I Thought He Might Rape Me

Posted April 3rd, 2014 by Duken

The Events

I was driving back from a conference with one of the guys from my laboratory, I’ll call him S. It had been an exciting day, and we were both in excellent mood, talking about our childhood and our families. Sometimes, he would take his hand off the stick shift and put it on my thigh, or he would take my hand and stroke it softly. I felt uncomfortable, and wasn’t sure how to stop him, but I otherwise enjoyed the conversation and I didn’t want to ruin the atmosphere by being rude. Sometimes he moved his hand along my inner thigh, and then I took his hand and moved it away again, but apart from this I let him continue.

An Unexpected “Hug”

When we arrived back at the lab, we both wanted to quickly check our email. The building was practically deserted at this time of day (almost everybody had been at the conference). We entered through the back door and had to walk through several corridors and unlock several passage doors, until we reached the lab (I mention this only since it later added to my sense of possibly being trapped in the building). We both checked our email, and kept chatting, and then I remember standing against the wall and suddenly he comes towards me, grabs me and starts kissing me in the face, his breathing becoming heavier. I wanted to push him away, but my arms were trapped against my body due to his strong embrace. I tried to walk away, moving towards him (the direction of the door) and we momentarily both lost balance. For a moment I felt myself lifted from the ground. Then I regained balance and freed myself from his embrace. I was careful not to embarrass S and started talking about some email that I had received about violence in my home country, which had caused the death of several citizens. I thought this might explain my sudden mood change. Then I said, “Let’s get out of here.” We both walked out of the building. To my relief, the main entrance was unlocked. I said good-bye and walked away.

Something Does Not Feel Right

My first thoughts were those of guilt: “How could I be so stupid to go with S to the lab after all that had already happened in the car?” I also knew that guilt, while typical in those situations, is usually unwarranted. I decided to talk with my roommate (and best friend). I called her at her boyfriend’s and asked her not to come home too late, since there was something I needed to talk to her about. She asked me if she should come right away and I said this was not necessary. I hang up and started to feel worse and worse. Five minutes later I called her again, asking her to please come immediately. During the half hour it took her to come home, I leafed through an English dictionary, hoping to find words that would express what had just happened. When she arrived I pointed to a word and said, I think this just happened to me, does that make sense? She looked at the word and said, yes, it does make sense, but it is something serious. I said: “Yes, then that is probably what happened.” I sat down on my bed, she hugged me, I started crying, and told her the story. My main worry at this point was that I had to drive in the same car with S to the conference the next day, and I didn’t know how to handle this. I thought about how I would be able to respond if he approached me again. Almost the whole night I was lying awake, trying to practice how I was going to say “no”, and in the morning I was confident I would be able to do it. The car ride remained more or less event-free: after a few minutes S commented that I was not in a good mood today. I replied: “No, I am not.” and that was the extent of our conversation as far as I remember. During the following week he once kissed me on my forehead (approaching me from behind while I was working at my desk) but since I continued being cold towards him he apparently lost interest and kept to himself.

What’s The Big Deal?

I felt horrible and did not really know why. I sat through lectures without listening to a single word of what was said, and soon stopped attending classes altogether. I just sat in my dorm room, stared into empty space and wondered what was happening. When my friend was around I would tell her over and over again the events of the fateful evening. She was a patient listener who did not point out even once that I had already told her the story. Perhaps a week later, I suddenly remembered something important. I told her that when I was uplifted in the air (in S’s embrace), I was thinking: “What is going on? What is going on? What is going on?” Remembering this lead to an important realization. I understood that it was impossible to say “no” or “stop it” at that moment, simply because my brain was busy doing something else: figuring out what was going on. I also remembered that in those moments where I was trying to figure out what was going on, I considered briefly the possibility that I getting raped and realized that I had completely lost control over what was going to happen to me.

Being Powerless

If the guy wanted to rape me there was nothing I could do. He was stronger, and already had me physically under control (I was in the air). Screaming would likely be pointless since we were presumably alone in the building. That tiny fraction of a second where this thought had passed through my brain sent me into hell. I cannot very well describe the experience. It was like looking into a very, very deep black hole that sucks you in, and you know you won’t be able to do anything about it. If the guy really wants to rape you, you are powerless. All you can do is wait to have terrible things happen to you, you might get sucked in very slowly, it might be excruciatingly painful, it could take hours or the rest of your life, and all you can do is watch this happen to you.

Suddenly I understood that what had happened to me was not “a guy giving me a hug I didn’t like” but thinking for a second that I might get raped without being able to do anything about it.

And this thought had changed my life, which was now only about one thing: never to look into this hole again. What my life had been about before, like searching for happiness, having fun, enjoying relationships, all that was just a faint and distant memory, a memory that somehow had completely lost its meaning. In a word, I was in a severe crisis.

The Crisis

Blaming Myself

Understanding that the cause of my crisis was essentially my own thought “I might get raped, and I am completely helpless.” allowed me to somehow consider my colleague as more or less “innocent”. I said to myself that he had acted in a very insensitive way, but that he had not intended to hurt me, and probably was completely unaware of having done so. On the positive side, this allowed me to resume normal relations with S. I remember that when he moved to another country a few months later, I gave him a farewell card in which I wrote that I would miss him; this shows how well I was able to suppress all negative feelings towards him. On the downside, declaring him innocent forced me to take responsibility for what happened myself, and made me feel very bad.

Forgiving Myself

I kept asking myself difficult questions: Why did I join S in the lab after all the touching he had done in the car? Why did I look so happy and radiant, and smiled at him, thus inviting his attack? Why did I not defend myself and say “Stop it”, “I don’t like it”, or simply “No”? It seemed like all that I was concerned about in this situation was not to embarrass him. How could I be so mean to myself, just standing there and waiting to let others hurt me? I had lost my self-respect, and I couldn’t trust myself anymore. I spent many, many hours trying to understand why I had not defended myself. I found my peace again when I realized that my behavior was not based on bad will but on ignorance. I had been totally naive about the consequences this episode would have on me. If I had had only the slightest idea of how badly I would get hurt, I would have acted.

Trusting Others Again

In the first week after it happened I swore to myself that I would never smile again and I would never share my happiness with other people, because then I took a chance that they would feel invited to attack me. Never ever would I be so naïve again. Life became a big technical problem. For about one week I was hiding out, but then it was clear that I would have to overcome some of my fears in the long run, if I wanted to live a comparatively normal life again. I remember that trust used to be something that was natural to me. It was my default. After the attack it became more like a conscious choice, an effort I make. It was not like I trusted people because I thought people are nice. I trusted them because this was how I wanted to live. I pulled all my courage together and started doing again things that normally sound harmless but were challenging to me, such as walking on a public street and going shopping in a supermarket. Whenever a person was innocently passing me on the street I could feel my heart beating in my chest. Most of the fear went away over the next weeks, and after a few months, I did not think about the experience anymore very often.

The Confrontation

Going “Crazy”

A year later, when I was under high pressure with exams, S returned unexpectedly for a visit, with the plan to work in our lab for a few weeks. The encounter was unexpected and I was totally unprepared. I suddenly started shaking because of the strong emotions I felt and had to leave the building. A colleague and good friend noticed that something was going on, and accompanied me for a walk. I told him in very vague words what was going on. I tried to return to work and study for the exams, but somehow I could not concentrate on anything anymore. I felt like I was going crazy and knew that I needed to do something about the situation.

Asking for Help

I considered talking to my advisor (who also was S’s advisor), so that he would not perhaps ask me to collaborate closely with S. I had a very good relationship with my advisor, but considered it unacceptable to complain to him about S, without ever having gone to S directly. This evening I called my parents and told them for the first time what had happened a year ago (without details); they thought that talking to my advisor was a very good idea.

Preparing myself for the conversation with my roommate, I remember wondering what I could say when entering his office. I did not want to go into his office and simply start crying, but wanted to say at least one sentence first (I could not imagine being able to complete more than one sentence without breaking in tears). I decided I would simply say: “I am very upset.” and then take it from there. In the morning, before my exam I alerted my advisor that I needed to talk to him after the exam. I took my friend with me to the lab, because I was afraid waiting there alone until my advisor would be available.

I do not remember the details of my conversation with my advisor. I related to him that S had approached me in a sexual way closer than it was comfortable for me, and that because of this I had a problem with him and would be grateful if I were not asked to work together with him. My advisor was very concerned and wanted to know what exactly had happened, but I declined to give any details. I told him that I believed others would consider the situation harmless, and that I did not want to end up in a situation where I had to justify why it was not OK for me. My advisor said that he would try his best to keep me away from S, and he added that he would consider it very important to let S know that he had somehow overstepped my boundaries, so that he could learn for the future. I said I did not want him to discuss the matter with S and he respected this.

Later, when I thought our conversation over, I realized how my advisor wanted to know what had happened simply because he wanted to know what was going on in his lab. I could understand his perspective, and decided to tell him the details, preparing myself as well as I could for a dismissive reaction. I remember very well my advisors reaction to when he heard my story. He paced up and down his office, took out a cigarette, which was very rare, and was obviously upset. He asked me why I had said the day before that there were different ways of looking at this and he would like to know who would consider this harmless; that he never expected one of his students to be so stupid and not realize that this was not the way to have an affair; and that he would like to take back statements that he made the day before about cultural differences possibly playing a role. He mentioned again that he would very much like to talk to S, but I said I was afraid of being confronted by S afterwards.

Anger

I think it was mostly my advisor’s anger and total support of me that made me look at the situation from a different perspective. For example, he asked me if S had never apologized, which he hadn’t, but this opened my eyes to the fact S was not totally innocent in an objective way. Over the next few days I got very angry and considered allowing my advisor to confront S. Around the same time I also noticed that even when S was not around at work I was so nervous about him arriving any minute that I could not concentrate on my work.

Standing Up for Myself

I talked again with my advisor and told him that I would be willing to let him talk to S, and that I would be willing to meet with S and him together afterwards, if he wanted to apologize or something; but that I would otherwise only come to work if I could be sure that S was not around, meaning that we needed to work out a schedule for when he could come to work, and when I could come to work. My advisor was not happy about the idea of a schedule, but accepted it since I insisted that this was what I needed. I remember that it was very empowering to me to ask for what I needed, and even to overcome some (admittedly rather minor) resistance to ensure those needs were met. This was in stark contrast to my behavior during the original event, where my only concern was not to embarrass S.

Confronting the Harasser

My advisor talked to S, and then he called me to come to his office as well. The confrontation was very difficult for me. S was hurt and probably also angry. He asked me if I considered him an animal or something, from what I had told our advisor. I told him that I did not consider him an animal but that what he had done had hurt me very much. I remember how difficult it was for me to let him know that he had hurt me. It made me vulnerable all over again, as I was admitting to him my own weakness, namely that I had not been strong enough to handle the situation without getting hurt. But while it was difficult, I felt it was my right, and probably my duty, to let him know about the feelings I had as a result of his actions. And after all that I had been through, I knew this to be the truest truth: I had been terribly hurt.

I thought, he can argue with me about whether he did anything wrong, but he cannot argue with me about my feelings. But in fact, he did try to dispute my feelings: he suggested that at the time I probably didn’t think any of it, and that now I got angry for some other reason and made up this story. I told him this was not true, and if he wanted he could call my roommate who would be happy to confirm that I had been crying through the whole night after the incidence. He believed me and was much more silent afterwards. Being able to say this truth into his face was one of the more powerful moments in my life. It meant that my subjective truth was important enough so that I would say something that would likely be unpleasant for him, and potentially really bother him. S did apologize to me, and I accepted his apology. My advisor asked several times if he should leave the two of us alone for a while, but I refused this.

Fear

For a few days, we did not see each other as a result of our schedule. But then, one evening, there was a misunderstanding about the schedule, so I met him again. I had been told that I could go to the Lab in the evening, and I waited some more time to be sure. At 8pm, I walked with a friend across campus, and when I saw there was still light in the office, I asked my friend (who knew what was going on) if she would mind to join me, just to make sure he was not there. When I walked up the stairs I noticed my knees were shaking in fear, and I wondered what I was afraid of. Even in my wildest dreams I could not imagine that S would ever try anything on me again. So what exactly was I afraid of? When we reached the office S was indeed there. As soon as he saw me he wanted to leave, he was very polite and apologetic (even though I do not believe that the misunderstanding was his fault). My friend thought wanted to wait for him to leave, but I was already on my way out, leaving the building as fast as I could, shaking, and totally out of control. The brief face-to-face confrontation, however, did have one positive effect: it helped me to figure out what I was afraid of. I was afraid of my own rage, the rage I felt when facing him. The rage was so strong that I felt totally out of control, as if I were about to explode. And I was shaking out of fear, because I was afraid to feel that rage in its fullness. It didn’t make sense to me, that feeling an emotion was something so terrifying, but I was sure that this was what was going on.

Resolution

Curiosity

I remember calling my parents what to do about fear. My father gave me a very useful piece of advise: sometimes, fear can be overcome by curiosity. Maybe I could ask myself, what exactly makes me so angry about seeing S. I went for a long walk, trying to get into this mind set, and I soon stopped shaking. After about an hour I realized I didn’t care anymore about this “stupid and insensitive S”, and I decided to tell him he could show up in the lab whenever he wanted. My friends were very concerned when they heard me talk like this (“now she is going crazy seriously”), but I felt I knew what I was doing.

Generosity

The next day I walked into the office (on S’s scheduled time) and found him in my advisor’s office. I told him that he could come now whenever, I didn’t care anymore. This was a second very empowering moment. Essentially I was telling him that he had lost power over me. I didn’t care anymore about him. A second empowering dimension of this moment was the feeling that I could be generous towards him, i.e., I was no longer controlled by the experience with him, but I could let go and be generous (allowing him to work on his own schedule).

I went over to the office and started working, and for the first time in a week, I could actually concentrate. Later one of my friends from the office stopped by, he touched my shoulder like wanting to express some, great you are feeling better now, but I thought it was S and I said, “Please don’t do this, I don’t like it.” When I noticed I had made a mistake I had to laugh, but I also knew that from now on I would be able to stand up for myself in a situation like this, and this was a very good feeling.

Emptiness

For a day I was in a triumphant mood, but when I woke up the next morning, I felt completely empty. I remember that my friend told me something that would usually have evoked rather strong emotions, but it was like there were no feelings anymore in me. Instead of feeling anything, all I could notice was a very soft trembling, like from exhaustion. I was apparently breaking down. Perhaps I had hoped that all the trouble would be over now, but while I had “solved” the major issue, it became clear that healing and recovery would still take some time. I tried to accept the feeling of emptiness as an inevitable consequence of what had happened (not something I had caused through some incompetence of mine). I also realized that this emptiness represented a chance that something different and possibly better would come to replace this emptiness and fill me. And this is also what happened, but perhaps this is too difficult and personal to describe here in a few words.

Healing

Healing did take a long time. I met S about once a year at conferences. During the first years I tried to avoid him and was experiencing a lot of discomfort when seeing him, but a few years later those feelings went away. I started looking forward to seeing him, and enjoyed this company and jokes, and we even went out for lunch together during one of those meetings. I think it means I could really leave this episode behind me. It seems like a miracle to me.

Comments are closed.