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.