Content warning: this article includes discussions of sexual assault.
They say hindsight is 20/20. The truth of this statement hit me full force upon my realization that I had been sexually assaulted about six years ago. I realized this three years after it happened — that I had faced repeated sexual assaults as a result of an abusive relationship I was in during my teenage years. At the time, I did not know enough to identify my experience as sexual assault — I still had a black-and-white notion of what that could look like. It took me years to string the words together. The statement alone makes it all too real.
It’s a funny feeling, hearing the sentence “I was raped” echo in your head. Lately, there has been a lot of focus on outing rapists and sexual predators. There isn’t as much interest in the impact on the lives of survivors. I am one of many people who have not reported their incident or chosen a path of legal action against the perpetrator. The police are not my allies, and I’m confident that I would not find justice through the legal process. It should go without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: every single story is different. Every single survivor is different. Every story and every survivor is valid, from the most clear-cut cases to the murkiest.
My case isn’t the kind you see in movies. There was no dingy alleyway, no burly, imposing stranger. It involved manipulation, coercion, intimidation, gaslighting, and shaming. It was done by a person I trusted, a person I thought I loved. I felt like I was just trying to make him happy, but I was somehow never doing enough to fulfill his desires. Something always felt wrong, and I thought the problem was me.
I convinced myself over and over again that I wasn’t enough. That I wasn’t able to hold him down because I didn’t meet his ideal, that I didn’t do enough to satiate his desires, to be a trophy girlfriend worthy of being on display. I had internalized the expectation that women’s bodies are meant for male consumption. The guilt and shame I felt stemmed from the notion that the assaults I faced were not enough to placate him. Somehow, the way he used my body without regard or care for my personhood still fell short of his desire for power.
That’s what this is all about at the end of the day — power. He had so much uninhibited control over me. I made an excuse for everything he did since our relationship was built on the foundational understanding that I was lucky to have sparked the interest of a boy in the first place. I felt as though I owed him something for even looking my way, like he was doing me a great favour by viewing me as a sexual object. The heteropatriarchy conditions women to be grateful for male approval, to be an object of desire. We are expected to embrace the way our bodies are drained of their humanity, leaving only an empty vessel to be filled with male fantasies.
I never felt ownership over my own body. As a result, I kept making up answers to questions that were never asked. I was told to dress differently (tighter clothing, but not too slutty), to work out more (to achieve an Instagram model-worthy body), to speak less (I wasn’t as funny or as interesting as him, so there was no use in speaking altogether), and to satisfy him (at the expense of my own boundaries). To be clear, I did try to resist these demands, but the invisible hand of power twisted resistance into guilt, and guilt into passivity.
Admittedly, I don’t remember much of the actual instances of assault. Apparently that’s one way the brain copes with trauma; we forget the things that are too unbearable to remember. I only remember flashes of the places I was in, the things I looked at. I remember him telling me after that “this is how a girlfriend should behave,” and that he wished I were “more affectionate all the time.” Maybe this is why it was so difficult for me to view it as rape. It’s hard to convince yourself of the validity of something that feels so foggy, yet simultaneously makes you feel so much.
I have been doubting myself over the validity of my experience for years. A common misconception is that rape is always singular, violent, and obvious. It happens with imposing strangers in sketchy parts of town. I never thought I would be raped by the class clown in broad daylight over and over and over again. As it turns out, in most cases of assault, the victim knows the perpetrator. That’s easy to forget when you know nobody would believe someone they know could be a perpetrator of sexual assault.
I would never dream of telling this to anyone who knows him. I know they couldn’t bring themselves to believe me, because they know he’s a good person or that he has changed for the better after our relationship. Somewhere in that knowledge is the disbelief even I carry of the encounter: the idea that this person, this good person, this beloved figure, could never do something like that to anyone. I honestly don’t really know what to think of him anymore. I have been told that he’s kind, that he is loving toward his current partner, that he’s matured. One half of me is thankful that he has grown to become a better partner. The other half wishes that my assaults didn’t have to be a mere stepping stone for his personal growth.
My body knows well enough what happened to me. It reminds me when my lungs seem to collapse out of nowhere, when my heart can’t remember to keep beating. It reminds me in my sleep, painting an image so vivid that my body forces itself awake. It’s as if the trauma seeped into my skin and buried itself in my bloodstream, circulating through my body. It affects me every single day of my life. I get nightmares all the time; sometimes I’m scared to go to sleep because I know they’re coming, and there’s nothing I can do to stop them.
The constant undercurrent of fear I, and likely countless other victims, feel isn’t discussed enough. I am constantly on the lookout for potential threats. Even in banal, everyday situations, I feel as though I have to scope out potential danger, find the nearest exit, find people whom I can trust to hide behind. It’s been about six years since I was assaulted, but the paranoia still hangs over me wherever I go.
It goes without saying, but my mental health has been deeply affected by this ordeal. I fell into a deep depression during — and after — that relationship. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror for a very long time. I felt repulsed when I looked at my own body. I consciously avoided making eye contact with myself in the mirror, and I always had this feeling that my body was somehow dirty. I took really long showers in scalding hot water — maybe to shock all feeling from my skin, maybe just to feel a different kind of pain.
I stopped regarding my body as something that required care and attention — why should I bother to look after something that reminded me of being violated? I isolated myself and stayed at home alone in my room most of the time. I was too scared to tell my parents about this experience. I feared they would be upset with me for dating someone like this in the first place, for not having common sense, for letting myself be used. I didn’t tell my friends just how bad it had been, even though they were the ones who eventually pushed me to end the relationship.
I was scared of telling my peers because I was afraid they wouldn’t believe me. I fell into a bottomless pit of shame. That shame was partly exacerbated by my inability to identify the extent to which I had been abused. Running parallel to my understanding that I was going through something serious was the thought that I was grossly overreacting to something trivial that I inflated in my own head. As a result, I apologize a lot. I apologize for talking about it; I apologize for setting limits and saying “no”; I apologize for having trauma in the first place. I know it’s not my fault, but shame often usurps knowledge.
Trauma is messy, but healing is even messier. I don’t know what healing looks like. I don’t know if writing this article counts as healing, or if I should feel any different after I see these words in print. What does it mean to heal? What does it mean to forget? Does it mean to feel nothing? Someone once told me that they thought I was really strong to have survived. It’s a strange thing to be told you are strong to have survived something you had no choice but to live through. My entire life has been shaped by this encounter. It was my very first relationship, and so every single relationship or sexual encounter I have ever had has been built on the bones of this one.
If healing means to pull at the knot of trauma, I’m scared I will unravel altogether. So much of my personality, my development, my frames of reference have stemmed from this experience. It’s hard to imagine a trauma-free future when that trauma is so inherently tied to your actual self. There is no way I can ever leave this in the past, and I’m starting to figure out that for me, that’s not what healing will look like. It was a part of my life that shaped me as a person, and in order to fully accept myself, I have to accept what has moulded me into the person I am.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of ‘holding space.’ To hold space, for yourself or others, is to allow something to exist without rushing to fix, judge, or interfere with it. It means to acknowledge without prodding, to sit beside something in amicable (and sometimes slightly uncomfortable) silence.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what this could look like for me. One of my dearest friends has dealt with the trauma of assault. Sometimes we just sit together, talking about our respective experiences. It’s really nice to be able just to talk about it with no expectations, no need for a concrete outcome. There’s something so warm about having someone next to you who just gets it. The strength of other survivors is what provides me solace. There’s no pressure to chase solutions for healing, because we have a shared understanding that in a way, there are none.
This isn’t to say that there is no way to heal at all; rather, I don’t think there are any clear-cut solutions. I’ve realized how difficult the work of healing is. It’s not a passive process, but something I’ve had to intentionally pursue. I’ve started making eye contact with my reflection again. I’m trying to listen to my body when it sets boundaries without apologizing for them. Half of it is practice, and the other half is the even harder part: trying to internalize all these things people tell you. It’s not easy to treat yourself with compassion, to forgive yourself for a lack of foresight, for not resisting. It’s something I’m learning to do more and more every day.
I feel lucky to be able to write my story. There are many people who don’t have that opportunity. I am standing on the shoulders of many, many survivors who have fought for our space to exist. They’re the reason I have a platform at all, and for them, I will be eternally grateful. I feel even luckier that I can foresee a future for myself, my own character arc. And in this future, I’ll look at my reflection, and I’ll smile.
Illustrations by Fiona Tung
If you or someone you know is in distress, you can call:
Canada Suicide Prevention Service phone available 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566
Good 2 Talk Student Helpline at 1-866-925-5454
Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
Gerstein Centre Crisis Line at 416-929-5200
U of T Health & Wellness Centre at 416-978-8030.
Warning signs of suicide include:
Talking about wanting to die
Looking for a way to kill oneself
Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
Talking about feeling trapped or being in unbearable pain
Talking about being a burden to others
Increasing use of alcohol or drugs
Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
Sleeping too little or too much
Withdrawing or feeling isolated
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
Displaying extreme mood swings
The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. If you suspect someone you know may be contemplating suicide, you should talk to them, according to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.