JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska —
(Editor's note: the author of this commentary, stationed at JBER, requested anonymity.)
Sexual assault is a hot topic - one addressed often throughout the military - but details of victims' stories are seldom mentioned. This is understandable; the crimes are intensely personal. Also, as many victims have learned, listeners don't always know how to respond, which can make sharing one's story awkward, even painful.
This is unfortunate. We are drawn to stories; they help us learn from the experience of others. Are we missing out on a powerful tool in the world of sexual assault prevention? Perhaps calling on survivors to share their stories holds potential for making people more aware of sexual assault and ways they can prevent it in their spheres of influence.
To that end, here is my story.
Like most men I know, I never thought much about sexual assault. I saw it as predominately a female problem that only happened to males under highly unusual circumstances such as prison.
Each year, I endured the mandatory 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 - like many other victims of both genders - I was oblivious to the threat until it was too late.
Though the sexual assault I endured was not my fault, I failed to recognize the warning signs in the preceding months.
When I returned from a deployment, I found the girl I had been dating had unexpectedly moved most of her belongings into my home. I had left her a key so she could occasionally check on my house, but I was nowhere near ready for her to move in. Our relationship was already rocky during the deployment, and her unilateral move forced me to break things off.
I made sure to get back the key to my house, returned her belongings, and left the state on leave.
That's when the text messages started to arrive.
At first they came almost hourly - throughout the day and occasionally into the night. I read the first couple of apologies and deleted the rest on sight. I tried to have the phone company block her, but at the time, blocking texts required a restraining order.
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 to showing up at my doorstep every few days.
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 so bad I remained locked in my house except while at work, and only opened my door at night to get my mail.
Then I discovered she'd purchased a house down the street.
One day I woke up to find every window and door covered with Post-It notes saying "I'm sorry."
I didn't even attempt to take them down for fear she'd come over while I removed them.
The night before the assault, I checked my mail. Either I forgot to lock the deadbolt 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 froze, unsure 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 I knew was completely wrong. She moved from oral to anal intercourse - far beyond anything we had engaged in during our relationship.
I remember the pain and disgust, but little else. When she finished, she tried to converse some more and to cuddle, but I just lay there.
Eventually she gave up and left, so I locked the door and took a shower. I remember washing repeatedly, playing the events in my head over and over, unable to understand what had just happened.
The thought 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 going to tell anyone what had happened.
Over the next couple of weeks, my situation went from bleak to one of complete despair.
Still reeling from the shock of the 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 of the events, but I felt powerless to stop them. I had no will to resist, and felt completely broken and alone.
Many aspects of the assault made little sense to me. I knew what had happened was wrong, but I blamed myself because my body had responded to the stimulation.
I associated that 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 those expectations.
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 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 talking with my sister, that I had the courage to describe what had taken place. She unhesitatingly told me I had clearly been sexually assaulted. I argued that was impossible. Only when she pointed out I had been asleep and couldn't possibly have consented did I begin to realize the truth.
I had seen the definition of sexual assault numerous times in briefings, but the lack of consent in my own case had never 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. The texts dwindled, but persisted until I finally changed my number. I notified the SARC on base and started on the road to recovery.
Through that process, I came to realize just how little I truly understood about sexual assault. The vast majority of sexual assaults occur between people with an existing association - through work, friends, or an intimate relationship. This goes for both males and females.
I'd always thought fight-or-flight mechanisms were the only instinctive human responses to danger. When you hear a loud crash nearby, do you run toward it, run away, or freeze and try to figure out what it is before taking either action?
Many sexual assault victims never make it past the instinctive response of freezing. Additionally, many predators groom their victims to decrease the likelihood of fighting back or fleeing. Some use force or threats, but fear can be just as effective - as I learned.
Control through fear is why many predators stalk their victims before, during or after assaults, and with cell phones and social media, it's more prevalent and easier to do from a distance.
One of the final pieces I came to understand was the nature of control which impacted the events after the initial assault.
For years, I blamed myself for everything after the initial incident. This only changed when I heard how many victims are subjected to repeat assaults from the same perpetrator.
Through grooming tactics like manipulation and progressive undermining of resistance, predators can 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 abuse. This is particularly true within the first couple of weeks, while the victim is suffering from the shock and trauma of the initial assault.
Only upon hearing this did I begin to understand I had been assaulted not once, but multiple times, and was not to blame for any of it. Even then, 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 saw him confidently stand in front of more than 100 people and plainly tell how he had been sexually assaulted as a young man. Unashamed, he said 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 effected a complete paradigm shift in my thinking. My sexual assault does not define me. It impacted my life, but 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 ring true for other victims of sexual assault. Victimization of males has no correlation to strength, manliness or sexual orientation. The simple fact is, they are victims of a terrible crime.
My story is just one of thousands. You may not identify with my experience; if not, I'm glad. But I hope you will consider how you can be active in prevention.
This calls for commitment, and you may have to challenge yourself.
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, and intervene before matters escalate?
Will you stay attuned to signs of distress, like isolating or significant behavioral or performance changes?
Will you reach out and offer support without judgment or retribution?
Committing to these actions will cost you time and attention. Those we serve alongside are worth your effort.
If you listen to our stories, I urge you - take them to heart.