This is what I know. When I was 16, after most everybody had left a big, alcohol-fueled party in a hotel suite, I passed out drunk. Then, a star football player at my Memphis high school picked me up off the floor, carried me to the bed and raped me. His girlfriend and one other male classmate were also in the room at the time. They did not stop him.
That was three decades ago. I don’t bring it up much. But it still comes up sometimes, in my head, anyway. Especially when I hear of a highly publicized rape, like the recent one in Steubenville, Ohio.
I do my best to block out those news accounts, and the cavalier talk and portrayal of rape in movies, on TV, online and in music. It is not because I have not come to terms with what happened to me, but because I have — slowly and privately. I feel frustrated and marginalized when I see how out of touch and ignorant our culture is about what rape really is and its effects. So it seems easier to try to be unconscious of all that, as I was when the whole thing first happened.
But the Steubenville case is so similar to my story that it has been more difficult than usual to ignore the news this time. When the verdict came down, convicting two football players of raping an unconscious 16-year-old girl, I realized once again, from reports on TV and comments online, that most people tend to do what I did for decades: numb ourselves to the effects of rape. We deny its impact, rage if we ever have to confront what it really is, and feel annoyed that it doesn’t just go away. It all seems easier than facing rape down. In the long run though, it isn’t.
Until now, I never wanted to write about what had happened to me for all the world to see. But I know that keeping quiet about it is part of why stories like mine continue to be so common. For every documented rape case, I know there are hundreds more like mine that remain off the record. And so we all remain unconscious about the true nature and extent of rape in our society.
Like the girl in Steubenville, I don’t recall much about the attack. The only thing I remember clearly is the next morning, when the football player’s girlfriend gently nudged me from sleep. She was fully dressed and standing by the bed. She had apparently slept on the floor all night. I was lying next to him with no clothes on. He was sound asleep. The other guy was asleep in a chair.
She gathered my clothes for me, helped me get dressed, and we slipped out the door without waking the two boys.
When we got in her car, I said: “I just have one question: What was I doing in bed with your boyfriend?” She said, “I was going to ask you the same question.” I said I didn’t know, and she said she didn’t, either. There was not much emotion between us, just a sisterly kindness, and we were pretty quiet during the rest of the ride. We never spoke of it again.
Six months later, the other guy told me more. He said he and the girlfriend had huddled on the floor at the opposite end of the room as it happened, not knowing what to do, and didn’t feel that they could stop the guy, because he was bigger and stronger than us all. He also told me that the football player said he was scared the next morning when the two of them woke up. I didn’t understand why he would be.
In fact, I didn’t even realize it was rape until four years later, when I was 20, and told the story to a loving boyfriend in college. He helped me see that I had been sexually assaulted, and was there for me as I began to face the truth.
I told some friends after that, but I did not tell my parents about it until I was 27. I didn’t set out to tell them. But one night, they unknowingly kept insisting that the other guy in the room during the rape had been in love with me. He went to Yale, and he had been my boyfriend for three weeks when I was in seventh grade, until I dumped him for his better-looking little brother. My parents always really liked him. But my college boyfriend had helped me see that that guy was not my friend. So when my parents brought the guy up again as someone whom I should consider romantically, I told them the story of the rape. They never mentioned him again.
I did not tell any of my three older brothers until well into my 30s, which is when I finally got some good counseling for the effects. That is also when I began to get my share of unhelpful reactions, like the therapist who dismissed me, saying it wasn’t “real rape” and was so long ago that I should be over it by now.
I never reported the crime. Laws supporting someone who was raped were less common back then. And like many women and girls who have been raped, before and since, I knew I would have been blamed, ridiculed and even worse in court, and in public for being drunk, and for whatever else could be used to make it appear to be my fault. That’s how it went in Steubenville, and was amplified when graphic pictures of the attack were posted online. Brutal tweets mocked the girl’s character. And online death threats were directed at her after the verdict.
I found some power and peace in never doing anything much about what happened. In forgetting.
But I don’t forget. Every once in a while, I remember more. At some point, I had a flashback of his being on top of me, and of my saying no, and of trying to push him off me.
I see on Facebook that he has a wife and two kids — a girl and a boy. I don’t know if he has ever cared to understand what he did that night, or if he did it again when he went on to play football in college. The boys who raped the girl in Steubenville have had to face a measure of justice. The boy who attacked me never will. Unlike for me, it is easy for him to remain unconscious of it all forever, if he so chooses.
I read that one of the witnesses in Steubenville, an 18-year-old teammate, said in court this month that he did not try to stop the attack because he did not realize anything wrong was happening. “I didn’t know exactly what rape was,” he said.
I can relate. I imagine that the other children in that room with me that night can, too. But it is no longer forgivable not to teach young people — and boys and men in particular — exactly what rape is, and not to drill it into their heads that rape is not O.K., ever, even just a little bit.
Being unaware of its effects is not a viable excuse anymore for being clueless about rape, especially if you are a policy maker, journalist, entertainer or athlete, or anyone else who has a public platform. The world has to be safe for those who have been raped to talk about it to anyone, without shame, guilt, blame or fear of being branded by it for life, in the same way we talk about any other violent crime, like robbery or burglary — crimes that happen but do not define your whole being.
I know now. What happened to me that night was a serious, violent crime. I am totally conscious now. But I also want to know: How long will it take for our society to wake up, too — to confront rape fully and to do whatever we have to do to stop it?
Emily Yellin is a journalist and the author, most recently, of Your Call Is (Not That) Important to Us: Customer Service and What It Reveals About Our World and Our Lives.