Rape culture is a significant problem in our society. It affects not just survivors of sexual assault but also survivors of other types of trauma, abuse and loss. Too often I see not just other people victim blaming a survivor but the survivor themselves falling into patterns of self blame. This is easy for a survivor to do because of societal influence and the nature of abuse itself, and while it is never a survivor’s fault if they fall into self-blame due to trauma, it is also true that the person themselves must find a way to free themselves of self blame and to find methods to embrace empowerment.
True healing from abuse is a journey. It requires you to look at your life and say “Yes, I did this despite what happened (positive event)” or “I learned this (lesson learned) when I processed what had happened. However, too often survivors give up their power to other people around them, God, or to the abuser or offender even years after the trauma occurred. Some of this is due to denial, which can be essential for one’s survival. It is also a result of the nature of trauma itself, or simply is due to psychological and cultural factors such as our culture’s tendency to glorify trauma, violence, and the people who cause it. Just remember, though, that it is the abuser’s or perpetrator’s influence on society that ultimately brings about this shame and blame.
I myself have had to fight rape culture in order to find empowerment after a sexual assault. In 2004 I began the Master’s program in Experimental Psychology at Western Washington University. My degree is a research degree, and I naturally began to hang out with other graduate and undergraduate students who had similar interests to me and were also involved in experimental research. I also hung out with some of the graduate students in the counseling program. My life was filled with psychological experiments that I created and ran, helping other researcher’s with their studies, running a research lab as the head graduate student, and helping to teach a 300 level research methodology class as a Graduate Teaching Assistant. My life revolved around psychology and research, research, research, as well as inferential statistics.
It turned out, though, that my love of psychology was a vulnerability. I had and still can have a blind spot when it comes to trusting other people who are involved in Psychology or Counseling. I also tend to open right up to a person if certain topics like psychology, research, addiction, or statistics are brought up, as these are all things that I am well versed in and am strongly interested in. Part of this is actually due to autism. It was during Winter Quarter that year that a sexual offender began to pick up on this and eventually exploited it.
I’ll call this guy Frank. Frank commonly frequented a night club that me, other psychology students, and even a couple of psychology professors hung out at on weekends. I noticed that Frank commonly hit on women at this night club, but he did so in kind of a goofy way so I just laughed it off. He began to approach a me and a friend of mine from the department and ask us about our lives. I told him about our lives as a psychology students.
He easily was able to spot that I had a vulnerability in this area, and let us know that his step-mom was a psychology professor in my department. I thought this was cool because I had taken classes from her. Although Frank seemed a little strange, when he brought this detail up I began to trust him a little too much.
At the end of the school year in June the graduate students in the psychology department decided to have a celebratory night of drinking at this night club. There was some drama between me and some of the counseling students, though, as one of the girl’s boyfriend had been hitting on me. I really wasn’t interested in the guy, though, and felt rather singled out and alone. This left me extremely vulnerable that night.
Frank came up to me to ask what was going on. I told him, and he was very nice and understanding. He bought me a couple of drinks. Soon, I did not feel well. Frank offered to walk me home. I talked to a couple of graduate students and because he was associated with the department they told me that they thought that was fine. So Frank walked me a few blocks down the road to my apartment.
I commonly invited psychology students to my house to play my favorite game Halo. So when Frank made it clear that he wanted to come in and make sure that I was okay, I let him. I told him that my boyfriend would soon show up. We began to play Halo, and it turned out that Frank was in a band. I’m also a musician so I got out my electric guitar and we started to play songs back and forth. I still didn’t feel well though, and Frank assured me that he would stay until my boyfriend arrived. At the time I basically saw this as me hanging out with another person with an association with the department.
But that night my boyfriend (now ex) never arrived. I still don’t know why as he never told me even to this day. But he was a heavy drinker so I assume that he was drunk and never fessed up to it. That night, though, I couldn’t even get a hold of him at all.
It was then that Frank started trying to make out with me. I really didn’t want to but felt pressured to do so because he was being too friendly. I let him know that I was uncomfortable with this and that I had a boyfriend, but he wouldn’t take no for an answer. I felt too intoxicated to consent though, regardless of if I said no or not. Later on the police told me that they think that Frank had spiked my drink, and that this is why I felt so sick and was unable to consent.
Frank soon began then to tell me that he would kill me if I didn’t do what he said. Things grew from bad to worse, and the sexual assault began. While Frank forced me to make out with him in bed as the rape began, he started to tell me that he was going to kill me and had been planning to do so for six months. He talked about how he had been watching me and looking for the opportunity to have sex with me. He also called me many derogatory names and called me a slut repeatedly.
He continued to threaten my life and began to get physical, and drew out a knife when I started saying no adamantly. I wasn’t able to stop him. As I began to fight back physically he also pulled out a gun. At that point I realized that I had to stop fighting for my own safety, and started to “play along”. I am lucky that I lived through the night and am glad that I followed my instincts not to fight through the whole thing. I believe today that it was my understanding of when not to fight and to play along that ultimately saved my life that day. I trusted my instincts and also had learned in a class about trauma and abuse that sometimes it is better not to fight a person in a life threatening situation such as this one. I realize that today I am the one who successfully remembered this and trusted my intuition enough to get myself through that situation alive. I am alive today because of me.
The next day I woke up with bumps and bruises all over me. I was sore, and Frank was still there. He creepily kissed me goodbye and went to work. I got a hold of my boyfriend, and immediately went over to his house.
My boyfriend didn’t know what to say but was supportive anyways. I went into his room and curled up in his bed. I began to wonder how this had happened, and that’s when self blame began to kick in.
I thought about my life and the fact that I was drinking that night. I looked over my life and thought about the consequences of my drinking, and really thought that the sexual assault must be one of those consequences. I decided that my life was out of control and that I must stop drinking, and blamed myself for the sexual assault due to the fact that I was drinking that night. This kind of self blame is pretty common for rape survivors to do.
But instead of finding someone who could help me through these feelings and ideas of self blame, it seemed that everyone around them only concreted this blame. My parents victim blamed me for drinking and being at the bars that night, as did the police. My parents also assumed that I must have a drinking problem because I was too drunk to “prevent” or “stop” the assault and convinced me to take an alcohol assessment. It was gaslighting and victim blaming at it’s worse, and led me to enter a chemical dependency treatment program and AA.
The people at these two places, including chemical dependency counselors and a sponsor, continued to tie in the sexual assault with my drinking and alcohol use disorder despite the fact that I explained the whole scenario to them. During my first fourth step my sponsor at the time even told me that I had led Frank on and that what happened wasn’t rape or assault even though she knew what he threatened to and actually tried to kill me during it when I tried to fight him off. She also told me that I was playing the victim and needed to stop for the sake of my sobriety. She discouraged me from seeing a counselor about this, stating that a counselor would only encourage my victim behavior, and my denial and self blame grew even worse.
For many years I told everyone about how grateful I was for this sexual assault because it led me to stop drinking. I was convinced by that sponsor that what happened to me was some kind of miracle and God’s plan for me and shared about this openly in meetings. Today I deeply regret saying all of these things to myself and others, but the truth is though that I was too traumatized to really understand what happened, and everyone around me was perpetuating these ideas and re-traumatizing me practically on a daily basis.
I was in counseling for at least five years before I really began to process this sexual assault. The two counselors that I saw helped me out of abusive relationships and helped me to deal with my abusive family. Finally, in 2014 I brought up the 2005 sexual assault to my counselor. We talked about it quite a bit and she let me know adamantly that it was rape. I began to call it rape rather than “the assault”, which is what I had begun calling it some time after I’d been attending AA. But despite this work with my counselor I still hadn’t come out of denial about the severity the sexual assault and continued to have a lot of self blame. I then put the whole thing down for almost a year.
About a year later I began to come out of denial about this trauma. I called the sexual assault center in Bellingham and an advocate continued to help me to understand that this was rape as did by counselor. The advocate also told me that instead of thinking about myself as a victim, to think about myself as a survivor and to start using the word the term survivor when referring to myself and what I’d been through. She told me that once I start doing this that I will flip back and forth from feeling like a survivor to victim until I finally embrace myself as a survivor. I have found this to be true, and also discovered that the path to embracing being a survivor rather than victim does take time.
It was shortly after this that I realized that it was not my drinking that caused this to happen, rather, it was Frank himself who did it. I began to realize that essentially I had been another vulnerable college student who was sexually assaulted. I excitedly tried to share this with my friends in AA, but most of them said that I still had a “part” in this assault because I was at the bar at the time. They were still victim blaming me because I was drinking that night. But in embracing the idea that I am a survivor and continuing to use that term, I began to see through and challenge these ideas, and began to learn what the idea of empowerment means. But the victim blaming in AA continued every time I brought up any trauma that I’d been through, and eventually I left the program all together. The action of leaving AA is part of my journey towards empowerment.
Soon, through the help of counseling and my own healing, I began to see and understand the severity of the assault and the long term impacts it had on my health and my well being. As I continued to come out of denial about the sexual assault, I realized that I could no longer stay “grateful” for this assault, and that what had happened to me was no miracle. This challenged my whole idea of sobriety and how I got sober. Over time, then, I had to really challenge my own beliefs about how I got sober.
Today I realize that it was not the sexual assault itself, or Frank, the offender, that led me to stop drinking. It was me. I was the one who had the courage to evaluate my life the day after the assault and admit that I may have a problem with drinking. It was I who had the strength and courage that day to even attempt to figure out why this assault had happened. It was I who continued to reach out for help from others and talked about the sexual assault even despite victim blaming from others for over a decade. And it was I who eventually found the help that I needed and came out of denial about this trauma.
It was I who rose up and became a survivor. I realized that I was the one who took control of my life and empowered myself to stop drinking and to stay sober. I have over 13 years sober today and my sobriety is stronger than it ever was.
By the time that I came out of denial in 2015, I barely had any skills or memories of my life left due to this trauma, later ones, and the continued re-traumatization of those around me. But, between 2015 and now, despite having recovered memories on a daily basis, flashbacks, fighting to get out of abusive situations like AA, and working through this trauma and others, I relearned many of the skills that I had lost and found ways to recover my lost memory using techniques that I had learned about while studying cognitive psychology.
When I first started working on this trauma and others in 2015, I couldn’t even remember how to drive the majority of the time. My memories came and went. My writing skills had also tanked. My blog itself is a testament to the fact that you can overcome great things, even memory loss. I have worked extremely hard to regain my writing skills and part of my journey to empowerment is to share these with all to you. I spent hours many hours reteaching myself how to write and have done so quite successfully in only a short amount of time. People can do amazing things if they are empowered and motivated enough to do so.
If you have been through trauma, remember that you fought to survive during whatever experience you went through, and that you are the one who is responsible for the fact that you are alive today. Maybe you fought physically like I did, or maybe you fought because you just kept surviving despite a difficult or traumatic situation. And even after the abuse or trauma was over, you continued to fight through the healing process. You looked for reasons as to why it happened and tried to find if there was something to be learned from your situation. If there was a lesson learned, you must realize that you were the one who discovered it, and that you taught yourself to understand and embrace this lesson, no one else. You eventually realize that what happened to your was not your fault, that you couldn’t stop, change, control, or prevent what happened that day or within the abusive situation. And eventually you find that you did not need to fight anymore. You put down the sword, and started living rather than surviving. You move from being a victim, to a survivor, and then to a becoming a thriver. You and only you find empowerment within yourself, and now you can fight for yourself and others in a way that you never knew was possible while continuing to live rather than survive. You realize that it is now time to fight a new kind of fight.
Today we need a change. We need to stop blaming ourselves and others for the trauma that we or they have experienced. We need to fight not just for empowerment for ourselves and other trauma survivors but for the safety of each person in this world. And we need to put the blame where it belongs: onto the abuser or the perpetrator. This fight, though, is not one that starts with protests, marches, lengthy statements, or even coming forward with allegations of abuse. It is a fight that starts with each and everyone one of you. Find empowerment within yourself. Be an example. Show the world and those around you that you can overcome. For it is those who thrive who will ultimately join the fight for human rights. Safety in all of it’s forms is a human right that we all deserve. Victims, survivors and thrivers unite!