For the longest time, I would try to downplay the incident.
Do you see what I did there? It's been 10 years and my go-to is still to downplay it. Call it The Incident. Maybe if I'm feeling extra self-aware, I'll call it The Assault. But then I think about it and remember things, and it takes a lot of self-control not to backtrack.
Because I remember the night. I remember how, up until that night, I considered him a close friend. Someone I had known for years. Someone I could trust. I remember how I had always been that good, studious kid who always made good, intelligent decisions. Never drank in high school. Rarely if ever drank even as I had started college. I had listened to what the orientation leaders advised before move-in and I was following their recommendations to the T. Never drank out of punch bowls at parties. Was always in control of my faculties. Walked home with friends. If there were a test for sexual assault prevention, I would've received a gold star.
And I remember what he said afterwards, to one of my friends. I remember how he said that he could've done more. Could've done worse. And I would think about my friends -- a frighteningly long list of friends -- who did have worse done to them. My Incident looked so tame in comparison.
I would think about how he genuinely believed that what he did wasn't assault. I would think about how, especially in 2005, the concept of a guy taking advantage of a girl who is passed out wasn't considered sexual assault, but part and parcel of the college experience. Sleep through a morning class. Cram for your finals. Molest a female as she lays motionless on her friend's bed.
But then I remember how I was aware enough to know what was going on, and to know that I wanted it to stop. And I remember being too drunk to get my body to do what I needed it to do to make it stop. And I remember crying in the shower the morning after.
I remember telling myself that it was my fault. I was a lightweight. Rarely, if ever, drank, remember? I should've known that just because my friends could have four or five drinks and be unaffected, that didn't mean I could. That just because I was at a friend's house and not some stranger's party, that didn't mean I was suddenly in the clear. I remember talking about The Incident to a friend. He looked me dead in the eyes and said:
"Abby, that was rape."
"No, no, no," I responded, actually shooing away the thought with my hand. "That was me being dumb."
That was the start of a long line of downplaying. I catalogued the experience as a mistake and went on with my life. A nice, normal life. No horrifying flashbacks. No triggering moments. Never once did I stop a boyfriend, recoiling away as he kissed me or as his hand went up my shirt. Never once did I smell vodka and become repulsed. I still dated and I still hooked up and I still had fun. I still went out and I still enjoyed the occasional drink. I cut off contact with the guy who caused The Incident. I graduated college with highest honors, got married, settled down. Life was on a nice, normal path.
And then the Steubenville Rape case went to trial.
For those who don't remember, the Steubenville Rape case centered around a young girl who, while passed out, was repeatedly assaulted by two of her classmates. That Incident was originally swept under the rug, and it took national attention to actually start a proper investigation.
People had a lot to say about that young girl. That she should've known better. That it was her fault for getting so drunk in the first place. That it was just boys being boys, that it hadn't been full-on sex, that the boys' lives shouldn't be compromised because she couldn't hold her alcohol. Celebrities were even weighing in The Incident, about whether or not the girl should be blamed and what other girls should do to get that gold star on the sexual assault prevention test.
I listened to what they were saying. I saw the pictures on the news, with the victim's face blurred out. I thought about her situation. I thought about what they were saying about her, and how it was all things I had once said about and to myself. I thought about my Incident, and how the friend I had known since kindergarten was the one who came into the room and pulled him off of me. I remember her words vividly: "She's passed out. You know better." I thought about that, and I thought about how the girl in Steubenville didn't have anyone to pull those guys away.
And I spent the entire duration of that case completely and totally ill.
I was emotional wreck. I lost my appetite. Little things were making me cry. I'd turn on the news and get sick to my stomach. I heard the verdict and the reactions to the verdict and I wondered if I'd ever stop feeling like I'd want to find a corner, curl into the fetal position and remain there for the rest of my life.
At that point, it had been nearly seven years since my Incident. Seven years since a semi-well-meaning boy took advantage of a semi-passed-out girl. Seven years since an Incident that, to this day, I don't think he counts as any type of wrong-doing. Just a guy hoping to get with the cute girl of the group.
Seven years later, and just the news headlines were making my stomach churn.
It was then that I fully understood: You can call it The Incident and blame yourself and point out the good intentions of the guy and the expectations society has on women to prevent things like this. You can downplay and minimize and go on with your life. It doesn't matter. Assault is assault. Rape is rape. And you don't realize how deeply it can affect you until you turn on the news and it feels like you can see your own face in that blurred out picture.
Need help? In the U.S., visit the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline operated by RAINN. For more resources, visit the National Sexual Violence Resource Center's website.