One big piece is missing from the masses of commentary that have accompanied the Steubenville trials: the acknowledgment of the lasting hurt caused to the survivor, and the long road of recovery that she faces. This is one experience of life after sexual assault.
It took me a long time to get to the point where I could date at all – two years of therapy, a small mountain of medication, and a lot of long sleepless nights. When you’re living A.A. (After Assault) a lot of the ‘normal’ things for twenty-somethings become very hard.
At 18, I was diagnosed with PTSD, stemming from three unfortunate situations, that, luckily, did not end in me being raped. When I started therapy, no one was allowed to touch me. Nobody knew, so we would joke about it, and everyone thought it was hilarious the lengths to which I would go to avoid a hug. At work it was the worst, because I dealt with children. They would latch onto my knees or waist when I wasn’t ready, and, after one too many panic attacks on the clock, I left the job.
After the first year, my psychologist and I devised strategies for weaning me back into touching people. I started hugging again. And, unfortunately, could only manage touching people if I could sneak off and hand sanitize after. I was a regular Howard Huges: red, raw skinned. I would hug people and then sneak off to wash my hands. In talking to other people who have been sexually traumatized, one feeling emerges as common: the dirty feeling. I can’t explain the dirty feeling except to say that it is like you will never be a good, clean, whole person ever again. I can’t explain what it feels like to feel less than a whole person.
When I found a totally-non-threatening guy who I was friends with, I tried cuddling. It sounds dumb to write casual on-the-couch cuddling as though it’s a big step, but for me, it was. It is, I should say. I explained with minimum details the PTSD diagnosis and went over ground rules (there are certain things you can’t say to me, and certain places you can’t touch me). Luckily, he was a very nice boy who was very understanding when I started bawling. Flashbacks are another remnant of trauma. One minute you’re all good being held by someone who likes and respects you; the next minute your body is still there but your brain isn’t, and you’re begging him to stop touching you even though he already has, and he feels terrible but you feel even more terrible for making him feel bad when he did nothing wrong.
I just passed my three-year anniversary for asking for help, telling someone about what happened to me, and beginning therapy. I am out of therapy for the moment, am still medicated, and am doing well. Romantic relationships are a very hard thought, and, for me, will probably always be very hard. On what date do you tell a guy things like this? When do you bring up the fact that you need him to ask for permission before touching you, or that you need him to talk constantly to you when he’s close so that you stay present? At what point do you mention that movies, plays, or television shows (especially commercials for CSI: Special Victims Unit) with assault in them have a habit of ruining otherwise lovely evenings? How do you broach the sex issue (or, more accurately, the lack-of-sex issue)?
There are harder questions that go beyond problems of dating. What do you do when you see the guy who pushed you down on the ground and crawled on top of you while his friend watched eating a burrito in HUB? (Run away.) What do you do when someone suggests that in order to ‘get over’ inhibitions about sex you should roofie yourself on Ativan and sleep with them to ‘get it over with’? (Say no. Then, run away.)
Luckily for me, and for other victims/survivors of sexual assault, regardless of the severity, a lot of people are very understanding. One professor who knows me quite well gives me a heads-up if materials that might upset me are going to be brought up in class, and my friends rigorously research parental warnings on movies before suggesting that we see them.
I hope that the young woman at the centre of the Steubenville case has such people to look after her in the days, months, and years ahead.
CC photograph courtesy of Michael Mistretta on Flickr.