We were drinking.
We were high.
We were sober.
We made out with him.
We enjoyed making out with him but that’s all we wanted to do.
We went to his apartment.
We invited him to our apartment.
We didn’t say no.
We said no, but we weren’t loud enough.
We were too stunned to fight.
We didn’t fight hard enough.
We asked him to wear a condom.
We didn’t ask him to wear a condom.
We tried to bargain with him, offered this for that.
We knew him.
We didn’t know him.
We were wearing a revealing shirt and high heels.
We were wearing tight jeans.
We were wearing a bathing suit.
We were wearing a maxi dress and Converse sneakers.
We were wearing make up.
We were wearing lipstick.
We weren’t wearing make up.
We didn’t tell anyone.
We told our best friend.
We told the guy who found us stumbling down the street after.
We waited twenty years before telling anyone.
We didn’t go to the hospital.
We went to the hospital three days later.
We got a rape kit.
We didn’t get a rape kit.
We pressed charges.
We didn’t press charges.
We couldn’t remember his name.
We couldn’t remember what he looked like.
We couldn’t remember how many there were.
We changed our story as we began to remember more details.
We changed our story into something we could live with.
People who have been sexually assaulted know there are good victims and bad victims. Good victims, of course, do not exist but they are an elaborate ideal. They are assaulted in a dark alley by a known criminal who has a knife or a gun. They are modestly dressed. They report their assault immediately to law enforcement and submit, willingly, to a rape exam. They answer all questions about their assault lucidly and completely as many times as is necessary. They are adequately prepared for trial. They don’t pester the prosecutor as he or she prepares for trial. When they testify, they are modestly dressed. They are the girl or boy next door. They deserve justice because they are so righteous in their victimhood.
An ugly truth is that even this nonexistent “good” victim” is unlikely to find justice for sexual assault in our legal system or our culture at large.
Last month, Rolling Stone published an article about rape at the University of Virginia and they told the story, of Jackie, a young woman who was gang raped at a fraternity party. People instantly took sides, as if there could be sides on such an issue. But then it came to light that Rolling Stone made several inexcusable missteps in their reporting. Then they threw Jackie, whose story was told when she did not want her story told, under the bus. They said their trust in her was “misplaced.” They said there were inconsistencies in her story. Then they backtracked but did so quietly when so much damage had already been done. Now Jackie’s freshman roommate and her father have made statements that Jackie is not lying. In the court of public opinion, Jackie needs supporting witnesses. Her violations continue to mount.
A great number of people are gleefully celebrating Rolling Stone’s retraction because now they can hold on to their fervent believe that rape is not epidemic, that such terrible things do not happen with alarming frequency. Their glee provides quite a display.
I’m not a journalist, though the more I write nonfiction, the more I learn the rules of that game and why those rules matter. At first I did not understand the importance of the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, neglecting to interview the alleged rapists. I don’t care what the alleged rapists have to say for themselves. What could they possibly offer to the reportage other than, “no comment”? Now, though, I understand the importance of at least trying to verify a story. I understand how it was in Jackie’s best interests that Rolling Stone report the story properly and thoroughly. I understand how Rolling Stone failed this young woman and did a disservice to all survivors of sexual assault.
Here we are, once again having to fight for victims to be believed about something too horrible to invent.
I am a bad victim. I told no one what happened to me for a very long time. The boy who offered me up to his friends, I let him continue fucking me after the rape because my body didn’t matter. What I wanted did not matter. The kids at school said I was a slut so I became a slut. I put myself in dangerous or unhealthy situations for the next twenty years, longer if I am being honest, because that’s what I deserved, because I was trying to get back to that breaking moment, in search of what, I am not sure. I destroyed my body in more ways than one and am now in the process of undestroying that same body. I did what I had to do. I try not to carry too much shame with me from one day to the next.
Most anyone who has survived sexual assault is a bad victim in one way or another. There is no script we follow. There are inconsistencies in our stories and our choices. At first we simply try to survive and, when we are lucky, we try to live as best we can.
Roxane Gay is the editor of The Butter.