Breaking the cycle of rape culture: 13 stories of assault
Published November 3, 2016
BY Katy Bergen, Laura Bauer and Mará Williams
The Kansas City Star
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For about four or five years as a teenager, I was repeatedly molested by a priest. But I came to realize this only after long-repressed memories surfaced in my 30s, sending me into a sudden downward spiral. (I’d long made inexplicable and self-destructive decisions and struggled with intimacy and self-worth. Learning I’d been sexually violated, however, led to a real emotional tailspin for months and months.)
Fortunately, I had (and still have) a remarkably supportive partner. Though I just turned 60, I’m still in therapy but have also made great strides in healing through my work with an amazing self-help group called SNAP, the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests. The wisdom and resilience of the hundreds of victims I’ve met inspires me every day and reminds me that it wasn’t my fault, I did nothing wrong, I can recover from this trauma, and I can help prevent other kids from suffering in the same way I have suffered.
Being an African-American woman comes with the perfections of thick thighs and curves and full lips. For years, black women have been slandered and disrespected by men just because of their attributes. “Yo baby that ass is fat”… “Can I grab it” are some of the most disrespectful statements and questions I was asked Halloween night.
My friends and I went to a costume party at Aura. Halloween is supposed to be a fun holiday. Dress up and have fun. I was a tiger. I had on a full body suit with tiger ears and a tiger tail, no cleavage exposed, full body covered.
One particular moment in the night I walked past a man who had been throwing derogatory comments at me since he saw me walk in. “Yo baby that ass is fat, can I grab it?” he said as I brushed past him and hurried to get away from him. Later on my friends and I left our VIP table to go use the bathroom and there I had seen him again.
“You need to let me put this d— in your life,” he said as he grabbed my hand. I yanked my hand from him looking at him in disgust and walked down the stairs to the bathroom. On the way coming from the bathroom he grabbed my butt and I pushed him away. He then grabbed my hand really tight and threw it back.
At this moment I was afraid. Afraid that he had the upper hand because of his strength. Afraid that there were many people in the club that just stood by and didn’t defend me. I felt like nothing. I had never felt so small in my life.
Lately I have worn more baggy clothing, scared to come across another man or critic who fantasizes and seeks so aggressively to strip my body of my clothes through his eyes or has the urge to grab any part of my body with his disgusting hands. I am still to this day uncomfortable to feel comfortable.
Men feel like they can just treat us like crap, as if we are worthless and our bodies are not temples. They need to learn how to respect women of all shapes and sizes, especially black women. We are criticized constantly about our bodies and abused because they stand out. I am quite tired. Our cultural needs improvement. Our men need reality checks and some etiquette training.
Like many women, I’ve experienced harassment at several levels throughout my life. It was flirtation from the men at work who, although they knew I was married, would make lewd comments, with one holding up two quarters in front of my breasts and saying “Oh, look! All you can eat for under 50 cents!” and laughing like it was the funniest thing they’d ever heard or said.
It was security guards who would offer me a ride to my car in a dark parking lot, only to use it as an opportunity to cop a feel. It was a patient (I was a nurse in a hospital), a lawyer in his 60s who felt he was justified in grabbing me between the legs when I would stand by his bed to take his blood pressure. It was a married co-worker who tried to kiss me while on a business trip, because I was single and his wife would never find out. It was the boss who wanted to turn every conversation into something sexual, telling me about all of his conquests in the hopes that I’d return his attention.
It was my husband, who forced me to have sex with him with a knife to my throat when I came home from work late without calling him first. After my divorce, it was almost every man I met who thought that “divorced” meant “desperate” and assumed I would go to bed with them on the first date. It’s the men in the nightclubs who don’t know how to dance unless they’re grinding their penis against your backside.
But my worst experience came at a New Year’s Eve party in 2001⁄2002 at a friend’s house. I remember sitting around a table with several people and suddenly not feeling well. I hadn’t had much to drink, so I didn’t think it was too much alcohol and went to lie down to see if it would pass.
Shortly after, my friend’s boss came into the bedroom where I was lying down and proceeded to unfasten my pants, fondle me, and finally had intercourse with me. I could see him, smell him, hear him, feel everything he was doing to me, but couldn’t move; he had drugged my drink.
When I woke up the next morning and told my friend what happened, she literally put her hands over her ears, shook her head and said, “I don’t want to hear this!” I went to the hospital, a rape kit was done, but there wasn’t enough of the drug left in my system by that point to prove he’d used it. The police talked to my friend, who told them that I’d been flirting with him all night and was drunk, neither of which were true, so the police didn’t pursue it.
The police officer told me that it would just be my word against his, and because he’s a respected businessman, it wouldn’t be worth it for me to put myself through a trial. My friend was afraid of losing her job, and I never spoke to her again.
At the age of 13, I was molested by an older high school student who sat next to me on the very back seat of the school bus. I froze in fear of what was happening. It took me several months to report this incident to my science teacher, and even longer to accept that I was a victim of sexual assault.
In my junior year of college, I was groped by a stranger at a bar who grabbed my buttocks while walking by. He was an older man, 50-plus, who I never met before and never saw again. While living abroad in Beijing at the age of 22, while packed onto a subway train so dense literally no one could move, an unknown man took the opportunity to molest me. Because I physically could not move, I had to stand there, surrounded by dozens of people, while this person humiliated me for what felt like hours.
Finally, at a previous employer, I was called into my HR director’s office to be told, by a woman, that I was “well-endowed” and that I needed to find a way to minimize the size of my chest because even though many of my co-workers were married, they were men and could not control themselves sexually.
I was 14 years old when I met Father R. at my high school. He groomed me in the hallways and took me to city parks where gay people met for sex. We partied in his apartment many evenings. The frequency of our visits increased and so did the sexual advances he made. I always froze. It was never pleasurable. This relationship lasted for almost two years. I was told to leave the school when the principal discovered this and accused me of being a drug addict, which I was.
As a teenager, I was preoccupied with trying to survive the numerous expulsions of being gay by the public at large, from family members, followers of the church, and other predators within the gay community. I was not able to determine what was right and what was wrong during those years. I wish I could experience what it would be like to exist as a young gay man with dignity and not have experienced the behaviors caused by a pedophile. I have made so many misguided decisions since then and because of this.
I was raped while I was in college in 2012. My friend took me to the university hospital, bleeding and in tears, where they (as graciously as possible) took care of me and conducted a rape kit.
This is what the police department said when I called to report.
Officer: “You don’t have a real case here. Look, I don’t know what the judge will say but that’s just my guess. If you want to take that chance and press charges, let me know, but if not I’ll just give you your case number and keep this report on file.”
Me: “OK, I don’t know if I want to go through all of that or not yet.”
Officer: “That’s fine. Think about it. In the meantime, though, I suggest you change your own behavior so this doesn’t happen again.”
I was raped in February 2006 when I was a junior in college. The trauma of that night was difficult to deal with but my experiences after were equally scarring. I encountered victim-blaming and was told I didn’t “act like a victim.” My family doesn’t talk about my assault, especially my father. Admittedly, I internalized most of my pain for years, but I’m happy with where I’m at today.
I have two beautiful children and returned to school to finish my degree in 2012. I’ve learned to be my own advocate, and raise my daughter to do the same. I want her to know that it’s OK to say no, it’s OK to celebrate your femininity and it’s OK to protect your body. Sexual harassment continues to happen on a nearly daily basis for me. When I face particularly persistent or aggressive comments, I shut down and it triggers anxiety.
This election cycle has triggered painful and traumatic memories for me. The victim-blaming and flat-out denial of accusations by Donald Trump is unbelievable. Members of my family are planning on voting for him and it has left me with an absolute sense of betrayal and powerlessness. I want to see a society where we eliminate rape culture and enact legislation that protects victims, like eliminating the statute of limitations on rape.
I was 23. I was assigned to ride along with him — a police officer, the man who raped me — for a news story on crime rates. I was a photojournalist — I was used to being the only woman in a male-dominated industry. I could roll with the punches. It wasn’t until near the end of the ride-along he talked about us having sex. I was taken aback but blew it off.
We stayed in touch after the assignment; it’s always good to have a cop friend. He was married, but I didn’t want to be his mistress. So when he arrived at my apartment in the late night hours with his unmarked Crown Vic, I sat in the front seat of his car in the parking lot and we talked. I didn’t want him in my house. We eventually kissed and I said I needed to leave. I didn’t want him walking me back to my place, but he ignored my wishes.
Once I walked into my home, he followed me in. We kissed a bit more, but I was getting uncomfortable. I did not want this situation to escalate — not now. I kissed him goodbye, but that seemed to be what made him think it was time. He rubbed my vagina over my clothes again — I pushed his hands off. He began trying to touch my vagina under my clothes — I pulled his hands out. He then began pulling my pants down. That’s when I froze.
What is going on right now? Yeah, we were kissing, but that doesn’t mean I want to have sex. I kept telling him “we shouldn’t be doing this” as we kissed — because it was morally wrong of us. I was physically pulling his hands off me because I didn’t want him touching me like that. Apparently, none of that mattered to him.
He turned me around and entered me. No talk. No noise. I was frozen. He pushed me into the kitchen. I remember looking at the dirty pots and pans in my sink. I tried not to look in the mirror in front of me while he was doing it. I couldn’t talk, but eventually was able to expel a weak “stop” from my lungs. He didn’t stop until he was finished.
So what did I do in the weeks after this happened? I wanted to see him again, of course. I needed to talk to him. I needed to process what the hell happened. I needed to take back control; I mean, yeah, he escalated too far, too fast. That I recognized as not being OK. But it wasn’t rape. I could “even the score” if we had sex again and I dominated the situation. If I took control, was on top, made sure I got off, then we would be even. Then it would be OK.
Months later, I called a rape crisis center. I wanted to know the difference between “sexual assault” and “rape.” I thought, “maybe something technically ‘bad’ happened like sexual assault, but please, God no, not rape. I can get over sexual assault — I’ve been doing that as a woman my whole life. But rape? That was not possible.” I cried after the volunteer on the line explained to me the difference.
More than a year of keeping the secret, I got the strength to report what happened. As I later found out, to him, nothing I did meant I did not consent to what happened. In fact, to him, because I had sex with him again, that “proved” he didn’t rape me. It became clear in the years since he did not know what “consent” was. In his statement to the investigator, he admitted that I said “no” repeatedly and that I “wasn’t clear …. of what I want[ed] to do.” But also that “at no point in time did she ever give me any kind of indication at all that she didn’t want to do it.” No charges were filed.
Luckily, he was fired for what happened. Not for being a rapist, but for “conduct unbecoming of an officer.” I also learned that he just bounced around to different departments for the next few years. His certification was never reviewed. He remains an officer to this day. Meanwhile, I received anxiety, fear, stress, confinement, shame and blame for coming forward.
There isn’t a week that goes by since I was probably about 14 or 15 that someone has not commented on my physical appearance, made lewd comments toward me, been persistent toward what they desire even when I am clearly ignoring them.
When I got to college it got worse — these boys think they are entitled to touch, talk, hook up with any woman they desire, and I noticed grown men two to three times my age would start pestering me, too. They do not care if you are a stranger who is sober or has had too much to drink. They do not consider that you are out running errands and on the phone with your mom.
Men will grab you, touch you, talk to you without regard to your feelings or comfort zone.
My thoughts on men have progressively gotten worse since I was in high school, but it really hit the highest level in January when I was out drinking with my friends. We were leaving the bars, innocently talking to some guys. Suddenly I was being told to get in a cab, and next thing I know I am in a strange house in Westport. I went with it and called my friend, telling her where I was and who I was with — sending my location “just in case.”
Turns out this man didn’t want me to leave or go to sleep until a sober friend could pick me up in the morning. Simply put, he raped me and left me crying, fleeing the house and walking to the nearest hospital in freezing weather. After crying alone on a hospital bed while the nurses figured out what to do, my friend suddenly comes flying in. Without a single word out of my mouth she asked, “What did he do?” I didn’t realize, but I had visible marks all over my body that made it obvious someone hurt me.
After this incident it has taken me months of healing, and I still will continue to heal for the rest of my life. People don’t realize how traumatic it is until it happens. People don’t understand how a simple phrase or “joke” or smell or sight can trigger a survivor. My sexual assault doesn’t define me, but for a while it did destroy me. As a survivor, I can say I will continue to grow despite how society has let me down.
Three events stand out in my mind where I experienced sexual assault or harassment. When I was in seventh grade I dreaded going to art class because every day there was a boy who would ask me if I touched myself in the shower and would act out what he thought that would look like. I was embarrassed and confused as to why he wouldn’t leave me alone. I was 13 and knew nothing about sex. I just tried to ignore him but he never stopped. I was very sheltered growing up and all I really knew about sex was that I wasn’t supposed to have it until marriage. I was never talked to about what consent is and when a person is able to give consent.
At 17, I was depressed and started going to parties, at one particular party we invited a boy from school that I didn’t know very well. My memory goes in and out and at one point I said yes but when he was on top of me on the cement floor I wanted to say no, I wanted it to stop. I felt paralyzed and was too intoxicated to say anything. I just laid there waiting for it to stop, then my friend busted into the room and it ended. I didn’t tell anyone what really happened or how it affected me for years.
I’ve also had more than one co-worker at different jobs say sexually explicit things to me; the worst was about a year or two ago. I worked at a distribution center. I filed an official complaint with management. They talked to him and told him that he needed to leave me alone. I regretted making that complaint because it only got worse.
He would find me alone in an aisle and corner me, blocking me with his body or the carts that we used. He would get very close and act like he was being friendly, just talking, but everything about it scared me and made me fear that he was going to attack me. I did not go back to management because I was afraid to make it even worse. He eventually was fired for other reasons and I finally felt relieved.
My experiences are part of the reason I always request a female doctor and always seek out a female’s help instead of a male when at a store, or anywhere else. I’m glad that people are finally talking about this problem; it’s not something to sweep under the rug. And I think that from a young age children need to be taught what consent is and what is crossing the line when it comes to verbal harassment.
The first time I experienced sexual harassment, I was 12, in Wal-Mart with my mom when a man kept looking at me and following me around. He continued to follow me and asked my mom if he could date me. He didn’t know I was 12, and he must have been about 30.
The first time I experienced sexual assault, I was a freshman in college, and I was tutoring this football player that brought in so much revenue for the university. He would continually ask me to come over to his house to tutor him. He also had a football roommate that was dating my roommate at the time. My roommate invited them both over to our apartment.
While the two guys were there, the one that I had tutored in the library came into my room later that night, woke me up and started kissing me. He continued to do so even though I was entirely reluctant, and he eventually forced me to have oral sex with him by shoving my head down and holding the back of my neck. Fortunately, I started screaming and yelling and crying, he stopped and got his friend and left.
The fact that he thought since he was this big football player was an excuse for him to feel entitled to my body is disgusting. We must end rape culture. We must support women.
The second time I was sexually assaulted was when I was out with my girlfriends in Kansas City. This guy kept grabbing my arm on the dance floor. PSA (public service announcement): Me dancing is not an invite for you to touch me in any way. I kept denying his advances. He eventually came up behind me even though I made it clear that I did not want to even be next to him. He was a stranger. I came out to have fun with my girlfriends for the night. He started to grind against my butt and I had to push him away. Then after I removed myself from that situation, he came up to me as I was sitting outside the club and he put his hand out to touch my breast. I immediately got in my friend’s car and left.
This is rape culture. Men think that they are entitled to women’s bodies. Me dancing is not an invitation. Me putting on cute clothes or make up is not for you. It is for me. I can also share my experience with endless cat calls in KC, endless sexual gestures toward me while driving, while walking, but the list would be too long.
I was 14 years old. I was a never-been-kissed, soon-to-be-sophomore, noticed by the smart senior guy with the cool convertible, the state golf and music titles, and the interest in deep conversation.
The romantic movie genre set me up to believe him when he mentioned he’d never felt a connection like ours before at the end of the first not-really-a-date. A couple friends texted me when we first made it official trying to warn me about him, but I dismissed it because the person they described seemed absolutely the opposite of the guy I saw in front of me. We spent all of our time together.
On our third date, he was my first kiss. On our sixth, he told me he loved me. On our 10th, he sexually assaulted me. It happened so fast at the time. We started kissing, then all of a sudden he had me pinned down. I told him I didn’t really want to do anything else right now, and he told me not to be afraid, pressed his mouth over mine and held me down. He was 60 pounds heavier than me and had his whole body weight to keep me at bay. He didn’t stop even after I asked him to or started crying. He kept his mouth over mine to keep me from crying out. Finally I managed to wiggle enough to get over the arm of the couch and get away. I ran outside and he chased me.
He told me that it didn’t matter that I was scared and didn’t want to but that it was just his way of expressing love and I would eventually learn to like it. He told me he was a good Christian and that he wouldn’t do anything wrong. He told me there had to be something wrong with me. He told me not to talk to anyone about it, threatening that I would be socially ostracized and misunderstood. He told me he loved me, and I was naive, inexperienced and scared, so I kept my mouth shut, told him I didn’t like it and hoped it would all go away. It did not.
He constantly brought up the topic of sex to me, and every time I told him it made me uncomfortable and he immediately dismissed it. He was becoming gradually more and more abusive and controlling in the rest of our relationship too. He used manipulation, threats and fear to separate me from my friends and family and kept me with him through “sweet” admonitions of love and care, always apologizing for the day before. He knew I had anxiety and about twice a week would provoke me until I had a panic attack and was physically frozen and shaking to “make his move” so I would be less likely to fight. And when I did fight, he used force.
I am a black belt, but my education failed me. I’d been taught about dark men in alleyways who I didn’t know, not consent in relationships. I didn’t actually understand consent until three months after we broke up, and at the time I was too scared to actually hurt him.
One month in, I wanted to end it but was terrified of what he would do. It continued like that for four months. The depression I had in middle school resurfaced and ironically saved my life. Although my mother didn’t know what was going on, she recognized the symptoms and staged an intervention with her and my dad. I poured out everything, and with her support and the support of close friends, broke up with the boy the next day.
Unfortunately I had to see him every day at school for the next six months, during which he attempted to actively undermine my reputation socially, sent his friends to sexually harass me, left things in my locker and stalked me. We did our best to ignore him to keep me safe. We did not go to the police because of the difficulty of obtaining evidence in such cases, the effect of the legal process on my then-15-year-old psyche, the further social implications and the fear of what might happen to me if we “ruined his life.”
The first person I told about the sexual assaults also knew him and told me I was a liar and that there was nothing I could do anyway, and I sank into denial for a few months. It was rereading of old journal entries that finally helped me accept that it had really happened.
I have spoken openly only with my three closest friends, school counselors and my mother. Only this year have I stopped actively hiding the fact I have PTSD. Dealing with it has been an immense struggle. Luckily enough, I was able to mend the depression quite quickly, and now I have not had a suicidal episode in almost two years. The PTSD and panic attacks have been much harder to shake. It has been most difficult to handle in relation to my relationships with friends and acquaintances I have not told.
How do I explain that I get panic attacks at the sight of tall men with buzz cuts, Mustang cars or the song “Sweet Disposition”? How to I tell my baby sister why I lost it at her for leaving the side door to our house unlocked?
Fortunately, through the support of family, friends and meditation, my symptoms have gone from night terrors and four-hour panic attacks five times each week to 20-minute panic attacks every couple months when I’m in a particularly triggering time.
Last year, I started dating again, and in spring I began my first serious relationship since then with an amazing guy who basically taught me on all fronts that there’s another way. The key was to always focus on the good and the truths I knew and for the first time, I feel like I’m really on the other side.
It’s been a little over eight years since I was sexually assaulted by a former roommate. While I have empowered myself with fellow survivors by protesting against rape culture in our city (I co-organized SlutWalk KC in 2011, SafeWalk in 2012, and spoke at the Maryville rally for Daisy Coleman), I still have moments of weakness.
I’ve seen him out in public before, and it terrifies me because all I can hear is what he said to me eight years ago that night: “You wanted this. You asked for it.”
Lately I’ve been reminded of it just by the growing coverage of rape culture and news stories about survivors experiencing victim-blaming tactics by the police, community or families. The failure of the justice system to fit the punishment with the crime. As an activist and a survivor, I work diligently to call out people engaging in damaging rhetoric or re-victimization tactics.
People often counter to survivors who don’t speak up that they are doing a disservice to those who do and by not allowing the police to do their job. If only those people knew the terror of being tried in the court of public opinion. Of having any minute decision being questioned up until the crime occurred. Of the thought that one minor detail means you are responsible for another person not understanding consent or that in some awful universe, that drinking or whatever activity means you are not only responsible, but that you deserved it.
We must create a culture that lifts those up who speak about their experiences, rather than forces them back into silence. That’s the only way we can break the cycle of rape culture in this country.