Content warning: Sexual assault and violence
From a young age, I was deprived of any information about intimacy and relationships outside of marriage. I grew up with an Armenian father who refused to have honest conversations about sexual health. So I never understood what sexual consent was and my notion of rape was limited to the narratives I saw on the news. I thought that rapists were creepy strangers who violently attacked women.
When I found out that I was accepted to UC Berkeley, I had a conversation with my partner regarding my concerns about living on my own and possibly being assaulted in college. So I asked my boyfriend if he would believe me if I told him I was assaulted. He responded with, “It depends on what you were wearing and what you were doing.”
I was shocked that someone I had an intimate relationship with would question an experience if it were to happen and require that I prove myself to him. But a part of me internalized the guidelines he had set for something to be considered rape.
So when I was actually raped a year later and realized that my assault didn’t fit the categories I had been taught to believe was rape, I was left feeling confused about how to process what had happened. I felt like I had no choice but to dismiss what had happened and what I was feeling.
One night I went out with my friend Jane to a club, where we met two of our friends whose jobs as club promoters gave us endless access to alcohol and exclusive parties. When the club closed, even though I was already drunk, we continued our celebration at a nearby after-party. By the end of the night, I had lost Jane so I waited alone while frantically trying to find her. One of the promoters came up to tell me that Jane had already left with our other promoter friend, John. He told me that he was about to meet with Jane and John so he convinced me to come over to wait for them as he got food.
We arrived at his house and he led me to his bedroom where he said I could sit down and wait for Jane. As I lay on his bed, I got a text from her saying that she and the other promoter were picking up some food.
Extremely drunk, I dropped my head onto the pillow. I woke up about an hour later from a sensation of pleasure. I was still coming out of my sleep and wiggled a little bit, feeling a dick in me. I anxiously lurched my body forward, sat up abruptly and looked around in utter confusion, seeing John laying next to me. With a soft voice, I uttered, “Where’s Jane?” while patting the mattress around me to find my phone. I picked it up from underneath his leg — it was powered off.
I turned my phone on, relieved that the Apple logo had appeared. As I started reading the countless messages my friend had sent me, he turned and said nonchalantly, “In my defense, your ass was out.”
I stared numbly into my phone and said, “Oh yeah, no worries, Jane’s waiting for me, I got to go.”
I couldn’t process what had just happened, and I just wanted to leave. As I sat in my Uber on my way home and went over what happened, I thought back to what my former partner had said the year prior and the mental checklist he had created of what constituted as a rape. I felt pleasure when I woke up with his penis in me, so it could not be considered rape, I thought. I was drunk and wearing a short skirt that showed off my legs, so according to my ex-boyfriend, I willingly put myself in that situation.
I repressed this horrible encounter until the summer before my senior year, when I was assaulted by another man in broad daylight. As I was walking through the streets of San Francisco with my friend, a man grabbed my butt and quickly sprinted off. When I saw him pass me, I loudly exclaimed, “WHAT THE FUCK!”
Before I had the chance to verbalize my feelings, I felt my eyes fill with tears that poured down my face. I was left speechless and unable to comprehend how the event had triggered me.
As my friend hugged me and tried calming me down, I looked at her and said, “I was raped when I was 18.”
That was the first time I had used that word. Even after hearing other similar stories of sexual assault and eventually realizing that what I experienced a few years ago was rape, I had never been able to use the word “rape.” The narratives I constantly heard made me believe I didn’t experience assault when in reality I did.
But I am no longer ashamed to say that I was raped. My silence only perpetuates the notion that there is only one way in which rape can take place — being attacked by a violent stranger. I refuse to accept the narrative that I and other women are responsible for their assault. I’ll wear a short skirt, get drunk at a party and flirt with men all night — it doesn’t mean I am asking to be assaulted.
Elizabeth Arutyunyan writes the Tuesday column on sex. Contact her at [email protected].