I Know That There’s a Word For What Happened To Me: On Defining Sexual Assault
The author requested a Trigger Warning for sexual assault and abuse for the following article.
I know that there’s a word for what happened to me.
I can’t say it though.
Two days before, he had swerved his car onto the shoulder of the motorway, tears streaming down his face as he choked on what was probably the first time he had ever experienced guilt. Then he told me the truth. The whole truth. That he had cheated on me after an entire year together. That he had hacked all my accounts and broken every promise he swore he’d keep. That our entire relationship had been built on a crumbling structure of lies that couldn’t bear the weight of his conscience anymore. And yet somehow I still found myself apologizing.
I supposed I just wasn’t enough.
The terms were clear: stay together. Keep smiling. Don’t tell anyone, ever. He had a temper, after all, and I was almost as scared of provoking him as I was of losing him. Leaving him was out of the question, of course. And just like that, I lost all my choices. I thought it was love, but now I know it was fear.
We were in his room. He shut the blinds and locked the door quietly, moving through a routine I had watched a thousand times before. I knew what was about to happen.
I could have said no.
I should have said no.
But I knew what he would become if I did. I knew how the pleading would turn into threats and how quickly his respect would dissolve into fury. I had seen him angry before; I had cleaned up broken glass and taped posters back on walls. I had heard him yell. And I had spent two sleepless nights crying over him and two horrible days battling my better judgment; I couldn’t muster the strength to face his rage, so I stayed silent. Paralyzed. Broken.
I became a white flag.
It felt like nothing. Less than nothing. My entire world seemed to mute as I lay motionless on the floor, staring blankly at a room I could no longer recognize. He was a stranger. I barely felt the carpet burn my back or my head knock against the hardwood; the numbness drowned out everything but the mantra running through my skull.
You don’t want this. Make it stop. You don’t want this. Make it stop.
And then it was over. He stood up triumphantly and walked across the room, barely glancing at me as he started getting dressed. I suddenly became very aware of the tears streaming down my cheeks; I don’t know when I had started crying but now I couldn’t stop.
I had never felt so helpless in my entire life.
He paced around the room, opening the blinds back up and unlocking the door as he chatted away to me about how great he felt. I wasn’t listening. After a few minutes, he glanced over in my direction and his expression sharply shifted. A flash of anger and disappointment crossed his face before he settled on concern.
I told him I didn’t feel well. Yes, the sex was good. No, I didn’t need anything.
I said I was fine. I lied.
The facade of sympathy faded quickly, replaced by a litany of questions that drummed in my head like a firing squad. Why was I crying. Why didn’t I feel good. What wasn’t I telling him. Why was I moving away when he approached. Then the one I had been dreading: why was I ruining this for him.
Eight months have passed and I still have a scar on my back from where the carpet burned me. I have nightmares. Some days I can’t eat. Every morning I wake up with my heart racing and I’ve broken down in more bathroom stalls than I care to admit. And every now and again, someone will say something or do something completely mundane and I will hear that mantra echoing through my head again: You don’t want this. Make it stop.
I can’t make it stop. And it’s tearing me apart.
I shudder every time I hear the word or even one of its many euphemisms. I suppose I’ll never be able to claim it. Because the second I do, it becomes real. I become a victim. A survivor. Those titles seem foreign; they aren’t mine and I don’t want to own them. I just want to be a person. Someone who can watch every scene of a movie and isn’t scared of locked doors and of falling asleep. But I can’t have that anymore, so I’ll just focus on my breathing patterns. If I survive long enough, maybe I’ll stop fearing my own memory.