The Thing About Rape

Right now, my hands are sweating. My heart rate is accelerated. My face is flushed. Classic physical symptoms of fear. Why? Because I'm writing a post about rape, and that scares me. I want you to understand this before you continue. I need you to hear that I am writing this from a position of fear. Yes, there are many horrifying things in the world. We could speak about terrorism or AIDS or bullying or cancer and I would be sad and upset and perhaps anxious, but it wouldn't be the same because those horrible things aren't the horrible thing I know in my own skin.

I've written once before about sexual assault. What I wrote then was tempered by the fact that the article had been requested by a magazine with a target audience of girls ages 13-17. I focused on a thirteen-year-old reader for the purpose of that article, which wasn't hard to do. I had a twenty-two year old daughter, and I remembered what I'd told her when she was thirteen. The emphasis was on safety, just as it had been all her life. Don't touch the hot stovetop. Don't stick things in outlets. Look both ways before crossing. Don't trust a boy just because he seems nice.

The first time I had sex, it hurt so badly I made him stop. He wasn't nice, that guy. He was kind of a dick, in fact. The type who occasionally said things that were targeted to make me feel stupid. But you know what? When I said stop, he stopped. Right there in the middle of it, he stopped. At the time, I hadn't known to be grateful to him for that. When it came to boys and sex, the warnings from my mother were all about not giving them what they wanted. Nothing about them taking it from me. That was reserved for warnings about strangers and dark parking lots. She hadn't warned me about friends.

I didn't want to scare my daughter but I needed to, because I didn't want her to ever suffer what happened to me if there was a chance in hell that she could prevent it. So I put her in taekwondo. I told her, point blank, what had happened to me. I taught her to be an unapologetic bitch if she needed to. And I told her what I wanted the readers of that magazine to know: the most likely person to rape you will be someone you know.

When I left high school, I hadn't wanted to go to college. But after working in various clerical positions on campus to put my husband through college, I changed my mind. I did some research and found out that if I quit my full-time job, financial aid (grants, loans, work-study job) would cover the cost of tuition for me, and his financial aid would increase too. He was in his senior year when I began.

I'd been lifting weights for about a year and paying attention to what I ate as part of that, so as an easy-A elective, I took a nutrition class. I sat on the front row along with a couple of guys who also lifted. They, in fact, were amateur bodybuilding competitors, three years younger than me. One was single, and the other had a girlfriend who was still in high school. We passed Muscle and Fitness magazines between us before class, and chatted about the stuff like-minded people chat about.

Three months passed. The guy with a girlfriend was having relationship trouble and thought they might break up, and because I was older and wiser and married, he wanted advice. I gave him my phone number. I told him I was working that afternoon and going out that night, but free the next day. My husband was going to a friend's place to play Dungeons & Dragons. No such thing as "online" back then, and D&D was an all-day affair.

My classmate called around noon and we discussed his girlfriend issue. In the background, I could hear lots of small-children noise. He still lived at home with parents, and his younger siblings were running around the house enjoying their day off school. "It sounds really quiet at your place," he said. "I can barely hear you over them!" I told him that yeah, my husband was out for the day and I was just enjoying the morning, doing laundry and reading. We talked a little more, but the noise on his end didn't abate. "You give such good advice and I want to hear it. Would you mind if I came over there?" he asked.

I have to be honest - for a split second, I balked. But my hesitation wasn't some sort of intuition. It was a twinge of worry about how it might look for me to have a guy over while my husband was out. I dismissed it almost immediately. I knew this guy. My husband didn't know him but he knew about him. We were friends, and he needed me. "Sure," I said, and gave him directions to my apartment.

He came over and we sat on the sofa and talked some more. And then he leaned over and kissed me, one hand behind my head and one on my leg. I pulled back. My worry during those few seconds? That I'd given him the wrong signals. That I was going to hurt his feelings. That our friendship had just taken a serious turn toward awkward. "Oh, hey, I'm not really-" I started. I didn't get any further. I was on the floor, jeans pushed to my knees in seconds. I said No. I said Don't. I struggled but he outweighed me by a hundred pounds. I know it must have been painful but all I remember feeling was humiliation.

In the article for Justine, I included what he said before he went out the door, but I'd edited for the audience. The first thing he actually said was, "You're a great lay." I was pulling up my jeans, numb with shock, trying to wrap my head around what had just happened while he was smiling and telling me what had just happened: he'd gotten laid; I'd gotten laid. "I gotta go, see you in class Monday," he said then, and left.

I allowed his words to define what happened that day and I didn't challenge it - in my own head - for twelve years. I knew what happened wasn't something I wanted. I knew I felt humiliated and ashamed. But I called it bad judgment on my part that I’d trusted someone untrustworthy. I didn't call it rape. I skipped a few classes but eventually went back. It was a large auditorium classroom and I sat elsewhere. I'd been acing the class but ended the semester with a C. (I made only one other C my entire college career - in a self-paced pre-cal class that English majors should never, ever take.)

I've said that this event does not define me, and it doesn't. But it also never goes away. Lately, I've found that I still have triggers, and I'm never sure when they're going to pull.

My husband and I have been binge-watching a show on Netflix. In the second season, there's a rape. It caught me by surprise. It wasn't terribly graphic - though honestly, it doesn't ever have to be. My mind fills in the blanks. The victim kept it a secret, and that produced more triggers for me, but as I watched her inability to connect sexually with her husband and how that drove further wedges between them and caused her more anguish I thought, Yes. Yes. That's how it feels. In the episode we watched last night, she finally told him and for some reason, that was the scene that pushed me over the edge. The episode ended with his hands on her face, tears in his eyes, as she leaned her forehead against his.

I got up, went into the bathroom and sat down on the bathmat in the dark. Without making a sound, I put my face against my knees and just cried. I could have turned into my husband's arms, but for some reason I felt the need to escape and be alone, as though I still have something to feel ashamed of. I know better. I do. I know it wasn't my fault. But it happened anyway, didn't it? And ever since that day, that moment, that coarse sentence from my rapist's mouth, I know inside the hollow of my bones exactly how vulnerable I am. I can never unknow it. And that's the thing about rape.

Tammara Webber

New York Times and international bestselling author of contemporary romantic fiction