At first, he stood motionless, his eyes staring through me. Then, rather suddenly, he began to hyperventilate. I felt my body grow tense and prepare for flight. I said his name softly and began to ask if he was OK, but then I faltered. His eyes were fixed on me now.
“I’ll give you money, if that’s what you want.” No sooner had he spat out the words than he was hunkering down, crumbling onto the floor and begging me not to go to the police. “My career would be over,” he said, barely audible.
As I looked at him — a tall, broad-shouldered man reduced to a pathetic heap — I felt sorry for him. I crept toward him and placed my hand on his back. Drawing gentle circles with my palm, I felt some of the tension leave my body as I heard his breathing get slower and steadier.
Not more than 24 hours before, he — my ex-boyfriend — and I had had a momentous episode of what I then chose to call “bad sex,” during which he had gripped me with the aggressive force of a man on a solo mission. A man hellbent on completing a task. Not once had he looked up to see my face. It would have all made more sense if I had been a headless object.
And yet there I was, still breathing, still thinking, still feeling each and every thrust, like a human being.
After it had happened, I got dressed, we had breakfast and I signed into a work meeting online. COVID-19 restrictions had only just been lifted in most British workplaces, and remote work was still common. We ordered takeout. We watched a movie that had just been released on Netflix. He slept over another night.
On some deeper level, I always knew that what had happened was rape. Still, when I was finally able to confront my ex, I felt like an impostor. Even after he tried to pay me off, I still questioned whether what I had experienced was real. For months, I remained obsessed with the microcalculations.
How much time — precisely — elapsed between my saying “no” and his deciding to penetrate me anyway? I might not have said it loud enough, or maybe he thought I had changed my mind.
Did I make any other sounds? I might have given him the wrong idea, or maybe he thought I was still enjoying it (despite being frozen).
What was the physical pain on a scale of 1-10? Perhaps I imagined that it was worse than it was, since I was left with no physical injuries.
When I spoke to a rape crisis volunteer, I explained that my withdrawal of consent occurred in the middle of sex — a statement that I prefaced with an apology. At some subterranean level of my consciousness, this was not just an extenuating circumstance but a failure on my part. Sensing this, the volunteer offered me a metaphor.
“Imagine that I lent you my phone, and later, when I asked for it back, you refused to return it to me. Wouldn’t that be wrong?”
Yes, it would be wrong, I acknowledged without hesitation. But why? Why was it wrong to steal my phone and not my body?
Society upholds a traditional narrative of victimhood that is almost impossible to live up to — one that might better be described as mythology than an accurate reflection of the truth. We — survivors of rape — are expected to make a coherent narrative out of something that is utterly incoherent. Not only are we expected to feel a certain way, but to act according to certain predetermined formulas.
The “real” victim is expected to fight, to scream, to spit and to mobilize her body instantly with unshakable courage. The “real” victim, who lives a hypervigilant and sober life, wears high-waisted mom panties as a sex repellent. The “real” victim is accosted outside by a stranger — ideally some one-dimensional predator who lacks any relatable human qualities.
The “real” victim shouts no repeatedly to make it clear to any passing witnesses and her assailant that she does not consent to what is happening. If she manages to escape, she is marked with a black eye or a bruised body or a torn-up vagina — some indisputable seal of legitimacy.
The “real” victim is not raped by her boyfriend or spouse in her own bed. She does not see or speak to her rapist again, much less comfort him and invite him to stay another night. She does not feel confusion or hesitation or, God forbid, residual feelings of love.
No, I was not a “real” victim. If something had happened, it was located further down the rape hierarchy. I was sitting apologetically somewhere toward the bottom, where even though we might still call it rape, what we really mean is gray-area rape — or “grape,” as comedian Amy Schumer christened it.
Today, almost 2 years later, my memory of the whole event — including the days before and after — is sparse. I remember it in fragments and scraps that are rarely in sequential order. But amid the haze, there remains that one vivid clip: I see his face fixated on my lower body, and I hear him panting.
This memory is different from the rest. It feels disconnected from my body, as though it should belong to someone else. Whenever I am brought back to that moment, I find myself in a dizzyingly cubist universe in which I have only genitals and no face.
Rape is terrifying not only because of the physical reality of being invaded, but because you find that your “self” has been split in ways you never thought possible. In the absence of desire or consent, my metaphorical “spirit” withdrew from my body as a matter of survival. And that was the part of me — removed from the physical theater — that could acknowledge the absurdity of what was happening. That is the part of me that remembers.
Despite innumerable attempts to make sense of it, I have learned that rape does not follow any predictable logic. I have also learned to forgive myself for “failing” to conform to the cultural myth of the “perfect victim.”
Even if the man was your partner, even if your consent was withdrawn during sex and even if you were not left with any visible injuries, it still counts as rape. According to National Sexual Violence Resource Center in Pennsylvania, about half of female rape survivors were raped by an intimate partner. In addition, national studies in the U.S. have found that the majority of survivors do not receive a physical injury.
There is no “right way” to respond to being raped. If it is possible, we might try to escape. But sometimes we might judge that in the moment, it is safer to stay where we are. Citing the research findings of social psychologist Shelley Taylor, Marissa Korbel wrote in a 2018 Harper’s Bazaar article that “women [often] calm their aggressors down, and try to tend to the emotional needs of themselves and others, instead of escalating by violence, or attempting to flee.”
No matter how we respond, the words of Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl might offer us a small ounce of relief: “An abnormal reaction to an abnormal situation is normal behavior.”
Just as there is no right response, there is no right ending. The fictional narrative finds its neat conclusion, following a smooth arc from initial crisis to final resolution. Along the way, the strength and resilience of the heroine is championed, and we are offered a series of logical life lessons, not to mention a generous dose of inspiration.
But if there is one thing I have learned, it is that real life defies our demands for a neat resolution. While it is tempting to say that I have closed the book on this traumatic chapter of life, the truth is that I am still healing. And as I write this, I remind myself that although there was a time when I did not think I could survive, I have.
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Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.