Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sexual assault: Further thoughts

This is a follow-up to the post that I wrote three weeks ago. I realized that I had more to say: questions that I had left unanswered, pieces of the story that I wanted to fill in, and additional thoughts on sexual assault that I wanted to share. 

The question-and-answer format is for my own convenience. These aren't questions that people have actually asked me (people are generally reluctant to ask about what happened), but questions that I wanted to answer nonetheless.

Whatever happened to the rapist?

He made an unsuccessful attempt at a second rape, running away when the victim screamed. Later, someone called the police when they saw him behaving suspiciously in a dark parking lot and noticed his resemblance to the composite sketch that was in the papers. With a mountain of evidence against him, he confessed and received a prison sentence. I don't remember how long the sentence was, but it was certainly years, not months.

He was not a BYU student, though he was apparently an active Mormon. He was also a father and a husband.

Did I ever heal from the rape?

Yes, completely.

It was hard. But in many ways, I was fortunate: I was believed and supported. My attacker went to jail. I was an adult, not a child. The rape was a single incident, not an ongoing pattern of abuse. I sustained no permanent physical injuries. Had any of that been different, my path to recovery would undoubtedly have been harder.

Was I able to forgive the rapist? 

Anger is a healthy, normal part of the grieving process for survivors of rape, or any kind of abuse. I expected anger. I even wanted to feel angry. But the anger toward my rapist never came. It felt like my brain was refusing to engage in any emotion directed toward him, not even anger. I must have made a subconsciousand totally involuntarydecision that getting mad at my attacker would be humanizing him in a way that I wasn't prepared to handle.

And because he was a stranger to me, I had that option. I didn't have to think about him as a person, as one of the characters in my life. He wasn't part of my circle of friends. He wasn't in any of my classes at school. He wasn't sitting across the dinner table at family gatherings. I was lucky.

I am horrified that most rapists attack their own friends, acquaintances, and family members: people that they know, people that they're supposed to care about.

But rape is rare, especially in the LDS community, right?

Because most rapes go unreported, and most survivors don't talk about their experiences publicly, we are able to live with the comfortable illusion that rape is rare. It's not. 

In the last several weeks, six of my friends (five of them LDS) have told me that they are survivors of rape or sexual assault. I had already known of a small number of friends who were survivors, and somehowsomehowI wasn't expecting six more. On an intellectual level, I knew the statistics on rape and sexual assault. But emotionally, it is difficult to believe that this happens so frequently, that it's happening to my friends, to people I worship with, to neighbors, colleagues, and associates.

I have to confront the likelihood that I know many other survivors: friends and acquaintances who carry stories they haven't shared with me. Worse, I must confront the likelihood that many more in my acquaintance will be raped or sexually assaulted in their lifetime. 

I'm angry about it. I'm angry that sexual assault is so common. I'm angry that it keeps happening. I'm angry that some in our midst still don't understand what consent is. I'm angry that so many human beings are willing to exploit their relationships for sexual violence.  

And I am frustrated that, as Mormons, we aren't doing a better job of teaching young men and women about rape: what it is, what it isn't, what to do if it happens, that being raped doesn't make you dirty or worthless, that rape is fully the responsibility of the rapist and not the victim. 

Talking about rape is embarrassing and uncomfortable; it defies deeply entrenched taboos, especially within our church community. But it is essential work.

Let's go back to talking about anger. Was anger an issue at all after the rape?

Yes, but not in the way I would have expected. 

The psychological effects from the rape didn't come to me all at once. They accumulated over time, as if I were piece-by-piece building some sort of horrifying collection of brokenness. My mind did strange things, things that I hated, things that made me ashamed. 

Eventually, there was anger. But I didn't direct my anger toward the rapist. Instead, my mind linked angerordinary, everyday frustrationswith rape. They were in the same box in my brain, and they came out of the box together. Quick flashes of anger over, say, someone's rudeness at the supermarket were often accompanied by terrifying thoughts of rape. This lasted for many years. I wondered what kind of person I had become, and I wondered if this would ever pass. 

It did pass, but only after I stopped feeling ashamed of what I was experiencing. I had to stop seeing this distressing thought pattern as a moral failing, and start seeing it for what it was: a psychological injury resulting from a crime committed against me.

Finally, one more detail for the record: Did the rapist have a knife?

He said that he had a knife, but I never saw it or felt the blade. The realization that he probably had not had a knife became one more weapon in my arsenal of self-blame. I had fallen for an empty threat, and it took me a long time to forgive myself for that. But in the end I did.

I learned to replace self-shaming with self-compassion and, finally, with peace.

Perhaps our collective outrage toward rape and rapists, our compassion toward survivors, and our adamant refusal to excuse sexual assault or to tolerate victim-blaming will help those who have not yet found peace.


  1. This is so brave. I really have a lot of respect for you.

    1. Thank you so much for that kind comment.

  2. This is so brave. I really have a lot of respect for you.

  3. You are so brave and so strong. I appreciate you sharing your experiences and thoughts and feelings. It breaks my heart that so many women and girls have suffered like you have and have been further victimized by their college and/or the judicial system. Thank you for being so brave.

  4. I think we blame ourselves because it makes us feel safer. The thought that we can be wonderful people and just be attacked and destroyed emotionally and spiritually while doing nothing wrong leaves us horribly unsafe and makes it that much more difficult to think you can live life and be happy. Blaming yourself feels much safer, it's the only way you can have control and theoretically "move forward" although it does the exact opposite.