"Knowing the perpetrator complicates matters. It's the reason most people don't report their assault, and it's why I didn’t know I was assaulted in the first place."

By Kimberly Zapata
April 28, 2020
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I can still recall what I wore the day I was sexually assaulted. My hair was up, tied back in a faded, crushed velvet scrunchie. My legs were covered in an ill-fitting pair of MUDD jeans. The dark wash hugged my thighs but gapped in the back, and an oversize Titanic T-shirt hid my butt and breasts. I looked casual and comfortable. I was wearing the normal going-out attire of a late '90s teen.

But on this day, I wasn’t just heading out for a stroll with my Discman or on a bike ride with friends, I was going on a date. My friend and I were headed to Six Flags Great Adventure with our boyfriends: two couples in two separate cars. To say I was excited would be an understatement. My mother was strict and controlling; I rarely got to hang out with my friends or go on dates. This trip was an exception, and I planned to eat fried food and ride roller coasters until my head spun.

But my dream day never happened. I was sexually assaulted in a Burger King parking lot, a few turnpike exits before the one that would take us to the park. Only I didn't realize what happened was assault...at least not at the time.

My abuser was my boyfriend, and the attack began with a suggestion, which I thought was a joke. “You should suck my dick,” he said. But when I laughed and said no, his demeanor changed, and he became aggressive. He told me that if I didn’t, he would leave me in this town off the turnpike, beside a dumpster filled with paper cups and stale French fries.

“Suck my dick or get out,” he ordered. 

The moments that followed were a blur, but certain details remain clear, like the fear I felt. I wanted to run, to flee, but my legs were leaden. I can recall the smell of his car and his cologne, CK One. I can still feel the spot where his stick shift jammed into my abdomen as I folded over his middle console, wedging my head between his lap and steering wheel. The rest I don't really remember: his words, the act, and the hours that followed at the theme park and our ride together back home.

I also don't remember what I told my friend when we met near the park's gates. This was my first time performing oral sex—or engaging in any sort of sexual activity—and I was paralyzed and ashamed. I was numb. I eventually broke up with my abuser, who went to a different high school than I did. But I cannot recall when or how. 

Of course, I was not (and am not) the only person to go through this. One in six women will be sexually assaulted during their lifetime, according to RAINN (Rape, Assault, Incest National Network), and most of these assaults will be by someone the victim knows: a neighbor, a relative, a friend, or a boyfriend.

Knowing the perpetrator complicates matters. It's one of the reasons most do not report their assault, and it's why I didn’t know I was assaulted in the first place. I couldn’t have been, I thought at the time, because this person was my boyfriend. Instead, I justified his actions. I was a bad person, an overly emotional and dramatic person. I just needed to stop being such a prude.

A lot of sexual assault survivors think the way I did. “Many individuals do not report sexual abuse and/or assault because they feel ashamed or embarrassed about what has happened to them,” Melissa Wesner, a licensed clinical counselor at LifeSpring Counseling Services in Towson, Maryland, tells Health. “They believe the encounter was their fault...because they were drinking, because of how they were acting, or because of what they wore.”

Some survivors simply don't want to acknowledge the assault. “After sexual assault, it’s hard to know how to react,” states RAINN. “You may be physically hurt, emotionally drained, or unsure what to do next...it’s [also] not always obvious when [you or] someone you care about has been affected by sexual violence.”

Trauma, too, causes victims to repress uncomfortable memories and details. “When individuals are abused or assaulted, they often feel shocked or confused,” Rachel Eddins, a Houston-based therapist and counselor, tells Health. “They may have difficulty remembering the details of what happened, and they may not want to talk about or think about the traumatic event itself and block it out instead, which is a common trauma response.”

While I don’t recall all the details of my assault and the aftermath, I have never been able to forget that the event happened. Thanks to therapy as an adult, I came to realize what it was, and that I'm a survivor of sexual assault. My perpetrator used shame, embarrassment, manipulation, and fear to keep me silent. But I won’t keep quiet, not now or ever again. Even though I never spoke to him again and I have no plans to do so, distance has given me perspective and strength.

Sexual assault, I know now, takes many forms: rape, attempted rape, unwanted sexual touching, and being forced to perform sex acts, to name a few. But it's not easy to recognize sexual assault when it happens, and this leads a person to question if they really have been assaulted.

Even if you do recognize what happened to you as sexual assault, it can be harder to admit you were a victim. Again, there's that spiral of guilt and shame. You ask yourself a million questions and overthink what went on: What if I dressed differently or acted differently? Maybe it was my fault. The word “victim” has a negative connotation. It makes you feel bad, ruined, weak, and like a dupe or fool. And if you speak out or press charges, you'l likely face social ramifications.

Sexual assault can leave a deep mark. I still struggle with intimacy and self-esteem, of feeling that I'm not "good enough." My voice is small when I speak; it shakes and wavers. I have a hard time saying “stop” or “no.” I concede to sexual acts with my husband when I'm not in the mood because my body freezes. In spite of years of therapy, residual trauma is still there. I'm also quick to anger around men; I assume not the best in them but the worst.

What would I tell my younger self or another survivor who has been threatened and coerced into sex or a sexual act? You did nothing wrong. I want you to know you are not bad, crazy, or wrong, and whether you say it out loud or not—whether you refer to it as an assault or not.

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