Author (and fan): Lacey Vanderpool
Warning: extremely long post ahead. I can’t sleep and I’ve got some things on my mind.
Sexual assault has been a big topic lately. First, I’d like to share some knowledge about why trauma victims react in a variety of ways. Then I’d like to share some #metoo moments from my own life. You might not want to read far ahead if this is a sensitive topic for you.
Victims of trauma, including those of sexual assault, react in a variety of ways, and if one doesn’t react in a way people think should be considered “normal,” he or she might be seen as unbelievable, so I’d like to explain the basics of the actual science behind this. It might be slightly dry reading, but this information helps understand a bit more about sexual assault and sexual assault survivors.
Trauma changes the structure and function of the brain in response to a traumatic experience. The cerebrum, or “new brain,” which is responsible for voluntary actions, shuts down during trauma. The “old brain,” which regulates basic survival functions, has four structures that are impacted by trauma: the amygdala, the hypothalamus, the pituitary gland, and the hippocampus.
The amygdala scans for danger and processes emotional reactions and memories in relation to threats to survival. Once a threat is detected, it signals the hypothalamus, which communicates information to other parts of the brain. When the hypothalamus is signaled by the amygdala, it in turn sends a signal to the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland is responsible for many hormones and helps regulate other endocrine glands, including the adrenal glands. Once the pituitary gland triggers the adrenal glands, the adrenal glands respond by releasing hormones. A traumatic experience will cause the adrenal glands to release catecholamine, cortisol, opioids, and oxytocin. The levels of these hormones vary from person to person and from experience to experience – this is why people have different reactions and recovery processes to trauma such as sexual assault.
Catecholamine provides the adrenaline that prepares the body for fight or flight. Engaging in fight or flight is dependent on cortisol. Cortisol affects energy for a fight, flight, or freeze response. Opioids are the body’s natural painkiller, and if levels are high enough, it can block emotion as well as physical pain. Oxytocin promotes good feelings and is one of the body’s ways to try to eliminate pain. Reaction to trauma depends on the level of each of these hormones, which can vary and change.
Memory impairment can happen as well. The hippocampus lays down memory in two steps: encoding and consolidation. Encoding is the sorting and organizing of sensory information. Consolidation is grouping bits of information together as memory.
Consolidation is impaired during trauma. This is why many sexual assault survivors have sensory-based memories of the assault, but have trouble explaining a linear sequence of events.
Considering this information, PLEASE stop judging survivors of sexual assault, or any trauma, for how they act during the trauma and in the time following. Stop assuming you know how you’d react in a similar situation. Even the same person experiencing the same trauma twice might act differently.
I’d also like to add that it is not uncommon for sexual predators to be in positions of power, have a high standing in their community, and choose vulnerable victims. This helps them access victims and have others believe in their innocence.
Most assaults are committed by someone the victim knows.
Now I’d like to share some of my own #metoo moments, so stop reading now if you need to.
One that really sticks out in my mind occurred when I was 18 in college. I was a freshman and was getting to know new friends at the time. One night I went to a party with some friends and had a fun time. I was enjoying getting to know my newer friends better. I remember what I was wearing. I had on a black, knee-length, wintery dress with a geometric design along the bottom. The top half was short-sleeved but a sweater-y material with a turtleneck. I had black leggings on with the dress.
Late that night, or perhaps very early the next morning, my roommate/friend and two of our friends named Heath and Chad left the party. My roommate voiced concern about returning to our dorm and getting in trouble. Heath and Chad said we could stay with them in their dorm room without any problems, and my roommate was amenable to the idea.
At this moment red flags went off and I became very uncomfortable. I knew my roommate wasn’t quite sobered up. I wanted to return to our own dorm, but there was no way in hell I was going to let her stay with the two guys alone. I remember wishing I could somehow speak with her alone. I also remember wondering if I was overreacting – these were our friends, right?
So I agreed to stay there, too. My assumption was that Heath and Chad were roommates and that they and my friend and I would all be staying in the same room. That was what it had sounded like. Wrong. Once we got inside, turned out they lived in different rooms and I could stay in one room and my friend in the other. I was freaking out a bit, but I at least wanted to be nearby in case my friend needed to get me or leave or anything. Heath’s roommate and another young woman were sleeping in one bed. Heath said he would sleep in the recliner and I could have his twin bed.
I proceeded to get into bed only to have Heath slide in next to me a few moments later. He knew I had a serious boyfriend at the time and I reminded him of that and said I thought he was going to sleep in the recliner. I can’t remember what he said to that. I think I remember starting to get up to sleep in the recliner myself, but Heath reassured me it was fine, it was just sleep. I was between him and the wall.
I planned on trying to get my friend and leave as soon as possible early in the morning. Heath was still a bit inebriated and I thought maybe he’d just go to sleep and that would be that. Wrong again.
I was lying on my side facing away from Heath towards the wall. I was wearing what I described earlier. It didn’t take long for him to start groping me, kissing me, reaching under my dress. I kept telling him to stop and batting him away. It might sound stupid, but I remember desperately not wanting to wake up his roommate and the other woman in the room. So I continued to halfway fight him off in semi-silence for what felt like forever before he finally passed out. I did not sleep at all and left as soon as I could.
My friend told me Chad made a move on her, but when she told him about her boyfriend, he was cool about it and slept on the floor so she could have the bed. I hope she was telling the truth. I hope so much that she wasn’t also assaulted. I wish I’d have had more confidence and courage and convinced her to go back to our own dorm.
I felt conned and betrayed. I believe that Chad and Heath schemed the situation ahead of time – gain our trust, get us in there, get us separated, take advantage. The thought of planning something like that makes me sick.
I felt like I had kind of cheated on my boyfriend. I believe in full honesty and told him about what had happened. I felt guilty. I didn’t think of it as sexual assault at the time. I felt like it was my fault for putting myself in that situation. So I felt like I was admitting something horrible I had done, not something horrible that had been done to me. I felt I owed my boyfriend an apology. He certainly didn’t have the worst reaction imaginable, but he didn’t understand why I slept in the same bed with Heath in the first place. I couldn’t really blame him because I felt stupid for it, too.
This is why education about sex, consent, and rape culture needs to be taught by parents and in our schools. Not all assaults are extremely violent, but we should be able to recognize them for what they are even if they’re not. And we HAVE to stop victim-blaming.
There are other incidents that occurred throughout my life. I remember when as a young teen there was a period of time when a boy would frequently discreetly reach over and touch me under my shirt in class. I remember teen boys making inappropriate sexual jokes. I remember boys popping bra straps and throwing things in my cleavage. I remember one time a boy deliberately rubbed his crotch along my butt as he was passing by. I remember when I was about 14 and a guy much older than me hollered at me when I was leaving a football game at the Junior High. I always looked older than my age, but wrong either way. I remember a time at K-Life when someone turned the lights out to get us to leave and a boy grabbed my breasts in the dark. I remember a couple of boys on the school bus openly trying to guess my bra size. I remember boys leaving inappropriate messages about me to piss off my then-boyfriend. And for a long time growing up it never crossed my mind that these things were actually sexual assault and sexual harassment. In fact, sometimes I thought it meant maybe a guy liked me.
I remember a friend telling me about her ex-boyfriend raping her and how I felt it was hard to believe at first because he was my friend, too. I wish I’d told her from the start that I believed her and was there for her.
I remember a friend disclosing to me when we were in college about a time she feared her father and locked herself in a room. I wish I’d been more supportive.
There is another young woman who has stuck with me. This was also during my college years. We were acquaintances who had had a couple of classes together before. One day we ended up in the waiting room at a doctor’s office at the same time. Out of the blue she told me about being raped in one of the college buildings. She said that she reported it and was told to keep it quiet. I was just kind of shocked at the time and didn’t know what to say. I don’t remember what I said, didn’t have the right thing to say. Didn’t say anything of worth.
Now I realize how brave she was, how strong she was, how she was trying to warn me, that she was telling her story despite being told by authority figures not to. I wish I could go back and thank her for telling me her story, commend her bravery, give her my support, tell her I believe her, that I’m on her side, that I hate how she’s being treated. I don’t even remember her name, but I think of her from time to time.
We need to educate ourselves. We need to believe survivors. We need to support each other. When we learn we need to do better in the future.
Men: you need to step up. Men who already don’t respect women aren’t going to listen to us. You need to speak up when you hear and see friends do or say things that contribute to rape culture and sexual assault.
Survivors: It wasn’t your fault. I believe you. You are worthy of respect and love. I support you.
If you’ve made it to the end, thank you for reading this. And I want everyone to know that I’m okay. I just felt the need to make this post. If you have your own #metoo story, I’m here to listen whether you want to post in the comments or contact me privately.
Sending you all love.