From HelloGiggles: How my middle school sex education failed me as a sexual assault survivor
Originally published on April 27, 2017 here
Nothing laying down. Nothing below the neck. Nothing comes off.
Those were the three cardinal rules of my middle school sexual education. Boys and girls were taught in separate classrooms, and the girls’ discussions focused on how important it was for our fathers and brothers and uncles that we save ourselves until marriage — “save ourselves,” as though having sex completely took you away from your body, as though losing your virginity meant you weren’t a complete person anymore. You weren’t worthy, or valid.
Our teacher, a 60-something grandma who knew half the students from church, made sure that we would always do our best to be “good girls.” She was cool, she assured us. She was a teenager once, she knew how stressful it could be, how tempting. But she didn’t want to make it any more tempting, it seemed, because she hardly taught anything useful at all.
I was never taught the technicalities of sexual intercourse. I didn’t know the difference between a vagina and a uterus, and I had no idea what an STD was.
On the last day of our sex-ed program, the teacher gave all the girls a small flower. We were told it was our virginity, and that we had to protect it. That this was the most important thing we could do in life, that it was who we are. A few months later, my church had a purity ring ceremony, where my mom slid a sterling silver band with a heart and cross onto my right ring finger. We swore, that day, in front of our parents, our church, and God, that we wouldn’t have sex until marriage, that it was our most sacred duty.
And so, when I was raped, I didn’t know what had happened.
I’d been violated, taken from. But I’d also broken the three rules: “Nothing laying down. Nothing below the neck. Nothing comes off.” I let it happen, I thought.
I was dressed up as a deer, the night it happened in college. It was Halloween, and I’d paper-mached antlers, bought a brown suede skirt, and perfectly applied the doe-eyed makeup look. Innocent and unsuspecting, I went out with my best friend. We went to the most popular bar near campus. It was senior year, and we never usually partied — but that night, we were both ready to let loose.
I hadn’t been involved with anyone since I studied abroad and ended up heartbroken, so when a tall, blonde guy with an accent said hello, I said hello right back.
The night felt endless, full of potential in a way I hadn’t felt in a while. The blonde boy bought me drinks, and I drank them. We went to another bar, I think. So much of the night faded away from me, even as it was happening. After he handed me that first drink, I started slipping away.
I kissed him in the second bar. I know that because I’d come back alive. I took control; I wanted him. In that moment, I did.
“If you follow the three rules, you have nothing to worry about,” our teacher would say. The three rules would keep us safe from the perils of the nasty world we lived in.
Back at my apartment, I broke the first “rule.” We’d laid down on my bed to watch a scary movie.
My friend and her date were there, too — it felt safe. Normal. Soon, laying down next to each other turned to kissing. That’s when it got blurry. That’s when I remembered my friend and her date leaving, and the night starting to fade again. I knew I wanted sleep, so I laid down. I couldn’t remember where he’d gone, until he kissed my neck, then my chest.
Another “rule” broken.
Then, I said no.
I thought I might vomit. I was a virgin. I wasn’t on birth control. My purity ring was taunting me. I said “no.” He didn’t listen, and I felt like I could barely breathe. It felt like I was in a dream. I couldn’t move. I’d broken the third and final “rule,” and I thought it was all my fault.
I closed my eyes and thought of my ring, the cold metal, the ceremony, my mom’s eyes looking down at her perfect daughter.
I said “no” again, and for a moment, I thought I could fight him off. I couldn’t, and he didn’t listen.
I thought of that flower my teacher gave me after sex ed — how I’d jokingly given it to my sweet bus driver after school, knowing I’d be getting the ring later. I kept giving things away, I thought to myself. “Hold on to this flower, and guard yourself, and nothing bad will happen to you.”
In the morning, I didn’t know where I was, even though it was my own apartment. I went to the bathroom, covering up with my favorite fuzzy blanket from my mom. I remember hoping that maybe it was a dream, that we’d just made out and fallen asleep — but I finally couldn’t hold it in any longer. Tears mixed with my deer makeup, cascading down my face, turning me into a crazed zebra.
Eventually, he left, and my friend took me to CVS to get Plan B, “just to be safe,” she said. In that moment, the 50 dollars didn’t feel like near enough for what “I’d done.”
I thought it was my fault, after all.
I’d broken the “rules.” I let a man into my bedroom, I pulled him closer before I pushed him off.
My “flower” was gone, and it felt like I didn’t matter anymore.
Later, when I would tell people what had happened, I remember them asking if I’d reported him. I was confused. I’d broken the rules, I thought. I’d let it happen. What was there to report?
Months later, an essay by the author of my new favorite book brought me to tears. She explained her sexual assault, and that her character’s rape was based on real events. Years later, she was still coping with it. Again, I couldn’t breathe. The world felt too big and too small and I reread her words over and over.
I still couldn’t breathe. It was too real.
It had happened to me.
Realizing that I was raped was almost more traumatic than the assault itself. I felt bullied by myself, my past, my hometown, and my faith. I felt betrayed. More than a year and a half later, I still cry when I think about it. Because those months after I was raped, when I could have been healing, I was in denial.
Because of what I was taught in middle school sex ed.
I’d broken the “rules,” so I blamed myself.
I was robbed of my own sense of closure and acceptance, and that still hurts. What hurts even more is that I know I’m not the only one, and that there are still people (some of whom I used to call friends) that will say I shouldn’t have been drinking; I shouldn’t have worn that skirt, or invited him over. And sometimes, in my darkest moments, I believe them. All because of three rules, a flower, and a ring.
As Sexual Assault Awareness Month nears its end, I hope we’ll continue fighting to make sure no other woman ever feels this way.