That was the pseudonym I gave to campus police my freshman year of college, when a taxi driver stuck his hands down my pants in the passenger seat of his cab.
March 14, 2012.
My father’s birthday.
In local media, I was referred to as an anonymous “female passenger” or “a woman” or “UT student.” Being the victim of a crime like “forced digital penetration,” I was grateful for the anonymity. I was the cheerful friend, daughter, sister, student, and I didn’t want my intimate hurt broadcast. Those closest to me knew the basics of what had happened but after a few initial conversations with downcast eyes, I turned inwards. I didn’t reach out and no one checked in. Instead, I became active in Voices against Violence, a campus organization dedicated to fostering awareness about healthy relationships and interpersonal violence. I studied the history of feminism, took a critical look at gender norms, and published work on rape culture. But I’ve never publicly tied speaking out to my personal experience. While I dove into action, I didn’t allow myself the time to process my feelings.
Activism, advocacy and art all stem from empathy; people align themselves with causes that they or someone they love have been personally affected by. There’s power in my story far beyond any statistic I could regurgitate for you.
Five years later, I’m writing to reclaim my narrative. I’m writing for me, but I’m also writing for us. Hello! Can’t you see? There’s so many of us. And we have questions. Why did I only learn of the concept of “rape culture” after I was assaulted? No, it’s not because it’s a made-up concept. Why is it that, when something was done to me, did I feel so ashamed talking to those that love me most?
The story is personal, but the experience is shared. I cry for every rape that makes the mainstream news, and I cry for the countless others that never will. It’s time I turn my angry tears into a call to action. And so we write with defiant honesty, shattering the rape culture we’re festering in that delays the healing of survivors.
Dear 18-year-old Larisa, what were you thinking to walk alone? To get in the front seat of a cab? To drink to excess as a college student? To wear shorts in spring?
Dear rapist, what were YOU thinking when you saw me walking alone? When I got in the front seat of your car? When you realized I was slurring my words? When I shut my eyes to steady the world in what I thought was a safe place but instead I felt a tug at my pants and I froze and oh, how I would wish I had punched you hard or spit in your face like the brave girl who doesn’t take shit from anyone, the strong girl I thought I was, but instead I stared out the window in panic for what seemed like an eternity of violation and it wasn’t until I saw you pulling your erect penis out of your pants that my mind snapped out of paralysis and gave life to my fingers to open the door and stumble into the night. You dropped me off right in front of my dorm. Did you realize what you had just done?
It’s a scene I repeated in my head, one that dominated my thoughts and ruined the mindfulness exercise that the university psychologist tried to have me do. It doesn’t matter how the couch felt or the temperature of the room or the beat of my heart when I had the scene of the inside of that cab in my head, awake and asleep. But if you want to build a solid legal case around a sexual assault, you better be prepared to pick apart the details. What exactly did we talk about in the short ride? (Did something I say prompt an invitation?) Did I push your hand away with my right or left hand? (If I can’t remember something simple as that, how could anyone trust me?)
My attorney mentioned a “strong” case they were working on at the same time as mine: A girl was held at gunpoint and brutally raped while out on a night run. My own case wasn’t as definitive. Hazy memories don’t make for good evidence, so I felt more and more defeated each time I met with the district attorney, wading in the details of my story. Stockholm syndrome barred its ugly face as I absorbed the identifying facts that the prosecutor gave me: He was an immigrant with a family, a first-term offender, and he passed the test they gave him to check whether he was susceptible to future incidents.
I’m here to call bullshit on those old feelings, feelings influenced by how our society just can’t shut up, sit down and listen about what consent means and to come to terms with a scary reality: There’s no such thing as a rapist “gene.” There are just opportunistic people, fueled by a world that gives them the benefit of the doubt.
My attacker, a then 31-year-old man by the name of Hiewot G. Sisay (why should I preserve his anonymity when I’ve given up my own?) could very well be an excellent family man, a caring father, a loving husband. But what he did to me that night was wrong.
As a society, we’ve adopted a one-size-fits-all narrative of a stranger in a dark alleyway assaulting someone at gunpoint. When I tried to fit the jarring memory of my own assault into this narrative, it didn’t fit.
He didn’t have a weapon. I didn’t resist.
How would all of these details play out in court?
Well, my case never went to court. My attacker got 18-months probation on the lesser offense of giving a false report to the police officer (he denied that I was even in the car that night).
My prosecutor’s statement to the media:
“We did not feel we had enough evidence to meet our burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt under the statutes of sexual assault.”
I never wished for him to waste away in jail, but he didn’t even get charged with the name of his crime. The message there is that I wasn’t quite assaulted “enough” in the eyes of the law, and it’s no secret that the legal system is harsh on survivors and lenient on rapists (even ones caught in the act, like Stanford rapist Brock Turner).
“I think he will not be a danger to others,” Judge Aaron Persky said.
Here’s the thing: Everyone I interacted with during the legal process, from campus police to city attorneys, was kind and well-intentioned. A detective even gave me his personal phone number and told me to text him if I needed anything. I still have that conversation saved as a reminder of the good in people. “Hang in there,” one text reads. But even having the best-case scenario in terms of support, working with a weak case made me feel irrelevant. Worse than that, it made me replay the assault over and over in my head, mentally changing the circumstances for a different outcome.
My last year of university, I met up with an old high school friend at a local park. Catching up on six years of life, she dropped an emotional bomb on me: “I was raped.”
“I’m so sorry. I know. I know, I know.” I hugged her tight, and we continued slack lining for the rest of that beautiful spring day.
Hours after my assault, when I went to the hospital to have a rape kit done, the friend I called to support me had been recently raped by an acquaintance. You know what’s fucked up? Feeling closer to a friend over the shared experience of sexual assault. It’s an empathy I wouldn’t wish upon anyone.
Then there was the time I opened up to someone I was dating about the experience. He told me the story of how his sister, living across the country, had been raped by someone she knew. The helplessness that he felt when she called to tell him what had happened. He broke down in tears that he tried to fight for fear of appearing vulnerable, and I hugged him tight and told him it was all right to cry. That’s a perfectly normal reaction when someone you love has been hurt.
Sexual assault is everywhere, and it’s normalized. Look around. On the buses you ride, in the nightclubs you frequent. Growing up, I can’t put a number to the amount of times that strangers have felt ownership over my body, but it’s close to equal to the amount of times I was too scared to question that sense of entitlement. I’ve joked about lacking a sense of fight or flight; in situations of danger, I act like a possum and freeze in panic. It was funny when my college roommates would prank me with speakers behind my bed playing The Phantom of the Opera. It’s funny when my boyfriend spontaneously shakes me during the anticipation of a jump-scare during a horror flick. What’s not so funny is the connect-the-dots realization that’s revealed when I dig deep and am honest with myself: that anxiety is probably connected to the experience of my assault.
Healing is a process. Just like writing, there’s no moment where you can definitely declare, “It’s done.” But the shame has been laid to rest. Now, at 23 years old, I’m no longer ashamed of things that have been done to me against my will. Mother says “It’ll happen again if you don’t take care of yourself. You need to know how to protect yourself.” I know that her words come from a place of love, and to her, they’re the right words; words of protection, of prevention. But they’re packaged all wrong, and so I won’t accept them. Because fundamentally, drinking or not, I’m not responsible for his actions. Above all else, in this single unapologetic acknowledgement, I’ve found peace.
I’m writing this is for the people who don’t have a voice. For those who don’t have access to a platform that can reach others. For those who face punishment or death if they were to speak out against their rapists, because I can afford the disclosure. I’m writing this for anyone who feels alone in her or his shame. Listen: If anyone approaches this personal essay with anything other than love, support and a desire to listen, they are the weak ones. But if this story empowers you to come to peace with your own truth, that matters.
Realistically speaking, I’m an idealist for dreaming of a world in which a woman’s naked, defenseless body evokes an instinct to protect, not to hurt. Because humans are all animals, right?
Wrong. That’s lazy thinking. I’m striving for the most basic level of human decency.
We can do better.