Is romance and recovery as difficult as it seems? A rape victim reflects on the triumphs and traumas of her dating life

One woman shares her experiences with hero complexes, ghosting, and continuing to believe in love

Published April 9, 2017 11:30PM (EDT)

 (Salon/Flora Thevoux)
(Salon/Flora Thevoux)

“Let me carry your pain for you,” he said to me in the dark, my head resting on his chest.

We’d been together for six weeks and he knew most of the make-or-break things. He knew I have been raped twice, that I am bisexual, and that I battled bulimia for much of my life. He knew these facts, but he didn’t understand them or ask pertinent questions about them, how they might be interrelated or how they were impacting our fledgling relationship. Maybe he thought he was allowing me the space to express what I wanted to say about them, but to me he was simply enamored with the idea of me, like his many predecessors. He blurted out that he was already in love with me on our second day together. He saw the buxom shape of a relatively industrious and intelligent woman who was writing a novel, who worked in politics, sings Garth Brooks with the windows down, and named her cat Scarlett O’Hara. I am certainly all of these things — and more. I liked this ambitious and light-hearted version of me, too. So much that I perfected the art of playing her character in public for decades. I can’t entirely fault my ex-boyfriend; sometimes I even believed she was real myself.

The person I knew best wasn’t anything like her, though. In love, the real me was disheveled, hypervigilant, erratic and self-defeating. My first date, first time holding hands, first kiss, first make-out, first sex all happened on the same December day, when I was assaulted by an older “friend” from high school who’d come home on holiday leave from the Air Force. For the next 20 years it didn’t matter how many media companies I helped launch, how many big cities I lived in, how many fun adventures and amazing friends I cherished, or how many exciting lovers I encountered. It did not matter how many people I confided in, how many positive affirmations I recited, how many doctors I saw, how many times I got hypnotized or how many reiki sessions I booked, how many churches I prayed in. I always heard the voice of a 16-year-old girl screaming inside.

I still vividly remember when she floated out of my body, and how in the years that followed she watched me from a safe distance, whispering to me whenever she feared that someone was malicious or threatening, pulling me back to comfort her whenever she felt injured or abandoned again. There is a medical term for this kind of personality fissure called dissociation, but I didn’t learn about it until I had lived with it so long it was my only normal.

Imagine how it feels to swipe right, negotiate a well-lit public meeting place, and show up for a date feeling optimistic when that kind of trauma has been your primary reality from adolescence to adulthood. Most people are reasonably nervous, evaluating their chemistry, and wondering if they’ll have a cute goodnight smooch that leads to more or a second meet-up. Through effective multitasking and intentional presence I have taught myself to enjoy some dates. What great nachos! We both love “The Fountainhead”! Your favorite movie is “Whiplash too!” Brian Urlacher was the best linebacker of all time! Small talk and sparks are the best, but as a victim of acquaintance rape I never forget for a split second that anyone — anyone — can turn on you.

I’ve spent many a would-be romantic evening tense, observing every movement a potential partner makes for signs of capacity for sexual aggression, planning how I might escape if necessary. So it was kind of a miracle that even a little six-week relationship materialized for me in my mid-30s. Years of enduring the cycle of exhaustion and failure, sadly, led me to prefer and savor the safety of solitude much more than a loving embrace.

About half of rape victims are likely to develop PTSD symptoms like dissociation and others, according to the Sidran Institute for Traumatic Stress Education & Advocacy. Do the math using stats from RAINN and the 2010 Census, and that means about 27 million women and 4.5 million men in America have experienced a complete or attempted rape. One might think an epidemic of that magnitude would be combatted by a strong and supportive community, replete with enthusiastic advocates, justice mechanisms, cultural and legal deterrents, and healing modalities. It’s not. There are some incredible leaders doing the hard work to raise awareness and make progress, but compared with most issues impacting that sheer volume of people, rape has not achieved the visibility of health issues like breast cancer or HIV, nor criminal justice issues like mass shootings. Beyond the abysmal odds that an assailant will ever be punished for the crime, the personal aftermath of rape remains one of the loneliest, most hopeless conditions a person can endure. This is why it is a tactic of war and slavery and trafficking; it has the power to dull if not kill the soul into submission.

For me, the worst part of recovery had little to do with coming to terms with the events themselves (12 years after the first incident, at age 28 I was attacked in my sleep while on vacation). It was the fact that talking about rape was either beyond taboo or had to be carefully scripted for palatable consumption, and not a single person in my life knew what to say or do about it — even if they cared and wanted to help. They may have implicitly observed my struggles and offered general support, but nothing related to rape was ever named or addressed directly unless I brought it up. Nowhere was this collective erasure and stigma more pronounced than in my romantic life.

Perhaps my ex’s offer to carry my pain should have melted my heart, but it just made me cringe. In my experience, cisgender straight male suitors are prone to say well-intentioned, valiant things in their initial outrage. Rarely, though, do they follow up when confronted with the reality of dating a rape victim who isn’t minimizing her injuries in order to make things appealing and comfortable for them. If they engage at all; many don’t.

There are certainly examples of thriving couples where men are actively supporting their partner’s long-term recovery. I haven’t had that yet personally, although I do believe it exists and could happen for me in the future. I also recognize the millions of men who have been assaulted, and who face the overwhelming belief that men can’t be raped. I’ve been working to better understand their recovery process, and was recently inspired to discover some incredible resources for men that resonated with me too.

Sadly, my experience with sharing my perspective and needs as a rape victim with my male or female partners can be characterized overall as confusing, painful and indisputably the most frustrating aspect of my life. To say I still believe in love would belie a real bitterness that has resulted in the hardening of my heart that I resist daily.   

Over the course of 20 years dating as a rape victim I’ve observed clear patterns. I have dated far more men than women, so the following unscientific assessment will be skewed in that direction, and can easily be conflated with nuances around my sexual orientation. One person’s love life can’t speak to the many cultural forces driving different beliefs about gender, sex, rape and relationships, but it can provide soulful insight into what it’s like to live at the intersection of those complexities. I wish it were a more confident, healed story but it’s simply not yet.    

Depending on when and how I share with men that I am a rape victim, which is its own complex strategic process, the most common responses I’ve received are usually re-traumatizing or confounding. I’ve shared up front on early dates to get it out of the way, which makes me more comfortable and freaks out my dates. When I really like someone, I let them know at the soonest natural moment and friend-zone myself until they have a chance to fully wrap their heads around it; I don’t want to risk losing the connection entirely, but that more often than not lands me permanently in the friend zone. I’ve waited weeks or months into dating someone to make sure partners have a positive impression and fun sexual encounters to cross-reference first. I’ve tried saying nothing at all only to blurt it out when something triggers me. The following are the reactions I’ve encountered most.

I want to hunt him down and kill him. This is by far the primary verbalized impulse. I am constantly baffled as to why anyone would think it would comfort me or turn me on to suggest that the appropriate response to egregious male violence is to perpetrate additional male violence. Perhaps other survivors find that protective or vigilante instinct reassuring, but not this one.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to date you. This one has happened so frequently that I’ve had years of reflection to develop a theory around the meaning behind it. At best, I think it means: “You deserve someone who is going to commit to meeting your needs very seriously, and I can’t offer you that.” This displays some self-awareness and maturity so I respect it. At worst, it means: “You seemed super hot but now I want to have less complicated sex with someone else and I don’t want to be judged as an asshole.” Either interpretation eliminates the possibility that rape victims in long-term stages of recovery are capable of enjoying casual relationships or developing something more serious slowly and naturally — something that would be significantly easier if a partner would frame recovery as a manageable aspect of the relationship. I’m pretty sure anyone who bails because he can’t consider the idea that for some people sex is a spectrum of violence-to-pleasure is doing so because he thinks that inconvenience is unfair to him.

You have to tell me how to help you. This one is tricky. On the surface it’s positive. In many instances this is true, and it’s far superior to bailing after threatening to hunt someone down and kill him. However, it can have deeply problematic side effects if the onus is put on the victim to re-traumatize herself in order for the partner to understand or meet her needs. For example, my ex said he wanted to carry my pain but did nothing to get educated and initiate progress. In fact, as the rape-related challenges came to the forefront it only took a couple months for him to declare that dating me was “too draining,” and we broke up. Fortunately, I am familiar with this crash-and-burn learning curve and I waited to get too invested until he showed his endurance level.

Being willing to engage just isn’t the same thing as learning what’s at stake and taking independent action. Although, it’s a delicate balance because action can also backfire when a partner takes it too far and creates a hero’s journey with himself at the center. In such circumstances, he is unable to access much empathy or empowerment for the victim because he is so focused on “saving the day.” It’s also an externalized concept of healing that renders the victim dependent on her hero to maintain it.

Look, it’s a tough position to be in for a partner because there are few resources that detail ways to support a rape victim even if they are sought out. If I could share the secret to doing it better I would, but I still have to dedicate much of my energy to overcoming PTSD symptoms in order to show up and address the issue in the first place, and it requires input from a willing partner to be truly effective. I am doing something about it, though. I have started a non-profit that will address this problem. This year we’ll be launching a research project to create a free downloadable resource called The Long-Term Guide to Surviving Sexual Assault, and one of the driving motivations for me in doing it is because I’ve lost every person I loved to this. I have to believe it’s solvable.

I can’t possibly express how horrible it is to watch the person you worship process your trauma, as though it is happening to him. To have to hurt him so he can truly know you, because the only alternative is protecting him from it and bottling it up inside. Then how awful it is on top of that to have to be the one to support him through it when you’re re-opening your own wounds. It’s not something you want to have to do repeatedly. I’ve had to do it every time a serious relationship reached a sustainability point, and I get progressively desensitized and more angry every time. It makes breakups that much more painful, and the recovery process between relationships tougher.   

Absolutely nothing. Yup. It’s super common to just get a blank stare or head nod, followed by a subject change or ambiguous form of physical communication. I can’t count how many times I’ve closed my eyes listening to Ani DiFranco’s song “Fire Door” when she sings: “Oh how I miss/ Substituting the conclusion to a confrontation with a kiss.” These pivots leave me feeling exposed, dismissed, and unclear on where I stand in the relationship. Even worse are the unspoken questions I instinctively sense in a partner’s eyes: Will this girl accuse me of rape? Will this girl ever fully trust me, and how long do I have to be patient with her? Am I reminding her of rape when we’re together? Are men inherently violent? Am I capable of this?

These patterns are also relevant to the women I’ve dated. I’ve not ever had a woman express a desire to commit violence or say it would be unfair to date me. However, the deft subject changes when she doesn’t know exactly what to say are still common, and I’ve been bailed on. Last summer I was seeing a delightful lesbian opera singer who ultimately had a lot of trouble understanding my dynamics with straight men, and she disappeared without a word after a particularly vulnerable exchange. One of my most heartbreaking romantic connections was with a bisexual woman who was very sensitive to my experience, but chose to remain in the closet and couldn’t stand with me fully.

It’s rare that bisexuals are ever considered as an independent constituency unless our new spokeswoman Kristin Stewart is releasing a movie, but according to the CDC an astounding 61 percent of bisexuals have been sexually victimized. While my attraction to both men and women isn’t binary, as many straight and LGBT people experience their attractions, I do find myself comparing the way men and women react to conversations about rape. I don’t experience hypervigilance as acutely when I’m with women; men are more triggering since I was attacked by men. I would prefer not to make gender-based comparisons, but it’s certainly relevant in a broader socio-political context and within historical power structures. I have found anecdotally that women are less shocked by the details and mental health issues that are a part of my life as a rape victim. It isn’t entirely surprising. Statistically, rape overwhelmingly happens to women and the highest-profile, well-funded advocacy initiatives have been targeted primarily at us. Of course, sexual violence is inflicted on people of all genders, orientations and demographics by perpetrators of all genders, orientations and demographics. And those of us in the LGBT community are not fond of specious correlations between assault and orientation. For more complete stats go here.

Regardless of the gender of my future romantic connections, I still have to find a way to overcome my inability to visualize what a healthy relationship in which I feel transparent and seen looks like. This is fundamentally harder to do with men, but I haven’t give up on them. Nor would it matter if I were with a woman; I would still need to come to terms with the fear of masculinity that is deeply embedded in my subconscious. I have a father, male friends and colleagues who have modeled amazing relationships for me, and I hope someday I can say that I would feel as comfortable in an emotional relationship with a man that is sexual in nature.

My best experiences and most fun times with men have been when I simply don’t tell them anything. That’s no longer a viable option now that I’ve become an activist on the issue of sexual violence and anyone can use Google. However, the memories of temporary freedom are some of my favorites. They only last a night or a few weeks before the urge for transparency and recognition of my whole self bring them to an end — and I always know it’s coming. But those glimpses of joy and pleasure preview what it might feel like to be safe and accepted by a man without this issue lurking at the forefront. It does make me sad to know that because I was raped on my first date, I don’t and won’t ever have a point of reference that isn’t informed by it. It furthers saddens me that my decision to take action on a societal level will continue to position rape at the forefront of my daily life and, as a byproduct, romantic relationships. Healing the self is hard enough; it is no wonder so few people have the wherewithal to pursue systemic change.

Revealing one’s self in any context is a delicate series of decisions, made in tandem with chemistry and comfort. It has been hell to do it on my dates; I don’t revel in sharing these life experiences with the internet. They come at a significant cost to my privacy. It is the acute misery of recovering from rape in a society that reinforces silence and isolation that ultimately compels me to disclose these challenges. When I think about the number of people waking up each day dealing with these same dynamics who remain disconnected and disempowered it makes me physically ill. As long as rape victims never hear our realities in public forums, more than 30 million people will continue to be marginalized.

This is one story, and there are many others just like it. There are countless more that are completely different. We wouldn’t know them, though, because rape stories only take a few forms. They rarely include any functional details that might help victims and the people who care about them — only the sexy ones that elicit the most shock and subconsciously tantalize. What exactly happened to those three women an Ohio man captured and held in a basement? What is it like to share the gritty details of your gang rape with Rolling Stone and relive them repeatedly when the world discredits your PTSD symptoms? Our culture loves the gruesome abuses of power that seduce the audience in ways that the producers of “Law and Order: Special Victims Unit” have so expertly templatized and monetized. When victims are not being sensationalized and saved, we’re just outraged and emotional. Angry college girls led by Lady Gaga and former Vice President Joe Biden hurling accusations at upstanding young men like Stanford swimmer Brock Turner.

I want to have a different conversation than the one shaped by crisis, suspicion and pity. One where advanced topics like managing PTSD and dating can stand on their own in a robust context. In order to have that, I can endure the folks who miss the point of sharing. The ones who condescend to an automatically-perceived cry for help, who immediately reduce my whole life to this aspect of me, who tell me I haven’t met the right person yet, that I’m caught in a pattern and the results I keep getting are my fault, that I am only dating women because I’m afraid of men and may or may not be going to hell, that I should just admit to myself that I’m a lesbian, that I need more therapy, that I’ve not experienced the right spiritual awakening, that I have to let it go in order to let love in.

No one knows more than I do that the common denominator in my love life is me. The takeaways I’ve shared say more about who I attract and how I present my history to potential partners than they reveal a profound truth about anyone else. I’ve dissected it and agonized over it; I’ve lightened up and lived a little. In the end, I know that partners will be as comfortable as my lead. However, the process of becoming comfortable has included many failures and will very likely include some more. This is one of the classic mindf***s of recovering from rape. Sometimes it’s impossible to tell if a failure to recover is your fault or your partner’s fault or society’s fault.

Blame is at the heart of bad things. When one must ask, "Why did this happen to me?" the fault appears to rest within, with the bad guy, with bystanders, with the system, with God. You never get an answer that doesn't itch, though, even when you pick one and believe it.

That’s why blame is ultimately useless. The greatest lesson I’ve learned from all of this is that no one is going to fight for me but me. Nothing is going to change about my relationships unless I change them. Nothing about the issue of rape in America will improve unless I do something about it in coordination with others. I did not deserve what happened to me nor did I want this responsibility, but it’s mine.

I carry my own pain.

By Maegan Carberry

Maegan Carberry is a writer and artist. She is the author of the novel “Do I Have To Vote For Hillary Clinton?” about the 2016 election and is hand-making 100 dresses to raise awareness about sexual assault through her project, birdbrain.  

MORE FROM Maegan Carberry

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Anti-rape Campaign Human Sexuality Personal Essay Sexual Assault Sexual Assault Awareness Month