No Matter What I Did The Night I Was Sexually Assaulted, It Was Not My Fault

"I told myself I drank too much or I dressed too sexy or my flirting sent the wrong message or I didn't fight back, but none of it justifies what happened to me."
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The author at Flashbacks, the nightclub in Madison, Wisconsin, where she met the men who sexually assaulted her, in 2005.
Courtesy of Tammy Rabideau

I wasn’t asleep, so I can’t say I woke up. But I was there, in the hotel room. I saw myself lying on the bed, my legs dangling over the edge. To my right, a man stood with his pants off ― his penis in one hand while he fondled my breasts with the other. I felt nothing but I saw it all, as if I were watching myself in a movie. There were voices.

“Pull down her pants,” the man to my right instructed the man on my left. I was detached from myself, hovering and watching the scene unfold. I couldn’t move or speak. I remember a few thoughts: Why am I lying here? What are they going to do to me?  

Then, nothing.  

Hours before I had been dancing at Flashbacks, a nightclub in the Marriott Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin. Though I loved to dance, I rarely went out. As a single mom and the only parent to my 10-year-old daughter, my priorities revolved around her. A normal Saturday evening included a trip to Barnes & Noble or a night in watching “Harry Potter” and ordering Chinese. But on this warm summer night, I had found myself unexpectedly alone after my daughter accepted an invitation to stay the night at my mom’s.  

After a quick call to my friend Shannon, we decided to meet in town just after 10 p.m. when she finished work. I grabbed my silk, rose-colored, wrap-around blouse from the closet and paired it with my tan, slim-cut dress pants and beige heels. I poured myself a glass of wine, curled my bob-length blonde hair and freshened my makeup before hopping in a taxi heading to Flashbacks. I was excited to meet Shannon for a fun night out.  

Flashbacks was a small nightclub that had grown in popularity after several other dance clubs in Madison closed down. Unlike much of the nightlife that catered to the city’s university crowd, Flashbacks attracted more of a business professional crowd, ages 25 and up. It had a medium-size dance floor surrounded by a two-tier lounge area and a DJ who played the latest dance and hip-hop music.  

I made my way to the bar, ordered a drink and waited for Shannon. A half hour later, she still hadn’t arrived. Feeling uncomfortable sitting alone, I walked out to the hotel area to call her, but there was no answer. Fifteen minutes later, back at the bar, the DJ announced there was a phone call for me. It was Shannon ― she was still at work and had also picked up an early morning shift the next day. She wasn’t going to make it. Disappointed, I decided to have one more drink and call a taxi to take me home. 

As I ordered a Korbel brandy and Diet Coke, a man who appeared to be in his 20s asked me to dance. He was handsome ― slender and tall, with a square jaw, wavy light-brown hair and an intriguing foreign accent. We danced, and afterward, he introduced me to his two friends. They were all from France and played semi-professional soccer. Earlier that day, they had competed and won. They told me they’d be here just a few more days before heading back to France.

The men were friendly, funny and made interesting conversation. When I told them my friend hadn’t shown up and I would be leaving soon, they convinced me to stay a bit longer. “Have one more drink,” they said. “You can hang out with us.”

“The men were friendly, funny, and made interesting conversation. When I told them my friend hadn’t shown up and I would be leaving soon, they convinced me to stay a bit longer. 'Have one more drink,' they said. 'You can hang out with us.'”

I can’t tell you why I thought it was a reasonable idea to hang out with three men I’d just met. I had no particular interest in any of them ― my handsome dance partner had revealed he was engaged to be married (placing him in the off-limits category) ― and they would be flying back home in just a few days. Mostly, they gave me a reason to stay at the nightclub. I was happy to no longer be sitting alone at the bar, looking desperate.  

The men told me about their soccer travels and life in France. One of them was a natural comic and told one joke after another. I was having a good time and feeling glad I had stayed. Before I knew it, it was 2 a.m. and time to leave.

“Come back to our room for a drink,” they said. Feeling like I was just one of the guys, I considered saying yes but knew I’d had enough to drink, and it was time for me to head home. “No, thanks, I’m going to call a taxi now,” I told them. As the bouncer shuffled the crowd out of the bar and into the hotel area, my new French acquaintances followed behind me. “Our room is right there,” they said, pointing down the hall. “You can call a taxi from our room and have a drink while you wait.”  

I thought about it for a second. “OK,” I replied.  

It was a decision I will forever regret. 

When we walked into the hotel room, one man left to get ice, while another pointed to bottles of liquor lined up across a small table. “What would you like?” he asked. I settled on a whiskey and soda.

Fifteen minutes later, sitting on the corner of a bed, a sudden feeling of extreme intoxication and tiredness rushed over me. My vision blurred, and I knew something was wrong. I got up to leave but couldn’t make it to the door. My head started buzzing and the room felt as if it were moving in a staggered haze. Somehow, I found myself on my hands and knees crawling. There was a man standing in front of the door. “Let me help you,” he said.  

My next flicker of memory was of me lying on the hotel bed, motionless, watching myself as if I were a bystander: the man to my right holding his penis, the man to my left struggling to pull my pants down. Men speaking in a foreign language. Laughing. Then nothing.

A couple of hours later, I woke up. My wrap-around shirt was tied at the bottom but not the top. My undergarment was twisted and only pulled halfway up. Two men lay sleeping in the beds. The third was gone. I grabbed my purse, quickly left the room, and made my way to the front desk to call a taxi. I was physically shaking and had a strange metal taste in my mouth. I didn’t know exactly what had happened but was horrified by the fragments of memory passing through my mind.

When I got home, I showered, examined my clothes, and tried to piece together what had happened in the hotel room. There was a two-hour gap that my memory struggled to fill. I was angry for putting myself in such a situation. How could I have been so stupid to go to a hotel room with men I barely knew?  

I was humiliated and ashamed. I decided to tell no one what had happened. It didn’t matter that I had no intention of engaging in sexual activity with those men or that I believed I had been drugged and assaulted. My prevailing thoughts were of my irresponsibility in causing this to happen. I needed to erase it from my mind and never do something so reckless again.  

“I was humiliated and ashamed. I decided to tell no one what had happened. It didn’t matter that I had no intention of engaging in sexual activity with those men or that I believed I had been drugged and assaulted. My prevailing thoughts were of my irresponsibility in causing this to happen.”

But I couldn’t erase it. I tried, but the thoughts kept coming. Over the next few months, the shame took over my life. I felt dirty, bad, ruined. I saw a therapist, but during the appointment, I struggled to tell her what had happened, worried what she would think of me. When I finally got part of it out, her first question was to ask why I had gone back to the hotel room with the three men. I clammed up immediately. I’d already asked myself that question a hundred times. Overwhelmed with self-disgust, I ended the appointment and left.  

I never understood why victims blamed themselves until I found myself in the same position. We are victimized first during the assault and then a second time when we take on the shame and guilt that doesn’t belong to us, but to our perpetrators. In my case, it was partly because I prided myself on being a “good woman” ― a moral woman who didn’t go to hotel rooms with men she didn’t know. I was so stuck on what I did wrong that I stayed in that place of self-loathing for years, all the while believing I somehow deserved what had happened.

From then on, I became hyper-vigilant when I went out to be sure I never gave off the wrong message to any man. I rarely dated and remained celibate for the next three years. I felt unworthy and I distrusted men, which led to my often sabotaging relationships before they ever got started.  

I started researching sexual assault, including drug-induced sexual assault, attempting to understand its effects. I discovered that in the United States, a woman is sexually assaulted every 73 seconds and that drug-induced assault has steadily increased over the past 20 years, with perpetrators easily slipping substances into the beverages of their victims. I read of the guilt and shame numerous women have lived with, feelings that in many ways mirrored my own.

On one level, we know we have been violated, but we move past that to a state of fixating on what we did wrong: We put ourselves in the situation; we drank too much alcohol; we dressed too sexy; we gave them the wrong message by flirting or being too friendly; we didn’t fight back hard enough; we didn’t fight back at all. The list goes on and on. But I felt something else for these women: empathy, compassion and admiration ― feelings I hadn’t allowed for myself.  

“I still wish I’d made a different decision that night, but I no longer accept responsibility for the crime committed against me.”

It has been 15 years since that night in the hotel. I went back to therapy (with a new, fantastic therapist) and learned that though I was victimized, I did not have to remain a victim. This was extremely empowering to me.  

I remember I read a quote by Maya Angelou that said, “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.” That became my motto and led me to read other books on healing and empowerment. I began a daily regimen of prayer, meditation and exercise and slowly shed the layer of shame that was suffocating me.   

I still wish I’d made a different decision that night, but I no longer accept responsibility for the crime committed against me. The responsibility I now hold is for my continued healing in its aftermath.  

A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a woman who had been severely abused by her partner of seven years. She told me what she had done to make her boyfriend become angry and abusive towards her. “I was drunk,” she told me. “I was being a real bitch.”

Then I heard myself tell her the words I now know in my heart to be true: “Listen to me — I don’t care how drunk you were. I don’t care how much of a bitch you were. You did not deserve what he did to you. Not ever. This is not your fault.”  

Tammy Rabideau is a writer living in Madison, Wisconsin. Her writing has been featured in The New York Times, Rebelle Society, and other publications. She is working on a memoir based on her New York Times Modern Love essay. You can follow her on Twitter at @TammyRabideau2.

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