The following article might contain triggers for survivors of sexual assault.
By Erin Poppe – Seven years ago this March, I was raped.
It was my freshman year. A couple of friends and I were at a party with some upperclassmen at a duplex about two blocks east of campus. The alcohol was flowing for us that night; the women we came with knew the men who were hosting, and they wanted to show us a good time.
I don’t remember meeting him, but I knew he was the designated DJ for the night. We were sitting on a couch in the living room, just inches away from the crowd that gathered to dance. I don’t think we talked much; the music was overwhelmingly loud and the flashes of multi-colored lights were disorienting. The room started to spin as I felt my limbs go numb. It was getting harder and harder to keep my eyes open. I tried to stand up, but I was so off-balance that I immediately fell backward into the couch.
The next thing I knew, I was in his arms, being carried bridal-style through throngs of partygoers toward a door in the corner. The last thing I remember before my sight faded to black was the feeling of my back pressing against a bed.
Then, all of the sudden, the world came back into focus. I looked around and registered my surroundings. The party noise had dulled, but I could still hear people. I felt cold, realizing my clothes were scattered across the floor.
“Do you want to hang out?” he asked.
“No,” I replied, jumping up and throwing on my clothes. “I need to find my sisters.”
With that, I left the bedroom and ran right into a cop that was busting the party. I found my friends, and we quickly grabbed our belongings before fleeing out the front door.
I woke up the next morning in my residence hall bed feeling confused and sick. I stared up at the ceiling, piecing together last night’s events. Panic started to set in. Was what happened last night sex? Or was it …
Before I could finish the thought, my shrill ringtone pierced the heavy silence. My friends were calling to ask about my hangover and “hookup.”
A hookup. Yes, I thought, that’s what it must have been. It was a drunk hookup that meant nothing. I threw out some details to make it seem like I hadn’t blacked out, that I hadn’t lost control, that I hadn’t been raped.
My friends offered to find out more about the guy, but I assured them I didn’t need to know anything about him. All I wanted to do was forget that night ever happened and move on.
Sharing my secret
I managed to detach from my rape for a while by clinging to that “hookup” mindset. Hookups fade about as quickly as they happen, and for a while I made sure that’s all I engaged with. Anything more would require intimacy, and with intimacy would come honesty, both to my partner and to myself.
So I lived in deliberate denial of my rape for about a year. Only rarely did unanswered questions creep into my mind, challenging the narrative I told myself and others. I slowly started to cut myself off from the small amount of people who knew the truth; without intending to, they had become reminders of that night for me.
I couldn’t ignore reality for long, however, when I found myself back in that duplex one sunny afternoon my sophomore year.
I was tagging along with some new friends as they ran errands, and one needed to swing by her place. When we pulled up to the front of her home, I paused. Something felt familiar, but I couldn’t put my finger on it.
Once we got inside, I froze. The memories started flowing back, paralyzing me as I realized I was once again standing in the same living room I had been carried through to that same door in the corner.
I felt nauseated. My friend, noticing my paling face, asked if I was OK. I apologized, explaining that something had happened in that bedroom that I wasn’t ready to deal with yet. She nodded in understanding and didn’t mention it again.
I’ll always be grateful for that first interaction. My friend had provided me with the support and space I needed to process in my own way.
It took me three years to share my secret again, but unfortunately it was not as well-received.
It was my senior year, and I was in a relationship with someone I saw a future with. We had been dating for about a year when I decided to tell him about that night. At this point, I was still holding on to the term “hookup” fairly tightly.
I walked him through the chain of events from start to finish, feeling somewhat relieved by the end of it. That relief quickly dissipated, however, when he started pushing back.
“Why didn’t you go to the police?” he asked. “Why didn’t you file charges?”
I tried to explain that was never what I wanted; that night was nothing more than two drunk college students hooking up. The guy probably didn’t know what he did was wrong. It was my fault I blacked out.
He pressed on, asking if that’s what I really thought happened that night. I started to cry, not ready for the imminent reality check. He said I needed to call it rape, that I needed to call it what it was. I submitted and mumbled that I was raped, feeling an overwhelming mixture of exhaustion and panic that stayed with me for years.
Processing my rape
At first, calling my rape a hookup was a relief. Doing so minimized this traumatic event into one that was normal, that wasn’t a big deal. And if it wasn’t a big deal, I didn’t have to think about it.
But in the process of minimizing my rape, I minimized my self-worth. I stopped seeing myself as someone worthy of anything more than a drunken hookup. I shied away from anyone who appeared to care, instead flocking toward those who wouldn’t give a damn if I just got up and left one day. Because if anyone found out I was raped, that’s what I wanted to do: run away to a place where no one knew. Where I could start over.
When I realized that I couldn’t run away from my rape, I tried to take responsibility for it. For years I was convinced that I had set myself up for failure by getting drunk at that party. I told myself I was to blame because how could I fault that fellow student when he probably didn’t know I was incapable of giving consent?
In retrospect, him needing to carry my debilitated body through the party was a pretty clear sign.
When I took responsibility for my rape, I took on the guilt too. This guilt that I had let my loved ones down, that I had become a statistic, pulled me into a deep depression. There were days and weeks I couldn’t get out of bed; I only had enough energy to stare at the wall, wishing I could change the past.
Then one day I started telling myself that “at least it wasn’t violent.” This silver-linings mantra led me to start rationalizing my rape and repudiating my reaction. I was being dramatic. Yes I was raped, but far worse has and will happen in this world — so I had no reason to wallow in self-pity.
This mindset did me no good, though. It simply continued the pattern of ignoring the impact my rape was having on my well-being. Once I started to think about my future, I realized I didn’t want to stay chained down by my past. I didn’t want to stay trapped with this secret forever.
So I decided to get help. I went to K-State Counseling Services and signed up for the four free sessions they offer. I began sharing my experience with those close to me, even working up the courage to tell my parents last winter break.
For the first time in a long time, I’ve started to feel free.
It can be difficult to recognize when someone is struggling with the aftermath of sexual assault. You can’t feel their loss of self, their guilt, their desolation. You can’t take away their pain either. No matter how much you try, you can’t change the fact that it happened.
I’ve been processing my rape for about seven years now, and I’m not naive enough to think that writing this article will be the end of it. But for me, it’s another step forward that can hopefully help in someone else’s processing. Because whether you’re the survivor or not, coming to terms with sexual assault is never easy, especially when we live in a society that continues to mystify it.
Ignorance is not bliss
What stupefied me for so long was that someone at the party saw what was going on, yet nothing clicked in their mind to say, “This isn’t right.” Why didn’t they intervene? What does that say about us as a community? As a society?
Think about it: If your friend was trying to drive drunk, you would stop them, right? We all know that driving drunk is not only illegal, but it is also morally wrong. Some of us were taught how to handle this situation as early as middle school: You take their keys, you get them some food and you prep the couch for them to sleep on. From then on, you can rest easy knowing you saved not only your friend’s life, but the lives of countless others who would have been affected by that terrible decision.
Now change the scenario: Instead of trying to drive drunk, your friend was trying to have sex with someone who obviously couldn’t give consent (be it because of age, alcohol, drugs or anything else that could impair logical decision making). We all know that rape is not only illegal, but it is also morally wrong. But how do you stop your friend from making this terrible choice?
Society has taught us how to stop our friends from driving drunk. What’s been neglected, however, is how to stop our friends from sexually assaulting someone when we have the chance. Those partygoers could have stopped that man from raping me, just like they could have stopped him from drunken driving. But maybe our culture didn’t prepare them to know that what they saw wasn’t OK, that they could have done something.
What’s more, many people probably still don’t know what both nonviolent rape and true consent looks like. True, proactively talking about the forms of rape and consent is necessary if we want to better our understanding. Yet how can we if these topics are so often typecast in mainstream media as violent and obvious?
In his November 2015 Verge article “On Jessica Jones, rape doesn’t need to be seen to be devastating,” Kwame Opam praises the Netflix series “Jessica Jones” for giving an honest depiction of how people cope with the trauma of rape. He goes a step further in his review, however, by calling out society’s collective ignorance on the subject.
“It’s easy to identify the monstrous, predatory rapists, and to depict them on TV,” Opam said. “But when schools are creating consent classes because the topic is so poorly understood, the problem becomes all the more horrifying, not in spite of but because of its mundanity. Men needn’t be evil or superhuman in order to use their power to take advantage of women. They just have to live in a society that allows for it.”
As it stands now, our society allows for so much by way of downplaying sexual assault. We’re allowed to be ignorant, to victim blame, to be bystanders, to attack without judgment. We’re allowed to shame those who speak out about their assault, to reject them as if their experience was an anomaly.
I decided to share my story with you, however, because what happened to me is not uncommon. No, I didn’t get attacked on the way to my car at night and no, I wasn’t walking down a dark alley alone. But just because my rape doesn’t fit the mainstream idea of sexual assault doesn’t make it any less real.
And just because talking about sexual assault can be uncomfortable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. In fact, that’s all the more reason we should.
Editor’s Note: Erin Poppe’s candid and powerful article originally ran on Monday, February 22 in The Collegian, the student paper of Kansas State University. We are grateful to her for allowing us to share it here. Erin told Women You Should Know that since being published, her article has “blown up” at K-State. She added, “The response has been so overwhelmingly positive, and countless people have reached out to share how this article has helped them process their own sexual assault or change their mindset on the subject. Many have simply said thank you for helping them not feel so alone.”
About The Author
Erin Poppe (pronounced “poppy”) will be a twice-over graduate of Kansas State University come May 2016, this time adding a master’s of public administration to her bachelor’s of mass communication and journalism. When she’s not capturing life with her Canon 50D, Poppe can be found planning future adventures. One day she hopes to live by both mountains and sea, working for an organization that focuses on making the world a better place.
Lead photo of Erin credit to Emily Starkey – Co-Photo Editor, The Collegian