CONTENT WARNING for sexual assault and domestic violence.
I’ve heard the phrase “come forward” so often lately it’s begun to lose all meaning. The syllables strung together feel weird when I say or write them. I don’t know if there is some set standard for what coming forward looks like. All I know is that I never did.
Ten years ago, I moved from Atlanta to Wilmington, North Carolina, for graduate school. My boyfriend at the time moved with me. It was supposed to be a fresh start for him to get some college credits knocked out and figure out where he wanted to go professionally. In hindsight, our relationship was already in shambles before the move. The resentment that built up over the next two years because I (apparently) made him move was just the latest in a long list of problems.
There was occasional levity, and every once in a while we could break from fighting to enjoy ourselves. It looked like it was going to be one of those more light-hearted nights. Jokes and bits of gentle horseplay. He made a move to initiate sex, and I said no. I wasn’t feeling it that night. He moved again, I said no again. He held me down. He kept going. When he finished and got up to clean up, I murmured that I never said yes. He got mad at me, and told me I was calling him a rapist and that made him feel bad. He claimed he thought I was playing hard to get. Because I was exhausted, because I was mentally and emotionally drained from grad school and a failing relationship, I let it go.
I regret not standing up for myself. I sometimes still feel twinges of shame and guilt. Still, I know logically I had few options. We shared a one bedroom apartment seven hours away from my family. We moved back to Atlanta a few months later, and the relationship ended very shortly after. The first and for a long time only person I told was the next guy I dated, by way of a warning. “Hey, FYI, I don’t play hard to get, and if I say no, I mean it.” He was understandably confused, until I explained that his predecessor had once not listened when I said no. My new partner was the first one to call it rape. I insisted that I wasn’t traumatized, that it was just an unfortunate thing that happened. Then again, I was impacted enough to feel the need to explain to future partners that no really meant no, and some years later I would realize that the phrase “playing hard to get” could send me into a day-long fugue state.
When the presidential election sent me into another similar state of disarray, I made a point of telling some close friends and beginning therapy. And here I am. But I can’t say I ever came forward. I, in fact, made a rather deliberate attempt not to.
Why? I was embarrassed. I was scared people would ask why I stayed for months with the man who raped me. I was worried my parents would find out, and it would break their hearts. Mostly, we shared the same circle of friends. I was terrified, and some part of me still is, that they wouldn’t believe me. That they would choose him, and cut me off. Because I desperately, so desperately didn’t want to lose people I loved, I said nothing. I never told them of the time their friend raped me, then made it my fault.
If you made it this far, please consider checking organizations that offer help to survivors and training and resources for the public at large.
RAINN is the nation’s largest anti sexual-violence organization.
Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands is Columbia, South Carolina organization which offers support to survivors, as well as training opportunities.