Sexual assault: A conversation with a survivor

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM, Hawaii — She had just returned from a party her freshman year in college when a close friend of the family and trusted mentor did the unthinkable.

It was the first weekend she’d been allowed to stay off campus. After having one too many drinks, she was picked up from the party by her boyfriend and driven to the home of her rapist to sleep it off until morning. Her boyfriend left thinking she was in good hands, and that’s when the man she looked up to as a father figure took advantage of the drunk 18-year-old passed out in his house.

“I felt destroyed … like I had nothing left,” she said of her emotional state after the rape. “I had no confidence and I felt like everything was taken from me and like I had no control. I didn’t feel safe anymore.”

Prior to the incident, this survivor describes herself as “on top of the world.”

“I was captain of clubs and high school soccer teams,” she said. “I was choral leader and an avid performer. I simply loved the limelight and, frankly, was good at it. The stage, the spotlight, none of it made me nervous, which was quite the contrary to the pale shaking girl many of my college classmates witnessed almost the entirety of my three years in college after ‘that’ happened.”

After learning this was not the first time he had done this to someone, she decided to report him.

“I felt like if nobody else was going to do anything, then I would do something because I knew that he would keep doing this and getting away with it unless someone stopped him,” she said.

She said the resulting legal process was one of the hardest things this survivor ever had to endure.

“The biggest adversity was finding the confidence to take my life back into my own hands,” she said. “One part of that, the hardest part actually, was the two-year legal process. I didn’t want to prosecute him because it only dragged on the painful memories longer and more prevalent in my mind. There were times I wished with all my heart that he would have killed me, rather than left me to live forever soiled by his disconcerting pleasure. One of the many things that kept me going was remembering the words of his daughters several days after … ‘this wasn’t the first time … we should have known.’ ”

Since the incident involved a civilian and did not take place on school grounds, the survivor reported the rape to the civilian authorities. Though the legal process took place in the civilian justice system, the survivor was also given a victim advocate from the sexual assault prevention and response office at her school, and so began her healing process.

Her appointed VA attended legal appointments and court appearances with her, even representing her in court at times she didn’t feel strong enough to attend herself.

With her VA by her side, she spent the next two years making her case through three separate district attorneys and legal teams before finally learning that her rapist had entered a plea agreement of “guilty” to the lowest charge, one count of sexual assault, meaning her case would never make it to trial.

Though it wasn’t the outcome she’d originally hoped for, her rapist was finally convicted and put behind bars with a lesser sentence, an outcome she said was necessary for her healing process.

“If there isn’t a conviction of some kind, it might cause the victim to feel half-believed and invalidated,” she said. “It’s so much more empowering when in a court of law your story is believed and accepted. I was really glad when the legal process was done. I didn’t get everything I wanted, but I knew I had done the right thing and I felt justified. There was no longer a weight hanging over me or any unfinished business. It was a relief.”

This survivor said after the conviction she became more involved with the SAPR office at her school, and though she is not an official victim’s advocate, she believes it’s her duty to continue telling her story and speaking out against sexual assault.

“Even when I was going through the process, I was very involved with other girls who were going through the same things. I think I’m one of the stronger ones,” she said. “I’m pretty open about my feelings because I think that’s the best way to deal with things. It’s really hard for people to understand the act of rape, but they can understand and identify when you tell them how you feel as a result of it.”

This survivor encourages victims to not be ashamed and to speak out and report perpetrators who might otherwise slip by undetected and continue to victimize others. But she advises them to be prepared for any outcome and not let their healing process rest solely on court proceedings. 

“I want other victims to know they aren’t the only one,” she said. “What pushed me was the thought that until somebody stopped them they weren’t going to stop. This isn’t just for me or you. You’re making the world a better place by stopping them from doing this to someone else.”

Since the incident, she has tried to find the balance between her outreach efforts and her own healing process.

“It’s going to take me the rest of my life to recover,” she said. “I’m never going to be normal. I’m never going to be the same, but the more I help others, the more comfortable and assertive I become also.”

She advises Airmen to be less judgmental and more supportive of their friends, family members or co-workers who might have experienced similar situations.

“Just being there to listen sometimes is the best thing you can do,” she said. “It’s not your job to judge and offer your own opinions because it causes more drama for everyone involved when you do.”

She also cautions Airmen against believing consent is implied rather than given — a common misconception she said bothers her the most.

“Consent to one thing does not mean consent to another,” she said. “Doing one thing does not mean you are willing to do something else. If someone buys you dinner, you do not owe them sex, and just because you are willing to drink or you are drunk does not mean you are willing to have sex.”

Finally, she suggests thinking of wingmen as family members instead of just co-workers.

“I think about the wingman concept a little differently,” she said. “Instead of looking at someone as just your wingman, think about them as you would your mother or father or sister or brother. Treat them with the same respect you would your own family members and look out for them the same way you would your own family members.”

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