WASHINGTON (AFNS) -- Sexual assault is a hot topic -- one addressed in annual training and at commander's calls throughout the Air Force -- yet the details of victims' stories are seldom mentioned. This is understandable. These crimes against service members are intensely personal. Also, as many survivors have learned, listeners don't always know how to respond appropriately, which can make sharing one's story awkward, even painful.
This is unfortunate. As humans we are drawn to stories. We reflect upon them and even internalize some of their values, ideas and attitudes. Stories communicate with extraordinary effectiveness, enabling us to learn not only from personal experience but also from others' experiences. Are we missing out on a potentially powerful tool in the world of sexual assault prevention? Perhaps calling on survivors to bravely share their stories holds real potential for making those serving alongside them more aware of sexual assault and of ways they can prevent it in their spheres of influence. To that end, here is my story.
Like most men I know, I never really thought much about sexual assault. I saw the issue as predominately a female problem that only happened to males under highly unusual circumstances and in unusual settings, such as prison. So, each year I endured the Air Force's mandatory sexual assault training but never examined people in my life for indicators of predatory behavior, or spent any time considering issues like stalking, grooming, or consent. Little did I know that, like many other victims of both genders, I was oblivious to the impending threat until it was too late.
Though the sexual assault I endured was not my fault, I failed to recognize the warning signs that escalated in the preceding months. Upon returning from a deployment, I found the girl I had been dating had unexpectedly moved most of her belongings into my house. I had left her a key to have her occasionally check on my house, but was nowhere near ready for her to move in. As our relationship had already become rocky during the deployment, her unilateral move forced me to break things off. I made certain to get back the key to my house, returned her belongings, and left the state on leave. That's when the text messages started.
At first they came almost hourly, throughout the day and occasionally into the night. I read the first couple apologies and deleted the rest on sight. I tried to have the phone company block her, but at that time blocking texts required a restraining order from the court. Since my only other options were to get a new number or put up with it, I chose the latter.
When I returned from leave, the stalking escalated from text messages to showing up on my doorstep every few days. As she lived 45 minutes away, these were not visits of chance. I would ignore her, drive into my garage and shut the door. Before long, it was getting so bad that I remained locked in my house, except while I was at work, and only opened my door at night to get my mail. I discovered later on that she had purchased a house down the street from me. One day, I woke up to find every single window and door covered with post-it notes saying, "I'm sorry." I didn't even attempt to take the notes down for fear she'd come over while I removed them. The night before the sexual assault, I unlocked the door and checked my mail. Either I forgot to lock the deadbolt when I went inside or she made a copy of my key, but the outcome was the same: she had access to me inside my house.
I remember waking up to her sitting beside me on the bed with her mouth and hands on me. I completely froze, unsure of what to do or how to react. At some point, she noticed that I was awake and said something, but I have no idea what that was. I was tremendously conflicted because my body was responding to something that I knew was completely wrong. She moved from oral sex to anal intercourse, which was far beyond anything we had engaged in physically during our relationship. I remember the pain and disgust from that but little else. When she finished, she tried to converse some more and attempted to cuddle, but I just lay there. Eventually she gave up and left, so I locked the door to the house and took a shower. I remember washing repeatedly, playing the events in my head over and over, unable to understand what had just happened. However, the thought that I had been sexually assaulted never even crossed my mind. I wrote it off as a horrible sexual encounter and tried not to think about it. There was no way I was ever going to tell anyone what had happened.
Over the next couple weeks my situation turned from bleak to completely despairing. Still reeling from the shock of the initial assault, I did nothing to stop her as she came over and assaulted me several more times. Each time I would try to wash off the shame from the events but felt powerless to stop them from happening. I had no will to resist doing what she wanted and felt completely broken and alone.
Many aspects of the assault made little sense to me. I knew that what had happened was wrong, but I blamed myself because my body had responded to the stimulation. In my mind, I paired the arousal with enjoyment and let my assailant continue. We also live in a society where males are expected to want sex all the time. To complain about having sex -- no matter how wrong -- would go against normal expectations of young men. Would I be seen as weak for not fighting back? Would I be seen as unmanly for not wanting to have sex with someone? If I ever got married, what would my wife think? My fears about how others would respond only drove me to further isolation. I was afraid of my assailant and let her do things to me that I never wanted to happen, but I couldn't understand my fear, let alone explain it to someone else.
It wasn't until weeks later, when I was talking with my sister, that I had the courage to describe what had taken place. She didn't even hesitate to tell me that I had clearly been sexually assaulted. I argued that that was impossible. Only when she pointed out that I had been asleep and couldn't possibly have given consent did I begin to realize the truth behind her assertion. I had seen the definition of sexual assault numerous times in Air Force briefings, but the lack of consent in my own case had never even dawned on me. With that newfound understanding, I gained the courage to file a police report. I don't know what actions the police took, but I never saw my assailant again, and the text messages dwindled down but persisted until I finally changed my number. Eventually I notified the SARC on base and started down the road to recovery.
Through that process, I came to realize just how little I truly understood about sexual assault. A vast majority of sexual assaults occur between people with an existing association, be it through work, mutual friends or an intimate relationship. This goes for both males and females. I had always thought that fight or flight mechanisms were the only instinctive human responses to danger. Think about when you hear a loud crash nearby: do you run toward it, run away immediately, or freeze and try to figure out what the sound is before taking either of the other two actions? I learned that many sexual assault victims never make it past the instinctive response of freezing. Additionally, many sexual predators groom their victims in order to decrease the likelihood of fighting back or fleeing. Some assailants use force or threats of force, but fear can be just as effective, as I learned through my situation. Control through fear is why many predators stalk their victims before, during or after sexual assaults. With cell phones and social media, stalking is becoming more prevalent and easier to engage in from a distance.
One of the final pieces I came to understand was the nature of control that impacted the events after the initial assault. For years, I blamed myself for everything that occurred after the initial incident. This changed when I heard how many sexual assault victims find themselves subjected to repeat assaults from the same perpetrator. Through grooming tactics, including manipulation and progressively undermining resistance, predators can more easily bypass normal defensive reactions and boundaries. Once those barriers have been removed, assailants use despair, shame, or fear to trap their victims and perpetuate the sexual abuse. This is particularly true within the first couple weeks, while the victim is suffering from the shock and trauma of the initial assault. Only upon hearing this did I begin to perceive that I had been assaulted -- not once, but multiple times -- and was not to blame for any of it.
Even still, it took me a long time to be comfortable with sharing my experiences. That all changed, due to some tremendous words of encouragement from a former wing command chief. I witnessed as he confidently stood in front of over 100 people and plainly laid out how he had been sexually assaulted as a young man. Unashamed, he proclaimed that while he had been victimized, sexual assault does not define him. Rather, he is defined by who he chooses to be: a chief, a leader, an Airman. That single moment affected a complete paradigm shift in my thinking. My sexual assault does not define me. Sure, it impacted my life, but it does not make me who I am. From that realization, I found the courage to begin telling my story. With each person I told, the fear of ostracism diminished and I truly came to understand the value behind the chief's words. My hope is that those words will ring true for other victims of sexual assault. Victimization of males has no correlation to strength, manliness, or sexual orientation. The simple fact is that they are victims of a terrible crime.
My story is just one of thousands from the lives of our Airmen. You may not personally identify with my experience, and if not I'm glad. But I do hope you will consider how you can take an active role in prevention. This calls for conscious commitment, and, I realize, you may have to challenge yourself in some areas. Will you be able to recognize situations where inappropriate control could lead to a sexual assault? Will you remain vigilant for stalking, grooming and other predatory behaviors in order to intervene before matters escalate? Will you stay attuned to signs of distress, including isolation, and significant behavioral or performance changes? Will you reach out to those within your sphere of influence and offer support without judgment or retribution? Only you can answer, and committing to these actions will cost you time and attention. Yet the Airmen we serve alongside are worth your effort. So, if you listen to our stories, I urge you -- take them to heart.