No Grey Area: A Journey Identifying and Healing from Sexual Assault
CONTENT NOTE: this piece contains descriptions of experiences with sexual assault and lack of belief after assault.
“I don’t know, it just felt…weird. Is that normal?”
The morning after what I thought was the first time I had sex, I called a friend of mine while my boyfriend was out getting breakfast. That winter day was bright and cozy. I should’ve felt elated. I was away at college while most of my friends had at least started experimenting a few years before, and I had been excited to join them in my own sexual life. But the evening before had extinguished all my previous excitement.
I was sitting by my window, so I could see when my boyfriend was on his way back and could quickly hang up the call if I needed to. I didn’t want to admit it, but I had become scared of someone I thought I’d never be scared of.
“What about it was weird?” she asked, eating toast. She was calm. I tried to be calm, too.
“I don’t know, I mean… I told him I didn’t really want to, but he really wanted to try, so I just kinda shut up and let him. But then it hurt too much, so I stopped responding, thinking that it would like… Ruin it for him or something? So he’d stop? But it didn’t. He kept going until I literally pushed him off. Is that normal?” I waited for her to express shock and concern to validate my own.
My friend didn’t even put her coffee down. “Yeah, I think so,” she said, “Maybe talk to him about picking up your signals a little better? But I wouldn’t panic or anything.”
It wasn’t what I’d expected to hear, and I wish I’d known then what I know now. She was wrong, and I was already panicking. But what she’d said sounded level-headed and mature to me then, and of course, I wanted to believe it. I decided she must be right, and that there was no reason to worry.
My boyfriend had been been pushing me towards sex for a couple of months by the time he came to visit me at school. He was certainly ready, and since I was his long-term girlfriend, I felt like sex was expected of me. I had an incomplete understanding of what was consensual sex and what was sexual abuse, so I assumed what had happened was sex that just went wrong. I told my boyfriend how I was feeling. He said sorry, and that it would never happen again. He seemed to feel really bad about it. I decided it was a sort of… grey area, that it wasn’t an assault, and that I’d handled it like an adult.
But it did happen again. More precisely: he did it again.
Sexual assault and abuse can take so many forms that some people don’t recognize right away or ever. I didn’t recognize it. The most simple legal definition of sexual assault is “forcing a victim to participate in sexual acts,” but this definition isn’t always helpful when you’re trying to figure out if you’ve been assaulted. It's so much more complicated than a one-sentence definition.
Am I a victim? Did that count as forcing me? Did that count as sex?
I felt confused. Blindsided. At the time, my boyfriend was really nice to me in every other way. He opened doors, he made me things, he was mindful of my emotions. He tried to read the books I liked just because I liked them. I figured that no one in my life would ever believe that someone so shy and polite could hurt me. So I convinced myself it was a sort of slip up, and that he’d never do it again.
I was wrong.
That sort of behavior is rarely an isolated incident. I know that now, too. I eventually stopped saying no altogether. But I also never started saying yes and he was perfectly fine with that. That speaks to something insidious: my boyfriend didn’t see me as a whole person, not where sex was concerned, so, likely not anywhere else either.
When I was assaulted by my boyfriend again, it didn’t happen in exactly the same way. It never happened exactly the same way twice, I imagine so that he could pretend he didn’t know what he was doing. But the underlying message was the same: my partner didn’t see me as an active participant in the sexual experience, so it didn’t matter to him if I wasn’t consenting. After each time, I told him how it made me feel. He’d cry and apologize (Editor’s note: this is a typical part of the cycle of abuse). I figured he seemed so guilty about it that it wouldn’t happen again. But it did. It happened three times, over a period of several months. Every time we were together, the knowledge of it lay there in my thoughts: if I didn’t try my best to please him, to prioritize him over myself, he’d just take what he wanted from me anyway.
Each of these horrible incidents fell into that little grey area I’d created in my head. I told myself that I’d said no that first time, but too softly, in a way that he must have thought left room for debate. He’d stopped when I forcefully said no, physically moving him away from me. I found myself not wanting to call friends anymore to ask them whether what had happened was normal because I thought it would make him look bad. Or worse, that it wouldn’t make him look bad at all. That everyone else, like my friend the first time, would just think and say this behavior was normal, and I was the odd one for starting to think it wasn’t okay.
One of the worst parts was that I didn’t believe myself; so I didn’t think anyone else would believe me.
Everyone told me what a nice guy he was when they met him, how sweet we were together, how in love he was with me. I am also a fairly loud and expressive person, who doesn't let people get away with disrespecting me. I was always so proud of that, how I never let people treat me badly, and everyone knew it. I am the sort of girl who has done her fair share of fighting off men bigger than her and not being afraid, especially if I had an audience. I had been groped in high school, and had punched the guy right off of me, to the delight of the girls around me who had been previously disrespected by him too. I was sure that no one would believe that I, a girl known for loudly defending herself and other young women at risk, had been assaulted multiple times by my shy, introverted high school sweetheart. So I told myself it was all fine, and we’d moved forward, and everything was okay.
And yet, I was miserable. My schoolwork suffered, and my grades dropped along with my attendance. I started experiencing suicidal thoughts again. I was slipping further into disordered eating, going most of the day without eating anything and then binging right before bed. I couldn’t sleep. I needed constant stimulation so I wasn’t left alone in my thoughts. My own body felt like it was holding me captive, and it was making me sick. I was experiencing flu-like symptoms for seemingly no reason and constantly getting hurt in my dance classes. I was drinking more than I ever had before, and not at parties or for fun. I was running from something, and I couldn’t get away fast enough. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, so I attributed it to the stress of my first year in college. I couldn’t tell anyone. I was seizing control of everything in my life that I possibly could, and squeezing it until it turned blue.
I know now that these are common effects of and reactions to sexual assault. Many people who've experienced sexual violence often find themselves dealing with depression, sleep disorders, eating disorders, and anxiety. Other difficult symptoms can include self-harm (which can take many forms, such as substance abuse, eating disorders, or cutting) dissociation, flashbacks, and panic attacks. If you’ve experienced sexual violence, you may have also experienced any of these effects. When it happened to me, I really didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know how, or even if I wanted, to break up with my boyfriend.
I even found myself waiting for him to do something just a little bit worse, that I would figure was “bad enough” to give me the motivation to break up with him. I still feel guilt for that impulse. It feels so disrespectful to people who have already experienced those outcomes that I deemed “bad enough.” However, the more I talk with others who have experienced intimate partner violence, the more I hear the same thing from them. In relationships marred by gaslighting and disrespect, you doubt your own judgement. You make up goalposts in your head that you know are too far. “If he tries to physically hold me down, then I’ll end it” or “If he hits me, then I’ll break up with him,” for example. It made me feel like I was in control of a situation I had lost all perspective on.
I had forgotten that I could break up with him for any reason — for no reason, even — at all. I could break up with him just because he wasn’t making me happy. But I felt trapped. I didn’t feel at home in my body anymore and I couldn’t even put together why. I was experiencing aftermaths of abuse I still didn’t realize I’d suffered.
My first step towards healing wasn’t even on purpose. I started doing work in my classes with moving my body, with feeling in control of it again. One day while doing a meditation class, it hit me: the heart and truth of it all, starting with the fact that I had been assaulted by my boyfriend. Then the certainty that I didn’t want it to happen again, I didn’t deserve to live with that risk hanging over my head, and I didn’t want to be in a relationship with someone who didn’t respect me. My second step towards healing was when I finally told someone the whole truth. I was with a group I felt safe with, and they could see I was struggling and asked what was going on, so I told them. I braced myself for the questions, for the disbelief, I was prepared to make a case for myself. I didn’t need to.
“That’s so horrible, I’m so sorry that happened to you. Do you wanna talk about it some more? Can I get you anything?”
They believed me, right away, no argument and no questions. No grey areas. I burst into tears, and was hugged, which is one of the best feelings in the world. It felt so good it felt to be believed without hesitation. All the stories I had told myself about why no one would believe me weren’t true. Sexual assault can happen to anyone, regardless of gender, physical strength, emotional strength, appearance, age, ability, race, religion, sexual or romantic orientation. They knew that. I even knew that. I just thought that somehow, I didn’t count as that “everyone.”
Healing came slowly, slower than I wanted it to. It involved breaking up with that boyfriend. He was sad, then he was angry, then he was pleading. None of it swayed me. I had finally hit my breaking point. I had been believed. I remembered who I was, and I realized what I wanted. I did not want to ever be near him again, so I decided I wouldn’t be. I ended it, and I was free from him, but I was still weighed down by the trauma of what he had done to me, by how my father sounded on the phone when I told him, by the eating disorder I was still contending with, and would be for a while.
Healing is difficult. Healing has not been a straight shot to freedom, upwards the whole way. I had to decide and accept that I needed therapy. But I did it, and I took a big step forward. One day I stopped tracking calories, and let my body eat when it was hungry, releasing my panicked control on just one part of it. That was another big step.
The missteps count, too. I thought maybe casual sex would “fix” me and give me my sexual autonomy back, but it didn’t. I still hadn’t worked out my own boundaries, my comfort zones and my triggers. As a result, having a casual sexual partner in the way that I did only reinforced my damaged beliefs about sex.
I thought experimenting with substances would bring relief: it didn’t. For a while I was drinking every single night, trying to not think about anything at all for as long as possible. It’s an easy hole to fall down (so be cautious with substances when healing from trauma like this). But I learned that the answer, the peace, is not in the coping mechanisms, at least not long term.
Some days, healing came so slowly that I laid on the kitchen floor thinking it had abandoned me entirely. So I had to repeat to myself, over and over, that it was real, it had happened, and I got through it. The worst part was over. I was safe.
That was the crucial part that I had to remember, through everything else, through the missteps and the total standstills. The worst part is over. I had already survived the terrible thing, and now it’s all about moving forward.
The baby steps of healing were, for me, the most important. I found healing in music (my healing had a lot of Taylor Swift involved). It came from setting up safety strategies with my friends when we went out at night. It came from, once I was comfortable having sex again, being vocal about my boundaries and clear about what I wanted from my relationships. It was incredibly empowering to have sex only when I really wanted to, and to not have sex at all when I wasn’t feeling like it, for any reason at all. No reason for not wanting sex is too small. Ever. Healing came in getting distance from my attacker, who I haven’t seen since! It came from telling my story to people who were ready for it, felt safe hearing it and who had the capacity to hold it. It even came through getting a cat, a constant companion in my home to make me feel like I wasn’t ever alone.
One of the biggest steps in my own process was letting go of the shame I felt. I had guilt swimming around inside me that kept dragging me under: guilt for “letting” it go on for so long, guilt for not realizing it sooner, guilt for not seeking justice through the legal system. I felt guilt via self-blame for not fighting harder, even when I had said no fervently and was still ignored. I was not to blame, not for any of it. I found that I had to place it all outside myself to think about it clearer. I had to consider whether I would ever blame another person who’d gone through it for what happened to them. The answer, of course, was no. No, it wouldn’t be that person’s fault. So, it wasn’t mine either.
More recently, healing comes when I acknowledge that this may stay with me for the rest of my life, but it will not define my life. Intimate partner sexual violence has left me with PTSD triggers, fears and mistrust that weren’t there before. Coming to the realization that I may be coping with those things for the rest of my life is difficult. No one should have to live with this. But it gets easier all the time. It isn’t a straight line, but it definitely tilts upwards, and some days I look behind me to find I’m miles ahead of where I was the day before. The anxiety doesn’t go away for good, but I know how to handle it, and I surround myself with people who make me feel safe.
I don’t have any blame left in my soul for the friend who told me what I’d gone through was normal. I know now that she said that because, in all likelihood, she’s experienced something similar and rationalized it to herself the same way she rationalized it to me. Neither of us knew back then that there are no grey areas when it comes to consent, and that’s the fact of the matter. We’d only been taught the Catholic school version of consent: don’t.
So let’s rectify that: consent is clear, enthusiastic and ongoing, or it isn’t consent at all.
Silence doesn’t mean yes, a soft no doesn’t mean yes, and a coerced yes doesn’t mean yes. Only a real yes means yes: end of story. Rape culture is ingrained in us from an early age, and dismantling its effects takes work -- hard work, lifelong work. But it is not impossible. I got myself out, and I am still walking the long road towards healing. I found my way towards a healthy romantic and sexual relationship, I graduated college, my days are happy and safe. My trauma has not ruined my life.
What happened to me is uncomfortably common. Sexual assault creates trauma, and trauma is really difficult for our brains to process. When an attacker is someone we love or trust, it’s even harder to confront, because it can feel impossible to believe that the person we thought we knew could do that to us. It starts to feel like the reality you thought you lived in is actually very different. But it isn’t.
You are still you, you just now know something terrible about that person and you need time to recover from what was done to you. That betrayal is so hard to deal with; but it’s not impossible. It takes time, sometimes to even realize it, but always to recover from it. Needing time to understand that you were assaulted does not invalidate your experience, and it doesn’t mean you’re “changing your story” or being deceptive. It means that it took your brain some time to confront something really difficult, as is often the case with all difficult things. Realizing you were assaulted weeks, months, years or even decades after the fact is normal. Sometimes victims don’t realize what was done to them because they don’t have the words for it, and once they know the real nature of their attack, it provides truth they didn’t know they were missing. It can also bring pain, to accept what really happened, but only truth can eventually bring freedom. Even the hardest truths.