Reflections on sexual assault and unrequited love.
Content Warning: This post contains descriptions of sexual assault.
It took me a long time to come to grips with the emotional trauma that ensued after my first college heartbreak. I couldn’t have known at the time what my brain was processing aside from the loss of someone I considered very important. Looking back, all the signs were there; I just didn’t know how to see them. It’s important for me to share my story now, not only because it is selfishly cathartic (and please note that sharing can absolutely be a part of your recovery as well), but also because I hope that my experience will help shed some light on your own and even, with luck, spare you from some of the pain I went through to get to the light at the end of the tunnel — forgive me, I have a talent for cliché, as we’ll get into later.
Sexual assault is an unfortunate reality in the college experiences of young people around the country. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, 1 in 5 women and 1 in 16 men will be sexually assaulted while in college — an especially heartbreaking statistic considering many of these people never come forward and if they’re like me, don’t even know to define their experience as sexual assault.
In the fall of 2009, I went away to college in a small, cozy, mountain town in Western Montana. For the most part, my freshmen year was fairly average. I had some lonely nights, I made some new friends, my roommate pawned my microwave for weed money… you know, the usual stuff. One night, I went to a party off campus with my girlfriends and that’s where I met him. As he tossed a ping pong ball into a red cup across a table from me, I mused at his perfectly straight white teeth and faded Phish concert t-shirt. He was so cool. The first time we had sex that very same night he picked me up in a drunken stupor, off of his living room floor and carried me to his bed. I was a crumpled rag doll in his arms and his strength felt all encompassing and protective. The next thing I remember is switching between, “I really like you” and “no, please not tonight” while he slowly removed my clothes and then entered me without a condom. He would push in slowly as if mildly concerned for my phrasing, but not quite enough to stop completely.
At the time, all I could be sure of was that I said no not because I didn’t desperately want him, but because I knew with every fiber of my being that he wouldn’t want me anymore in the morning. That if I gave him sex too soon, anything I had to offer him, my most valuable commodity would already be in his possession and he would have no need for me.
I am painfully aware that this is not in any way a new or unique narrative. I think this kept me, for a long time, from speaking about it — that fear of being just another girl who “cried rape.” But here I am and I will not let that fear define me anymore. I really hope if I only pass on one thing to you from this brief diatribe it is that.
My fear of being worthless post coitus was true for a while, and I felt very alone as I watched him kiss other girls at parties and stared at unanswered text messages day in and day out. Eventually, after a lot of pestering on my part and a series of clunky communications, we started dating. In retrospect, I think my worthlessness in his eyes remained. I was so thrilled and grateful that he had decided to be my boyfriend that I never considered that first night we spent together a mistake for the two years we spent together. I was so in love with him and even though I could see that his feelings weren’t as deep as mine, I held out hope. I was sure that one day he would see that he needed me the way I needed him and we would be together forever. Instead, he broke up with me in the second to last semester of my senior year. I sobbed grotesquely as he told me firmly that he had never loved me. I remember wanting to talk about it with anyone and everyone afterward. Not only did no one who want to listen, but I had put myself in such a codependent position I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I had created my relationship in a vacuum.
Eventually, life got better and I stopped calling my mom every hour to cry into the phone, but I never really dealt with the root of my heartbreak. It wasn’t until years later that I started coming to terms with the fact that our first sexual encounter had been non-consensual. I spent a long time on that road to discovery and I became well aware that our education around sex and sexual assault is extremely lacking. Since I went away to college, it seems that we have been making strides in order to rectify that flaw in education, but there is still a long way to go. I want to make sure that my readers know sexual assault comes in many different forms. It is not abnormal to want to sleep with someone the first night after meeting them and continue to develop feelings for them after.
If you say no to someone because you like them and you want to know them better before sleeping with them, it does not make you prude, nor should it mean the end of your communication with said individual.
Let’s start building a new culture around sex. Let’s start getting just as excited about the “no thank you’s” as we do about the “yes pleases.” An open communication is a sexy communication and it should foster growth in relationships instead of fear of connection. You should know that it is possible to receive an unwanted sexual encounter from people that you’ve previously had consensual sex with or would consider sex with in a different context. Just because you are attracted to or even in love with your abuser does not mean that you inherently consent. Please be an advocate for your friends and yourselves. Be proud of yourself for seeking resources and support as you have if you are currently reading this, and please continue to promote those behaviors. I am here for you. We will catch you. You are a part of a community and you are loved.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800–656-HOPE (4673). For more resources on sexual assault, visit RAINN, End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.
Header image illustrated by Marcy Gooberman
Leah Holmes is a feminist, comedian, and writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Please reach out, love to love!