Content Warning: This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to some survivors.
"Fear & Self-Loathing," Jess
Note: All survivors who reach out to The Art of Survival are given the option to remain anonymous in sharing their story. Any specific details about the survivor are shared at their discretion, and not the creators of the page.
My mother had been raped when she was a teenager by a friend of her brothers. He gave her a ride home and then grabbed her in the car after they parked. She never told anyone but me, and I could never understand why. That is, until it happened to me.
In my junior year of college, I had a 4.0, a great job as an RA, and a handful of brilliant and dedicated friends. However, despite all of my blessings, I was also very depressed. My ex-fiancée and I had broken up the previous year, but we had continued an extremely unhealthy back and forth relationship. I had been seeing a counselor at our campus Student Wellness Center, but I was also trying to remedy the aching chasm between my ribs with countless parties and flirtations and drunken crying sessions in the women's bathroom at the bar. I didn't think things could feel worse. Or so I thought until I went to a party with some friends from a campus student group I was involved in.
I was invited by a friend whom I had known since high school, and I knew each person relatively well from the activities we participated in. One of the group members was another peer from my high school that had been a few years ahead of me. We'll call him Frank. He was unbelievably tall and a little awkward, and I really didn't know him all that well nor did I have any real romantic interest in him. But as introvert, when I'm at parties, I tend to gravitate to a couple people I know, and he was fun to talk to that night as we played drinking games and listened to music. I was pretty tipsy when midnight rolled around, but he insisted on filling my cup up over and over again.
As the night wound down, my friend indicated that she was ready to go, but I was so drunk at the time, I remember Frank having to literally lift me up off of the couch. I wobbled to the door behind my friend, and another mutual friend along with Frank insisted that they walk us back to our residence hall.
It was only a ten-minute walk, but we agreed and I was a little relieved that Frank was there to hold me up as I stumbled forward. At some point, we were passing Frank's apartment as we walked, and I remember hitting a short poll that I had not seen walking. I leaned on it a bit (I think I hurt my foot), and suddenly Frank was insisting I just stop and stay at his place. He grabbed my arm and pulled me in the direction of his front door. My friend asked where we were going, but Frank told her I was going to stay at his place and despite her protests, she left. I don't remember much of the conversation, but I was relieved to not walk anymore.
When he got the door open, I remember instantly going to lay on the couch, but he spun me around and told me "not there". We stumbled up the stairs to his room, and I sprawled out on his bed. I was beginning to fall asleep when he pushed me over, and I thought it was so I wasn't taking up so much space. But the next thing I knew, he was on top of me and kissing my lips and unbuttoning my jeans. I remember just lying there with fuzzy thoughts and unsure of what to do and thinking "I don't like him like this" as he began taking my pants off. I can't remember much after he began having sex with me, but I remember beginning to cry uncontrollably and telling him to take me home. Which he did.
The next day, he texted me and asked if I would like to get dinner. I couldn't even bring myself to respond.
I was confused and disgusted with myself for being so drunk that I would let something like that happen with someone I clearly didn't like. I felt bad for HIM, because he liked me. I hated myself, because I must have led him on in some way. I despised that my life was so out of control that I would let any of this occur.
And that self-loathing is exactly what I dragged into my counselor's office at my appointment that week. I wanted her to tell me why I was acting out like this and why I could hurt this poor guy with my drunken pity party. She just looked sad, and I thought she must be judging me.
Then she asked me how I could have possibly led him on when I could barely stand on my own.
Then she asked me how I could give consent if I was too drunk to even form proper words.
Then she asked me, "If one of your residents came up to you today and told you exactly what you told me and you didn't know anybody involved, what would you say happened?"
And suddenly it hit me that what had happened between Frank and I was not consensual. She was right - If a resident came up to me and told me the exact same story, I would be making a Title IX report. I had been taught over and over what consent was and how society portrays an incorrect image that blames victims and causes victims to blame themselves, and I believe that wholeheartedly and preach it to those I work with both then and now...Yet somehow, I just couldn't mentally apply myself to that same logic.
Of course I had been too drunk to stand or even talk. Of course I didn't say I wanted to have sex with this person. Of course it was wrong. But in my head, I just couldn't consider myself a victim of sexual assault. In fact, I couldn't stop blaming myself. I still struggle with this today. It's so easy to "other" when you're an advocate, even when it happens to you.
All this time, I thought that my advocacy for sexual assault victims and for Title IX these last few years in my professional career had been for other people like my mom and my students...and it is. However, as I stood up in front of my committee this last week to present my thesis on Title IX, I realized that it was for me, too.
To be frank, it is hard for me to think of what happened as sexual assault, because every day I'm bombarded by mixed messages in society saying that I was probably that girl who drank too much and had a one-night stand and then "cried wolf" because I regretted what happened. Every day I see my students scoff at the consent poster outside my door, because society tells them that you don't need to ask permission. I think that's why I've never said anything.
I think that's why my rapist doesn't know he's a rapist.
I've realized I needed to believe myself and my own story if I am truly to be an advocate for change. So today, I fight to give voices to other survivors, and fights to tell them that what happened to them is not their fault and fights to tell them that society is wrong. And finally, I fight for myself and my story, so that hopefully I can save others from the pain and confusion I went through. Every day that fight is a hard fight, but one worth having.
About the art:
Jess' story is heartbreaking because it's far too common that many women in our society have to wrestle with the reality that they were sexually assaulted. Oftentimes, the fear that takes place in the lives of those affected by sexual trauma makes people unable to tell anyone for fear of shame or retribution. And even the fact that there are even trained professionals that will take the side of the abuser in some of these instances.
For those reasons, and others, I wouldn't surprise me if someone like Jess had never come forward with their story. But I'm so glad that she did.
Because in sharing this story, Jess is giving exposure to an experience that needs to be taken more seriously than our campuses, politicians, and media seem to take it. Too many times, I've seen newscasters complain about how an athlete was accused of sexual assault and how it's such a shame for their career, but never giving even a little bit of a shit about the survivor of the assault. It's disgusting.
Jess hit the nail on the head with that commentary in her story. It's imperative to come forward if you feel like something happened that you didn't feel should have happened, or you didn't consent to happening. Don't give in to society's pressures and misconceptions of sexual violence.
Now, for the painting! Jess waned this passage from an Audre Lorde quote for her piece and I felt that instead of painting all of the letters, I was going to write all of them. I have a fun writing font, so I wanted to give it a shot on the forefront of a canvas for a change. I often use if for background elements, but this time, I went for it.
Jess wanted some bright colors, so I went warm. I feel like Jess' story exhibits this courageous warmth and I tried to capture that through the reds, oranges, and yellows. I also made the canvas look very messy on purpose. Because what Jess went through was very messy. But she made it. She's still alive, crushing it, and taking on sexual violence stigma firsthand.
Thank you for sharing your story, Jess!