A Victim No More
by Trudi Wood
Somewhere in America, a woman is raped every two minutes. I hope that's a shocking statistic. I hope that whoever reads this isn't as familiar with that little statistic as I am.
In the autumn of 1969, after Woodstock, which I didn't attend...and following the summer of free love, which I also missed, I moved 150 miles away from home to a college dorm where I learned more about life than I did about college work. My friends were all lovely, petite blonds who never lacked for dates. I was the lucky blond who possessed that dating sting of death - the great personality. I was embarrassingly shy, totally inept when it came to flirting, and as naive as any midwestern country girl could be. However, there was hope.
My roommate was a senior and had tons of dates. She taught me how to dress, how to wear makeup, and how to flirt better. We often double-dated. I went to some cool parties, and met some very nice young men. I trusted her judgement totally; she loved me like a sister. So, when she became engaged, she bequeathed to me the honor of dating her left-overs. It was the spring of 1970 and for the first time in my life, I was getting to be popular. It was wonderful! For a while...
In early spring, after she'd announced her engagement, one of her favorite escorts called. He was a Marine, a Green Beret at that, and was home on leave for only three more days. I'd always enjoyed going out with servicemen; I hated the Vietnam war, but I loved the servicemen. My roommate couldn't say enough about how nice he was, and I looked forward to going out with him.
I dressed in my prettiest pink skirt and sheer white blouse with a long sweater over it. We were going to a drive-in movie to see "Midnight Cowboy." He was late, and I was waiting, a little embarrassed, thinking I'd been stood up. He arrived with the excuse that he'd had to borrow his mom's car, a station wagon. In the back seat was a well-stocked cooler of beer. I should have been worried.
We were late to the movie and it was dark. He popped a beer and gave me one. Then he talked a lot of small talk and drank another beer. He started kissing me; I'd anticipated that, and he was a good kisser. Then his hand groped inside my blouse. I pulled away, and he called me a tease. I wasn't. His hands were all over me - inside my blouse, under my skirt, tearing at my pantyhose, and tugging at my panties. I kept pushing him away, and he kept at it. Soon, pushing became struggling...the blouse was torn, the pantyhose ripped and the panties down. He picked up his beer and poured some down my crotch. Then his hand was inside me. I fought him and cried and begged and he persisted. He used the bottle to pry my legs apart and ran the smooth, cold brown lip of the bottle up and down my vulva and eventually inside me. I was mortified.
I fought. I scratched and screamed. He persisted, then as suddenly as he began he stopped. I stared at him, and he said, "Okay, calm down. I'll stop raping you. Sheesh. I'm taking you home." And he did.
When I walked into the dorm, my roommate saw me and asked what happened and I told her he tried to rape me. I was a mess; my clothes were torn; my hair was a disaster; my makeup tear-streaked. She was really upset, and I was grateful for her comfort. Then she said she couldn't believe I hadn't let him have a little sex...it was practically my patriotic duty. She laughed. The other girls did to. The dorm mother told me I should have had more common sense then to go on a blind date in the first place. She told me it was my own fault, what did I expect? I was sent to my room for a shower and bed.
And that was that.
It's been more than thirty years, yet I still recall his breath--tinged with the smell of Marlboros and flavored with Budweiser. When I least expect it, at the most inopportune moments, ringing through my head is the resounding theme of the evening: it's your own damned fault. But, I think it's time to set the record straight.
I believe that who I am, the person I've become, is a direct result of all the people I've met and the events I've experienced. Most of those people and those times have been positive and rewarding encounters. However, I've learned from the bad times as well as the good. So, I try to concentrate on the good times and people, but the not-so-good ones often come back to haunt me. What that young man did to me was deplorable, but what truly haunts me isn't his actions nearly so much as the reactions of the people I turned to for solace. I really want to believe that society has come a long way since those days.
Today we know that rape is not an act of sex, but a violent attempt to gain control over another person. It's been used for years to keep women subservient. It's been used as a weapon of war to demoralize entire civilizations. There is no worse pain to inflict on a society than the degradation of its mothers, its grandmothers, its daughters.
As a whole we can look at those people who perpetrate this atrocity and we can condemn their actions. Rape is not acceptable behavior. It's mean. It hurts the victim and everyone who loves the victim. It damages the fiber of the social structure. It's pure evil to hurt someone's body and leave their soul in tatters. Society can acknowledge this, but on the whole people still fall short of dealing fairly with victims of rape.
At one time I asked myself what would have happened if I'd insisted on reporting my attack. The answer clearly is nothing. I would have been further humiliated. In 1969, women were only beginning to gain power. At that time, most state penal codes continued to base evidence in rape cases on codes established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Evidence of rape required corroboration in most cases; who was going to be able to provide an unbiased witness? The victim's past sexual history was admissible as evidence, but not the rapist's. Judges in many states were required to direct the jury that "rape is the easiest charge to make and the most difficult to prove." Clearly, courts could legally say, "It's her own damned fault!"
According to statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, in 1996 only 31% of rapes and sexual assaults were reported to police. Those numbers tell me that people are afraid. However, I don't think it's their attacker that frightens them as much as the reactions of other people. Investigation of a rape claim involves medical care where evidence is logged, embarrassing questions are asked and where the victim is guilty until proven innocent. No matter how empathetic the investigator, the victim of sexual assault must relive the incident again and again. Our courts rarely allow tape recorded evidence, so victims must face attackers again. The prospect is beyond frightening.
Today there are many organizations willing to help women recover from rape. Courts are more likely to protect the rights of a victim than they were able to in the past. In short, society has had it. The women's movement of the seventies forced changes in legislation, and today women can get help instead of facing isolation. One of the most readily available is RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network) whose confidential 1-800-656-HOPE number assists assault victims in finding help through a network of local rape crisis centers. Such centers give today's assault victims something that I never had: someone to listen.
Talking is most likely the simplest way to deal with any kind of problem, but talking about something so intimately embarrassing as sexual assault is vital to recovery. I never mentioned the incident to my family. I told my husband, but he told me not to worry about that anymore. My friends who knew thought I'd just blown the whole thing out of proportion. It wasn't until a college class on criminal investigation that the horror of the assault blew up in my face. As a young rape victim described her assault to our class, I fell apart. When I left the room, my professor followed and sat with me. He advised me to tell my doctor what had happened. When I did, she sent me to a therapist. Through therapy I was able to let the pain of the memories go where they belonged...into the past. Through therapy I let go of my feelings of guilt.
After the rape, all I had was guilt. I felt like I'd let everyone down. I was a good girl, but I had made bad choices. I was just not mature enough. I refused any other dates and moved to a different dorm room. I hid most of the time. I felt that no one liked me. I felt ugly again. Then a girl from the other end of the hall came to see me. She told me how sorry she was for what had happened. She told me of a nice young man she wanted me to meet. I was stunned. She kept telling me how nice he was, and with the promise that we'd never be alone, she finally convinced me to go out with her and her boyfriend on a double date. I think she thought if I'd just go out again I'd be okay...kinda like riding a bicycle. I was a nervous wreck, but he was a nice young man. We did have a good evening. I married him a year later, and we've been married for more than twenty-eight years.
So you see, I truly am a composite character. All those events helped form me into the person I am today. I'm the first one to listen to anyone who needs an open mind and a willing ear. In that way, I've turned what was a terrifying incident into a life-affirming experience. Those people who failed to support me at that time were ignorant. I'm here to say that ignorance is a curable disease. I intend to keep talking and telling this story. I hope other survivors will do the same.
Silence isn't golden; it's not peaceful; it's selfish. Keeping quiet about this hasn't helped me. Keeping quiet allowed this person who attacked me to continue to degrade me. As long as I was afraid, he was winning. Rape is a violent act destined to make the victim subservient and leave the victim demoralized. Well, no thanks. I refuse to own that guilt any longer.
The following statistics are from the U.S.Department of Justice:
One of every four rapes take place in a public area or in a parking garage.
The RAINN hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) began operating on July 26, 1994. Over 4,000 victims called the hotline in its first thirty days. In cooperation with 760 rape crisis centers across the country, the hotline has already helped more than 200,000 survivors of sexual assault. Their website at http://www.rainn.org is a wealth of information.
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Trudi Wood is a misplaced Hoosier living in Florida who has been married longer than she was single. Trudi has three basically grown sons, a sweet old dog, and a terrorist bunny rabbit. She has a degree in criminology with a focus on history and juvenile justice and wants to save the world, but is still trying to figure out from what.