My Own Personal Steubenville: Reflections On My High School Rape



In the wake of last week’s guilty verdict in Steubenville, Ohio, the case of the 16-year-old girl raped by two high school football players continues to reverberate. Time magazine carries a particularly interesting exploration of her possible avenues to recovery, and the factors that could affect it, here. In the essay below, a 46-year-old Massachusetts woman shares her own Steubenville-type experience from more than 30 years ago, and its aftermath. Because of the painful and personal nature of its content, she would like to remain anonymous.

I have a secret.

It’s something that happened in 1981, when I was a high school freshman, more than 30 years ago.

It was a Saturday night. My parents had gone out to meet friends and I was watching TV with my younger brother. A “popular” boy I didn’t know well but who had just started being friendly towards me called and asked if he and his four friends could come over. I’ll call him “John.” I was excited and nervous – the first boys to come over to my house! — and said sure.

They arrived and we all watched TV with my brother for a while. Then we went into the living room without my brother and talked. One of the boys suggested going upstairs so they could see my bedroom. We were sitting on the floor talking when John said, “one, two, three,” and they all jumped on top of me. Some were holding my arms, some were holding down my legs. They were pulling at my clothes. I was scared and confused and overwhelmed. I struggled and said, “John, get them off me.” He said no. I pleaded again, “John, get them off me.” He said, “OK, one at a time, then?”

First, I was victimized by the rape. Then I was victimized by how the people around me reacted to learning that I had been raped.

I agreed. I didn’t know what else to do. I just wanted them to get off me. I had recently moved to this fancy suburb from a more working-class area and was getting adjusted to the faster-paced lifestyle. I assumed this sort of thing must happen all the time and that I had just never heard about it because I was new in town.

The other boys left John and me alone in my bedroom. I don’t remember much except that he ripped off what was left of my clothing. I felt humiliated, devastated. The boys filed out and filed in. I stayed on my bedroom floor in a corner of the room, pulling on my underwear in between. The last one to come into my room was the only boy I knew somewhat from school. I just cried with him and he let my underwear stay on. Before that night, I had only kissed one boy – after he had been my “boyfriend” for several months.

On Monday I was shocked that everyone at school knew what had happened. People in the halls were laughing at me, calling me a “slut.” My closest friend came up to me crying and asked how I could have done this “to her.” I made up my mind right then that I had let myself cry once and that I was not going to cry anymore. I was going to put out a strong exterior for the world to see. I also decided, as only an immature teenager can, that since I was never going to have friends or a boyfriend, that this group of boys – who happened to be our school’s soccer team – were going to be my new group.

I spent a few more Saturday nights with them, but wised up that this was a mean group to hang out with, particularly their ringleader, John. Unfortunately, I started believing that the only reason boys ever spoke to me was because they wanted to sleep with me – and that I “owed it to them” to sleep with them so we could be friends. I have lost count of how many boys I slept with, during high school and beyond. That was how I dealt with being raped. Others might have dealt differently. In retrospect, I certainly wish I had dealt with it differently.

For several years, I suffered bouts of depression and borderline anorexia (thinking that if I got so thin, no boy would want to touch me). I also ruined several friendships and romantic relationships because of my compulsion to sleep with people who were friendly towards me. I bet that most people I’ve known throughout my life would be surprised to learn my story because I’ve always seemed like a happy, well-adjusted, high-achieving person.

The good news is that I eventually sought the help of a therapist and was able to tell my parents what had happened. I also have persevered and built a truly successful life. I have a strong (monogamous) marriage to a wonderful man, whom I love and who loves and respects me for who I am. Before I had children, I was a successful lawyer specializing in employment discrimination, fighting on behalf of victims of discrimination and sexual harassment.

But I’m not willing to jeopardize my success by sharing my secret openly with my current community. After high school, I went as far away from my hometown as possible for college. I’ve lived in many cities, but have never been able to move back home. I miss my parents and my brother’s family, and we see each other as often as possible, but I know I can never live in the city where I grew up.

So, why am I sharing my story now?

First and foremost, I am heartsick for “Jane Doe” in Steubenville, Ohio. The presence of social media means that she’ll never be able to escape the photos and video that were taken of her on that night. Wherever she and her family go in Steubenville, people will know the degradation and violence she suffered. She will never be anonymous.

Incidents like Steubenville happen more frequently than we might imagine.

Some people will even believe Jane “deserved” it, perpetuating the misconception that girls and women who are raped bring it on ourselves by our behavior. I know that Jane did not deserve to be raped, any more than the innocent children and adults who were shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December deserved to be victims of that horrific crime. Women do not deserve to be violated regardless of the clothes we wear or the amount of alcohol we (mistakenly) drink.

Rape is embarrassing and titillating – and still widely misunderstood – because, as a society, we are reticent to talk about sex. However, rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power, coercion, degradation and violence. I realize that I still feel extreme shame about that time in my life, which is why I wish to remain anonymous – even though I often speak publicly about other personal/political issues. Rape feels like a double victimization. First, I was victimized by the rape. Then I was victimized by how the people around me reacted to learning that I had been raped.

Also, I want people to know that incidents like Steubenville happen more frequently than we might imagine. Please, talk to your children about sex. Empower your daughters to “say no.” Let your daughters know that they can always come to you to report their experiences and that you are there to help them – not judge them. Talk to your sons about respecting girls. Remind your children to look out for their friends, to help friends make good decisions and get out of bad situations. Remind your children that you are there to help them solve problems that are too big for them to handle on their own.

Jane’s life will be difficult because of the crime she endured. However, I’m writing today to tell her that she will get through this. Jane, I have no doubt that 30 years down the road you will be a happy, successful adult. Hang in there, young girlfriend.

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  • Ray in VT

    The Kennedy’s have come out with rules for everyone else.

  • Andy

    I find these stories so sad and scary. I have a small daughter and I worry so much about this as she gets older. I’m so sorry this happened but glad you have grown to be such a strong and powerful person.

  • Jamie

    Thank you for being brave enough to share this. After following the Steubenville story, I chose to open up to my family and share with them that I was raped as well – when I was 16. I now am 33, married, and have two kids. My rape… and it’s aftermath (similar to this author I spent several years of my young adulthood engaged in self destructive behavior with boys and eventually, abusive men, until I met and married my wonderful loving respectful husband) – well – I still struggle with it all emotionally. I attempted suicide twice at age 19 and 21. But opening up and sharing and finally receiving some love and acceptance and sympathy from my family…. it was a huge step in putting it behind me. The love of my husband has also helped immensely with the healing process. I pray Steubenville is a catalyst for other people as well – and they too can find ways to let go of some of their pain and shame and move forward to a better future. Not all men are monsters… some choose to love women… love us so totally and profoundly that it reaches all the deep dark sad secret places inside. God bless those men. They help make up for the monsters.

  • DidYouConsider

    What a sad, sad story. I just can’t believe there are people that would behave this way. I am fascinated to know what the boys/men are like now. Are they evil sociopaths? How could they do something like that to someone? How can they live with themselves.

    It makes me so worried for my own young daughters.

    The Ohio story also makes me think how very important it is to talk to young girls about binge drinking. It is very dangerous, and from what I have heard it is happening a lot. Not only because you might be raped, but lots of other awful things could happen as well – you could walk out into the street and get run over, you could get mugged, you might try to drive and kill someone. If rape is a “power” issue, than being intoxicated let’s the world know you are less powerful than you normally are (because you are intoxicated), and you are a more tempting target. We can’t change other people’s behavior, but we can be careful with our own behavior. Based on your story I realized now that the Ohio rape may have happened even if she was sober, but I think it is important for parents to teach their kids – especially their daughters – that they should never, ever get intoxicated to the point where they are not in control of their actions, don’t remember things, etc. It is too dangerous.

    I applaud you for sharing your story. So nice to hear that you have survived such a horrible thing. But, really sad to hear that such awful stuff goes on in this world. I hope all of those men that did that to you burn in hell. That is where they belong.


  • Lisa

    Wow, your story, and your advice to both victims and their families and friends, and aggressors, should be shared in high schools across the country. thank you for sharing this.

  • Charger

    I too had a similar experience in 1981 as a freshman in high school in Ohio. A girlfriend and I were walking to school and a person that we had gone to school with since kindergarten persuaded us to skip school for the day. We hung out at his house right down the road from the elementary school that we all ‘graduated from’ years before. He had a bunch of other guys that we knew from school as well as his sister. I went for a walk and as I returned to the house, I was met by them all charging down the stairs at me, the screams of my girlfriend coming from an upstairs bedroom. I fought with all that my 108lbs afforded me to no avail as they dragged me up the stairs kicking and thrashing. I will never understand why his sister sat on the side of the bed as I was being held down and raped. I too have gone on to be a successful and strong woman, a true leader in life and community. My girlfriend ended up pregnant. I have not forgotten that day, nor will I ever. I keep it in my soul for it is part of my history. To this young woman and the many that have walked this same path, know that you are never alone. We are everywhere.

  • Article’s Author

    Thank you so much for your kind comments. It means so much to me to read them!

  • Kate Hallen

    thank you for writing so clearly and directly, for sharing a horrible experience and its reverberatiing consequences in a way that shows, while we never fully leave behind these types of mistreatments, we still can understand them for what they truly are (not “our fault” or any reflection of who we were/what we wanted) and build our lives into what we deserve them to be! So important for young women (and men, and all people!) to hear–bless you for taking the time to shape your story and integrate the wisdom you’ve gained so that they, and all, may learn to be safe and to grow in understanding and compassion!

  • Another guest reader

    This could be my story, just 2 years prior. And it’s taken me up until the last 3 years to deal with the trauma, guilt and shame. My therapist has been outstanding, but the work will never be complete and I am afraid, at 50 years old and still single, I will never find true happiness. I hope the Steubenville case will bring to light the problem and make parents and school administrators aware of what is truly happening in the halls of our schools.

  • Amy

    thank you for sharing your story. I was deeply moved by it.

  • Guest reader

    What a powerful story. Thank you for sharing it.