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Realizing I was raped, 13 years later

Stephanie Land is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change. Her work has been featured in Vox, The New York Times and The Guardian. She lives in Missoula, Montana, with her two daughters.

I used to tell myself I wasn't raped because it happened while I was drunk

I moved to Missoula, Montana, in 2011 to attend the university a few months before it was deemed the rape capital. I was going back to finish my degree after having my daughter. My classes began and I blissfully walked around campus, oblivious to what had happened there, of the 11 sexual assaults reported by students over the last 18 months.

Some of the victims’ stories started coming out. A short essay published in the school paper in March would take months for me to process. “It’s not my fault,” she kept writing. “We'd rather blame ourselves for the situation than believe our 'friends' could ever do something like this to us. We'll shoulder the responsibility, chalk it up to a wild, drunken adventure or just a bad night all around, and then forget about it.” I read her words two times, then three. She spoke of experiences of having sex without full coherency and labeling herself as easy or a slut in a sort of surrender.

Her story was my story from years ago when I was attending the University of Alaska Fairbanks, but my mind still argued, “That’s not ‘rape,’ that’s just ‘college.’”

When I read about a girl at my school who’d fallen asleep and had woken up with someone having sex with her, I still couldn’t say I’d been raped. Movies like Kids had taught me that’s what happens when girls pass out from too much alcohol. But she’d gone to the cops. I hadn’t.

More: I grew up getting slut shamed, and it's made me the woman I am today

I’d been at a party. I’d gotten drunk. I’d fallen asleep next to a guy. We’d broken up a month earlier, but had to stay friends for the sake of keeping our other friends. I was asleep on the floor, on top of his sleeping bag, on my stomach, and woke up to him trying to pull my pants down. I squirmed a bit, pretending to be asleep. Surely if I was asleep, obviously asleep, he wouldn’t have sex with me.

“Shhhh…” he said. “It’s okay.” His voice was gentle, lulling, to soothe.

I turned over, onto my back, and he stopped trying to get my clothes off. I drifted off again. Then I woke up, and he’d lifted my shirt, and my pants were down. I moaned a “no,” tried to get my pants back on, and told him to go get himself off in the bathroom. He stopped, I drifted, and woke up to him coming on my chest. He handed me my underwear to wipe it off. I pulled my shirt down, rolled away from him, half covering myself with the sleeping bag, and waited for him to take me home in the morning.

I shut down after that night on the floor at the party. From then on, I’d watch time go by on a digital clock next to my bed during sex. Eight minutes. Sometimes 10. If I ever got on top, it was a sort of show that I put on for them. Of fulfilling my role as an object.

More: As a childhood sex abuse survivor, sex will never be easy

When I’d told a few close guy friends about what had happened at the party, they’d shrugged, and reminded me that I’d been pretty drunk. When I asked why that mattered, they stopped talking, stopped making eye contact, then looked at me again in a desperate sort of way. Like they were begging me not to say the word rape.

I never did. I was drunk, after all. We continued to hang out as a group while my anger simmered. One day, we were all over at his house watching movies or whatever, and everyone got up to go outside to smoke. I stood outside with them for a while but had to pee. I went inside, alone in the apartment, and walked toward the bathroom. I looked over, and my rapist's bedroom door was ajar. He had a mattress on the floor, and that sleeping bag I’d covered myself with was bunched up at the bottom.

“I think I might have been raped,” I’d tell my therapist 13 years later. She affirmed I was. I thought for a minute. Her office had red walls and red shelves that contrasted her soothing Irish-toned voice. There’d been plenty of times that I’d had sex without wanting to since that party, but never again after I’d said “no.” Because what was the use in saying “no,” anyway.

I asked her about the times, in my late 20s, in the throes of an abusive relationship, I’d beg for sex to get an ounce of appreciation, affection, acceptance or love. He’d refuse when I wanted it, but I’d wake up at night, lying on my side, feeling his pumping and his hand gripping my shoulder. “Don’t you fuckin’ move,” he’d say. I didn’t.

“Was that rape, too?” I asked my therapist. She nodded again. I couldn’t say much after that. I didn’t say much for a few days.

In the process of writing about this, I talked to a friend of mine who edited essays for a prominent website and said I'd seen a few other articles similar to mine. "'Realizing I was Raped' is the most popular personal essay I get in my inbox," she said. The rise of rape culture and raising awareness not only promoted prevention but made countless women realize they, too, had been sexually assaulted and not even known that's what it was.

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