By Ariana Throne
Feb 22, 2018 @ 10:45 am
Copyright 2018 Jessica Bosse/Daring Wanderer/Stocksy

My assault was not unique or special. In fact, soon after it occurred, I would learn just how commonplace it was. It happened during my first month of college, in my dorm, by a friend.

Before the rape, I had this picture of what a “victim” looked like in my mind, and it certainly wasn’t me—someone who was outspoken and loud-mouthed, confident in my sexuality, and not afraid to speak my mind. But none of those factors mattered in that dorm room, the night my friend penetrated me after I looked him in the eye and told him we were not having sex. My voice, which I’d considered my greatest weapon, deserted me.

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I woke up the next day feeling small and dirty and foreign in my body. I called my mother and, through trembles, told her what happened, only to learn that she too had experienced rape. I would come to learn over the ensuing weeks that so many other people I knew had, too.

Somehow, even more shocking than the assault was learning how in the dark I was about its ordinariness. My obliviousness had left me incredibly vulnerable. I couldn’t help thinking, ‘If only I had known…’

I decided I would not be silent—it was the only way I knew how to make it feel like my assault was not in vain. Two days after it took place, I saw a counselor, and that same week I attended a campus event organized by the anti-abuse organization Take Back the Night. I didn’t plan on speaking there, just attending, but I found my voice saying, “Well, five days ago…”

About a month later, I confronted the man who’d done this to me in the presence of a counselor. It became clear that his social training had failed him just as much as mine had failed me. I hold him accountable for his actions, but he was not the monster I so wished he was. He was just a boy, staggering his way though things we were never properly taught to navigate. I didn’t pursue legal or disciplinary action, but I did tell him how I felt. I often wonder if that changed him at all. Many friends and family members could not understand my response. Some wanted me to prosecute. Others wanted me to call what happened “unwanted sex” instead of rape. While they acted out of love, I just wanted to choose my own course of healing.

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I almost didn't return to college for my second semester, but I wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t running away. I took a rape-crisis counselor training, in attempt to reclaim my power and make sense of what had happened. In retrospect, while still in the throes of PTSD, this was not a good call. Each survivor’s story I read became another trauma for me to process. I felt like I carried the weight of every rape on my shoulders. I tried to feel normal again, but normalcy was replaced with anxiety and nightmares, intimacy issues, and a warlike rage growing inside me. My soapbox felt like the only safe place. Talking about my assault filled me with purpose, but it also weighed on me, gradually becoming my entire story. I lost friends who couldn’t handle my intensity, and eventually I decided to take a year off from school.

During that year, at a party, I was raped again. This was far more devastating than the first assault because I thought I’d learned. I thought I was wiser, stronger, safer. After that party, when a friend said, “Perhaps you’re doing something that brings this on since it’s the second time,” I subconsciously felt it was my fault, even though I knew it really wasn't. My mother drove down to get me around dawn, and as we sat in silence for the hour-long ride home, shame and darkness engulfed my entire body. Depression and suicidal thoughts took hold of me for months. My body had betrayed me, and I couldn’t escape it. Despite lots of therapy and self-reflection, I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll just never have sex again.’

Then I met Erik, in my hometown. He was gentle and patient and made me feel like my body was worthy of pleasure and respect. We started dating, taking things slow, and when I was finally ready to have sex with him, I had to spend hours assuring him of it. With him sex was tender, safe, and about me. The care he showed my body during our brief time together taught me that it was possible for me to do the same.

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In the aftermath of rape, it’s easy to forget that sex can be great. Sex, when done right, can even be healing. Erik helped me get back in touch with my body, but my body was not a happy place. I had been trying to sort through everything using only my mind, but my body was screaming at me and I had been ignoring it. Emotional pains took hold in physical ones, like stomach aches back pain. I began therapies like Hellerwork, massage, reflexology, and meditative dance. It was these processes, alongside hypnotherapy and talk therapy, that helped me begin to love myself again. Little by little, I was untangling the mental, emotional, and physical effects of trauma.

I think, after that, I had a new perspective, older and wiser, and was ready to speak publicly about my experience again. For my senior thesis, I put on a one-woman show about rape culture. I told my story again, but this time without the shame I’d felt before. After the performance, I invited the audience to participate in an intimate discussion about rape, and I remember one man said that the show made him realize he’d once sexually assaulted someone. Other candid confessions and stories followed. I’ve never felt prouder. People don't heal in isolation, and those intimate exchanges with friends, family, lovers, and strangers helped more than I could have imagined.

After graduation, I traveled on my own for two years and asked myself, ‘What do I want? What amount of sex is healthy for me?’ The answers to those questions had always been offered by someone else—my parents, my friends, my assaults, social standards. For the first time, I started to figure out what my own answers sounded like.

Before my trip, I’d witnessed friends become overly sexual in response to rape, and while I’d known that was common through my rape counseling class, I didn’t understand why at the time. But as I began to experiment with more casual encounters, I discovered something surprising: Sex wasn’t sacred to me. For so long, it’d had this magical power over me—but it didn’t need to. It was sitting on a pedestal it didn’t deserve.

Sex can be powerful and intimate, extremely—but it can also be mundane, fun, boring, uncomfortable, blasé, detached, carefree, or curious. Sex can be so many things. It’s hard to explain, but choosing when to allow sex to be meaningless and when to allow it to be intimate gave me back some of the control I felt was taken from me. My self-care and therapy prepared me to be able to experiment with promiscuity again in a safe way. I had meaningless, consensual sex, and that, too, helped set me free.

When I returned home, I continued to experiment, learning about myself and my sexual preferences. I identified that I was fundamentally polyamorous and that sex, for me, is not the sole pillar of relationship intimacy but rather one part of it. I came to understand that my body is mine to say “no” with—but also to say “yes with. When we talk about consent, it’s often all about the “no,” but we shouldn’t forget about the importance and joy of “yes” either.

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We have been subtly and not-so-subtly been telling women that their sexuality is taboo for far too long. But you can’t learn to love your body after trauma without loving your pleasure, yearning, and sexual self. When I figured that out, everything changed. I owned my choices again. I had bad sex and fantastic sex, but it was all sex I was choosing to explore. It’s odd—I wouldn’t choose to relive them, but my experiences changed the course of my entire sexual future, in some ways for the better. I don’t know if I would have the intimacy with and understanding of my body that I have today if I hadn’t been forced to examine my subconscious beliefs about sex and pleasure.

Now, ten years after my first assault, I can see that I’m very much still healing. I’m having the best sex of my life, when and with whom I choose. It has not been a linear process like I’d imagined. I sometimes do things I swore I’d never do again, like have sex for reasons other than an unambiguous, resounding “yes.” Sometimes I feel pressured or crave intimacy I know isn’t there or cave to other messy, human feelings amplified by a rape culture that doesn’t really support healthy sexual decisions. But when that happens, I dig a little deeper and reflect on who I am and what I want. I’ve learned to love my sexuality in a way I hadn’t before, even before my assaults. I can ask for what I want and rejoice in experiencing pleasure. I can play.

I still get triggered—I avoid certain movies that glorify rape, and, while I was overjoyed about the transparency #MeToo ushered in, accounts of rape can set off my PTSD. But 10 years of intense therapy and exploration gave me the tools to bring a healthier perspective to difficult situations. I also acknowledge that I owe much of my healing to the support I received and the privileges I had to seek therapy and spend time working on myself. In that sense, I was incredibly lucky.

My rapes will always be a piece of who I am. But while they were my entire story for so long, now they’re just a piece. I’m still learning, and sex has been one incredibly useful learning tool. I’m grateful for the lessons that both good and bad sexual experiences have taught me, among them that it’s possible to fully own our pleasure and love our bodies while respecting the autonomy of others’.