top of me. We were kissing. I wasn't sure what chain of events led to this point, and I wasn't sure how to extricate myself from it. This continued for some time, and when she tried to move her hand down my underwear I firmly grabbed her wrist. She attempted a couple more times despite me telling her not to, and eventually, thankfully, ceased. She joked that there were not many people she'd allow to tell her no. With her having what I'd estimate to be about 100 pounds and five inches on me, I was sure that I'd be no match for her physically.
I eventually rolled over and curled into the fetal position, telling her that my stomach hurt (which was true). She rubbed my back. I drifted in and out of sleep for three hours before giving up and getting up to start my day.
My stomach never settled, and looking back, I'll always wonder if something was slipped into my drink that night; I left my glass all over the bar, and while I've admittedly consumed alcohol to the point of blackout a couple of times before, I've never had an experience like that night nor felt as off as I did all throughout the next day.
Working that weekend was difficult, and being around Becky gave me anxiety I couldn't quite explain. At first, I thought I was carrying guilt for being unfaithful to my partner. I couldn't decide if I should talk to him about this or not.
I left Sunday, and on the drive back, Becky had requested me on Facebook. She sent me a few messages, and I asked her to please keep what happened to herself and told her that it wouldn't ever happen again. She seemed to understand.
This still didn't quash the feeling in my chest that there was something very wrong here, and I felt uncomfortable each time I saw her photo pop up in my feed. I blocked and deleted her not long after she added me.
As I worked through what happened that weekend, one essential detail kept coming screaming into my head: I was in a hotel room. A locked hotel room. I left the bar alone. Photos from that night make it clear that when I left, she was still at the bar. There's a photo of her from the very end of the night, probably a good hour after I had left and stopped taking pictures. Becky told me the next morning that she had taken the key from the woman I was supposed to be staying in the double-occupancy room and let herself in. I couldn't get that information out of my brain.
I looked for any explanation or rationalization for what happened, arguing with myself: I probably drank too much. I was driving all day and then working all night, and I should have stopped after the third glass of wine or had something more substantial than a steak salad for dinner. That was stupid, and I knew better. But you went back to the hotel, my mind would whisper incessantly. You left. I should have dead-bolted the door, or used that extra latch. I used to do that when I traveled for work — why didn't I think of it then? Idiot. You didn't give anyone a key. You thought you were safe. I should have taken up my coworker on his offer to escort me back to the hotel to make sure I was OK. Why didn't I let him do that? Anything could have happened! You don't remember the offer. All you wanted to do was leave and get into bed, and that's what you tried to do. Didn't you always have it in the back of your mind that you wished you'd explored your sexuality a bit more? Becky probably knew that. You probably invited her. She obviously found you pretty. You probably picked up on that and ran with it, encouraged it. You all but asked for this. But you didn't give her the key. You didn't ask her to come meet you. You couldn't. You tried to go to bed alone. Keith warned you that something like this might happen at a party like this. Why weren't you more careful? If he could see this coming, why didn't you? You. Went. Home. What else could you have done?
That little voice haunted me. I desperately needed to be a stupid, slutty girl who made a mistake or the morally reprehensible person who did something wrong, because if I was to blame for what happened then I wouldn't be the thing I wanted to be even less: the victim. I could handle being a morally corrupt, overly sexual person. I could handle being a cheater. But I couldn't handle being a victim again. It took me months, years, to put myself back together after an incident in my first year of college, and I thought that was all finally behind me.
Telling Keith was an ordeal. I was still working out what to tell him and how to say it, and alluded to it in pieces throughout that first week back home. He knew that I wasn't giving him the entire story and when it finally all came out, he was furious. There were repetitions of "I warned you about this" and he cited my withholding of details as an implication that it clearly wasn't important to me.
"Didn't you tell her all night you had a boyfriend?" he asked. "How can you allow that against your will?"
While none of this was constructive, I do have him to thank for spurring me to speak to my boss. I might have been willing to avoid any and all confrontation of the issue if not for his tone-deaf comments. As I said back to him: "What am I supposed to say? 'Hey, people I've known for a month, someone you've known for years took advantage of me last night without me giving consent or realizing. Do something about it?'"
Answer? Yes. Yes, that's exactly what you say.
The Monday after that weekend, my boss sat me down for a quick chat. He said that he understood going a little crazy at the parties, and everyone's done it at least once. There was nothing wrong with that, but next time I would need to be more cognizant of my drinking so I could finish working. I agreed and thanked him for his understanding.
A few days later, I went back to my boss and told him what had happened after I left. He told me how sorry he was that something like that could have happened at one of their events, and he vowed that he and the company would support whatever I wanted to do. I told him that I didn't want her to be able to participate in future events or activities (Becky had connections in a wide variety of ways to the business) and he agreed to formally ban her.
I told him that I decided to press charges, and he and other colleagues may need to give a statement to police. He reiterated again that whatever I decided, they were all behind me.
Telling my colleagues what happened was incredibly awkward and difficult. Many of them told me they felt bad that they didn't do more to prevent this from happening. A few told me that after we had all returned from the trip, she was telling everyone that she went home with the new girl and that we were going to go on a date later that week. No one felt it was their business to comment on this even though they knew about Keith. It seemed destined to be just one of those crazy event stories added to the list. I was furious when I heard what she was saying, and I realized that my reputation within the community had the potential to be seriously compromised.
My relationship with Keith eventually dissolved, and while this ultimately wasn't the spark that lit the fire, it was certainly a fuckton of kindling. As much as I knew his behavior after the incident and his thinking around it wasn't OK with me, I couldn't fathom trying to move forward with this alone. So I stayed. It continued to be a point of contention between us, and he couldn't understand why I wanted to find a new job. I applied for months, but couldn't find anything.
Going to work was torture. There was very little chance of running into Becky at my office, but my heart still stopped any time her name was brought up. Having my coworkers aware of such intimate details of my life was awkward and uncomfortable, and it was hard to concentrate on my job. I was a distracted, depressed, awkward mess, and my performance suffered greatly.
We went on another trip a month later, this one involving a flight. I tried to focus on doing my job, taking photos at the party, and this time I stuck to Diet Coke and water all night. I became more and more uncomfortable as the night wore on and people got drunker. No one approached me this time, but I felt on-edge anyways. When the party was finally winding down, I went to my boss and asked to go back to the hotel, even though there were still some jobs left for my coworkers to accomplish and the intent was to carpool back together. He agreed, gave me the rental car keys and helped me load equipment into the car. I got back to the hotel and dead-bolted my door shut before going to bed. The next day, I told him I would not be attending any more of these events. He agreed that that was reasonable.
Despite this, I wasn't all that surprised when, a few months later, I was sat down for a performance evaluation. It was done under the guise of it being an annual event, but no one else had one scheduled, and it had never been done before. We were barely two sentences into my self-evaluation before one of my bosses — the one who didn't know about the incident — started going through my missteps and fuck-ups one by one, waiting for me to explain why I couldn't get my job done properly.
This went on for about 30 minutes before I quit on the spot. The sentence that pushed me over the edge: "Are you capable of doing this job? Because I haven't seen anything that would lead me to believe that you're capable of doing this job." I had had enough.
A few weeks after the incident, I filed charges, and there was the standard legal process to go through. Because the incident took place in one town, I lived in another, and Becky lived in a third, this meant that the three different jurisdictions would have to work together to compile a report, get witness testimonies, and eventually decide whether or not to arrest Becky and charge her. This process is still ongoing, and I don't anticipate a resolution any time soon.
The victim-services liaison from the town where this happened got in touch with me not long after I filed in my city. We spoke on the phone, and he later emailed me a few of the resources he'd mentioned during our conversation. He arranged to have a few of my counseling sessions paid for by his department and encouraged me to apply to the victim-benefit fund that may be able to help me offset therapy costs or any other associated damages. I'm forever grateful that I was able to speak to this man and for the help that he provided. I filled out the application to the fund and didn't hold my breath.
Six months later, I received an official-looking document in the mail from the government. The fund had assessed my case, and reviewed statements from the police and from my counselor (who was authorized by me to release my files to the police/government). They concluded that I had been victimized and would be sending me a check.
This brought out a wild mix of emotions. I felt incredible validation to see, in black and white on government stationary, a sentence that read, "You were the victim of a crime, and we are sorry this happened to you." I felt unworthy of the amount they decided to send while being simultaneously furious that there now seemed to be a going rate for sexual assault. It was hard to feel happy that the money would help pay some of the bills that had piled up while I was looking for work; was that all I was worth? Was it enough to cover the cost of a lifetime's worth of impact? I still don't know how to feel about it.
Despite this, I'm acutely aware that Becky is also unlikely to face any real penalties. Short of her admitting exactly what she did that night by taking the key to the police, it's a she-said/she-said song and dance that we're sadly all too familiar with. It's stunning that the justice system cannot recognize what other institutions are quick to label: this is wrong. I was wronged, and she was the one who wronged me.
I don't know what the final resolution will be, but I do know this: I'm glad that I can hold my head high and say I did everything the "right way" (insofar as there is a right way to proceed under these circumstances). I'm glad that I left a toxic work environment, ultimately deciding to value my mental health over my paycheck. And I'm proud I was able to take a step to stop this from happening again by reporting her to police.