Warning: sensitive content.
I walked past the same people at the front desk who had given me directions to the room where I had been raped shortly before. I was disheveled, my eyes were red from crying, and my clothes barely fit correctly as I rushed to rearrange them in the elevator to appear as normal as possible.
I was in a building filled with people, and my only thought was to get out as quickly as I could before anyone noticed me. I made eye contact with the girl at the front desk, who tilted her head slightly as I rushed by. I felt an instant wave of shame and fear. I even worried she might call the police, thinking I was a prostitute or perhaps someone on drugs.
I walked down the long sidewalk. It was late evening by then, and I was in more physical pain than I realized from the adrenaline pushing me out of the building. I slowed my walk for a moment, feeling a breeze, and I took in a deep, frustrated and embarrassed breath.
This was not supposed to happen to me. I was careful, I thought. I was a man. I was a gay man, and being assaulted in such a way wasn’t supposed to happen to us. I felt deeply ashamed, and in all the times I had rolled my eyes at characters in movies not immediately calling for help, I felt genuinely sick at my cowardice. But I kept walking. I had parked a few blocks away, and made it to my car safely anonymous.
I don’t remember going home, showering, or looking in the mirror that night. I don’t remember going to bed that night or thinking about what had just happened to me. I only remember looking at my computer screen at the open chat message showing the rapist’s cheerful excitement about my impending departure. I exited out, shut down my computer, and resolved never to look at it again.
The first person I told was also one of the first people I told I was HIV-positive. This person was the only one who asked how it had happened, and I let the story flood out in tears while gasping for air. The whole time I begged my confidante with my voice to understand that I did not want to be someone who had been raped.
My attacker was intoxicated, and possibly on drugs, as I remember his glassy eyes that seemed to look through me completely. Holding me down with his forearm on my neck, he told me he was infecting me with HIV. I still remember the aggressive passion in his voice that told me how much it excited him to say so.
I didn’t have to escape. Once he was finished, he behaved as though we had just enjoyed a fun time together. He sat down on a chair looking at me with pride and amusement. I remember feeling like I chose to leave and therefore hadn’t really been raped.
Maybe I was being too sensitive. Maybe I was being too prudish. Maybe I just didn’t understand what was supposed to happen in this kind of situation. I had met a complete stranger in a hotel room, after all. It was my fault.
I was no stranger to unwanted sexual encounters or situations in which I felt out of control. I had been with men I did not enjoy and had just waited for it all to be over before. This time was just more violent, painful, and extremely paralyzing. It was my fault for freezing. I must have given him reason to believe this was what I wanted, and I couldn’t deny him just because I had a momentary fear of what was happening. I felt like a fraud even suggesting the encounter was what other people describe as “rape.”
I was in denial for a long time. It took more effort to allow myself to accept that label than to accept what happened to me or the lifelong consequences that resulted. Ten years later, I still remember the terrifying feeling when someone said, “You were raped,” and what it meant to who I was as a person.
As might be apparent, I did not report the crime. By the time I found the courage to even verbalize what had happened, before I even accepted what it was, it was too late.
I beat myself up over and over, going through all of the things I did wrong that night that could have put that monster in jail. If I had just walked up to that front desk and asked them to call the police, they could have arrested him, gotten his DNA, and maybe convicted him. I could have gotten in my car and gone to the emergency room and told them, allowing them to do all the things experts know of in a safe place where people would have protected me.
I could have said or done something. But the more time passed, the more I realized my ability to prove what happened had faded into nothing, and I was terrified of the risk of reporting and being viewed with skepticism or outright judgment.
From TV, college classes, awareness campaigns, and so on, I believed the police would assume I was lying or had been doing something illegal, or simply dismiss me altogether. Besides, didn’t I agree to meet him? Didn’t I go to his room and walk in? Could I argue that there was no opportunity for me to fight my way out? Why didn’t I say anything while leaving the building?
While replaying the scene over and over, it felt less and less believable to someone from the outside. The question hanging in front of me that I feared most was, “Why didn’t you do anything to stop him?”
There is a good and valid reason sexual assault advocates so strongly fight questions about why a woman would not report her assault, wait so long, or not do anything to stop it. But there is also the recognition that, once a certain amount of time has passed and certain evidence is lost forever, there is no justice to be had.
This is a cold and objective truth that we too often overlook because of how unfair it is. Accusing a person requires proof, and the only time proof is available is immediately after the assault. After that, it becomes harder and harder to prove your story and, as the accuser, it is your responsibility to do so. To protect victims, too many advocates forget the importance of due process for everyone, equally.
There is also a moral and ethical obligation with recognizing what happened to you and the power you wield from your ability to accuse. If I stumbled upon the man who raped me, as I have often thought about, could I accuse him in public? Could I shout his name and the crime he committed against me that has redefined my concept of intimacy, autonomy, and lifelong health?
The answer is no, because I cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the man in front of me would be guilty of the crime I’d accuse him of, and he would be utterly defenseless to my accusation. I do not have the right to name a person, turn his life upside down, and ruin his reputation. It’s not because I am not entitled to justice but because I am simply unable to prove an assumed innocent man is guilty.
Survivors should be listened to. Our stories matter, and I have tried with more energy than I thought possible to share mine for the good of others, awareness, and honest debate. But I draw the line at accusation. My window to accuse closed before I even had the awareness to know it was an option, but that is reality.
Regardless of how unfair and unjust it is to the person who survived, the person accused has an equal right to a fair and just trial. Accusation requires proof, and that proof must be scrutinized and evaluated. The truth is, I do not remember key details of this event, such as the date or what I was wearing, or even exactly what my attacker looked like. I remember his voice, the way he smelled of alcohol, the grip of his hand, but I do not remember his name or even his username. Memory is not perfect, and therefore it cannot be solely used as evidence.
I cannot tell you if a person’s account of his or her assault is valid or not. I cannot tell you to believe all survivors. But I can tell you that there is a difference between sharing your story and naming a person in an accusation. The longer a person waits to do so, the more scrutiny and skepticism is warranted.
Their story can, however, exist as a powerful tool of empathy, experience, and survival without exploiting the natural outrage people feel when discovering a villain they can target. The power of survival is using your voice to help other people survive and hopefully prevent the sense of helplessness you once felt.
But I do not believe we have immunity to accuse without consequence, and as a survivor I advocate due process and the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” more now than ever. Don’t blame a person for not reporting sooner, but don’t damn the accused to compensate for it.