*Editor’s note: The names of this story’s two sexual assault victims have been changed to protect their privacy.
By Carolyn Bahm
Rape survivors flay themselves with a sharper-edged blade of blame when their attacker was a date or an acquaintance. “Was I responsible for this? Did I ‘ask for it’? Is all this my fault?”
Kathy Wallace is executive director of SAFE Inc. in Tupelo, which gives counseling, support and crisis intervention to victims of sexual assault. She shook her head at the self-blaming statements common among rape survivors. “With rape, we always blame the victim.”
She said 78 percent of rape victims are assaulted by someone they know. “You have so many self-doubts when you’re raped, period. And then with date rape, you begin to doubt your own judgment.”
Tina*, a sexual assault survivor now living in Mississippi, has learned better since her high-school rape. She recently talked about various excuses some men use for forcing women into sex, and she said flatly, “I don’t care if a woman is dancing butt-naked on a bar stool, trashed. There’s no excuse for rape.”
Even when the woman consents to sex at first and then withdraws her permission, that’s okay, Tina said. “It’s not fair, but so what? It’s your choice as a human being to change your mind at any point.”
After a rape: The first steps
No matter how much the victim blames herself or her rapist, when a rape happens the pain doesn’t just “go away.” Wallace said if the victim gets medical help, the necessary evidence-gathering process is dehumanizing; if the victim prosecutes, the court proceedings are even more traumatic.
“It takes an awful lot of guts to try a rape case,” she said.
That first step of going for a post-rape medical exam can be alarming. The rape victim submits to a “rape kit,” a package of materials (swabs, glass vials, bags to hold evidence clothing, etc.) that are needed to preserve evidence of sexual assault. Parts of the victim’s body are swabbed, scraped, drained, combed, plucked, washed and examined minutely, sometimes under a special hand-held UV lamp (Woods lamp), then sketched and even photographed in some cases. The victim’s outer clothing and undergarments are kept as evidence.
To minimize the intrusion upon the patient, Wallace hopes more hospitals begin using a protocol now being tested in a pilot program for sexual assault cases at Baptist Memorial Hospital in Oxford.
After even a sensitively handled rape kit, the injured person’s decision whether to prosecute or drop the case is difficult. Rape trials are grueling for the victim, Wallace said. “It takes an awful lot of guts to try a rape case.”
The typical rape victim’s young age just heightens her vulnerability, first, to sexual assault and, then, to fragility on the witness stand: Wallace said 61.9 percent of all sexual assaults happen before the victim is 18.
Another Mississippi rape crisis center provided the names of two date/acquaintance rape survivors who were willing to share their stories of trauma and recovery. Both are aware they made themselves vulnerable, but they said their rapists still had no right to hurt them. Neither chose to file charges at the time; today, both think they might if such a thing happened again.
Five years haven’t erased the memory of his eyes. Tina, now a 22-year-old college student in Mississippi, says she can’t really remember her rapist’s face. But the bitter hatred reflected in his eyes still haunts her at times.
She was 17 and cutting loose on an all-teen vacation. Tina’s friends wandered away from the crowded beach party, leaving her alone on the warm sand. The novice drinker emptied glass after glass while she fended off advances from one persistent man.
She didn’t know her drinking limits; she had never used alcohol before. Tina slammed down half a bottle of vodka and another quarter bottle of tequila before the drunkenness slammed into her full force. Time for a nap on that nice warm sand. When she awoke, her admirer insisted he would gladly drive the dizzy, stumbling, incoherent girl home.
He did, and he did a whole lot more.
Tina’s night blurred from beach party to being passed-out drunk at the teens’ rented apartment. The man didn’t leave, and her friends didn’t come back to the room that night. She awoke, paralyzed from the overdose of alcohol, to find him penetrating her. She was raped repeatedly, unable to move or speak. Mercifully, she kept passing out.
She awoke the next morning to bruised thighs, vaginal bleeding and a littering of condoms on the floor. He was gone.
“I took six showers that day, and I still wasn’t clean,” Tina said, hugging her arms. “That’s something you can’t wash off.”
Not much was left for her. High school had been hellish, back in those days when she was bucktoothed and wore glasses. “I was the kid who was spit on and beat up in the bathroom. … I went to a very catty school.”
She never reported the rape and never told her parents, and she tried to forget it for the next two years. She slid into depression and drank heavily through her senior year in high school.
A move out of her home state didn’t help. At a distant college, she upped her alcohol habits. “That first semester, I was drunk six nights a week,” Tina said matter-of-factly.
Her alcohol tab stood at $3,000 after three months, and her grade point average fell to 1.6 on a 4.0 scale. The red-faced freshman borrowed money from her father, threw away all the bottles and plunged herself into her studies. Her grades soared, but her heart stayed in the trough.
Then she met the man who put the epilogue on her rapist’s assault. It started out as “love,” she said, wrinkling her nose. Although they became engaged, the relationship unraveled into abuse.
He hurled blame about her drinking when she revealed her rape story. He told her she was fat, ugly and stupid, and he belittled her cooking and drove away all but one of her friends.
Sex? She had flashbacks of her rape with alarming regularity, but that didn’t stop the boyfriend from getting that lovin’ feeling. She never said no to sex with him, even when she didn’t want it.
In the spring of 1993, she locked herself in the bathroom and looked at a naked razor blade for hours. “I was trying to think of a reason why I shouldn’t do this.”
A friend broke down the door and spent all night talking about survival and the worth of life. The woman also talked about her own rape. With pushing and prodding, eight hours later Tina agreed to enter counseling. A week of therapy brought Tina the dawning realization, “I need to make a huge change in my life or I’m going to die.”
She went home and kicked out the live-in boyfriend. She stayed in counseling and transferred the energy into helping others. She still gets waves of nausea, sweat and dizziness when she sees her old abusive fiance around town, but she forces herself to stand there with her chin up. She’s a tougher, stronger woman.
Today, she shares her story of rape and recovery with student groups, selected close friends and some other sexual assault survivors. More than 3,000 children have heard her story. “It’s my revenge,” she said, laughing. “It’s my vengeance. It’s the only legal vengeance I have.”
Her parents still don’t know about the rape. They’re near retirement age and naive, Tina said, and she doesn’t want to take that away from them. She stubbornly picks and chooses who gets to hear her story. “I just like to have control over who knows that about me.”
She is now happily engaged to the one loving friend who hung with her during the hard years. He has weathered three recent times when she had horrifying flashbacks to her rape. “He gets upset because he can’t change what happened to me,” she said, smiling slowly.
Flashbacks are a wall of panic that hit her more often during times of stress, like this past week’s swath of college finals. She can’t catch her breath, and she wants to hit something and vent that desperate feeling. “You want to stand out in the middle of a desert and just scream and shake and scream. And that’s the hard part, because you can’t get it out.”
She knows the rape changed her, but she has adapted to her altered moods and sometimes harsh reactions: She still loves pretty, sexy clothes and feminine frills, but the attention they generate can unnerve her. A man’s hot gaze makes her feel targeted. But instead of shrinking back, she usually blurts out an angry, confrontational retort.
She exudes strength as she talks about recovery, feminism and personal power. “Refer to me as a ‘survivor,’ ” she said, nodding. “I was a victim for four years, but I shed victimhood a long time ago. I’m a survivor now.”
Donna*, a 19-year-old college freshman in Mississippi, is a date rape survivor. Her rapist’s suicide didn’t erase her pain.
She was 15 when a handsome, popular older boy targeted her at a big party at his house. She had lied to her parents, claiming she would spend the night with a girlfriend instead of at a late party. That evening, the handsome football player lavished compliments on Donna and kept an arm around her. She was uneasy, but flattered.
“I was not drunk,” she said firmly. “My mother always told me, ‘Just carry water in a beer can if you feel pressured to drink.’ “
Her girlfriend, though, was seriously drunk and refused to drive the girls home. Then the football player sweetly kissed Donna on the cheek, and they went to a quiet, secluded place for more kisses.
“It just got to the point where everything happened in a matter of seconds,” Donna said. She blinked rapidly as she described the rape and the loss of her virginity. “He did rape me in his mother’s bed, without protection. I did fight a little but basically just gave up. I felt helpless.”
Afterward, she frantically insisted that her friend take her home. Never mind that it was 5 a.m. by then, she wanted out. Back home, she took shower after shower.
“I scrubbed myself raw, until I was bleeding. My body bled, I felt … dirty,” she said.
She went with a good friend and her family on vacation soon afterward, but they all knew something was wrong. She refused to get into a swimsuit and go to the beach. The once-bubbly teen spent the days and nights crying in the hotel room, refusing to talk, mourning her loss and worrying to herself about sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy.
Back home, the boy had left messages on her answering machine: She’d better not report him, or he’d kill her and her family.
When she finally told her parents, it wasn’t the fairy-tale comforting embrace she had imagined. Her mother collapsed. Her father, who is in law enforcement, bellowed an intimate, accusing interrogation: Did the boy put his hand down her pants? What exactly else did he do? Why did she lie about her whereabouts? Was she ready to report it, if it really was a rape? He started reaching for the phone. The panic-stricken teen quickly changed her story several times and begged them to let the matter drop.
“It just got to the point where my parents didn’t believe me,” she said.
They didn’t acknowledge her assault again, and the silence gnawed at her. They were a close family, so she began to doubt and blame herself. Donna dove into her studies and school activities, but she held herself together at a high cost.
Once, she broke down and told her mother, “Remind me to tell you about this in about 10 years. I really need to talk to you about it.”
Surviving rape without any help was a lonely finish to her childhood. Donna’s remaining high school years were a blur. “Whether it was obvious to everyone or not, I was hurting inside. I was dying inside.”
Her rapist bragged at school, countered only slightly by her quiet version of the rape. Boys blamed her for “being drunk” because they had spotted her with a beer can. Her rapist hunted her at parties and at friends’ houses, zeroing in on her with knowing looks and even once trailing her into the bathroom.
Donna made herself focus on her grades and her true friendships. Then a new phase of pain burst on the scene at graduation. Her family was celebrating Donna’s diploma when she got the call. Her rapist had killed himself.
She dropped the phone, stood frozen for a moment, then dashed to the bathroom and vomited. Today, she laughs bitterly when she recalls her father’s tender words back then, asking if she and the suicide victim had been close. “I was so angry, I felt like spitting in his eye. I thought, ‘Daddy, if you’d clean your ears out, you might know.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I guess you could say I knew him.’ “
Donna blamed herself for her rapist’s death. She believed he took his own life because of what he had taken from her.
Since then, she has come to healthier terms with her assault, although without the help of counseling, she said. Today she surrounds herself with warm male and female friends who call her “Mom” because of her affectionate, protective “mother hen” attitude. She works to educate people against sexual assaults and tries unobtrusively to rescue girls who are getting too drunk at fraternity parties.
Overriding it all, she feels she has to maintain her role model status as a publicly positive young woman who survived rape.
That doesn’t mean she’s “over” it. A rape survivor is never over rape, just past it, she said. “I feel like I just want to cry on someone’s shoulder, but I feel like I don’t want to burden anyone.”
She wonders if she will marry and if her husband will satisfy that need for comfort. Can she handle the normal intimacy of marriage?
“I find myself getting attracted to someone, and I want to let go because I don’t want to get hurt,” Donna said. “Sometimes I feel like they owe me, like, ‘if they only knew.’ “
She told one boyfriend, and the rape revelation killed the couple’s relationship. He couldn’t stop treating her as if she were a fragile, wounded flower. Even worse, her family avoids the issue to this day, she said. Her mother said they can’t find time for family counseling.
Her father still won’t talk about the rape. “I just feel like if he loved me and trusted me, …” she said, her voice trailing off and her eyes filming with tears.
She talked more about her healing process and said, “Sometimes, I wonder if it’s going to just get harder. This has only been going on for four years. There’s a longer road ahead of me.”
She hasn’t been able to put her rapist to rest. “It’s like he won the battle. He might be dead, but sometimes it feels like he won. … This jerk’s few moments of pleasure took away my life.”