Trigger

Guest WriterPerspectives36 Comments

[Editor's note: Trigger warning for frank discussion of sexual violence.]

Having been a lurker if not a writer in the feminist and feminist-leaning online world for years now, I understand the concept of trigger warnings. But I’ve never felt triggered before – until last week, on this website. What triggered me?

This:

I felt panicked, trapped; my heart rate increased; I had to close the browser window and get up from my desk. As reactions go, it was very mild, I know, but it took me longer than it should have to realise why. Why would I have this reaction?

Because I don’t know if I am a “survivor” or not.
I can’t remember.

Five years ago now, I woke up in a bed that wasn’t mine. I was partially clothed, terribly hungover, and I was not alone in that bed. I got out of the bed, climbed back up to mine – in the same hostel room – and fell asleep, but not before texting my best friend, who was half a world away:
“I just woke up with some guy and I don’t remember what happened.”

When I woke up a few hours later, her reply was waiting for me: “Oh my god. Are you OK?”

Was I OK? I managed to drag myself to the shower, and knelt by the drain, retching. I was very, very hungover. I also had some small bruises on my thighs, and just… a feeling. You know that feeling? Sexual contact had happened; I was pretty clear on that. I remember thinking, quite clearly, as I vomited into the swirl of warm water: you bastard.

I just… couldn’t remember anything after having drinks with the two guys sharing my room, nearly twelve hours before .

I don’t know if I had sex or if I was raped.

I’d been so drunk I’d not remembered things before; I’d had casual sex; I’d had drunken sex. But never all three at the same time, if that was what happened. I don’t remember how I got my stuff out of that room. I was due to leave that town that day anyway. The guy whose bed I woke up in nodded at me once in the common room before I left, and seemed embarrassed, which could have meant anything. I didn’t see the other guy again.

I had known pregnancy was unlikely and when I got my period about six days later it was a small relief; when I got home a few weeks later, I got a full panel of STI tests, and thankfully everything was clear. But the real issue, the one that I can’t shake, is I have no idea what happened.

I don’t know if I had sex or if I was raped.

When I got home and told this story to other close friends, one reacted as if it was a casual error anyone might make when drunk. Another told me it must have been rape, asked me if I knew the guy’s name – only his first name, I told her – and told me to see a counsellor. Neither of those things feels right. Mostly, the friends I’ve told don’t know to react, and look for a cue from me, but I can’t give them one. How can I react when I don’t remember? I’ve never met anyone who’s experienced something similar; I don’t know how other people cope with a complete absence of memory.

Was I drugged, or was it ‘just’ alcohol? Did they target me? If it was rape, did they both rape me? Did they film it? Is that on the Internet somewhere, too? Or was it something less violent: drunken, dreadful, but nonetheless, sex, between two strangers in the same strange country, one night?

Am I ok? I still don’t know. I like to think that I’m one of many fighters against rape culture. But I don’t know if my name badge should say “ally” – or “survivor.”

I will never know.

To be clear, this is not at all a reflection on the Persephone Group I referenced or its members. I hope you won’t be offended that I don’t know if I’ll ever click that “Accept Invitation” button.

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36 Comments on “Trigger”

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  1. Avatar of
    Trigger

    Thanks for all the responses here, and sorry I’m so late in responding. It means a lot to know I’m not the only one who is still wondering about something like this.

  2. Avatar of Maddie F.
    Maddie F.

    Legally, an intoxicated person cannot consent to sex. I had a similar experience one St. Patrick’s day. I woke up in bed with a guy after having blacked out the night before. He told me we had sex and HE told ME how much I enjoyed it, but I just felt sick to my stomach. I went to my parents’ house that night and just cried and cried on my mom’s shoulder. He was a friend of my roommate’s so he found me on Facebook and would keep messaging me about how great our night together was and if I wanted to do it again. So finally, I told him that I couldn’t actually remember how I’d felt about us having sex. That shut him up. So I know that awful feeling, and it’s really horrible.

     

  3. Avatar of sequined
    sequined

    It was really meaningful for me to read this post; thanks for sharing. I had a really similar experience–I woke up in PJs that weren’t mine and I vaguely knew the guy from a class. I had been extremely drunk, which he knew. He asked me to walk in a straight line before we went to his bedroom, I remember. I know I secretly vomited in the bathroom. I sort of think sex happened, but some days I think that more than other days. I don’t really know. I got Plan B and STD tests and everything is fine, except the not really knowing. He was obviously predatory, and I was in a good spot to be a victim, but I just don’t know.

    In a sort of chilling addition, some friends of mine looked at renting his house a year or so later (college–everyone rented the same houses every year) and the guy told some anecdote about knowing if a girl was sober enough to hook up with by whether she could walk in a straight line in the kitchen (which had a striped floor). When I heard that I felt so… awful.

    I usually feel pretty alone with this experience, though I assume I know women who’ve had similar ones who just don’t talk about them, but that’s another thing I don’t actually know. It’s really disconcerting. And when I do tell someone in “real life,” I feel like they have no idea how to respond, and it ends up just being an awkward pause until it’s not too rude to change the topic.

    I’m glad you started this conversation; a lot of the responses are helpful for me to consider, too.

    1. Avatar of hayduke
      hayduke

      “…told some anecdote about knowing if a girl was sober enough to hook up with by whether she could walk in a straight line in the kitchen…”

      How perfectly fucking awful; chilling is the right word. That’s some highly specific, very obvious after-the-fact ass-covering.

    2. Avatar of
      Trigger

      oh god that is predatory. I’m nodding along to a lot of what you wrote there. I’m so glad this has been helpful for you.

  4. Avatar of milly parkhurst
    milly parkhurst

    thank you for sharing your story.  i feel ridiculous trying to offer an opinion, so i apologize in advance, but i feel like even if you were “just drunk” and consented, it probably wasn’t legitimate consent.  a terrible, violating experience happened regardless of what label you give it.  i am really sorry you went through that, especially so far from home and immediate, close social support.  i really hope that you can have peace about this eventually. :\

     

  5. Avatar of [E]SaraB
    [E]SaraB

    The way I see it is like this: You will probably never know what happened that night. I feel horribly mean saying it, but you have to let go of wishing you did know so you can start to heal. What you do know is that you woke up angry and frightened after a sexual experience. You don’t need to know if you gave drunken consent, all you need to know is that you have lived through a frightening and traumatic sexual experience. That is not nothing. If calling yourself a rape survivor makes you feel uncomfortable, then just stick with “survivor,” because you did survive, and you do deserve the compassion of yourself and others to heal your soul.

    1. Avatar of
      Trigger

      You didn’t come across as mean at all, and you are talking sense. The odds of me ever finding out what really happened are miniscule, as are the odds of me suddenly remembering (they love that in the movies, but real brains rarely work like that). Thank you.

  6. Avatar of hayduke
    hayduke

    All the hugs in the world if you want them.  It seems others have already pointed out that you lacked the capacity to give consent, and that you get to define your experience in whatever way you want to. What I would add is that there’s some pretty good evidence out there that the guys who do this kind of thing are doing intentionally, with purpose, with premeditation, that they are looking for circumstances where they know that they can commit a rape that will most likely be a “rape without consequences” – precisely because they know what the societal narrative is. It’s not just a predation upon one’s body when this occurs; it is intentional taking advantage of an individual/circumstance wherein the perpetrator knows how very difficult it would be to pursue justice. I’d recommend this recap to everyone. The myth that these types of things are usually “drunken mistakes, on the part of both parties” needs to die.

    1. Avatar of Sarah
      Sarah

      The first time I read that article was chilling, but it was also kind of a relief. On the one hand it was terrible to realize that there are men out there who target women in this way. But it was also a relief to know that most men wont take advantage of women who are intoxicated. And it’s also good to have solid evidence to refute that whole “miscommunication or mistake because of alcohol” story. Thanks for linking to it, now I can be sure to bookmark it for reference. As an aside, I saw and episode of Person of Interest (kind of bad tv show I know) that actually had this as a plot line. There was a man who had taken advantage of many women in this way, precisely because he knew he wouldn’t get caught. It really struck me that this was on a tv show, because it’s so different from the usual story of “date” rape. I hope that more people become aware of this phenomenon.

      To the guest poster, I’m so sorry about what you experienced. It sounds terrifying, and I admire the strength you have to write about it. Something awful happened to you, no matter what it is labeled as. This is another post that talks about other people’s experiences with “grey” areas. Trigger Warning for the link. http://www.racialicious.com/2008/12/21/original-essay-the-not-rape-epidemic/

      1. Avatar of hayduke
        hayduke

        Thank you so much for sharing that article – I read it a while back, and haven’t been able to find it since. It is such an excellent indictment of rape culture – the things that you aren’t allowed to tell about, what they’ll do to you if you do tell, and so on. We know these things. And they know that we know; what the Lisak research indicates is that they count on it.

    2. Avatar of
      Trigger

      Excellent article, absolutely.

      I would love to read something from anyone else who’s been in the same position, and how they coped. Sometimes I feel like I’m just going around in circles.

  7. Avatar of Dr. Song
    Dr. Song

    As much as no one probably wants to hear this – I wonder what those guys remember, and if they woke up the next morning thinking what you thought – “Holy shit, what happened?”

    Obviously sex with a drunk person cannot be called consensual, if the other party is sober and knows full well that their partner is drunk. But what if both people are off their faces on something, sex is had, and none of the partners could technically give consent? What are the guidelines for that – for the nights that no one remembers?

    I’m not trying to diminish your experience in any way, or suggest that what you feel is not real and justified. I just wonder.

    1. Avatar of
      Trigger

      You know, I wonder too. As I said, the guy’s reaction when I saw him afterwards could have meant anything and nothing. He could be a predatory rapist, or he could have been in a similar situation to me – wondering what really happened. It’s a guideline-free zone, really.

      1. Avatar of Dr. Song
        Dr. Song

        I’m glad you replied. I was worried that I’d offended you or that you’d taken my comment as some sort of invalidating, man-splaining justification. Good to hear back from you.

  8. Avatar of Susan
    Susan

    I am so sorry.  So sorry.  Sorry that it happened, sorry that you can’t get closure, sorry that you feel like you have to label it in some way.

    You were violated.  Whether it was forceable or not, whether they had the intention or not, it doesn’t really matter – in the end, you *are* a survivor, because you woke up after doing something that you could not have possibly consented to in good faith, having had sex.  You have survived it.  You have written about it, which is incredibly brave.

    And I’m so, so sorry.

    1. Avatar of
      Trigger

      Labelling things is essential for coping with things, for me at least. For example, I always hesitate now when people or doctors ask me how many people I’ve had sex with. Sexual contact with? N. But sex? N-1, you know?

      And thank you for the compliment. I don’t feel brave, but it has helped to write about it and get it out there.

  9. Avatar of Elfity
    Elfity

    I’m so sorry you had to go through that.

    I can’t speak for you situation or your feelings. If you feel like you were raped, then you were. If you don’t feel that way, that’s fine too. But I can tell you that an intoxicated person cannot consent to sexual activity. Judgement is impaired, and decisions are not made in a sound mind. To take advantage of a person known to be intoxicated is rape, because the other party is not able to consent.

    I know that can be difficult to hear, and please message me if you want. I have been raped while intoxicated, and there’s a lot of doubt and perceived gray area there. I also offer imaginary virtual baskets of fluffy, adorable animals and hugs if they’re wanted.

    1. Avatar of KellsBells
      KellsBells

      If you feel like you were raped, then you were.

      @Elfity – I could not agree more.  I think we often get too hung up in the semantics and forget that the determining factor for whether someone has been sexually assaulted is based on the perception of the person who experienced the assault/encounter/rape.  It’s unfortunate that we have laws that define an act as criminal vs legal and i think that’s where a lot of this comes from.  But thank you for highlighting the perception issue.  I think that is of vital import.

    2. Avatar of
      Trigger

      Thank you. I feel an emergency pile of puppies should be on hand for occasions like this.

  10. Avatar of soitgoes
    soitgoes

    We need to start talking about the gray area in which a girl might feel somewhat victimized or confused after a sexual encounter with a guy who is genuinely not in the wrong.  There are a lot of dumb ideas out there about the “right” way to have sex, the most damaging one of which is the notion that ALL sex must be completely 100% enjoyable.  We’ve all consented to sex and regretted it later.  We’ve all had flat-out lousy sex.  And yet the party line on enthusiastic consent and female sex positivity makes you feel like shit when you’ve had an ambiguous or crappy experience that wasn’t a cut-and-dry rape.  Why do girls internalize these feelings when guys don’t?  If it wasn’t rape, I wonder if the guys involved had no memory of consent and subsequently felt the way you did.  I’ve had some experiences of this nature as well, and I don’t like the way my feelings about myself hinge on the technicality of remembered consent when I’m fairly sure that most of the guys involved don’t remember jack shit either; they certainly didn’t give me THEIR consent.  Girls are trained to view consent as this golden ticket that’s the only thing standing between good and bad sex.  Obviously consent is vital.  I just think there’s way more to the story when you’re talking about the nuances of reality.  I really hope you’re okay and that you someday find some peace in all this.

    1. Avatar of hayduke
      hayduke

      There is so much wrong with this comment.

      The author did not begin a discussion about “sex that was not 100% enjoyable,” so I should hope we wouldn’t try to change the topic. And the gender basis for feelings. The “there’s more to the story when you’re talking about the nuances of reality” – this is her reality.

      The comments haven’t even hit double digits, and we’ve already got two questioning the victim. Please. Don’t.

      1. Avatar of soitgoes
        soitgoes

        Don’t tell me what not to say and don’t tell me to stop talking.  She is confused by what she experienced in a way that men are rarely confused by identical circumstances.  It’s worth exploring.  If you read the entirety of my comment, you’d know that something almost identical happened to me, more than once.  I was offering my thoughts on what I’d been through.  There is more than one variation of rape and conversely, there are multiple valid ways to feel about and learn to live with the exact same experience.  Don’t you dare discredit my feelings about what I’ve been through because they don’t fit your parameters for acceptable reactions to trauma.  You think I hurt the author’s feelings?  You just hurt mine.

        1. Avatar of [E] Selena MacIntosh*
          [E] Selena MacIntosh*

          Perhaps we do need to start having conversations about how men feel about rape, but I’m not sure this is the post to do it on, because it makes it seem like you think the writer is not justified to feel what she’s feeling. As that sentiment would (and has) upset you, perhaps a more delicate hand would be more appropriate?

        2. Avatar of hayduke
          hayduke

          I have absolutely no desire to discredit your feelings – your experiences are your own, and you get to talk and feel about them any way you please. But the same holds true for the author of this post. And the fact that women are “more likely” than men to have these concerns after an experience like this isn’t because women process the experience “wrong” – it’s because we unfortunately live in a society where women are much more likely to suffer predation of this nature.

          What I see in your second comment, but didn’t see in the first, is that you, too, have clearly been through something awful. Please, talk about it. Anyone who has been truly wronged is justified in their anger. What we’re never justified in doing is spreading that harm. When someone shares a story as personal as the one here, just don’t make it immediately about something else entirely, ok? Damn near every victim in the history of ever has had to hear this. While you may not mean it as such, the reality is that the cumulative effect silences victims. And it’s a derailing of the original topic. Which, here, was “I know I was violated – but what language am I allowed to use?” And that is heart-breaking, because it springs from the same narrative that I saw supported – however unintentionally – by your initial comment. “Oh, she wasn’t really raped – women just ‘regret’ sex the next day.” And while I can appreciate – I hope I’ve made that clear – that you may not have meant it that way, this is an incredibly common narrative, it has been competently dissected within feminist circles numerous times, and there really isn’t any excuse for not being aware of that.

          The situation described by the author is all too common – from the facts to the aftermath of juggling linguistics. Let’s talk about that here?

          1. Avatar of soitgoes
            soitgoes

            I’m not interested in writing my own piece about my experiences because for me, the effort to move past these things is centered on not wanting them to be major formative events in my life.  Of course, shit like this changes who you are.  But I’ve always viewed anonymous internet commenting as a way of tossing out ideas that I wouldn’t otherwise have an opportunity to express.  I think focusing on the technicality of consent is a way of finding a “place” to put how you feel about what happened to you.  Again, not that consent isn’t 100% necessary.  But it keeps you from examining other parts of what happened.  I’ve consented to one night stands that I’ve felt worse about than ambiguous sex with people who didn’t knowingly do me wrong but still didn’t obtain overt consent.  I just think that hinging your self-worth about yourself and your sexuality on consent implies that the author would have been 100% okay with her experience if there was some record of her enthusiastic consent somewhere.  What if she had that, hypothetically?  Would she have to write off her feelings about having sex with strangers in a hostel?  Would she end up perceiving it as a positive experience if consent were in place?  I guess I’m saying that you can consent to something and still feel violated and lousy after, so CONSENT isn’t the end of the story when it comes to sex.

            1. Avatar of hayduke
              hayduke

              I think we might be using the term “consent” differently – I don’t tend to think of something that was “on record” or “overt.” If someone is passive, rather than responsive, I tend to err on the side of there not having been consent, but there are so many ways to indicate that you are into it, that you do want the other person, that you are having a good time. A contract-esque “do you want to engage in specified sex act with me at this time” isn’t what consent is about, in my opinion.

              In addition to that… we never met this guy, and the author did. Is he somebody who would be willing to commit a violation? She may not have known him long, but some info is better than none. It’s not, to me, just a matter of “If I said yes, it’d be ok, but I can’t remember.” It’s “I was vulnerable… and I cannot trust that this person did not violate me.”

              (Does that make sense? I know what I want to say, but I’m not sure I’m expressing it very well – and as willing as you’ve been to dissect this, I don’t want to ignore or distort your points.)

              1. Avatar of soitgoes
                soitgoes

                What I’m saying now is that….what if she consented at the time and doesn’t remember now?  It doesn’t invalidate her feelings or her perceptions of herself or anything ever at all.  I feel like we’re going in different directions over the exact same point.  The author is focusing on the fact that she doesn’t remember consenting (which she has a right to do).  If consent is the issue that any individual chooses to focus on, there are still more angles to it.  As I said before, it’s completely possible for a girl to feel like she’d been raped by a guy who thought he was doing everything right.  It’s a symptom of hook-up culture that sex has become even more ambiguous than it already was.

                1. Avatar of hayduke
                  hayduke

                  I think the feeling violated doesn’t just come from “did I consent” – it comes from “I’m pretty sure sex happened whether I did or not.” As to that being a “symptom of hook-up culture,” I would disagree.

    2. Avatar of HenriettaMoose
      HenriettaMoose

      One of the things that I think the author does really very well is establish that she doesn’t know if she consented OR if the men she was with consented.  That is really the crux of the article, which is a long discussion about how she is unsure of if she even qualifies as a victim. 

       

      Your comment is directed somewhere else, but I’m unsure how you got from “doesn’t know either way” to “bad sex? Well I didn’t give consent.” 

       

      I think that this “bad sex leads to women calling rape” is an unfair characterization of consent in the feminist realm.  I also am unsure what you mean by bad sex.  Is it solely unpleasurable or is when the sex partner performs an act that the other was prepared to decline but had no opportunity? Digression aside, the idea that women change consent after sex when it is bad seems like a red herring, to me.  This in particular is not that kind of case.  The writer does a great job in explaining how not knowing what really happened leaves both situations as possibilities.  That she could have been raped is the clearly more compelling story that kind of drowns out the other perspective for a reader, but the writer really clearly articulates that the ambiguity is the point.

    3. Avatar of
      Trigger

      I see that other commenters have discussed this already, but just for the record: this was not about bad sex, or sex that I later regretted. I wish I could remember it to regret it. I have no memory of what happened, sex or not or rape or not. I don’t remember. And yes, as you point out, and I’ve already mentioned, that could also apply to the guy(s) involved, though I doubt it.

        Girls are trained to view consent as this golden ticket that’s the only thing standing between good and bad sex.

      I don’t think that’s true at all, certainly not in my experience. We barely talk about consent to young people as it is.

  11. Avatar of Silverwane
    Silverwane

    [More TW for discussion of sexual assault]

    Oh fuck, I’m so sorry you went through that.

    When I was first starting to really appreciate that what happened to me was sexual assault, I remember questioning it a lot. I call it sexual assault because that’s the impact that it had on me. In reality, it seemed like it was virtually “nothing.”

    What happened to me was, one day when I was 14, my family and I were at a big gathering. We all crowded into a small room, and there were limited seats. I sat in one of the chairs in the back, and there were poetry readings.

    Well, this man, probably in his 30s or 40s, came behind me. I had the most horrible feeling wash over me. I sat there for probably thirty minutes, an hour, wanting desperately to escape, but I felt like to leave would have been “rude” or some shit like that. Finally, the reading ended, and we all mingled. When everyone was getting ready to go, I was sitting on a stool in the kitchen, with lots of other people around including my parents. I feel someone pat my shoulder. I turn around and it was the same man, with a strange grin and a look in his eyes I could only describe as predatory.

    I am sure if I had ever been alone in the same space as him, he would have tried to rape me. I have no doubt of that in my mind.

    Legally, he did absolutely nothing wrong. And that was what was so hard for me to process. Over the next six months, I found myself becoming horribly depressed and terrified of strange men. I had no idea why…until I finally connected the two events. For a while, I wasn’t sure what to say about it. Why was I responding so hard to something that, to outside eyes, must have seemed innocuous?

    When I started opening up about it, I ended up talking to someone who I didn’t know very well, but had experiences of her own with rape and sexual assault. I told her that it seemed like “nothing,” that it didn’t make sense why I responded that way. That so many people had worse things happen to them, why was I feeling like that too?

    I’ll never forget what she told me. She said that if that’s the way it made me feel, then it was harassment. Assault. Whatever it felt like it was to me. That it didn’t matter that the event didn’t “seem” like it “should have” done that to me. The important thing was that it did. And THAT was the real judge.

    I think that it is entirely up to you whether you feel like you were raped or not. But I think that it is possible that, if you have to ask the question, then regardless whether or not you want to call it rape, it was absolutely a violation of your autonomy. That they shouldn’t have done that to you. That you are absolutely justified in how you feel about it, no matter what conclusion you come to.

    And I am so so sorry it happened. Hugs if you want them.

    1. Avatar of KellsBells
      KellsBells

      yes yes and a thousand more times yes.

      perception is the determining factor of assault.

      thank you thank you thank you for sharing that perspective.

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