The night I was raped, I had no obvious reason to feel unsafe. I was meeting an old friend at a Williamsburg bar not far from my apartment. He and I had known each other for years. We shared an expansive, close friend group. And he always felt like the sweetest of all the guys. I met him in my early twenties. Our group of friends liked to run around the east side of the city getting wasted—enthusiastically smashing our bodies into each other in ever-changing pairs. Our common history made us family in a way that compensated whatever lack of material knowledge we ever had of each other. I felt safer sitting side by side with him in the back corner of George & Jack’s than I would’ve felt with most men in most places.
Also, Andrew (obviously that’s not his name) was one guy who had never tried to sleep with me or even indicated anything other than a sincere platonic affection for me. And I was very fond of him. I was a big enough fan of his, in fact, that I had set him up with my best friend a few weeks before the night we met at the bar. She was fresh out of a thoroughly shitty relationship, and I thought he was the perfect rebound: pleasant, cute, and fun.
Things between Andrew and my friend had fizzled. I took that as an opportunity to ask him out for drinks, a post-mortem on dating her, and our first proper chance to bro down since we’d both been living in Brooklyn. He lived with roommates and I lived alone with my two-year-old son.
The night went as nights out drinking usually go between old friends: we got pretty hammered and it was fun. At one point, he put his hand on my leg and said something pointedly indicative of an interest in “finally” hooking up. It instantly grated on me. Dude, come on. But it felt innocuous enough and anyway, I immediately shut it down.
“No, you were just dating my best friend, and also we’re friends and I don’t want to cross that line, so, hard no.”
He seemed annoyed in the way someone is when they clearly had expectations going into the night, but we moved past it. We finished our drinks and left.
He offered to walk me the ten minutes home, though he had his bike and I felt safe walking alone, so there was no real reason for him to do that. But he insisted.
This is the point in which I became tentatively aware of the equation we were dealing with: I was drunk and he was agitated that I wasn’t on his same sex-bound wavelength. Being that I’m an adult woman who’s dated enough, these facts alone weren’t cause for alarm. I just needed to get home.
I let him walk me home. It wasn’t worth the fight and besides, I had said “no.” I would probably have to say “no” again when we got to my place, but that was fine. I walked quickly and we got there. I walked up the front steps to my building. He followed me. I told him he was not coming inside. He and his bike wound up inside the front door anyway. It was late, no one was around, and in the dark hallway—elevated from view of the still-loud and active Metropolitan Avenue outside—he started kissing me. I tried to play it light, tried to give him enough that he might be satisfied, his pride would be intact, and he would go away. I laughed, I let him kiss me, and I kept telling him that I was going upstairs, and he was definitely not coming with me.
At this point, I’d been telling him “no” for hours. No to his hand on my leg. No to the idea of having sex. No to him walking me home. No to him coming inside. He had ignored them all. It was disappointing and annoying as hell, but what made me grow increasingly cautious as I tried to push him off of me was his progressively irritated reaction to the word “no.”
He was going to do everything possible to get to outcome he wanted, whether or not I wanted it.
At one point, he seemed to accept that he wasn’t going to be invited upstairs. Leaning back against the wall, he asked, “Can I at least come up and pee before I bike home?”
I already felt guilty for saying “no.” Had I somehow indicated beforehand that I was interested in him in that way? Had I mislead him going into this night? Had I wasted his time?
Also, I am a single mom with a very demanding job—I was profoundly tired. I am usually half a second from succumbing to exhaustion even at my most sober. But that night, I was many degrees removed from sober. So sure, he could come pee, just to move things along. I convinced myself that he couldn’t be the kind of person who would lie their way into their drunk friend’s apartment and then forcibly have sex with them while their baby was asleep a thin apartment wall away. I couldn’t be that wrong about someone.
We got upstairs. I don’t remember telling the babysitter to leave, but she did, so I guess I didn’t have the presence of mind to ask her to stay.
The bathroom was between the front door and the living room, where I was standing, waiting for him to emerge and depart as promised. When he walked out of the bathroom, stepped into the living room, and moved toward me, I knew where we stood. No amount of alcohol in my blood would’ve been enough to make me forget the palpable cracking feeling inside of me right then—every part of me slumped and deflated, definitely if almost imperceptibly, and I gave up. He’d outlasted me.
Andrew had also gotten noticeably angrier as the night went on, seemingly relative to the amount of time and energy he was investing into trying to have sex with me: When I shot him down at the bar, he was disappointed but seemed to move on easily. Later, outside the bar when I told him I didn’t want him to walk me home, he was more visibly annoyed. It became clear that he had not, in fact, been unbothered—he’d just shifted strategies and decided to wait until I was good and drunk to make another move. He’d spent an entire night enduring the parts of my company that didn’t involve his dick, and he was no longer interested in hearing “no.” And so on, until he was in my living room at 3 a.m., having put up an offensive attack for the ages.
So, I made a call: When he moved toward me, and pushed me down onto the couch, I stopped fighting. As thoroughly intoxicated and exhausted as I was, I knew the vulnerable position I was now in. He was a man I’d known for years, but until that moment, he was also someone whose true nature was unknown to me. My two-year-old was sleeping through a door just a few feet away. It was simple math at that point: if I let him fuck me, he would most likely just leave after that. If I kept rejecting, I had no idea how he would react. Sure, he might get indignant and storm out and that would be that, but also… maybe he wouldn’t. Maybe he would do any number of other things that could prove to be disruptive, traumatic, or even dangerous to my kid. There in my apartment watching him come toward me, I was faced with one known bad outcome versus infinite and possibly infinitely worse unknown outcomes. It’s a horrible calculus that all women must do whenever a man asks something from them that they don’t want to give.
So it happened: I was raped on my couch. He left. I threw up. I fell asleep.
I didn’t tell anyone. Frankly, I was busy. I had just moved to New York a year before, I had a baby, I was working all the time. I was barely able to produce enough energy to keep those things afloat. If I told anyone what Andrew had done, the reception from everyone we mutually knew, would’ve been emotionally taxing. I just wanted to move on—to be thankful that I’d gotten out of a bad situation with my kid unaware of what had happened. I took the hit and I moved on.
But there are also the text messages. I don’t remember talking to Andrew after the rape. But we did. I did. I texted him a few times, asking things like “Is our friendship totally ruined now?” and “Do you want to get coffee?” He responded tersely to both: “No.” We didn’t hang out again and didn’t communicate again. He occasionally “likes” something I post on social media, and when he does, I remember.
Those texts baffle me. I certainly didn’t have any recollection of sending them. What I remember from the weeks and months following that night was feeling sick and guilty—not going out, not speaking to a lot of people, not telling anyone what happened. I remember sleeping fully dressed, showering quickly, avoiding mirrors, and not going to the gym. I was avoiding my body.
My body and I were not on speaking terms. We were giving each other space. I remember waking up throughout the night a lot to make sure my son was still sleeping undisturbed. I remember only mentally revisiting that night in a conscious, active way a few times, for very brief periods of time. I kept thinking about the details, the cold, minute logistics of the evening—so many of the things he did while we were having sex were things that I historically, objectively enjoy. They weren’t tender or respectful by any definition, but in an otherwise consensual encounter I would have been fine with them. Without context, it wasn’t the world’s most spectacular sexual performance, but it was perfectly better-than-adequate. So, why were my body and I giving each other space, instead of basking as we had following far less technically outstanding fucks?
Of course, I knew the answer. I felt such a stark absence of doubt that I’d been raped that I simultaneously couldn’t bring myself to admit it and also didn’t need to. I knew when it was happening, when I was still drunk. I knew it the next day, and for all the days after that. This is not to say that I didn’t try for months to convince myself that it wasn’t rape. I knew it was rape as soon as it was happening, but examining the evidence and reviewing my actions now, I remember how I didn’t admit to myself for months that it was. I’m a very logical person: Accepting that I’d been raped was going to take the categorical elimination of every other possibility, and that would take time.
The thing is, what Andrew did was rape whether or not I admitted it. There are men who rape because they want to be violent against someone, and there are men who rape because they simply can’t be bothered to be aware of another person in any meaningful way. He did a lot of things the night that I said “no” to, up to and including having intercourse with me. If a woman decides that it’s safer for her to not physically fight someone at the moment of penetration, that doesn’t mean they “changed their mind” or in any way gave consent. All it means is that they opted for the safest way out of a situation where they were under the physical control of someone who had demonstrated a complete lack of regard for their consent. It was always rape.
But I was not living as “a person who had been raped” until I accepted that’s what had happened. That’s why I sent the texts. That’s why I avoided my body.
That doesn’t mean how I responded made sense. Years later, when I stumbled on those texts, which I’d completely forgotten about, I was confused. Who the fuck is nice to their rapist? Why had I tried to smooth things over? Even years of knowing I’d been raped, and feeling like I’d been raped, were thrown into question when I was staring at the actual words I’d texted him afterward.
I lived it. I recovered from it. I went through the long process of figuring out how to live comfortably (even happily; I’m wildly ambitious like that) with the knowledge that there was no reliable way to fully discern which men I can safely give any part of my time, attention, or body to without risking them feeling entitled to all that they want. But with enough time and distance, some of the details of that process slipped from my mind, because that’s just how time and distance roll: experiences get shaped and smoothed, with more and more of the bumps and grooves slowly eroding away. I completely forgot about the texts and why I sent them. I forgot about the internal war I’d fought to make what happened something other than rape, and my rapist a good person who respected me.
It was instinct; it was automatic. I didn’t want to be raped. I didn’t want him to be a rapist. I had known him for years. I’d thought of him as a friend, I’d had years of positive encounters with him, and I’d him trusted enough to set him up with my dearest friend. I signed off on him. I didn’t want to have been raped, but I also didn’t want to have been so woefully inept when it came to deciding who was trustworthy and who was dangerously full of shit. Being raped was bad (to say the least anyone has ever said about anything), but being raped by this guy meant I couldn’t trust my judgment, nor was I worthy of other people’s trust.
Reckoning with my rape also meant acknowledging that what happened with him existed on a spectrum of sexual offense that I was more familiar with than I wanted to admit. How I felt after Andrew—closed off and violated—was how I’d felt countless times with other men.
Admitting I had been raped meant confronting the landscape of my sexual history. It meant reconsidering all the moments where I was left feeling unsafe or damaged, all the moments I’d previously explained away as expressions my own shortcomings. Like, if I felt shitty and weird after hooking up sometimes, it was because I was shitty and weird, not because the dude had done anything wrong. Admitting I had been raped meant reckoning with the fact that I wasn’t wrong for feeling violated after I had sex with a guy who failed to see anything outside the radius of his own wants. It meant that it was, despite all the excuses I’d made for them, never okay that other men, had previously failed to treat me like a person—treating me instead like an instrument designed to create pleasure moments for them.
I didn’t want to think about my sexual history like that. I didn’t want to think that my perception of myself as a sexually empowered young woman was a fucking joke. Or that I was a product of a culture that had given me a low estimation of my value, so low that I accepted sexual encounters that made me feel afraid and dehumanized and then blamed myself for feeling that way. Admitting that I’d been raped meant being unable to argue away the truth that my notion of my sexuality was part of a game whose rules taught men to be predators and women to give up everything except guilt.
It was never just about what happened between Andrew and I that night. While the event was traumatic, Andrew himself isn’t a monster or an anomaly. The entire culture of sexual engagement—how we think about each other, how we approach and talk about sex, how we feel about ourselves, how we communicate—is fucked to its core. And how can anyone know how to begin to go about fixing that? Facing the fact of my rape directly was like staring into the sun.
Calling a thing rape isn’t easy because it forces us to rewire how we think about sex, our bodies, our interactions with others, and what we’re entitled to. How much should we expect men to know about how to read and listen to another person? How much should we forgive them for the innately misogynistic sexual morals they’ve been instilled with since birth? How much should their intentions matter compared to their actions? To what degree are we obligated to educate them, for our own benefit and for the benefit of other women? In the absence of a healthy sexual culture, are individual women supposed to just “each one teach one” until these guys unlearn their entitlement and casually violent mindsets about sexual engagement? At what point do we get to say “no, you should know this by now”?
If I was dealing with the Andrew situation today, I would like to think that I would’ve done the work of making sure he was very clear about what he’d done. In case his learned sense of sexual entitlement was causing him to run around raping other women and thinking he was just being a badass who knew how to turn a “no” into a “yes”. I would like to think I’d risk him hating me for the sake of him maybe doing better with other women. I would like to think I would be the one after whom he could never say he didn’t know better. I don’t know. It’s what I would like to think.
In the days after rereading my texts to Andrew after the night he raped me, I thought a lot about how women often have a relationship with their attacker that doesn’t just predate their assault but that follows it as well. When we know our rapists, it’s usually not as simple as cutting off all contact forever. In addition to all the work we do to internally downgrade our rape to something less severe, even when we have no choice but to call it what it was, we still feel obligated to minimize the peripheral fallout. Women are socialized to make it all okay, largely for everyone else’s benefit.
Not that I thought about any of that at the time. I just didn’t want Andrew to know that I knew he had raped me because I didn’t want to endure how he’d react to the idea of me telling people that. I wanted him to go away; I wanted the whole thing to have not happened. I wanted him neutralized, and selling him on my coolness about the whole thing did that.
Being raped involves, among countless corrosive elements, a loss of control, which is not fun for most people at most times, but when it comes sex, an inherently vulnerable act, the inability to dictate the terms or even agree to participate is particularly malignant. When I see those texts, I see a woman trying to reclaim a part of herself, trying to mitigate the harm done by retroactively trying to sell herself on wanting it. Trying to convince herself it was just a misunderstanding. Maybe he’s perfectly decent. Maybe he’ll prove himself to be such a respectful human that this one transgression will fade into history as an anomaly that was, hey, probably just my fault.
But I cannot re-contextualize my rape. Trust me, I’ve tried, and I’m an extremely skillful negotiator. It doesn’t work. You can’t dress it up, and you can’t diminish its destructive power. It’s corrosive and pungent and undeniable. People still try—they narrow the definition and create loopholes that, even if they don’t change the act, at least change what you’re forced to call it.
But the word matters. The words we use to talk about something do effectively direct us emotionally. What you label something shapes how you synthesize it, how you digest it, and later how you feel when some external stimuli rattles that box it will forever inhabit in your mind. If a victim is calling something rape, it was rape. If a person who was raped says something was rape, you can be very sure that no one wishes it wasn’t more than they do. And when the other people involved, or people in general, refuse to openly acknowledge rape as such, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t rape. It just means not only will everything the survivor is experiencing feel wholly invalidating, but they’re also vulnerable to a heap of accusations against themselves.
At this point in the cultural conversation, we have to relinquish all of our pre-existing, narrow concepts of what a relationship between an assailant and his victim looks like. And in addition to truly learning, maybe for the first time on a collective level, to recognize the full spectrum of sexual assault, we have to teach men not to do it—and we must support survivors instead of penalizing them for lack of adherence to one limited idea of how an assault victim is supposed to act before, during, and after they’re attacked.
This isn’t an indictment against anyone, or at least if it is, it’s against all of us, myself included. Finding the post-rape texts I sent Andrew felt like being confronted with proof that I had not being a perfect victim, and that realization destabilized my long-cemented perception of what exactly had gone down that night. It was a mind fuck trying to navigate that cognitive dissonance of realizing that I was both a victim of rape and someone still actively bearing the assumptions and rules that uphold rape culture and disadvantage assault victims.
I will never not be certain of what happened to me, and I will never be entirely unburdened of the part of me that feels like it’s my fault. Some of that can be attributed to some underlying, self-defeating perfectionism—How did you let that happen? You got straight As, for fuck’s sake. But the densest, meatiest part of my guilt about my rape is because, like all women, I’ve been trained from birth to believe that men are hardwired to pursue sex and can’t be faulted for whatever they do in the course of trying to put their dick in something, and a woman’s job is to stop them. When we don’t, we fail. (I mean, unless we’re married to them, and then we fail if we don’t let them cum in, or, and around us with unfettered, condition-less compliance.)
There will always be some part of me that doesn’t think, but knows, on a cellular level that when I gave up and let Andrew penetrate me that night, he was successfully attaining at the thing he was biologically programmed to seek, and I was failing to do the one thing I was supposed to do—stop him from fucking me until he’d earned the right to. I laid there quietly, conceding defeat.
Even now, knowing better doesn’t make it simpler to reconcile the distribution of blame (all his!) that I logically know is correct with what a lifetime of social conditioning has taught me to feel. Even though I know how fucked it is that men and women are, from childhood, pitted against each other in a war for access to women’s bodies instead of being taught how to diplomatically establish embassies with respect to each other’s god-given sovereignty.
It’s easier to be cool about things, and move past them, and not confront ourselves, our aggressors, or our victims. Of course it’s easier. It’s also how nothing ever gets better. But that doesn’t mean each woman is individually responsible for confronting her rapist. Women are often pleasant, accommodating, friendly, compliant, even apologetic to their rapists for any number of reasons—they’re scared, eager to move on, desire privacy to heal, no interest in surrendering her nuanced identity and rebranding as a rape advocate—none of which means that she wasn’t raped. A woman acting in accordance with her need to make everything okay again doesn’t invalidate the realness of a rape, but taking a woman’s non-hostile interactions with her rapist as evidence of his innocence absolutely upholds the conditions and social dynamics that make shades of rape perpetually possible and crushingly frequent.
Rumpus original art by Dara Herman Zierlein.