Surviving the silence


March 9, 2007, midnight | By Audrey Kubetin | 13 years, 5 months ago

Rape victims speak out


Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.

She came over to bring him his Christmas present, but he wanted her.

What started out as a friendly visit to an old boyfriend turned into a nightmare for Sophie, a senior, when her ex began to pressure her to sleep with him. He told her he hadn't been with anyone in a while, trying to guilt her into letting him have sex with her, but she refused, and his advances turned physical. He pressed her face against his, forcing her to kiss him. She tried to push him away, but he didn't relent. "Eventually, I kind of caved," she says. "I kind of gave up and let him do whatever he wanted."

The ordeal that Sophie survived a little over two years ago was one of the estimated 209,880 cases of rape, attempted rape or sexual assault committed in the U.S. in 2004, according to the Department of Justice's 2005 National Crime Victimization Survey. The same report noted that of reported assaults, 73 percent were committed by someone the victim knew: 28 percent of perpetrators were an intimate, six percent were another relative and 38 percent were a friend or acquaintance, as was the case with Sophie.

Recently, in an effort to address both stranger and acquaintance rape, the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault held a Sexual Assault Lobby Day on Feb. 20 to demand stronger restrictions on the legal rights of rapists.

For Sophie and other rape victims, however, tougher laws can't change their pasts. As these teens have learned, sexual assault is a haunting crime, one that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

Unwanted advances

On the night of the rape, Sophie left her ex-boyfriend's house in tears. When she got home, her mother saw that her eyes were red and asked if she had been smoking marijuana. Although Sophie had been debating whether to tell her what had happened, she confessed rather than have her mother think she was high. Her mother took her to get the morning-after pill, which left Sophie bedridden for the next day.

Looking back, Sophie only partly blames her ex for forcing her to have sex with him. "I think it was as much a problem of my own self-esteem as of him not caring about how I felt," she explains. Had she been more sure of herself, Sophie thinks she could have fought back harder, both verbally and physically, to fend off her ex's aggression. "I tried to push him away and it didn't really work," she remembers. "I should've been more physical in pushing him away."

Sophie became a rape victim at 16. Mike, a senior, was over a decade younger – he was five years old when one of his neighbors, a boy four months older, raped him for the first time.

Although Mike can't remember how he met the other boy, he says they had been friends for most of their lives. The other boy would invite Mike over to his house to play – and to experiment. "There were stupid, innocent things that all little kids do at some point, the 'I'll touch yours if you touch mine' game," Mike explains. But his friend's advances grew bolder with time. "At some point," Mike says, "he wanted to have sex."

"Wrong"

Although the other boy was never violent toward him, Mike felt that he had been forced to do something he didn't want to do. The boy raped him repeatedly over the course of about a year, but Mike never tried to get help – he was too young, he says, to know what to do.

Once, he ventured to ask the other boy's mother why her son wanted to do "things like that." She laughed it off, he says, explaining that her son was just playing around. According to Mike, the other boy's parents knew exactly what was going on between the two boys, but they did nothing to stop it. "They either thought it was normal or they didn't care," he says.

Mike doesn't recall how his parents found out about what the other boy was doing to him, but he does remember having his mother tell him he couldn't play at the boy's house anymore.

His parents never explained the rationale behind the new rule, so Mike only had a vague idea that something bad had happened to him. "They would ask me, 'Do you understand that what happened to you was wrong?'" Mike remembers. "They put a lot into making sure I understood the seriousness of the situation." Even so, they waited almost 10 years to get him professional counseling.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, over two-thirds of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows. For Mike, the rapist was a neighbor. For Sophie, it was an old boyfriend. About a year after her ex took advantage of her, however, Sophie was raped again – this time, by a stranger.

After staying out past midnight one night during her junior year, Sophie ended up at the Silver Spring Metro in need of a ride, exhausted and furious at her parents for refusing to pick her up. At about 3 a.m., a man came by and asked if she wanted a lift. She recognized him. He drove the Ride-On bus that she used to take to see her therapist, so she accepted his offer. "I felt a false sense of security," she says. "It was a total lack of judgment."

As he drove her through Silver Spring, he handed her a bottle that smelled strongly of alcohol and told her to drink it. Sophie refused at first, telling him repeatedly that she didn't want to, but the man threatened not to let her out of the car until she finished the bottle. Eventually, she gave in. "By the time I had drunk it all, I was drunker than I'd ever been," she says. "I couldn't see straight." From then on, Sophie only remembers brief fragments of what happened.

After stopping his car in a parking lot, the bus driver raped her, wearing gloves so he wouldn't leave fingerprints on her skin. "I felt like I was screaming, 'Help me!'" she says. "But I don't think I was screaming." Looking back, she thinks her pleas for help were only murmurs – she was too drunk to scream.

"Contaminated"

Afterward, the bus driver took her home. She felt that she was at fault because of her lack of judgment, so she didn't tell anyone about what had happened. "I felt like it was my fault for taking what he gave me," Sophie explains. "If I hadn't been intoxicated, it would've been a completely different situation."

In the days and weeks afterwards, Sophie became depressed, turning to self-injury and alcohol to numb her sadness. She felt disgusted by the way the bus driver had violated her. She took baths for hours, trying to feel clean again. "Honestly, I felt like I was dirty," she says. "I couldn't get rid of the feeling that I was contaminated."

According to Christa Schmidt, a psychologist at the University of Maryland Counseling Center, Sophie's feelings of guilt and sense of responsibility for what happened to her are common responses for rape victims. "Women especially tend to blame themselves," Schmidt says. "It's not the appropriate outlet or response."

Aside from a sense of blame, Schmidt explains, rape victims can experience a range of psychological effects, including low self-esteem, feelings of fear and shame, body-image issues and difficulty forming relationships. Parents and counselors can encourage rape victims to get the help they need, she continues, but the decision to report a rape should be left to the victim. "It's very important to allow the victim to feel empowered," she says. "They should be encouraged to [report the rape] when they feel ready."

For both Sophie and Mike, a readiness to share their experiences took time to develop. As Mike kept his past a secret from his friends, he quickly grew to hate the boy who assaulted him. "It probably made a progression from understanding but not minding to a deeper understanding to just being furious at his parents and at him," he says. "I probably had some feeling of just wanting to wipe him out."

In middle school, his anger turned to depression. He began cutting himself in eighth grade as a way to release his pain, much of which he thinks is a product of the rape. "There will always be the anger that I feel," he says. "Hating someone is a lot easier than letting them hurt you."

Speaking up

Mike kept his experiences secret from his friends until his past and present crossed paths in 10th grade, about 10 years after he was first raped. He was walking through his neighborhood with a friend when he saw his attacker's mother down the street. Mike became visibly uncomfortable, and when his friend asked if anything was wrong, Mike told her what had happened to him. "One of the greatest things I did for myself was making that first step to tell someone, because I felt so much better," he says. "After talking about it once, I definitely felt a lot more open about it."

For Sophie, discussing her past with her therapist and her friends has helped her come to terms with it. She wants to learn from her experiences, she says, rather than dwell on them. In the last year, she has become more vocal in situations that make her uncomfortable. "Stick up for yourself, even if you feel uncomfortable with speaking your mind," she advises. "The long term effects of not speaking up in that situation can haunt you."

Mike feels that the memories of his past, and his anger, will stay with him for a long time, if not forever. For Sophie, thoughts of the assaults cross her mind at least once a day. "Even though it's been a long time, I think about both situations," she says. "I feel them inside of me. I'm a different person now that it has happened."

If you or someone you know has been a victim of rape, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE.




Audrey Kubetin. Audrey lives off of tea, tofu and Tool. The end. More »

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