(Doctor’s Note: This letter involves discussion of sexual assault.)
Every once in a while, I get a letter that requires more than the standard Ask Dr. NerdLove. Sometimes a reader has a situation that requires some in-depth examination to determine just what went wrong, where, how, and what could be done about it. These are what I call Post Mortems, where we cut open the cadaver of the relationship for some exploratory emotional surgery.
These are rarely pretty, often requiring some tough love and application of The Chair Leg of Truth. But on occasion, I’ll get a letter from someone who needs help picking apart a confusing and upsetting situation.
This is one of those. And because of the nature of the letter, I’ll be forgoing a lot of the usual snark and Chair-Leg-Of-Truth. This is someone who’s been through a traumatic experience and it’s time to help explain just what happened and why and – more importantly – how they can move on to heal.
So it’s time to scrub up, remove some emotional shrapnel, close some wounds and – hopefully – put them on the path to recovery.
Before we get into this, COV, You were taken advantage of. You were drunk and in no position to give consent. You didn’t cheat on your boyfriend, this was something that was done to you. I want to emphasize this again: this is not your fault.
Ok? This was not your fault. Remember that.
Doc, I need your help.
A year ago, I took a summer internship in a Large and New city, and my boyfriend of the time (who I am no longer with) also had a summer internship on the other side of the country. It was the summer leading into my senior year of college. I was completely alone in this new city, but overall doing well and enjoying myself. I think the combination of isolation and empowerment of succeeding in a new place emboldened me or something, but a few times I made the dumb decision to go out by myself on the weekends, hit up a bar, and meet new people.
I’m going to stop you right here, COV, because there’s a recurring theme in your letter that I picked up on very quickly. A lot of the way you’re telling your story sounds like you’re retroactively blaming yourself for what happened. Case in point: saying that you made “the dumb decision” to go out by yourself on weekends to meet new people. That’s not a dumb decision. That’s a perfectly legitimate way to meet people. The fact that you were at a bar doesn’t mean that your options are “get fucked” or “nothing”. Not every bar is a pick-up joint; many even have activities that encourage socializing and meeting people, not just going home with them. Similarly:
Obviously these new people were always men (women don’t tend to approach random other women at bars in my experience)
I’ve not found this to be true, to be honest. It will vary depending on the bar, the atmosphere and – obviously – the people involved, but many times women will strike up a conversation with other women, just as men will occasionally strike up conversations with other men. And hey, you could always be the one to start the conversation; conversational openers work just as well for approaching people for friendship as they do for trying to find someone interested in hooking up.
and I was well aware that they weren’t chatting with me in the hopes of making a Cool New Friend like I was,
Fun thing: it takes two to tango. The fact that they may have started a conversation hoping to get laid doesn’t mean that they can’t either ramp things down if the other person is uninterested. Nor, for that matter, does it mean that they are incapable of cutting the line and moving on to someone who is interested in more than a Cool New Friend. The fact that they were hitting on you doesn’t mean that they’re now unable to stop the process or change their minds.
but I thought that my eagle-eyed awareness of the whole situation would somehow make me immune to anything bad happening?
This, unfortunately, isn’t true. Awareness can improve your odds, but it’s not a magic spell that fixes things… especially the actions of others.
I also think I found the attention validating, to be perfectly honest.
There’s nothing wrong with appreciating the attention from people who think you’re hot, interesting or any other positive attribute. The fact that you’re in a relationship doesn’t mean that you are no longer allowed to be flattered by people who’re attracted to you; in fact, seeing your partner through someone else’s eyes (to paraphrase Esther Perel) is often a core component to rebuilding the spark in your relationship. But again: there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the fact that other people are into you.
One such night, I ended up chatting with two guys about ten years older than me. We were hitting it off, and I joined them for the rest of the evening. We ended up going to a bunch of cool new places I hadn’t been to before and just had a fun time. It became obvious that they were ‘wingman-ing’ for each other, I had been picked for one, and the other was still on the hunt for someone.
This isn’t terribly unusual when it comes to folks looking for potential numbers, dates, or even hook-ups; one person decides that they’re interested in someone and the other is there to serve as support and facilitator. It only becomes a problem if the wingman is doing things like trying to facilitate a potential hook-up by, say, plying someone with alcohol or trying to help keep her friends from taking her away (as opposed to being fun and engaging).
This aspect of the night was obviously very weird and more than a little creepy, but I was having Cool Girl impulses and just went with it
OK this is something that comes up a lot with women in uncomfortable situations. Even in 2018, women tend to be socialized to Go Along To Get Along, especially when men are involved. Many, many women are taught to prioritize the enjoyment, comfort or initiative of others over their own interests. There’s a lot of social pressure to be The Cool One and ignore that the situation is setting off their Spidey-Sense.
(and knew if I mentioned that boyfriend I had out there somewhere they would probably not continue to hang out with me. I was quite lonely.)
First of all: the fact that you didn’t mention your boyfriend immediately isn’t a knock against you. It’s understandable that you were lonely, you were appreciating the attention and you were having a good time! Bringing up the fact that you weren’t single might have ended things earlier.
But it might not have either. While guys have a tendency to put Don’t Touch Someone Else’s Stuff over Respect Her Wishes in the list of Man Rules, this isn’t a hard and fast rule. Some of the common responses to what is sometimes called The Boyfriend Objection is “well is he here?” or “What, you’re not allowed to have friends?” In fact, there are PUA coaches who will specifically tell men to try to get women with boyfriends to assert their independence instead of saying “Oh, ok, cool, have a good night.”
Would it have been better to bring it up? It’s impossible to say. It might have changed things, it might not have. There’s no way of knowing. The fact that he existed may have sent the guys on their way. The fact that he was across the country from you might have encouraged them. You can what-if yourself into oblivion and you won’t get anywhere productive. The only thing to do is just work with what happened.
The night came to an end with pizza and everyone heading home.
The guy I had presumably been paired off with and I kept in touch and we ended up getting together again towards the end of my internship for drinks. A few drinks in, I thought we were headed to another bar, but it turns out, he had taken me to his apartment building.
Aaaaaaand this is where shit gets sketchy as fuck. Now, I’m a fan of inviting someone back to one’s play to, say, show off an awesome view. But I’m also a big believer in saying, specifically, that it’s back at one’s place. A lot of guys – and many PUA coaches – will lie or mislead women about going someplace else. They’ll phrase it like “I know a place that has great music and drinks” or “I know of this cool afterparty” and neglect to include “oh, and bee-tee-dubs, it’s also my apartment.”
He said he wanted to show me the rooftop patio, which was still a public space, so I decided not to turn around and go home.
Again: if he had said “hey, my apartment building has this amazing rooftop patio with an incredible view”, that might’ve been kosher. It would have been a great opportunity for you to decide whether you were going to go, tell him that you’d like to go but just so he knows, you’re dating someone or say “you know what? Nah, it’s been great, but I gotta crash, peace out cub scout.”
He also knew this. Which is why he didn’t say where y’all were going.
The whole duration we had essentially been going drink for drink, me not thinking through that he was about two times my size or that my “I’m two steps ahead of him so nothing bad can happen” plan (faulty to begin with) would not work so well if I was black out drunk.
One more time: this wasn’t your fault. Not paying attention to how much you were drinking wasn’t a good choice but the fact that you got drunk doesn’t absolve him from his actions. The fact that you were drunk doesn’t give him license to take assault you; he still had to make that choice to do so. He could just as easily say “hey, you’re a little drunk, let’s get call a cab and get you home.”
But he didn’t.
Basically, after a little bit on the roof, my memory gets SUPER fuzzy, but he took me to his apartment and I recall going to lay down on the couch and thinking that if I just went to sleep, I could avoid having to reject the advances I was pretty sure he would make. I did not want to cheat.
You didn’t cheat on your boyfriend. This was something that was done to you. This was not your fault.
I think he came over and roused me from my dozing to initiate things. I think that I was awake the whole time and I don’t think I said no or really did anything to stop him, but I only remember bits and pieces of what happened.
The fact that you didn’t say “no” hard enough or firmly enough doesn’t change things. You were drunk. You were in no position to give consent.
This, incidentally, is something that comes up a lot when we talk about “gray areas” surrounding sexual assault. For all the times that someone says “but they didn’t say no” or “they didn’t say no clearly enough,” even if, say, someone moves the other person’s hand or gets up and moves to the other side of the room, those same folks sure as shit seem to be ok with taking anything outside of “slapping them across the mouth” as an unspoken “yes”.
I know there was penetration, and I recall being in pain. I think I made some kind of noise or face or something because I remember him asking me if he was hurting me and I said no. I also remember him asking me if I was on birth control and saying I wasn’t.
This was not your fault. This was something that was done to you.
I woke up really early the next morning in his bed with no clothes on and only a vague recollection of what had happened. When he woke up, he began to initiate sex and I just kind of laid there and let it happen because I had no idea what to do since I had apparently already done things with him.
This isn’t unusual. Many people who’ve been assaulted have had the same reaction: that sense of “well I already let this happen before, so I guess I have to do it again.” A lot of times, it’s pure shock. Other times, it’s a form of survival instinct – you’re going along with it because you can’t be sure how they’d react if you said no.
Later on that morning after I left I texted him an apology for “being so out of it” that morning and I’m still not sure why I did that.
In all likelihood, you did this because you were still in shock. You were trying to have a reasonable response to an inherently unreasonable situation, and it’s easier to fall back on social programming than it is to process the fact that somebody that you trusted assaulted you. This is normal and understandable behavior and it does not change what was done to you.
After I got back home, I almost broke up with my boyfriend because I felt so badly about what happened.
You didn’t cheat on your boyfriend. You were raped. This was not your fault.
I did get tested for STIs and pregnancy just in case and luckily was fine on those fronts.
I haven’t told anyone I know about it because I know the choices I made at best were really stupid and at worst were really, really shitty and wrong.
It’s understandable that you didn’t tell anybody that you’d been assaulted. That’s something a lot of people have a hard time doing.
But this was not your fault.
You didn’t do anything wrong. Making poor decisions doesn’t make it your fault that he assaulted you. Drinking or getting drunk doesn’t make it your fault for having been raped. This was something that was done to you.
This was not your fault.
I still can’t really figure out if what happened was assault
YES. YES IT FUCKING WAS.
or if I’m just trying to make myself feel better about cheating.
YOU DIDN’T CHEAT ON YOUR BOYFRIEND. THIS WAS NOT YOUR FAULT.
I broke up with the guy I was dating at the time a few months ago for various unrelated reasons, but I think I thought that once we were broken up I could move past all of this and that hasn’t happened.
I’m not surprised to be perfectly honest. You had something horrible happen to you and it’s caused you a lot of pain and emotional suffering. That’s generally not something that you’re going to just walk off.
I never told my boyfriend about what happened because I feel like I come off so badly.
This was not your fault.
I knew what this guy was interested in doing before I hung out with him and still did,
The fact that he wanted to fuck you doesn’t mean that you were obligated to fuck him. The fact that he wanted to fuck you doesn’t make you responsible for his actions. The fact that you knew he was interested in fucking you doesn’t obligate you to invoke The Boyfriend or to call out his interest or anything else. He’s a grown-ass adult who’s perfectly capable of making his own decisions. And one of those decisions was to have sex with someone who – again – was blackout drunk.
That’s on him, not you.
This was not your fault.
I didn’t really say no and actually think that had I said a clear no, he would have stopped.
A) You don’t know that. You’re blaming yourself and your mistaken feelings about your culpability onto him. In doing so – “He would’ve stopped if I said no” – you’re continuing to blame yourself for what happened.
B) Don’t forget, this is a dude who was OK with fucking someone who was blackout drunk.
C) You may not have said no “clearly enough” (which is bullshit), but you didn’t say “yes” either. And if there is no explicit, enthusiastic “yes” then he should have, I dunno, not had sex with you.
D) This was not your fault.
I feel terrible that I wasn’t brave enough to say no the morning after when I was sober again.
You are human, you were terrified and you were in a profoundly fucked up situation. You did what you felt like you had to to get through it. Stop punishing yourself for not being a fictional character and forgive yourself for being a reasonable person in an unreasonable situation.
This. Was. Not. Your. Fault.
If someone were to ask this guy, I feel like he would not agree at all that things weren’t consensual.
First of all: I don’t give a shit what he likely thought. This was someone who, in your own words, thought it was ok to start having sex with someone who was drunk and asleep. My concern about whether he thought it was consensual or not is precisely dick.
Second of all: this is another way of punishing yourself for your perceived sins. You’re prioritizing his view of the situation over your own experiences and using it as proof that you’re the one in the wrong and not the guy who raped an unconscious woman.
This was not your fault.
I have actually felt a weird impulse (not strong enough to actually do anything) to do reckless things that would put me in danger of a more stereotypical, cut-and-dry assault so I could just be a definitive, no gray area victim and actually feel worthy identifying as such instead of doubting myself and whether I’m just trying to excuse my own bad behavior.
Again, this is not unusual for people who’ve gone through what you’ve gone through. But the truth is that you don’t have anything to excuse. The idea that “real” rape is an armed stranger leaping out of the bushes or dark alley is rank and utter bullshit that’s caused no end of pain to victims of rape and sexual assault for generations. Most rapists are someone the victim knows, and the most common tool in rape isn’t a gun or a knife but alcohol.
Yeah, the Red Pill, MRA, MGTOW crowd and unaligned assholes will scream and yell about drunk sluts, personal responsibility, false rape charges and other such bullshit, the fact of the matter is: you were drunk. You were unable to give consent. This person assaulted you. End of story.
This was not your fault.
I’m just still at a loss as to what to feel, let alone what to do.
Cheater or Victim?
COV, I’m so sorry that this has happened to you. But here’s the thing: you’re strong. You’re hurt, but you’re not broken, and you can recover. What you need to do now, more than anything else is talk to someone. I’m honored you felt that you could open up to me about what was done to you, but who you really need to talk to is someone who specializes in helping people like you process what’s happened to them. I would suggest that the first thing you do is call The National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673. Don’t let the fact that this happened a while ago put you off. The hotline will route you to a sexual assault service provider in your area and trained staffers will be there to talk to you about what happened and what to do next. They’ll be able to help you find people in your area who can help you heal and recover, provide you with long-term support and help walk you through what some of your options are for going forward. It’s safe, it’s anonymous and utterly confidential.
The other thing I would suggest is to consider opening up to at least someone among your friends or family. You’re going to need Team You, the people who love you and support you and have your back no matter what. If you don’t feel that you can open up to someone in your family or social circle, then I’d suggest finding a support group. You’ve had a traumatic experience and nobody should have to face that alone.
And the third thing I want you to do is to forgive yourself. You didn’t do anything wrong, and you’re carrying around a lot of unnecessary and undeserved guilt. At worst, you could’ve made some better choices, but none of this makes it your fault. Trusting the wrong person doesn’t mean you’re responsible for your own assault. Having had too much to drink doesn’t mean that you made this happen. You didn’t hold a gun to someone’s head and say “rape me or die”; you were lonely, you trusted someone who wasn’t worthy of your trust and they abused that trust.
Stop blaming yourself for what someone else did to you.
This was not your fault.
The fourth thing is, I want you to write back and let us know how you’re doing.
You will recover. You will heal. You will be better.
All will be well.