The Spectrum: My reality of surviving sexual assault (Not just surviving)

Jonathan Hoffman, Op-Ed Contributor

This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected].

When I was 17, I was raped by a boy in my biology class. It was my first sexual experience. In the aftermath, I was constantly searching for help, but it took me almost three years to see a counselor, in large part because of the responses I received from the few people I told. In my calls for comfort, I received only denial and blame, and, as a result, retreated further into my humiliation.

Six months after it happened, I told a friend for the first time. The night I told him, I saw my rapist loitering by the only exit of my senior class party as I was trying to leave. Panicked, I waited by the gift bags until everybody left. Once he was gone, I walked to my car alone. I sat in the driver’s seat completely overwhelmed, trying not to cry, trying not to think about it. Trying simply to breathe and keep breathing until I was calm enough to exist again. Then I drove to my friend’s place for the afterparty.

Later that night, when my friend and I were the only ones awake, I told him. I needed to tell someone; I felt like my pain would bubble out of my chest and consume me if I did not somehow undercut it. I had had this feeling a few times before — usually, writing a poem would be enough to sate it, but this time I needed something more. I needed to be heard and accepted and comforted. I needed a hug and some empathetic words.

But his responses followed two themes: “Are you sure he did it?” and “You are the kind of person who would make a big deal out of this.”

I think a large part of why he reacted so poorly is that male rape is not well-covered in sexual assault conversation. When the White House launched a video campaign about men’s roles in sexual assault prevention, it mentioned nothing of the fact that men are among the victims. In fact, until 2013, the FBI’s official definition of rape was “carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will.” When I was raped, the FBI’s official definition of rape did not include me or anyone of my sex.

Male rape is more underreported than female rape and understandably so. Our society demands men be in control, particularly in the bedroom. Being taken advantage of sexually can be seen as emasculation in the extreme. What’s more, men are conditioned against sharing emotions. I had never been emotionally vulnerable with my friend before that night, and he was clearly uncomfortable with it.

During the fall of my freshman year at Northwestern, I started dating someone. She was nice, and after our third date, we kissed. A couple dates later, while we were kissing, her hand moved slowly down my back. As she approached the small of my back, my body lurched away from her hand. We tried again, and the same thing happened.

It happened again on our next date, and I finally understood: my rape started with someone moving his hand down my back, so to have it happen again, even in a situation I was completely in favor of, caused an all-consuming panic. My instincts told me to get away as quickly and aggressively as possible so that it could not happen again.

That was one of the many sleepless nights I had because of retraumatization related to the rape. After hours of lying in bed and silently panicking, I finally admitted to myself that I needed help. I got out of bed and Googled “rape services at Northwestern” and was recommended two services: Counseling and Psychological Services and the Women’s Center. I called the number for CAPS — it rang ominously into eternity before I hung up. I did not contact the Women’s Center because I did not feel like their services were meant for me. After that night, I went untreated for another year.

Eventually, I went to the Center for Awareness, Response and Education, who recommended me to the Women’s Center. I went because I was given no other choice. Though the help I got was wonderful, and my counselor was great, I never felt comfortable there. Every time I walked in the door, I felt like an intruder, like I was stealing the services I needed from the people they were really meant for. After a couple months, I started seeing a psychologist unaffiliated with Northwestern.

In the two years since, I started seeing a therapist, and I have improved exponentially. I have done the work necessary to properly acknowledge my reality as a rape survivor. I am reclaiming my body, and I have left my rapist’s influence almost completely behind me. I am not ashamed anymore, and I am no longer hiding this part of me. I wrote an anonymous column in The Daily in 2015 but, this time, I am finally ready to put my name to this. Recovery is grueling and constant, but is consistently getting easier.

I don’t panic anymore if someone sneaks up behind me or touches my back unexpectedly. And in those once-overwhelming moments of retraumatization, I have developed the awareness to deal honestly with my pain without being consumed by it. Each of these victories has come from conscious effort: a half-hour of crying in meditation, a revelation in therapy or having my pain acknowledged by a trusted friend. And rather miraculously, I have internalized these efforts. They have changed from a chore to a wonderfully habitual side effect of my own self-love.

My story is not just that of a man struggling to recover in a society that underestimates my capacity for pain. It is primarily a story of hope, of a man who confronted and reconciled with his pain on his way to loving and accepting himself. I have found that I am worthy of love by the fact of my own existence, and I have learned to actively foster it. I have realized it is not selfish to work for your own happiness; rather, it is a great privilege and an imperative duty. By reconciling with this pain, I have come to better appreciate the beauty of life, because now the person experiencing that life is happy, and that allows everything to be more beautiful. I now realize that my happiness is worth any amount of time and pain and effort.

If there is one thing I want to accomplish with this column, it is to show my fellow survivors, both male and female, what everyone tells us: it does get better. There is a life for us beyond just “surviving,” if we put the work in. We can be happy. I say this not to quiet our pain but as an attempt to show you that I am better, and I am happy. I can’t show you my happiness or how much I’ve grown in a single column, but I can try to tell you what I’ve gained: a hope without context, a trust in myself and a wonder at the capacity for beauty life supplies us.

My name is Jonathan Hoffman. I am a rape survivor, but I am so much more than that. I am a writer, a student, a friend, an entrepreneur and, most importantly, I am not just surviving.

I am living.

Jonathan Hoffman is a McCormick senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.