03/31/2015 09:19 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

It's Time to Change Our Approach to Sexual Assault

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At 5 o'clock in the morning, I lay awake on the floor of my friend's living room, huddled in a thin blanket. A rerun of "Shark Boy and Lava Girl" was playing on TV. I stared at the screen, not really watching the movie. All I could see was the night's events playing on endless loop before my eyes. Headphones shoved in my ears, I tried, unsuccessfully, to blare out the images.

I was annoyed.

Annoyed that he had never asked.

Annoyed that I had been yanked off the couch and pushed onto my knees.

Annoyed that I had been roughly shoved onto my back.

Annoyed that I had to keep saying no.

Annoyed that I had been given a gruff command, then a paper towel before being left on the floor. Alone.

I was annoyed. But when it was over and he was snoring loudly on the couch while I lay shivering on the floor, the last thing I thought was sexual assault.

I did think I had been disrespected. I was greatly inexperienced, so I was confused why something I was supposed to enjoy had left me feeling so small. But soon, the irritation began to fade and by the following evening, I was filled with a hollow numbness I couldn't explain.

The next few weeks passed in a dream-like state. I barely ate, I barely slept. I was constantly haunted by phantom smells and forced to relive the incident every time I closed my eyes. I had no idea what could act as a trigger; sometimes a simple word eliciting a reaction. I was constantly on the verge of tears, but never actually able to cry. Slowly, I began to forget what happy felt like. Instead, I became consumed by the days that followed and succumbed to new feelings. Lost. Scared. Belittled. Numb. Embarrassed. He broke me. He had made me feel worthless and pathetic. And that made me feel weak.

Perhaps that's why I felt the need to close myself off from others. I became apathetic to everything and everyone around me. I told two friends a week after it happened. Family and work were the only other interactions I had with the outside world. I even ignored my mother's pleas for an answer for weeks before I finally spoke.

"If I tell you something, do you promise not to be angry?"

That was how I broached the subject with my mom. I wanted to tell her, but I was scared. Not because I thought she would reprimand me for what had happened, but because I thought she would be mad at me for how I reacted. It was what I had expected from both of my friends and why I so dreaded others finding out. I was humiliated. I didn't want anyone to see what I had allowed myself to become.

It was a while before I could admit that I had been sexually assaulted. The term seemed unduly harsh for what I had experienced. After all, I hadn't been beaten. I hadn't been raped. I had no right to be affected so strongly. Fear of my reaction forced me into denial about what had happened. It's also what caused me to push away everyone that cared for me. But whether I wanted to acknowledge it or not, I had been sexually assaulted. As a 21-year-old girl, I have been heeding warnings to remain vigilant for years. Specifically in the last few, when the issue became mainstream and talk of how to prevent sexual assault seemed to be everywhere. There is something for everyone to do; assailants, victims, bystanders -- everyone has a role to play. But the thing is, no amount of prevention is going to stop sexual assault from happening.

I don't care what I, or anyone else, could have done differently. It's not going to change what happened. It's not going to change the fact that I have to live every single day with it hanging over me, unsure if what I'm feeling is OK. The media does an excellent job of raising awareness, but what it fails to capture is the devastating aftermath sexual assault leaves in its wake. While everyone tries to proffer an opinion on what should happen before, victims are left grappling for an answer as to what should happen now. There is no established standard for dealing with sexual assault, which impedes victims from recovering and perpetrators from seeing the full consequences of their actions. In this noble quest of prevention, wouldn't it be more productive to discuss the effects of sexual assault rather than the mere existence of it?

It has been six months since I was sexually assaulted. And yet, it's always here. Whether smelling coffee beans to get rid of a scent or sleeping with the lights on -- methods for dealing with various triggers have become my normal. I struggle to trust guys. Who I am and how I approach relationships has changed as I try to regain control of my life. But, I finally understand that my experience, not my feelings, is what's actually wrong. Any type of sexual assault can cause trauma -- that doesn't make a person weak. Strength is not determined by the inability to feel, but by the ability to accept a situation and the feelings that come with it, to feel those feelings, and then to try and move on.

That is the message that should be taking precedence in the media. Schools should focus on implementing and advertising programs that help victims move on instead of just alerting students about the problem. Sexual assault is happening and it's going to keep happening; no matter how much we try to stop it. Prevention is vital, but it should not be our main focus--the impact should be. This is me, trying to start that conversation in hopes that, if we cannot stop sexual assault, we can at least heal from it.

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