Freedom is what you do with what’s been done to you.
– Jean-Paul Sartre
While watching the commentary on the Kobe Bryant rape spectacle, my stomach drops. I’ve written about the case often — I follow all news on traditional women’s issues fairly closely — and yet I have never expressed what I really mean to express on all this trial mess.
As I sit down to write this, I’m not sure that it is appropriate to write on. I haven’t done much serious writing about myself on this blog so far — too many privacy issues, too many risks. But I think I’m going to raise the risk level on this one and finally express some things I’ve been dying to say. Been hurting to say, really.
For those who have missed some of the more personal confessions on this site, I lost my virginity to rape when I was thirteen.
My mother, on a spending whim, had decided to take me on a mother-daughter vacation before I began the eighth grade. We went on a Disney cruise off the coast of Florida, a family vacation tailored to entertain the interests of both adults and children. I was teetering on the edge of adolesence, learning about my new sexuality, beginning to realize that I was evolving away from girlhood. There was a shopping trip before we left — a long black dress, earrings, heels — the purchase of clothes that made me feel adult and, dare I say it? sexy.
She was very free with me on the boat. There was little trouble I could get into while hanging out with other preteens, doing silly activities and crafts while our parents took in shows and dinners. But one night, waiting for my mother to get dressed for dinner, I stood at the edge of the ocean liner watching the waves crash against the boat. A man stood down the way. I could tell he was eyeing me by the way his head turned in my peripheral vision.
He slid down the rail.
Hi, he said. Whats your name?
Lauren. What’s yours?
Hi, Lauren. He turned his back against the rail. Mist from the waves made his hair stand up wildly or stick against his forehead. I don’t remember much about him other than that he looked at me in a way I couldn’t measure. What are you doing here alone?
Just waiting for dinner. I’ll need to go soon.
I see. You are waiting for someone then?
Negative. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be having this conversation with someone obviously much older than me. I was thirteen and used to boys who flirted with punches and bra-snapping. I’m meeting my mother. She’ll be waiting for me.
Well, Lauren. The constant repetition of my name seemed strange coming from a mouth that wasn’t parent or teacher. Would you like to meet me here after dinner? Maybe we could get something to drink and have some good conversation.
Maybe I’ll do that.
Good then. I’ll be here directly after dinner.
Sex was so abstract, something I could never figure out from educational movies or from the vague talks given at home. All the sex lectures were more about how to contain one’s bleeding or how not to get knocked up. I was still unclear on where the boy’s thing actually went.
I met him after dinner that night. He told me he was twenty, and later that he was twenty-five. I told him I was eighteen, and later that I was really fifteen. It didn’t matter, he said. Love knows no bounds. I looked like a fashion model, he said. He was an artist, he said, and he’d paint me nude if I ever saw him later. He called me a lady and he flattered me. To me, that was enough. Male attention was new and enticing.
Looking back, there was a clear miscommunication in what we expected from one another. A vacation fling for a 20/25 year-old is much different than a vacation fling for a 18/15/13 year-old. As I mentioned before, I had never been able to figure out where a penis actually went during the sex act, much less what actually happened once it finally found its way to where it was supposed to go. Judging from television and movies, sex was a passionate if abstract thing that happened to people entirely unlike me. And yet, sex had never crossed my mind while talking to this man. I was thirteen, and even if I had lied about my age, what happened to me next was illegal, immoral, and permanently darkened my ideas about relationships.
He told me he had to change his shoes, asked if I would like to go to his room with him while he did so. I went. We wandered deep into the the ship, retreated to his room, where he locked the door, blocked it with his body, and told me to take my clothes off. I said no. But there was no other option. He held me down and raped me on a cot in the belly of a cruise ship. The belly of The Big Red Boat, to be exact, which now feels sadly ironic, being a family cruise line and all. I remember going back to my room, blood staining everything below the waist, my mother yelling at me because I had been late, changing my clothes, lying that I’d started my period and going to bed. Philadelphia played on TV. When I woke the next morning, there was a large stain of blood on the bed.
Over time, I’ve come to this conclusion. I’m an average-sized female, somewhat fit, fairly intelligent. But if a man decides that he wants to hurt me, my wit, my size, and my strength will not be enough to reverse his conviction.
I had lost my virginity to a man with smooth words and vicious hands and I told no one.
Soon after we returned home, it became apparent to my mother that something in me had changed. I began to dress differently, hang out with dubious people, and began dabbling with drugs. She didn’t know about the rape and didn’t think to ask. Later, she said that she thought it was just a teenage phase and that keeping me from the bad friends and drugs would be enough to turn me around.
I didn’t have the knowledge or language to know what had happened or what it was called, much less what it actually meant, until long after. All I knew was that I had done something wrong because I was too young to “have sex” – errant thinking. It was my dirty secret. I only admitting to “having sex” later during a drug counseling session. My counselor realized what the incident actually was as I described it to him, and he hurriedly left the room. When he came back into the room, he put the word to the event: rape.
By that time, I was unsure if the name, the story, that the rapist had given me was real. His face had changed from a vivid snapshot to a blur. In addition, enough time had passed to where no charges could be brought, even if I could recall enough facts to find the guy. This was the key to my incorrigible behavior. He told my parents, contacted the proper authorities for statistical reasons. Unfortunately, it was too late to have anything done about it.
About a year ago, my mother asked me a question that just about killed me. Had the incident actually happened? I heard:
When I was young, I wrote about the emotional and physical aftermath in my ever-present journal.
all you know is that something isn’t right.
something in you is teetering on an edge from which you fear falling. the fog rolls in, that inner fog that somehow communicates,
“you’re fucked up. damaged, ruined. you’ve got baggage. tainted. bitch.”
the neverending reel.
paranoia creeps in. every footstep behind you is meant for your end. every eye that catches yours is one of scrutiny. judgement. cruelty. everyone has an ulterior motive. everyone thinks, “you’re fucked up. tainted. bitch.”
you think, “i’m damaged, ruined.”
and suddenly your baggage grows heavier.
you straighten your spine, think you are above this psychological circle. try to be the emotional snob that you claim to be. above pain. above feelings and the indulgence of feeling sorry for oneself.
but you aren’t.
Apparently, with all of the speculation surrounding my drug abuse, the lying habit I had cultivated as a drug addict, and my unbelievable proficiency at keeping my rape a secret, it had been brought up by my counselor that my rape may have never occurred. My parents were never able to reject that kernel of doubt, nor were the friends of mine that my parents consulted. And thus one of the major turning points in my life, the first major indicator of who I would evolve to be, was rejected as a falsehood and was never addressed seriously by my family again. It still hasn’t been. Only after several years of traditional and experimental therapy, a slew of therapists, and several thousands of dollars, the incident has gone from a pivotal event in my life to an event in my life.
My memories and ruminations on what have happened to me have faded from self-loathing to outward anger to political resolve, but I can’t help but feel slighted as I watch this case, and other cases, unfold in a dizzying mess of sexual politics.
If we wonder why more women can’t come forward after sexual assault, my case is an interesting example. So is the alleged victim’s case in this high-profile rape trial. If the first response to an accusation of sexual assault is skepticism, the insinuation is that the accuser is a liar looking for some ulterior reward. Fame, attention, money, vengeance. We’ve heard them all before.
I wonder why the first reaction to a report of sexual assault isn’t different. Are we too innocent-minded to believe that incidents like this occur to real people? That likeable people might also be perpetrators? That the rich, the privileged, the beautiful commit awful crimes? Do we believe that someone who entertains the idea of an intimate relationship previous to rape is deserving of sexual force that demands that intimacy? That someone whose profession involves a sexual element is deserving of assault? Do we believe that someone who shows interest in the perpetrator previous to rape lacks good judgement? Moral clarity? What? Why? And how?
As someone who was once emotionally paralyzed by rape, I wonder why we are so quick to doubt alleged victims. As someone who was unable to legally pursue my rapist, I wonder why we collectively discourage prosecution of rapists through endless speculation and doubt of an alleged victim’s credibility.
As someone who has been profoundly affected by rape, I maintain that the defense in the Kobe Bryant rape trial has resorted to sleazy tactics and that endless news commentary does little to promote victim’s rights or discourage blame and doubt on the backs of people who have been or will be raped. This politic, while rooted in feminist theory, is a personal politic. When I hear the endless ignorant things that inexpert people have to say about issues surrounding this trial, I can’t help but feel as though I too am being blamed, doubted, denied, all over again.
I also think of the endless stories I’ve been told by women who are very dear to me: one raped by a family friend, one raped by a relative, one pimped by her mother for drugs, one attacked on her way home from work, one raped by a gang of white supremacists, one raped by a father at a childhood sleepover. Women of all walks, ages, bodies, and experiences, and only one reported. Mine.
In the future, I hope things will be better for people who have experienced the things I have. Anyone who says that the feminist movement has nothing left to address hasn’t heard our stories because they haven’t been listening.
It’s that simple. They have been blaming, shaming, doubting. But they haven’t been listening.