JWI is grateful to the member of our staff who bravely and graciously offered to share her story, to help spread awareness during Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
I was a straight-A student, an outstanding athlete, a girl from a middle-class Jewish neighborhood in a mid-size Mid-Atlantic city. I had dreams of becoming a doctor – sports medicine – and had gotten in early to my first-choice college. While a shy girl, I had a small, close group of similarly high-achieving girl friends. I came from a perhaps over-bearing but fully supportive family. I had a lot of things going for me and, to the outside world, I did not present the image of a victim. Yet I was one of the one in three adolescent girls in the United States who have faced physical, emotional, or verbal abuse from a dating partner.
I was raped by my first boyfriend at seventeen. I didn’t know then that there was a word for it – date rape – and had thought it was my fault. While my parents had warned me to avoid strange men, to carry a key between my knuckles while walking through a parking lot at night, and to always have a phone on hand with 911 on speed dial for emergencies, I had never been warned about dangers closer-to-home. I did not know that most incidences of sexual violence are inflicted by people we know rather than strange men lurking in empty parking lots.
My boyfriend did not have to catch me in an empty parking lot and he didn’t have to hold a knife to my throat. He only had to hold his hand over my neck in a way that impaired my breath just enough to scare me, to put another hand lightly over my mouth to silence me when I said “no,” and to make me feel like I deserved it by saying things like “Why did you ask me to come over, then?” and “Do you honestly expect me to believe I’m your first?” I did not know how to defend myself against this rape-that-I-did-not-know-was-rape. He caught me off-guard at a time when I felt most safe, with my boyfriend in my bedroom at my father’s house.
Since the rape, my self-esteem was shattered. I felt used and dirty and alone. Worse, I was sexually harassed when the news got out at my after-school job where my abuser and I worked together and was propositioned daily by my other co-workers who now thought I was “easy.” Again, I did not know that this behavior was sexual harassment at the time and that it was illegal. I did not learn this until two years later, in a Gender Studies class in college.
Even after I learned about “date rape” and “sexual harassment” and “no means no” in college, I had already learned the lesson that I “deserved abuse.” After all, I could not blame my victimization on a difficult background; I must have let it happen. In college, I spent two years in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with a boyfriend who would push me into walls and sent a male friend to the hospital during one of his jealous rages.
How the Situation Changed and How I Coped:
While in college, I started working at a rape crisis line and became an advocate on campus for students as well as women throughout the surrounding area. I helped set up college staff trainings on domestic violence as well as the school’s Take Back the Night. Through these activities, I learned that many of my peers, girls like me, had experienced similar types of abuse. Now, not only did a have the vocabulary for what happened to me; I also had faces to the name, and that was life-changing. I was no longer alone. I was no longer a freak. And I was no longer deserving. After all, how could I say that it was deserved after I had learned that many of my classmates, some of my closest friends, had been similarly victimized? I would never believe that they deserved it, so how was I any different? And so I stopped blaming myself and started going to counseling and focusing further on my work combating domestic violence as a therapeutic activity. While laying down roots in this feminist community, I gained greater self-esteem and was further reassured that I was not to blame for the abuse but instead should be proud of myself for surviving it.
What I Know Now:
I know that the abuse was not my fault and I know that, while I could not control the situation under the circumstances, girls need to be given more resources that can increase their sense of control. I know that girls need to be taught about teen dating violence from an early age, as early as middle school. Girls should be able to name the abuse as well as to know the warning signs to prevent it. Girls should also be taught about healthy relationships, about the dangers of slut-shaming and bullying, and should be engaged in activities that build their own self-esteem as well as positive relationships with other women. Schools should have support structures for the one in three girls dealing with this type of violence and school personnel should be fully trained to handle it sensitively and effectively. Most importantly, the issue should not be kept silent. Parents should talk to their teens. Youth groups, sports teams, etc. should recognize the problem. Programming on teen dating violence should be a part of standard school curricula. A variety of narratives must be told and it must be emphasized that this epidemic of violence can affect any girl: your daughter, your neighbor, your best friend, or even you.