*content warning: rape
I shouldn’t have been at the party. But I had a brand-new tattoo to show off, and my mom thought I was spending the night at my best friend’s house — the perfect recipe, in my 16-year-old brain, for a good time.
Besides, how could I pass up the chance to show the guy who’d broken my heart how okay I finally was? The party, after all, was at his parents’ house, though technically thrown by his younger brother who was closer to my age.
It was the house where I’d met J.D., when I was 14 and hanging out with a group of friends that included his brother Josh. Fresh from a stint in the Army, he was a buzzcut blonde with piercing blue eyes and a penchant for going shirtless. And from the first moment I felt those blue eyes swivel in my direction, I was hooked. It didn’t raise a single red flag in my mind that I was 14 and he was 21; to me, it felt like validation that I was different than the other girls my age, that I was worth the attention of not just a male, but a male that wasn’t a gangly adolescent.
Of course, when we started dating and I introduced him to my mom, I told her that he was 18; she objected enough to that much of an age difference, so there’s no way she would’ve let me see him if I’d disclosed his actual age.
Being 21, he was the legal buyer of all the alcohol for the high school parties his brother threw, and he drank – a lot. He had gotten his license revoked for a DWI, and had no job to speak of, so he sat at home most days of the week drowning his angst in liquor. I never knew which version of J.D. I’d get when I walked over to his house after school. Most of the time it was the sobbing, piteous version. I had never seen a man cry and I have always been a soft-hearted person, so I was touched that he could be so vulnerable with me about all his self-loathing. I would reassure him that he was wonderful and worthy of all the good things life has to offer and not alone — you have me, right? It was always intense and exhausting, but I felt a rush, like I’d spent that emotional energy on a good cause: saving him from these demons that threatened to consume him.
Some days, though, he was just mean. He would tell me dismissively that I was a kid, that I didn’t know anything about how the world worked. And then I would cry, which seemed to make him feel better.
It was my idea to have sex with him. Because kids don’t have sex, right? If I were a kid, would I be ready to take this step? I’d show him exactly how much of a woman I was. And so, under a Mickey Mouse blanket on a bedroom floor, a 14-year-old girl lost her virginity to a 21-year-old man.
I saw nothing wrong with it. I felt mature. Special. But 14-year-olds aren’t known for their ability to make sound decisions.
We were together for over a year, and his emotional lows got worse along with his drinking. He started threatening suicide. He threw things at me when he got angry, including a glass bottle once, which shattered into a million shards on the garage wall right beside my stunned head. But I loved him, this broken individual, or so I thought. And because I loved him, it was my job to rescue him. I left school routinely in the middle of the day, via some lame excuse to the secretary, to check on him. My concern for J.D. was desperate and all-consuming. But that was love. Right?
It all came crashing down the afternoon I found out he was cheating – with a girl who was younger than me. I tracked him down at her house and our relationship culminated in a heated argument, a physical fight, and me trying to push him off her porch. But I was just as furious with her, seeing her as a man-stealing tramp, not a vulnerable adolescent. “You can have him, you whore!” I screamed.
It was my first heartbreak, from a guy who — in my idealistic, childlike fantasies — I thought I’d be with forever. I was devastated, because kids have big feelings. But as breakups go, especially when you’re in high school, I wasn’t down for long. I noticed there were other boys to chase. So by the time I was 16 and heading to the party thrown by J.D.’s brother, I was so over him. Like, so over him. J.D. who?
When we were together, J.D.’s drinking had kept me from drinking myself — somebody had to be the rational one. But in his absence, my teenage rebellion began, and I drank. I don’t remember what I was drinking at the party, but I do know that it was enough to make me pass out at the kitchen table. I was carried to a bedroom. I vaguely recall being tucked into a bed.
Then, my next memory: the weight of someone else on the mattress, someone creeping up from the foot of the bed through the darkness. The fingers hurriedly tugging at the button of my jeans, pulling the waistband down. The damp palm clamped over my mouth when I protested. My futile attempt to lock my knees together, and their being pried roughly apart. The “Shshshshshsh” he blew into my ear as noises escaped my throat, like trying to shush a crying infant.
“It’s me,” J.D. whispered, as if that made anything better. It didn’t.
“I don’t want this,” I tried to say, but it sounded garbled. I don’t know if he heard. It didn’t matter what I wanted.
I was wracked with shame when I left the house the next morning, crying as I walked the two miles back to my house. I felt embarrassed, defeated, but — most prominently — guilty. I brought this on myself, I thought. I shouldn’t have been drinking. I shouldn’t have gone to his house. I shouldn’t have lied to my mom.
I must have deserved it.
I never admitted to anyone but my best friend what happened that night, only because I had to tell someone and I knew she wouldn’t judge me. Because it had to be my own fault for putting myself in that situation. I was acting stupid and not being careful. I should have known better. Besides, it wasn’t a rape if it was someone I’d already had sex with in the past. Was it? Rape was, like, strangers in dark alleys.
“You should go to the cops,” she said seriously, sipping a Mountain Dew in the bustling food court of the mall where I’d shamefully divulged how risky and horrible a person I was.
I pictured them scoffing me right out of the police station because I was a lying teenager whose poor decisions had landed me in a rightfully-deserved situation. “No.”
I have carried the weight of that night with me since then, walked through my life with its perpetual presence like a rock in my shoe. I have carried it through my marriage, and its effects echo in my sometimes-overzealous lessons to my children about consent.
As I grew older, it dawned on me just how fucked-up the situation with J.D. was to begin with. Of course our age gap wasn’t about my wise-beyond-my-years maturity and desirability, but about his apparent pedophilia, teetering just on the edge of socially acceptable. But despite those realizations, I have always blamed myself for that night. For being stupid enough to be there, to be drunk, to be an easy target.
And then came the hashtags and the movements: #metoo and #believeher and #whyIdidn’treport. Hearing the stories attached to these — some eerily similar to mine, so much as to physically turn my stomach — began to put some much-needed cracks in the solid wall of my self-blame.
Maybe it was rape. Maybe I wasn’t “asking for it.” Maybe it wasn’t my fault after all.
It was the middle of the night, in my 40th year, when I finally got angry. I don’t know why; maybe it was the same time my assault occurred, a subconscious imprint I wasn’t even aware of. But I woke up, and it entered my mind, and suddenly I saw it in a whole new way. The last vestiges of shame crumbled away to reveal the fury of someone who was wronged and carried the blame — unnecessarily, painfully — through half a lifetime. It only took 25 years, but I was finally awake.
So to J.D., who is still out there: fuck you.
Fuck you for being a predator who saw the vulnerability of a teenage girl and took advantage of it. Fuck you for your emotional and psychological manipulation of a person whose immaturity prevented them from knowing any better. Fuck you for your warped version of “love.” Fuck you for thinking you were still entitled to any part of me. Fuck you for taking what absolutely, positively was not yours to take.
And fuck you for being the catalyst for a burden of stigma and shame that weighed me down, wrongly shaping my opinion of myself.
You may have had that power over me for years, but I’m taking it back. I have a life to live, and — like the night you raped me — you are no longer entitled to take up space in any part.
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