Editor’s note: The following story includes references to an actual sexual assault that some readers, especially those who are sexual assault survivors themselves, may find disturbing. Some names have been changed.
October 15, 2010, at 3:03 a.m.:
I am a survivor.
It has taken me more than seven years to find the courage to write this letter. This letter is for my fellow survivors — for you, the men and women who are terrified to report; for you, the ones who don’t think you’ll be believed; for those who are so angry you want to scream. This letter is for you, the ones who found the courage to report your rapist or harasser; for those who, whether or not you choose to report, decide to share your stories anyway.
I was a sophomore in college pursuing a communication studies degree while following my newfound dream of becoming an Air Force officer in the Reserve Officer Training Corps program. I joined AFROTC as a timid, unconfident girl stuck in an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship. Though the daily gas-lighting I experienced from my abuser had me constantly second-guessing myself and my perception of reality, AFROTC was slowly shaping me into a stronger person.
My rape experience started as a night hanging out with friends in a dorm room. The tequila was flowing, and I started to slip in and out of awareness. I remember the little things: laughter from everyone having a great time, my girlfriends holding my hair while I threw up, and eventually, the discussion between my girlfriends and my friend Mark about what to do with me; I had become too inebriated to go home without risking encountering campus police.
The decision was made to leave me in Mark’s dorm room, and why not? He was someone we trusted. He was in a three-year relationship, seemingly loving and devoted to her. I vaguely remember them hugging me goodbye before I blacked out.
The next thing I remember was waking up to him taking off my clothes. I didn’t feel well at all, and certainly didn’t want to have sex with him. I told him NO! He didn’t stop. I was too drunk to fight, so instead I pleaded, “Mark, you have a girlfriend; you love your girlfriend.” His response? “If I loved her, I wouldn’t be having sex with you.”
Many of us have learned throughout our education that when faced with a scary or stressful situation, we choose between fight or flight. What we don’t hear much about is the third ‘F’: freeze.
The night of my rape, freeze was what I did. I was physically unable to fight back or run away, so instead I wished for it to be over.
In the morning, I left unsure of whether what happened had actually happened. You never think you could become a victim of sexual assault. I clearly remember thinking:
“But Mark is a good guy.”
“WHY did I get so drunk last night?!”
“Maybe he misunderstood me. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough.”
“It’s my fault for flirting with him earlier.”
I called my friend Melissa* in the dorm parking lot. I told her the story almost casually; the word “rape” was never used. But Melissa understood. She had a class, but told me to wait at her house.
She came home and convinced me to get a rape kit at the hospital. The full gravity of the situation hit me during the painful procedure that was only exacerbated by my alcohol poisoning. They took photos and gathered samples. I heard them quietly whisper how much damage he had caused my body.
What happened next is unfortunately all too common: I didn’t report.
I was terrified, ashamed and embarrassed. I didn’t want my abusive boyfriend to find out and blame me. I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I definitely didn’t want to face my rapist in court during my sophomore year in ROTC, the year cadets compete for a slot to move up in the program. Though only seven years ago, this sexual assault happened during a totally different era, when #MeToo hadn’t yet gone viral to show how prevalent sexual assault and harassment really is. I wasn’t yet mentally strong enough to come forward.
So instead, I faced my rapist every day in class. I didn’t tell anyone for weeks. One day it became too much to handle on my own, so I got help with my school’s counseling services. It took a year of therapy before I truly accepted the rape wasn’t my fault. It was my rapist’s choice. I said NO. I was clearly too drunk to consent. He knew what he was doing.
It took me a while to tell my friends and parents, but telling them was therapeutic. They did believe me. They supported me and carried me when my bad days still outnumbered my good ones.
I never chose to report.
We’ve made leaps and bounds in society and the military to create an environment where it’s okay for victims to report, but we still have a long way to go. Changing a culture doesn’t happen on an organizational level, it happens on an individual level. But what can you do to help? Start by realizing little actions speak volumes to shape a culture, whether it is healthy or toxic to survivors.
When you speak negatively about people in the news or your social circles who choose to come forward against their attackers or harassers, you reinforce a toxic culture.
When you stop a friend from taking advantage of someone who is drunk and cannot give consent, you are shaping a healthy culture.
If you, a survivor, decide the best choice for your journey of re-empowerment is for you to come forward to share your story, you are pioneering a healthier culture.
It is vital we work together to build an environment to not only encourage survivors to come forward, but push predators out of our organizations. The little things and our everyday actions are what will propel this change.
To those whom my fellow survivors choose to disclose their stories: please, please, support whatever decision that vulnerable, terrified person who comes to you wants to do. Believe them. Emphatically tell them you believe them. Don’t treat them any differently — they told you because they trust you and need your support.
To my brothers and sisters who have survived: whether you choose to report or not, it is okay. To safeguard my mental health at the time, I felt reporting wasn’t right for me. But I want to emphasize that although I didn’t report, I got help. No one should carry this burden alone, and whether you share your experience with friends, family or a counselor, it will get you on the road to healing. In today’s Air Force and culture, now more than ever, I encourage you to report; our Sexual Assault & Response Coordinators and Sexual Assault Victim Advocates are incredible. They will help you navigate your options without judgement, and won’t tell another soul your story if you don’t want them to. You can go to them no matter how long it has been since your assault.
Whatever you do, please talk to somebody and get help. Keeping our traumas secret gives abusers power — bringing them into the light is scary, but returns that power to you. If you choose to share your story with others, you’ll be surprised how many people you’ll help. Look around you; one in five women and one in 67 men in the U.S. have experienced attempted or completed rape at some point in their lives. By raising your voice, you’ll bring awareness to this problem and help others realize they’re not alone.