Well, shit, I thought. He Googled me. I turned away and continued across the High Line, sweating in silence. It was my first Hinge date since I had moved to New York after graduation. I’d thought the date was going well until the guy made a pointed reference to sexual assault on my old campus.
I know what happens when you Google me. Tucked between my headshot–less LinkedIn and my college newspaper column is the most recent piece I’ve written about my rape. I’m proud of it — I refuse to be ashamed of my trauma, and I know that honest, nuanced writing about assault can help other survivors.
But saying “Me too,” and saying it that publicly, has changed the way I date. As has been the case with so much after my assault, I don’t have a choice. I just adapt.
The first time I wrote about my rape was for the magazine I ran in college. I’d organized an entire issue filled with testimonies from assault survivors. It was exactly what I would have wanted when I was first assaulted, an answer to those murky months I spent burrowed under blankets in my dorm room, Googling “How do people live through this?” until my fingers dented.
Then I wrote a freelance essay for an online publication about graduating as a survivor. I knew there would be consequences for writing about my rape online. I sent my draft to a friend in law school. I called the campus career center. The weekend before the issue ran, I texted an ex–boyfriend. ”Am I being stupid?” I asked.
He didn’t think so. “If any employer doesn’t want to hire you because you’re a survivor, that’s not a place you want to work for,” he said. But what I really wanted to ask him was if anyone would want me after this. Who would sign up to date someone whose trauma was so easy to find? I threw my phone across my bed and pressed my forehead into my knees.
I had told him about my rape a few weeks after we met. He walked me home from a party, rubbing my knuckles with his thumb. I was tipsy and jumpy and flushed under the street lights. It seemed as good a moment as any.
I used to plan out telling men about my assault. I had a script. I practiced. I waited for calibrated moments — drifting back from bars with our wrists cradled in one sleeve, or in the swift, shuddering moments when I woke from nightmares. Hey, I would say, and pause, and blink. There’s something I should probably tell you. The “probably” was key. I didn’t want them to think I was obligated.
I used their responses as a test. I have started and ended relationships based on how men react to my rape — their instinctual reply, when they’re caught off guard.
In the three years since my assault, I have collected a catalog of follow-ups to the sentence, “I was raped.” Were you at a party? Was he your boyfriend? Why didn’t you report it?
A football player cried into my hair when I told him. A frat boy who stockpiled a special kind of weed for his cat picked a jar of it off the table and then asked, without looking up, ”Why are you telling me this?”
Why did I tell them? To allow myself to trust them, partly. I was assaulted by a close friend, and I watched him morph from the boy who squawked at our inside jokes and texted me poems to the creature who yanked me onto his mattress. I stopped believing in my instincts — clearly, I sucked at reading people. I blamed myself for not being able to tell the good men from the bad. Talking about my assault gave me a weird sense of power. I had control over who learned about it and how.
But there was also this: I thought vulnerability was a shortcut to intimacy. If I offered up the most private part of myself, surely a connection would form. It had to. I didn’t know how else to cut through the prickle in my spine when I was with guys, the way I count exit signs on dates. I keep waiting for the men I’m with to hurt me. Responding poorly to my rape has been the most convenient, dispensable way that they do.
Three weeks after I published the first online piece about my rape, I met a guy at the campus bar. He was blue-eyed and drawling and tucked a Juul inside his fist; I puffed fruit–flavored smoke at him when the bartender wasn’t looking. We left before closing to go for a walk — it was December, and the slush licked our sneakers. He put an arm around me as we passed a frat house. ”I was pledging there, for a while,” he said. ”But I left because they seemed too rapey.”
I almost slipped in the snow. Did he know? Had he plugged my name into his iPhone beneath the table? I still don’t know the answer.
With him, and with every guy I date, I wonder how much they’ve read about me, at what point they’ll bring it up. I’ve lost the option to disclose my rape on my terms. But I gave it up willingly, and I know it was worth it ― I’ve written the pieces that would have helped me after my assault.
I don’t want the illusion of control anymore. I want the real thing. I want power over my narrative. I’m going to keep talking to the men in my life about my assault because, even if they know the details of my rape, they don’t know what happened after. They don’t know how I smiled for days after the first time I had sex without shaking, or how my legs wobbled from nerves when I spoke at Take Back the Night. They don’t know how proud I am of my progress. There’s an entire universe about me they don’t know.