Sexual Assault and the Slow Erosion of Self-Efficacy

Impact statements have revealed the many self-defeating, destructive lessons that sexual assault taught me. In the ten years between 16 and 26, I survived four sexual assaults. The assailants were a high school classmate, a man ten years older than I was who hired me as his English tutor, and my own father.

At 20, I also survived a near-drowning, played as entertainment for the two men who held me underwater. And at 25, my father locked me in his Texas house, threatening me with the police if I tried to leave.

Even as I entered the first steps of PTSD treatment in June, almost a decade and a half later, I felt overwhelming shame. Why hadn’t I fought back? Why had I so eagerly, and sometimes repeatedly, trusted men who mistreated me? Why, at 39, is the shame over being victimized still stronger than my rage over what they did?

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Even after #MeToo, we don’t talk often enough about how American culture normalizes sexual objectification and assault from a young age. Schoolboys watch porn, which often depicts women enjoying violent sex. Girls watch music videos where women earn more selling sex than any woman they know earns at her job—teacher, doctor, lawyer, software engineer, cashier, nurse, manager, construction worker, or full-time mother.

Approach it from any gender, with any orientation, and the message is the same: Women’s bodies are for sale. Sex is always available from them if you want it. “No” is just for flirty fun. Women are here to serve up a hearty yes to our every fantasy, from sex positions to homecooked meals to long lashes to warm smiles. And if they refuse, we all get to hate them.

With the traumas I had already survived by my 16th birthday, boys and men had also trained me to freeze when attacked. My father especially had taught me that, to save myself, all I had to do was do nothing at all. The less I fought, the quieter I was, the sooner it would be over. The more I resisted, the worse it would be for me.

It was the worst lesson to teach a girl. But it was reinforced time and again. At a high school party, a senior grabbed my breasts, then immediately confessed to the whole room—which included his girlfriend. And no one did anything. No one even reacted. People stared at the wall or their laps. Then, the night moved on. I admired his girlfriend. But she acted like it was nothing. If this was the best she could get, I concluded, then this was all there was. Apparently, this was just what you had to put up with if you wanted a boyfriend. They’d go around sexually assaulting people, maybe even you, and you’d just shrug it off and go on like everything was normal.

Writing the impact statement, jotting down why I think these things happened and how they changed the ways I see myself and others, helped me understand it’s all connected. One trauma led to the next. Each lesson built on those that had preceded it.

Four years later, when a 29-year-old man I was tutoring tried to kiss me, and I turned away, he said that was okay. It was totally fine. I was innocent. But a few minutes later, he shoved me against a tree, pinned me with one arm, stuck his other hand into my underwear, and started hurting me. So apparently, this meant I was his girlfriend now. Good to know. After all, I’d seen that men decide what happens. Not women. If I don’t want to make things worse for myself, if I don’t want to be alone for the rest of my life, I just have to go along. So I did. I dissociated and waited for his assault to stop.

A month later, I was in a public pool with my brother, and he grabbed my arm and shoved me underwater. I fought my way to the surface and, with my one free arm, reached for this same man. The one who had sexually assaulted me. I shouted for his help. As he swam over, I tried to wrap my arm around his shoulders. He loved me, and I was safe now. But he gave me a smile that I didn’t like. My brain hummed. Casually, he took my arm off his shoulders. He gripped it tight. And as I stared into his eyes in horror, the smile became more of a grimace as, with enough force it hurt my shoulder, he shoved me down, too. Together, they shoved me under water again and again. I couldn’t breathe. Whenever they pulled me to the surface for the fun of seeing my terrified face, I opened my mouth to call for help, but water only gurgled out. And then they dunked me again. And again. My brother telling me I was so stupid. My brother telling me I wouldn’t be drowning if I would just keep my mouth shut.

Stop trying to call for help.

It was the message of one trauma after another.

No one’s coming.

No one cares.

One assault after another, I’d end up having dinner with my assailants afterward. Sitting next to them at the dinner table. Laughing at a dumb joke. Giving them a ride or accepting a ride from them. Because everything was fine, wasn’t it? My family had taught me well. If you want relationships with people, you just have to accept abuse. You don’t make any drama about it. You get what you get, and you don’t make anybody feel bad about it.

It was always my job to bury the hatchet. Even if someone kept digging it up and chasing me with it, I had to keep burying it. Again. And again.

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When my father sexually assaulted me the following summer, I froze. I knew my father was monstrous. I hadn’t known he was capable of this. Afterwards, I didn’t know what to do. So I told my mother, thinking maybe she would know, maybe this would finally be the last straw, maybe her husband groping her daughter would finally convince her that okay, it was time to move out, call Grandma and let her know we’d be there in a few hours.

But then she laughed. And I saw she knew exactly what to do.

Nothing.

My father’s assault, and my mother’s response to it, taught me that my family had never loved me. Not in any way that counted. And if the culture was right, if parents always love their children, but mine couldn’t—then it meant no one did. It meant I couldn’t be loved. My mother didn’t care where I was going, so long as it didn’t break up her marriage. My father only cared that I was no longer under his control, and he promptly cut me off. I was either his whore, or nothing.

This left me with the terrible lesson, before I had even graduated from college, that nobody cares about anybody else. They just get things from you, and then, when they are done getting things from you, or you refuse to give them what they want, they drop you. My father had always threatened to kick me out into the street. I had never imagined that was how he’d accomplish it.

After that, I didn’t care much what happened to me. I dropped out of college. I applied to nearly two dozen jobs and never, without anything but tutoring experience, got an interview. So I ended up bussing tables.

I couldn’t have afforded rent. I would’ve been homeless. It saved me that I was having sex with my landlord’s nephew, the man who had assaulted me, and working in their restaurant, for whatever wages they gave me. I never asked questions about my pay. Sometimes I wasn’t paid. I figured it was payment enough to have a roof over my head and food from the restaurant kitchen. And that was how I had a place to live.

I dissociated more and more often. I felt numb. Deadened. Like I was in an empty movie theater, watching my own life. I wondered, with vague curiosity, when someone would make good on all this foreshadowing and finally just kill the girl.

I sometimes went walking through the city at two or three in the morning, hoping to stumble onto the climax. A knife in an alley maybe. Or a car might run me down.

I told myself at least I wasn’t my father’s whore.

My teens and twenties unfolded one nightmare after another. And each subsequent terror taught me another lesson.

People who want to control you will always find a way.

I have to hide my feelings, so I don’t put myself in greater danger.

If I’m a mature adult, I won’t be angry. I’ll always forgive people, no matter what they do, and put family first.

Pursuing the life I want puts me in physical danger.

By the time my ex raped me at 26, I made the only choice that made sense to me. I moved back in with him. What was the point?

This was what my life was.

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I’ve spent the last two weeks blogging about impact statements. Next week, I’ll begin sharing my experience with exposure therapy. But for this last post, I wanted to reflect on what impact statements have shown me about the effect of sexual assaults on how I defined relationships.

Writing these things down, seeing the lessons I took from the repeated assaults in my teens and twenties, I’m devastated. There was no other way things could have turned out, given the cards I was dealt. I played my hand as best I could. But it was still a shitty hand.

Before I graduated from elementary school, my father had begun training me to keep quiet, to accept abuse, to even see it as an integral part of relationships. One experience after another reinforced his lessons. By the time I entered college, I didn’t know how else to relate to people. If I wasn’t the butt of their jokes, if they didn’t push me around, if they didn’t want to hurt me, I thought they didn’t love me.

I don’t know any quick fix for this.

Once a child is taught they’re unworthy of love or respect, and once one community after another reinforces that well into adulthood, I think it’s kind of done. This is something I will always carry, no matter how much work I do. It will always be my past.

But writing impact statements about this has taught me that I don’t have to see these beliefs as facts.

Into my early thirties, I continued to believe all this bullshit. I believed the same lie. No one can ever love you. Something’s wrong with you.

The process of writing impact statements reveals those words as my father’s. The words of men I have come across. Not words of truth or judgment, or reality.

Those words are not mine.

And now that I recognize them as poison, rather than truth, they can no longer direct my life. Not anymore.

The lessons we take from our traumas are like a magic spell. They weave our experience into a specific reality, invented by those who committed violence against us. They are a protective spell for our attackers. They render their evil invisible. It is a spell that binds us to their worldview, that compels us to collude in it.

Therapy can break that spell.

All dark magic is just words and evil wishes. Seeing it for what it is doesn’t change its sinister intent. But it changes how much their evil permeates our lives.

I used to believe that if I wanted people to love me back, I had to let them do to me whatever they wanted. Consequence free.

Now, I know better. I can always just walk away. I already have. I still hear their words sometimes, whispered from afar. But I shut my window against them and shake my head in sadness. They still haven’t learned. They still haven’t grown. They’re up to the same old tricks.

Then I turn back to the flame that is my life and cup it protectively in my palms. For the first time, I’m beginning to see its beauty, its wholeness, its possibility.

Its worth.

To paraphrase Toni Morrison,

I am my best thing.

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Photo by Vinícius Vieira ft from Pexels

Featured photo by Emre Kuzu from Pexels

*I am not a therapist or treatment provider and am only recounting my personal experience of PTSD and its treatment. This blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician, licensed therapist, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding PTSD or any other mental health disorder.

2 thoughts on “Sexual Assault and the Slow Erosion of Self-Efficacy

  1. “Like I was in an empty movie theater, watching my own life. I wondered, with vague curiosity, when someone would make good on all this foreshadowing and finally just kill the girl. ” That took my breath away!
    You’re making such progress on this hard journey, Melanie! I’m here, rooting for you.

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