first person

I Still Worry That I’ll Be Next

A lifetime of being taught to fear sexual assault didn’t make it easier for me to call what happened by its name.

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos by Getty
Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photos by Getty

It has taken me two decades to call what happened by its name: sexual assault, ugly as sin. I had pushed it aside as one traumatic experience among other traumatic experiences, which in my life — especially when my brain tortures me with intrusive thoughts — have been incredibly common. I seem to continuously collect them, the way a bus will pause to pick up passengers even when it is already filled to capacity. Except no flashing lights warn me of the schedule. There’s no beeping, no lowering of the chassis, no slowing down at traffic lights. These buses run reds, perform California slide-throughs at stop signs, and refuse to simply pass through my mind like clouds or ocean waves or any other simile I try to imagine during my mindfulness practice. No, they run me over, tangling my parts in their grimed and oiled surfaces, leaving me for dead, bleeding in the street, choking on my own blood, screamless yet no less terrified.

I’d gone in for a routine exam. I thought I had a yeast infection; they are especially common in people suffering from endometriosis. It was 2001 or 2002. I was 18 or 19 and had not yet received the diagnosis that would explain my excruciating periods, which often caused me to miss school or my job as a tutor at my school’s campus writing center. But I knew the signs of an infection, so common had they become for me. In the past, I had relied on messy over-the-counter creams, but since I already attended dermatology appointments at this physician’s office using my parents’ good insurance rather than my paltry campus plan, I figured I might as well see the head nurse practitioner, the only physician available, about my symptoms.

About a year earlier, I had witnessed the sexual assault of a friend and done nothing. A beautiful young Black Brazilian woman with long wavy hair, Allison had spoken frequently about the man who raped her when she was a young girl, walking alone in some brush. “My uncles all wanted to kill him, but they didn’t,” she told most of our freshman class during orientation, her need for long pauses and deep breaths contrasting her chin, which was raised stoically. Telling the story seemed to empower her — both there, in the crowded room of cross-legged strangers sitting on the floor and later, each time she repeated it. “Ever since then, nearly every man I’ve dealt with has abused me,” she said, without tears but with an expression that came to belie a performative cheeriness. We were roommates during the three-day orientation and quickly became close friends. I noted how often she voluntarily brought up her assaults to strangers. She wanted to free herself by telling the truth instead of holding on to secrets and shame, as abusers teach you to do. My admiration for her inner and outer beauty was like nothing I’d experienced. And her extroversion — compared with my low affect and generally pouty face — helped to broaden my circle to other young women. New friends, we bonded quickly with the kind of intensity that only comes from what my husband calls the “trip-itis” of a summer-camp or retreat experience.

One night, well into our freshman year — I must have been 17, since I started undergrad right after my 16th birthday — I spent the night in her double dorm for a weekend sleepover. We had laughed all day, chatted, exchanged hair tips, talked about how to navigate resident bathrooms, hallmates, and RAs, all fantasies I enjoyed vicariously as an off-campus commuter still living with my parents 15 minutes from campus. We stayed out late. I might have snuck into a club through an open “employees only” door, or maybe that was during one of our earlier outings. Allison was more than fun, a manic-pixie dream friend, a man magnet, and even when she talked about her dark childhood, she somehow encouraged other people with her resilience, with her seeming happiness.

Late during the second of my two nights in her dorm, she snuck a former boyfriend in through her third-story window. He was much older than we were and looked and dressed like a gangsta rapper, spoke with the affect of Fredro Starr, the bad-boy boyfriend on the episodes of Moesha I still consumed while my peers were likely watching Sex and the City. Though he barely acknowledged me, I was scared. It was already late. He didn’t have a visitor’s pass, and I clung to rules like a scrap of a blue blankie. His very presence offended not only my admittedly snobbish sensibility (though I’d briefly dated a “bad boy” myself), but also my sense of safety. Allison seemed to both want him in her room and to fear his presence. I don’t remember if she introduced us. The lights were already off, and I quickly tried to pretend to sleep in my bed across the room while they squeezed into her twin bed opposite me. I couldn’t watch them make out — or worse.

I can’t overstate how sheltered I had been by both the strictness of my upbringing in the Black Pentecostal “You aren’t Hell-proof” Church of God and Christ and my equally punishment-focused white private Christian school, which delighted in scaring the literal Hell out of us with frequent screenings of ’70s Left Behind movies and propagandist films showing actual abortions and the women who said they regretted them. We never learned about rape, only that sex outside of marriage could cause “bladder infections” and other unwanted “issues” and that in the case of pregnancy from rape, the woman should keep the baby. My Spanish teacher even told our 11th grade class that it was impossible for a husband to assault his wife sexually because a wife must do whatever her husband required. My mother, with full fury, disabused me of this lie when I brought it to her during the drive home from school, but I didn’t know much.

The closest I’d come to watching graphic sex scenes featuring pleasure was Wild Things, but my friend’s mother made us turn it off in the middle of one of the good parts. As I ran through my limited knowledge of how to handle this awkward situation with Allison and the unwanted ex — should I go to the bathroom and stand around for a while, or pretend to wake up, alarmed, or continue to play drowned river rat in the corner of my twin bed? — Allison began whimpering “no,” in what I interpreted as a playful voice. Soon the pleading stopped, replaced by both of them moaning and whispering and groaning. That settled my brief concern that he was hurting her, and I resented Allison for first keeping me up all night with their noise, putting me in an awkward position as witness, and potentially making me unsafe by allowing this guy into our space, our weekend of girl time. And in mental contortions I have only begun to untangle, I primarily feared I was next, that he was coming for me after Allison.

I have feared that I would be next my entire life. I was taught to fear early. My mother spoke incessantly about cases of rape and molestation within our extended family and broadened her anthology of assault to include true-crime books, the news, and a long historical lens, curating abuse stories in her brain’s canon and mine too. When I was 4 or 5, she’d told me, as we drove to the Inland Center or Carousel Mall, about a girl who had been raped near the very overpass we were on at the moment. “She was only 5, and the man cut off her arms and legs and then tossed her over the pass.” I don’t know why she told me, especially at that age or in the very location of the crime. But the story became etched in my mind — even on my young body, which I came to associate only with the fear of pain — along with the family lore, which held that basically every girl or woman in every generation we could trace had been sexually abused, some set on fire and additionally tortured. That some of us were even the products of incest or rape. With this knowledge, I cultivated survivor’s remorse before I knew the phrase, and I waited, waited always for my turn. My mother did, too, asking me at frequent intervals whether anyone had touched me “there,” calling my friends’ parents before I could play at their houses to check for older brothers, fathers, stepfathers, uncles. A girl child, I learned, like Alice Walker’s Celie, was not only unsafe in a house full of men but everywhere. The older I grew, the more she told me. For instance, she described how speculum exams at the gynecologist had always hurt her. “How big is the speculum?” I asked, eyes wide. “About as wide as a tape cassette,” she said. “They always hurt me, even though I’ve had three children.” Vaginas, I intuited, were vehicles for pain, and sexual acts and medical procedures were their drivers.

My official lessons on childbirth and sexual intercourse followed similar patterns. “Of course, it hurts,” my mother said each time I asked about birth or penetration, usually during car rides home from school. She held up one fist, closed with an opening between her thumb and forefinger about as big as a pistachio. “Imagine a big fist,” she said, using her other hand” — neither on the steering wheel now, though she remains an expert at eating and painting her nails while driving — “mashing and mashing against a little hole.” For her explanation of childbirth, the pistachio fist remained the same, while the other fist grew in aggression and size. “Imagine a little hole and a watermelon trying to push through it,” she said, mashing and mashing the watermelon hand against the nut one. Vaginas, sex, birth — all bad, I concluded. And it didn’t help that I’d seen pictures of my own delivery, the blue hospital sheets covered in blood, and my melon head stretching and ripping a body, my mother’s body. “You would have been born on June 5th instead of 6th if you hadn’t slowpoked through 18 hours of labor,” she has reminded me more than once. My parents kept hiding the labor and delivery pictures because I obsessively sought them out, a compulsion for self-harm already budding before I was even 6 years old, Alongside this was a deep-seated fear that rape was inevitable. For years, I thought that I had only been spared “so far,” but as the first girl born in my household, my day would come. First girls were always the target in the family pattern. Second girls too. By elementary school, I’d come to put more stock in the idea that one day my rapist would come than that my prince would.

And I experienced, but thank God, always escaped — near attempts of other kinds of sexual violence: a strange man following me on a bike until I lost him by turning down a narrow corner; plenty of street harassment, first complimentary and then profane; a pervert masturbating at me in the corner of a subway station as I ran toward the light of the street upstairs; an older, distant cousin who wanted to “play a special game” that involved her hands moving under the covers up my thighs, higher and higher, until I started yelling and threatening to tell an adult. Though, to quote Winston Churchill far from his original context, “I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial,” when the moment in Allison’s room arose, I froze. I did not immediately understand what was happening to Allison in my presence as sexual assault. I heard her nos, and then I heard her moan with pleasure, and in my mental calculus, the two canceled each other out, creating consent.

I didn’t even know about the language of “consent” back then in the early aughts; “no means no” had been drilled into my brain by television and my father’s warnings, but I knew little of the nuances of active consent, like that it can be withdrawn at any time. My only formal education about rape came from dark episodes of sitcoms and a sociology lecture about the then-alleged (and now exonerated) Central Park Five, which included discussion of the bystander effect (versus bystander-intervention methods), warnings about “date-rape drugs,” and implications that date rape counted less than “real rape,” which was done by strangers in dark alleys or under freeway overpasses. I’d never read a single Black feminist text, and the Zeitgeist had yet to develop the elaborate and helpful discourse around rape culture that exists today. It wasn’t until I embarked upon my own study in feminism, got training in Title IX history and procedures as a university professor, and saw the resurgence of the MeToo movement that I began to process what happened to Allison and to reckon with my own treachery for failing to intervene, for failing to get out of that dorm bed where I was playing dead and find an RA or call the campus police. Now I know what to do in situations like this one and have helped many students through the process of reporting their assaulters, but at the time, in the year 2000, I was ill-prepared. This is not an excuse; there are no excuses that justify my behavior. I offer this context instead to help illustrate the real lack of university discourse around situations like this and the reasons for my failure to act.

The day after the incident, I behaved coldly to Allison at breakfast, angry in the way of a slut-shamer or rape-apologist for the situation she had placed me in. I went home to my family, and she presumably returned to her dorm, feeling unsupported, perhaps embarrassed, certainly pained. We remained friends for the rest of the school year, never speaking of that night, but it grew like a tare between us and eventually choked out our friendship. I don’t know what might have happened if I had intervened that night. Maybe Allison would have begun to hate me or felt humiliated. Maybe the guy would have threatened and stalked her. Maybe the police would have become involved and forced Allison into another situation against her consent. I still don’t understand the mental contortions that took place in my mind and how they allowed me to deny that what was happening to her was rape, while at the same time, I was fearing that her ex would rape me next. Only now do I understand — and can finally accept — that I am implicated in my friend’s traumatization. I only know in retrospect how I would suffer for my sins. We were merely freshmen.

I search for Allison on social media often, scouring the friend lists of anyone I can remember from undergrad, anyone who might have been a mutual friend. But I don’t remember her last name, and her first name is so common that a blind search will never give me what I want, which is the chance to reconnect and apologize, though I don’t know if that might trigger a memory she has long repressed. I don’t know if it would make any difference. All I know is that, more than 20 years after that night, I am experiencing  — along with my deep remorse — a flood of memories about the inherent vulnerabilities of living in a body.

Along with that more general sensation and the knowledge of so much generational trauma and epigenetic scarring in my own family, I have come to reframe my own experiences differently, too. My mother has long since apologized for obsessively talking about rape and molestation, calling it “unintentional abuse.” I now understand her hypervigilance to protect me as a family dynamic passed down to her and amplified by her life experience, every moment inherited and not intentional. I now understand her obsession as an unprocessed trauma response, her behavior manifesting as love via fear. But her fear, intentional or not, has harmed me, just as I harmed Allison by being a coward. It has devastated my sexual development, sex life, and ability to maintain certain kinds of intimacy. It has contributed to my fear that, at any moment, it might happen to me.

When it did finally happen to me, I did not feel as though my turn had come. I did not feel released from my fear. Instead, I felt all the feelings people experience when they’ve dealt with assault: How could I be so stupid? Why didn’t I speak up more? I said no, but it didn’t matter. Maybe I’m just exaggerating. Maybe it was my fault, even my deserved lot in life for the way I failed Allison.

My abuser, like my attempted molester, was a woman — and a medical practitioner at that. Her name is so clear in my mind that I want the world to know, initials J.U. I do not want to write her a letter and then never mail it. I do not want to write her a letter and then mail it. I do not want to call her and unburden myself to her laughter and denial. I blanch at the sight of her reviews on physician websites, high in the four-star range, comments gleaming with pride. And yet, when I was still a teen, she forced a speculum into my vagina as I screamed “No, no, please stop. It hurts.” I pulled my feet from the stirrups and scooted my body up the back of the exam table, as far away from her as I could get, and she laughed and said, “If you’d only just let me finish,” as though that were the issue and not my palpable terror. I don’t remember if she pulled my legs down or how I ended up with my front and backside close enough to her face that she could continue to force the instrument inside me. I drove the 15 minutes home in silence, with a giant paper bag full of the birth-control pills, Ortho Tri-Cyclen, which she claimed would fix my bad periods. She didn’t offer any help for the symptoms that had brought me into the office to begin with. By the time I arrived home, numb everywhere but between my legs, I wanted to take a shower. When I entered my private bathroom and pulled down my pants, there was blood in my underwear. I hadn’t bled the two times my boyfriend had attempted — but not been able — to penetrate me. I didn’t know then that I had developed, partly from years of fear and clenching, partly from the undiagnosed endometriosis, pelvic-floor dysfunction, and that no one could penetrate me without excessive force or lots of exercises and use of dilators under the guidance of a physical therapist.

When I told my mother what happened at the gynecologist, she bemusedly dismissed it as par for the course of womanhood.  I stuffed the bag of pills — at least a year’s supply — under my bathroom sink and the weight of what had happened in that exam room into wherever I stuff my feelings, which always seem to resurrect themselves in the form of binge eating, self-hatred, more tightness, and more anxiety. Still they rise each night, past my stuffed and nearly ruptured stomach, past my ego telling me how terrible I am, past my pounding chest and racing mind, too afraid to go to sleep until I am absolutely spent. They resurrect themselves as memories — anger turned inward for too long that I don’t know where to put and deep sadness for the friend I could have helped but didn’t, for all the women in my life who have suffered far greater traumas, and repeatedly at that. These feelings, too, contribute to my continued fear of unsympathetic OBGYN’s (I’ve experienced more than I can count, including one who said, nastily, “After all this time with me, I’d think you wouldn’t be so afraid anymore,” without any regard for my history), whom I’ve had to visit, ironically or maybe fatefully, far more than the average person, because nearly all of my health problems reside between my legs — “down there,” in the place I learned to fear before I learned it could provide pleasure. For this and so many things, I am sorry, and I am sorrier still that I am doing more than my share of the apologizing, when, despite my faults, I am not the one who assaulted anyone.

In addition to endometriosis and complex-regional-pain syndrome, I have been diagnosed with CPTSD, the “C” here also standing for “complex.” But where do I put what remains? I have always been a bad sleeper, but before the past year, I could count on one hand the number of nightmares I had dealt with in life. Now I have nightmares, even night terrors with sleep paralysis, every night. In most of them, I’m trapped with someone unsafe. And my memory has involuntary been compiling film roll after film roll of many years of medical trauma, ranging from J.U.’s assault to the nurses who laughed outside my recovery room door hours after my major surgery in 2020, sniggering, “It’s just a hysterectomy,” when in addition to my uterus, my surgeons had removed 26 specimens of scar tissue and endometriosis, found two fibroids, and dissected my rectum from my also-removed cervix. If my husband hadn’t been there standing witness, and if my surgeon weren’t on speed dial to lecture them, I would have thought it was my fault, that I hallucinated it all, that maybe in my fentanyl-drugged state I had offended them first. There’s the neurologist who laughed in my face when I told her I experienced sharp vaginal and pelvic pains, sending me on my way with a recommendation to exercise for longer periods each day and to eat more lentils. There is, in this film montage, humiliation after humiliation, each contorting into anger now that my subconscious has the time and space to process everything. I have attempted the hard work of forgiving each person one by one, but I’m not yet ready to extend Metta, or loving kindness toward any of them, because I haven’t yet extended it to myself for how I failed Allison.

I know there are countless women, boys, trans, and non-binary people who, in their most vulnerable states, have been mishandled by authority figures, doctors, nurses, parents, friends, partners, and police. Our collective rage has helped Tarana Burke’s original MeToo hashtag soar, freeing more survivors and revealing more perpetrators than I can count. The exposure is part of the process of dismantling rape culture, and so too is the narrative medicine of telling the story over and over, as Allison felt compelled to do. Perhaps a similar instinct compels my admissions here, because I am not yet free. I worry about how people will judge me for my failures; I worry that I will never pay enough penance for my sins — freshman or not — and that my bodily failings, my chronic illness and pain, are themselves punishment. I still worry that I will be next.

About two months ago, I underwent an invasive procedure that required me — as many previous procedures have — to lie face down on a gurney with my arms strapped to my sides. My pain specialist threaded four leads into my vertebrae and implanted a pacemaker-size battery pack in the fatty part of my right butt cheek. This spinal-cord stimulator is supposed to replace my chronic pain — via the use of an external remote control and computerized programming — with a “pleasant, tingling sensation.” I looked forward to becoming this cyborg, this part-person part-machine, able to control my pain at last, a post-human human, an iron woman, an android. I have no tattoos, but I wear my shame and anger and fear inscribed on my body like a brand. Raised keloid scars from three endometriosis surgeries line my belly like inchworms. How I would like to trade each scar or stabbing pain or the new Frankenstein bolts in my back and the Oreo-cookie bruise on my butt or my heartbreak for another sensation, a pleasant tingling at the push of a button. So far it hasn’t worked, and I will require frequent reprogramming. Adjustments will be made via computer by my rep, in addition to the nerve blocks and ketamine infusions I already receive frequently. How I wish that such a device — at its highest efficiency — existed for Allison, for survivors, for all of us, and how I wish none of it were necessary to begin with.

I Still Worry That I’ll Be Next