Abigail Hauslohner is The Washington Post’s Cairo bureau chief.
As this newspaper’s Cairo bureau chief, I live and work with the risk of sexual violence all around me. I’ve covered war and political turmoil in the Middle East for the past seven years, spending five of those in Cairo, where sexual harassment is an almost daily experience. When I was groped amid a crowd of protesters battling police outside Cairo’s al-Azhar mosque on the fourth day of the uprising in 2011, I turned around and punched the guy in the face.
My friends tell me I’m “tough.” But it wasn’t until I completed an intensive course of therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder in October that I was able to finally confront pain I’ve been carrying with me for 14 years. I had gone to see a PTSD therapist to seek relief from what I’ve witnessed and experienced as a Middle East and war correspondent, to deal with the fear that had taken over my dreams and had begun to affect my work. I wanted to be able to react calmly to loud noises — instead of sensing an explosion every time a door slammed or a car backfired.
But we also ended up spending a lot of time dealing with an earlier experience that had nothing to do with the Middle East and yet almost outranked my war experiences: one night in 2001, when, as a 17-year-old, I visited a friend at his college and he raped me.
Until stories broke about rape accusations against Bill Cosby and an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia, I had generally avoided reading about rape. I avoided reporting on it, too — as much as that pains me to admit. When I tried to write about Egypt’s sexual assault problem two years ago, I had great reporting and great timing — it was Valentine’s Day, also a day of anti-rape activism. I knew it was an important story and I wanted to put it out there, but I couldn’t do it.
My experience in therapy helped unburden me of the shame that I have carried since I was a teenager and has prompted me to speak out now. I’ve found inspiration in the willingness of rape survivors to talk about their assaults, years or decades after the fact. I decided it was time for me to do the same. It should never be too late.
Nearly 14 years ago, I went to visit my friend — I’ll call him “X” — at his college campus. I saw X as a goofy but caring, older-brother type; we’d overlapped in high school and had a platonic and confiding sort of friendship. I never found him attractive.
When X went to college, he joined a fraternity and promised to take me to a real college party. My parents, who were fairly strict and usually would not have let me spend a weekend visiting a boy on a college campus, let me go because X was a friend. I packed my coolest top — a bright pink, sleeveless turtleneck sweater — a pair of Guess jeans and a new necklace that I loved.
The party was hosted by X’s fraternity. I remember walking into a relatively empty house and settling in nervously on a couch. Most of the people in the room were guys, and I was eager to seem cool. X asked if I wanted a drink; I said sure. He brought me a big plastic cup full of red punch.
The rest of that night I remember in flashes of images and sound. I can’t remember anything between sitting on the couch and drinking from that cup, and then being propped up in the back seat of a car that wasn’t X’s, with someone else driving someplace. I think I lost consciousness somewhere between the couch and the car.
Then I was lying on X’s bed in his dorm room, and he was on top of me, kissing me and fondling my breasts.
I felt like a block of lead, melded to the bed. My vision was blurred, and the room was dim. I seemed to have no control of my body, as X struggled to remove my jeans and then my shirt, my head lolling to one side and then my body falling back onto the mattress.
I remember suddenly feeling pain between my legs and saying “No,” as loudly as I could, my voice hoarse, my lungs heavy. “No, no, no,” I said again and again. But I couldn’t move. I couldn’t even sit up. Eventually the pain disappeared.
I don’t know what time it was when I woke up the next morning. My head felt like it was in the clutches of a vise, and a wave of nausea swept over me. I dragged myself into a sitting position; X was asleep next to me on the narrow twin bed. I was wearing his T-shirt and nothing else. I couldn’t remember putting it on.
The dorm was quiet.
I stood up and found my shirt, jeans, underwear and bra on the floor. My necklace had snapped in half, the tiny beads unleashed amid my clothes. A condom wrapper and condom lay there, too.
I put on my jeans and found my way to the bathroom, where I threw up violently, feeling sicker than I ever had. I sat there, heaving in the toilet stall until there was nothing left to expel.
When I got back to the dorm room, I told X to take me home.
It was a gray Saturday morning, and we drove in silence the whole way. Midway there, I made him pull over so that I could vomit some more on the edge of the highway. When he dropped me off, I got out of the car and went inside. I never saw him again.
In the 48 hours after I was raped, I moved about my house — and even went to a friend’s home to socialize — in a dazed state of denial. The R-word was there, dangling in my mind, like a nightmare that lingers after waking. But I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud.
At the time, I prided myself on being a progressive teenager and considered myself a feminist. I knew all about date rape and how common it was. I believed that I was too smart to fall victim to such a predictable kind of crime. Date rape happened to weaker, stupider, average girls, I told myself. And I knew better. I knew you were never supposed to leave your cup unattended at a party.
But I didn’t know that good-student, boy-next-door types could be rapists. I didn’t know that good friends raped good friends. The overwhelming majority of juvenile rape victims know their attackers.
The week after I was raped, I remained depressed and withdrawn, still wrestling with denial. My mother seemed to sense that something was wrong, but I told her everything was fine.
Instead, I called my best friend at the time, a mutual friend of my rapist’s who was also in college. Even then, the R-word caught in my throat, too horrifying to say. I stammered and paused. Finally I told her, haltingly, that X had taken advantage of me in his dorm room. “Are you sure, Abby?” she said. “[He] would never do something like that.”
After that, I did nothing. I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t talk to a lawyer.
While even the most self-aware American women and girls don’t necessarily know how to avoid date rape, most of them probably know what happens to rape victims when they go public. As a 17-year-old, I knew that rape victims were torn apart in court — that defense lawyers scrutinized their personal lives, their sexual histories, even their clothes. I imagined my life coming down around me; my name in the newspaper; my friends, neighbors, parents and coaches turning against me; my fragile teenage self rendered an outcast; my future destroyed.
Most of all, I had heard enough about rape to know that you needed evidence. And I had none.
Two days had passed before I was able to admit to myself that I had been raped — long enough for any semen to wash away, for X to throw away the condom and clean up the dorm room.
It wasn’t until a year later, when, as a deeply depressed college freshman, I sought help from a psychologist, that I was able to utter the word “rape.” It was only then, too, in describing the experience to the psychologist, that I was able to grasp that I had been drugged, most likely — according to my psychologist — with “roofies,” the ubiquitous date-rape drug.
Over the years, I alternated between fantasies of vigilante justice — I pictured myself spray-painting “rapist” on his parents’ driveway — and quiet attempts to convince myself that the more time passed, the less the memory would affect me.
I’m under no illusion that a court case now would accomplish much of anything. There is no physical evidence. I imagine that if you called up X today and asked him if he did this, he’d say no. So it often goes with rape.
In all of the years since this happened, the image that has flashed through my mind most often is that of the emergency telephone that I passed in the hallway of X’s dorm as I stumbled to the bathroom that morning. Even through the haze of my nausea and headache, I knew what it was for, and I paused in front of it. All I had to do was pick up that phone, and the campus police would have come. They would have found the evidence strewn throughout the room — the condom, the remains of my favorite necklace, which snapped as X yanked my turtleneck over my head. They would have tested me and found traces of the drug that I assume was in my drink. Things could have turned out differently.
But I didn’t pick up the phone.
That moment has haunted me. It creeps into my thoughts when I’m sad or depressed. It lies at the root of the anger, humiliation, self-hatred and mistrust that have plagued some of my personal and professional relationships. Why didn’t I pick up that phone?
My PTSD therapist helped me recognize, and finally accept, that my decision not to pick up that phone was a rational one, not a failure of courage.
Despite everything I had been taught about the criminality of rape, everything in the environment I grew up in seemed to suggest that making a fuss would be a bad idea.
Today, what scares me the most about the debate raging over Rolling Stone’s U-Va. rape story, and the magazine’s apparent shortcomings in verifying it, is that the next woman who is raped at that school or any other might not come forward. Even if she does, people may be less likely to believe her, as her individual tragedy will probably be conflated with everyone else’s opinion about this particular case.
So it pains me to think about how there are other women out there right now making the same “rational” decision that I did. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 97 percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail. That is largely because most rape victims, myself included, don’t report the crime to the police to begin with.
What does that mean? It means that, 14 years later, my rapist is walking around, living a normal life, as far as I can tell from a Google search. Today, a new generation of college rapists is getting away with it all over again. And a new generation of rape victims has just as much reason to stay silent.