When I was drugged and raped my sophomore year at Yale, I should have been ready to speak out. After all, I didn’t have to worry that coming forward would incite gang violence, that male relatives would beat me up, or that no one would notice if I disappeared. My personality should have protected me, too; I always have been confident and opinionated. And then there is the fact that I am a writer: I make my living by communicating with others.
And yet, when my assault happened, I did nothing. I did not press charges. I did not write an op-ed. I did not go to a Take Back the Night demonstration. I did not even tell my family.
As soon as rape enters any kind of public discussion, so does the backlash. Often this backlash involves questioning how common sexual assault really is — invariably a setup, in a kind of confused calculus, for asking whether the bigger issue isn’t actually false rape accusations. The latest example is George Will’s argument in the Washington Post that, on campuses, victimhood has become “a coveted status.” Will scoffs at rape statistics and suggests that women are over-reporting “sexual assaults” (quotation marks his) to attain the “privileges” that come with being a victim.
Over the years, more than a dozen female friends have told me they were raped. Not one of us reported it. None of us went public. All that despite, apparently, the temptation of that “coveted status.”
The first part of the evening was clear. I had started the night by meeting a friend, whom I’ll call T., her boyfriend, and his friend in their college’s rec room; we’d each had a single beer and played a couple of games of pool. We left for a good friend’s get-together, where I drank a margarita (not very strong). An hour or so later, we headed to another party, in a neo-Gothic building overlooking the freshman quad. It was February 2005, the snow on the courtyard was two feet deep, and our breath puffed out in curls. We didn’t know anyone at the party, but at Yale, that never seemed to matter; everyone was safe, and everyone was welcoming. When we walked in, the rooms were already crowded with people laughing, talking, dancing. A guy offered my friend and me shots. We assumed he was the host. For both of us, it was the third drink of the night.
From there, my memory runs like a strobe light: blackness, with the occasional moment lit up. Dancing. Making out with T. on a flight of stairs. Falling down them. (I had the bruises and cuts for two weeks; the scars took five years to fade.) And then, suddenly, I remember nothing — except for a single moment, lit up like the pop of a flashbulb.
I am crouched at the top of a staircase on all fours. My vision blurs at the edges. I cannot see, or stand, but something more urgent is going on: There is a pain in my bladder. My limbs seem paralyzed. My mouth won’t form words. Neither will my brain. I am, however, hyperaware that none of this is right; and that makes me feel more frightened than I have ever been in my life. I urinate where I am. When I look down, I see I am not wearing any clothing.
The next morning, T. woke up with her boyfriend; I woke up with his friend.
After stumbling back to my own room, I called T. “Do you remember anything from last night?” I asked.
“Oh my God, not at all,” she said. “Mandy … I think someone put something in our drinks.”
I started to cry. T. had to ask her boyfriend what had happened.
After we took shots, he told her, I became so incoherent, no one could understand what I was saying. I couldn’t walk. After falling down the stairs at the party, I had to be carried across a snowy courtyard and then up the stairs to his dorm. Once there, I wet the bed. But nobody took me to a hospital, or even to my own dorm. Instead, I was left with the friend.
And yes, T. said, the friend and I had had sex. I still remember how she said it: “I talked to him. He said … he said you fucked a little.” Already, the facts were being papered over, the language downgraded, it all becoming just another wild college night — or, as Will might say, another symptom of “the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today’s prolonged adolescence.”
As it turns out, women don’t need conservative columnists telling us that the problem is really our campus, or hookup culture, or ourselves. We’ve internalized that way of thinking just fine.
At the time, there was not one center for victims of sexual assault on campus. There was no university hotline to call. There were no rape kits at the campus clinic. If I wanted a rape kit, I’d have to go to the police. For a morning-after pill, I’d have to go to the university hospital. But since it was a Sunday, the pharmacy there was closed, so I’d have to go to another pharmacy afterward to get it.
All I wanted to do was sleep, which I felt like I could do for a year. I wasn’t so much emotionally numb as simply lacking any of the physical energy required to participate in my own life. Calling police, and then trekking back and forth across the winter-cold campus to go to a police station, hospital, and pharmacy felt physically insurmountable. Later, I’d find out that these were classic day-after symptoms of having been drugged.
Some internet research revealed how to take birth-control pills as emergency contraception. This seemed easier than any of my other options. I gulped the pills down. Then I went back to bed and stayed there.
The next day, I told a friend what had happened. He was an advocate for rape prevention on campus. I thought he’d know what to do. He did: He hugged me. And he told me I was his third female friend to be raped on campus, where we were now in only our third semesters. It was the first time I started to understand how prevalent it was.
Incredibly enough, it was also the first time I realized that I associated the word rape with what had happened to me two nights before. I always thought I was someone with a handle on feminist ideology. Yet here I was, and in my head, for 36 hours, I’d thought the bad guy was the one who had drugged me. The one who had had sex with me when I was incoherent and wetting the bed? He’d simply been taking advantage of the situation. For all I knew, I thought to myself, in my drugged-out delirium, I could have come on to him: A friend had told me date-rape drugs could have that effect.
Without even realizing it, I was putting more mental effort into absolving my rapist than I was into absolving myself.
When I spoke to a college official, I felt both empty and overwhelmed. After handing me a Kleenex, she mentioned that I could go to the local police, if I wanted to. She also gave me a pamphlet with my on-campus options: I could take my complaints to the Sexual Harassment Grievance Board, which would act as a mediator between me and the perpetrator, or “charge” him through ExComm, Yale’s internal disciplinary board, which was made up of six faculty members, three students, and the Yale College dean, and whose primary purpose was to investigate academic issues like plagiarism. (Now all complaints of sexual harassment or assault are handed to the dedicated University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct.)
For a split second, I imagined facing a disciplinary board of my peers and faculty members — the people whom, at that time, I wanted to impress most in the world. I imagined telling them how I remembered only being no better than an animal. I imagined admitting to them that I had accepted a shot at a party. I imagined telling them how, when I woke up, it had been in my perpetrator’s arms, and how I’d been repulsed but so deeply confused, so exhausted, all I’d done was pull on my clothes and stumble away.
I knew I couldn’t do it. If one person, just one, voiced the thing I feared the most — that I had brought this, somehow, on myself — I would have crumbled.
I also knew the whispers and gossip the process would bring. I didn’t want that. Nor did I want the accusation, even implied, that such attention often brings: The assumption that gossip, rather than being a nauseating, anxiety-inducing side effect of the process, was the accuser’s actual goal.
Finally, I could think of only one thing worse than having to cross paths with my rapist on campus. And that was going through the process, and the gossip, and the finger-pointing — and then crossing paths regardless.
In the end, I filed no official complaint of sexual assault. And, to the best of my knowledge, the official I spoke with reported my rape to no one. As a result, my sexual assault did not make it into the rape statistics for 2005. It wasn’t counted; it didn’t count. And I did not make it count.
As the years went on, I became only more aware of just how commonly this happens — and how few of us have come forward. In our senior year, I was in an all-female secret society. There were 13 of us. We were 21 years old. As each of us gave our “bios,” or life histories, the traditional way to jump-start what was meant to be a lifelong bond, I kept count.
The number was four. And all four assaults had gone unreported, un-investigated, and uncounted.
A few years later, I was having dinner with two good friends. Somewhere between our second and third cocktails, we found out that each of us had, at one point during our university years, been raped. We were all strong women, and none of us had pressed charges. We were all smart, and none of us seemed to realize, deep down, that we were entirely blameless for what had happened. We were all writers, and none of us had published a sentence about our assaults.
“I was roofied and raped in college,” I told a different friend about a month ago. She took a swig of wine and laughed wryly. She had been, too, it turned out. A bartender. A glass of water. A ten-hour blackout. A naked wake-up. Vomit on her hands. She did a rape kit, but she wished she hadn’t: invasive, traumatizing. She did not press charges. She did not know where he was, these days.
“It’s like women are the walking wounded,” a friend commented to me once. Dealing with it on our own, quietly — whether because that’s what strong women do, or what good girls do, I’m not sure.
But one thing is for certain: Most of us don’t speak. No matter how strong we are, no matter how “feminist,” we carry around with us a sense that, somehow, we brought the assault on ourselves. We were too flirtatious. Or we didn’t say “no” loudly enough. Or we were wearing the wrong thing. Or we should have known better than to go to his room, get in his car, go for a drink, accept that shot.
I’d say I’m not sure where we pick up those signals, so much and so early. Except, of course, that I do — because they’re everywhere.
By not identifying myself as a rape victim sooner, I think I believed I was winning the battle that I was too drugged to win that cold February night. Not coming forward also may have been necessary to my ability to move on. But it also meant that I played my part in upholding a system that relies on the silence of many to support the crimes of a few.
It has taken years for me to realize that, although speaking up comes with its own emotional, social, and professional perils, silence, too, is a form of victimhood. Neither option, though, is one to covet.