Content warning: The following article is about sexual assault and rape.
“I just have to run upstairs to grab my wallet,” he said with a smile on his face. As he turned around to enter his apartment complex, he gestured for me to join him, saying that I shouldn’t have to wait outside. We walked up several flights of stairs and made it to his apartment, just to the left, on the landing. He opened the door and walked over the threshold; I followed. As he walked further into the apartment, I spun around slowly to see if there was anything to strike up a conversation.
His apartment was dark and sparsely furnished, not unlike many college students living on a budget. He had a bookshelf filled to the brim, the rows overflowing, with a mix of textbooks and fiction. As I was perusing the shelves, he walked over to the door and slammed it shut, locking the deadbolt and the chain. I stared in disbelief, as he approached me.
“I … I think I should get going,” I stammered as I tried to make my way to the door. He placed his arm out in front of me, creating another barrier between me and the outside world. My eyes began to dart around the room, attempting to find another point of egress. I tried to push past him, but he opened his arms wide to wrap me in his grasp. His abrupt clutch around me forced the air out of my lungs and I fell silent, unable to speak or scream, trying to focus on controlling my breath. He lifted me off the ground and carried me over to his bedroom, closing another door behind us, dragging me further and further from the chilly breeze and bright sun of the day.
But the harshness of the Chicago winter paled in comparison to my reality at that moment. He threw me down on to his bed, his forearm pressed firmly across my throat, a knee in my ribs, while he fumbled with the button on my jeans. My hands moved up his arms in an effort to grab his attention, my eyes pleading for him to release me, but by this point my body from the waist down was completely exposed. He bent down to grab my ankles, pulling them towards my head.
He spit into his hand and penetrated me. I wanted to scream, to cry out in agony, but the sounds just wouldn’t come. My body was lifeless as he used me for his own pleasure. I just remember staring up at the ceiling and following the cracks in the paint until he was done with me. I couldn’t tell you how long it had lasted, but to me it felt like an eternity.
I finally felt the weight of his body lift off me, but I still did not feel in control of my muscles. I rolled off of the bed and on to the floor and just sat there. My mind telling me to just stand up, to scream, to run. But I didn’t. I sat there deaf and blind to the man rustling around the room. He threw my clothes back at me and I slowly rose to my feet, got dressed and walked with him as he led me to the front door. He said, “I had a great time, we should do that again sometime,” as he unchained and unbolted the door. I kept my head down, making sure not to make eye contact, as I slipped out of the door, stumbled down the stairs and out into the blinding sun.
I couldn’t tell you how I got home; just me aimlessly moving through the city streets. But when I got back to my apartment, I went straight to the bathroom where I tore off all my clothes and got into the shower. I let the water run over my body until it ran cold. I went to my bedroom, closed the blinds and climbed into bed, lying there until I couldn’t keep my eyes open.
After that day, I wouldn’t speak about what had occurred for many years. And until now, only a few people knew what happened to me. I had always struggled with accepting the assault, because that would make me a victim. But even without the acknowledgement, I blamed myself. Why did I go over to his building? Why did I then follow him up the stairs? Why did I even enter his apartment? Why didn’t I scream, or run or fight back? Why didn’t I defend myself and why did I just let it happen to me? Why? And what worried me the most — I never said “no.” Who would believe me?
I wish I could say that my experience was out of the ordinary, but according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in their lifetime, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 38 men have been raped, with sexual violence even more common occurring to 1 in 3 women and 1 in 4 men. But more importantly, 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), reasons ranged, but 20% of people feared retaliation and 13% believed the police wouldn’t do anything; but even more disheartening, the most often cited reason for not reporting was that the victimization was a “personal matter.”
This was how I felt, among the myriad of other excuses I told myself; I wanted to move past the experience, to never think of it or him again and to just focus on the other important things in my life. And while 17% of people reported the assault in an effort to catch, punish or prevent the offender from reoffending, my thoughts in the following days, weeks and months were not with others, but rather concentrated on personal healing — or so I told myself.
Fast forward to now: I completed college and medical school, and I am in my obstetrics and gynecology residency. And while I have told important people in my life about what happened to me, I never reported the experience in detail. In my mind, I was protecting myself from reliving the trauma that I thought I had overcome. But even in my limited medical experience caring for women, I have been privileged to be a confidant to many who have had similar experiences to my own. While these women were all at different stages of the healing process, simply being able to acknowledge their pain and offer additional services made a difference.
While women make up the vast majority, in terms of sheer numbers, of those who have experience rape or sexual assault, we must also consider the high risk for gender and sexual minorities (GSM) and racial and ethnic minorities. According to the Human Rights Campaign, all GSM men and women have higher rates of rape and sexual violence than their cisgender, heterosexual counterparts. Trans-people of color experience the highest rates of sexual assault with those who identify as American Indians reporting rates as high as 65%, followed by multiracial at 59%, Middle Eastern at 58%, and Black at 53%.
I have never been asked by my providers anything even remotely close to something that would have opened the door for a disclosure, and I have therefore never told any of them. I am not upset at this, nor do I think I would have been ready to speak up. I do think it is important that we normalize these conversations with our patients. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), recommends screening all patients for sexual violence by asking direct and non-judgmental questions. The American Medical Association (AMA) and American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) also have guidelines on trauma informed care and screening for their patients. But I suspect many providers do not do this routinely or with all their patients, but rather focus on women with active complaints that may be attributed to sexual assault, like acute injuries or chronic pelvic pain.
But I think it is time to be honest with myself and the world and say that I am a survivor of sexual assault, not a victim. I have taken the power away from my abuser and given it back to myself by speaking out. Chances are you or someone you know has experienced something like I went through, and certainly some of your patients have, so it is time to create a space for those who are ready to disclose and normalize the conversation for those who might not be. And if you are reading this yourself and not ready to speak to someone, there are people waiting to listen when you are.
The following sexual assault resources are available:
Love is Respect: National Teen Dating Abuse Hotline: 1-866-331-9474, text 22522, or online chat
StrongHearts Native Hotline: 1-844-762-8483
Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender National Hotline: 1-888-843-4564 or online chat
Youth Line: 1-800-246-7743
Senior Line: 1-888-234-7243