By Shelby Duncan
TW: Rape, Sexual Assault.
Pristine (written by: Shelby Duncan, 2009)
is as fragrant as French perfume
L’Air du Temps they call it—
the air of time
it smells of hope.
and good things.
when you go inside
the air is both
Then it bursts
like a Pristine rose.
Plucked from innocence
into metallic warfare.
It tastes like nickels.
The air runs
Liquefies into blood.
On my legs.
Then I run outside.
The air is pure again.
It smells of innocence,
Which I will never mistake again for naivety.
I am a survivor.
On April 23, 2009, I was raped by one of my high school classmates. After leaving this person’s home, I pulled over on the side of the road, between his house and mine, with a hospital looming in the background. I collected my thoughts and began to question what I should do next. I felt I had two choices. One, go to the hospital, endure a rape kit, and report the crime to the police. Two, I could go home, place my outfit in a Ziploc bag in the back of my closest, and learn to come to peace with what happened. I ultimately did not choose the first path because I was confident that the district attorney would not take my case. My rapist and I had a prior relationship, and there would be no material evidence which showed that what had happened between us was non-consensual.
Instead, I opted for option two.
A week or so went by before a pressure cooker of emotions exploded and I shared with my mom, and really with anyone who would listen, what happened. I begged to not have to speak to the police until my AP tests were finished – I desperately wanted to leave the town I grew up in, and college credits and scholarships were imperative to my plan. Despite my pleas, I came home from school one day and the police were there. I was forced to make a report in that moment or state, on the record, that I was not raped and was told that I would not be able to report the crime at a later time (I later learned that this was untrue, the statute of limitations for rape in the state of California is seven years). I chose to make a report.
Looking back on the situation, I am mortified. Not just because I was raped, but because the strength and resilience in my response to the situation were praised by the people closest to me, therapists included. This was a badge of honor that I was presented with, that I was supposed to wear with pride – I “survived” – I didn’t fall “victim” to a circumstance that was not my fault. I prevailed in the face of the patriarchy, white supremacy and the other dark structures which comprise the “culture” that is considered American. In addition to being mortified, I am enraged. Again, not just because I was raped, but because of the lack of justice in our judicial system. In 2020, I requested a copy of my police report. In return, I received 12 pages of documentation, many incomplete, which concluded that I was a frivolous girl, in love with a boy who didn’t like her back, who offered her body in hopes of changing his mind.
I would like to remind you, the reader, and the female detective that conducted the “investigation,” that I was a child. A child who was raped. A child who was raped with her face shoved into a pillow, screams not heard by the two other people in the house, pinned down and unable to defend herself. A child who immediately after being raped, had the clarity of mind to trick the assailant into leaving the room so that she could flee. A child who immediately after being raped, ran to her car, and as she went to lock the door and drive away, was pulled out of the car by the assailant. A child who looked into the glazed over eyes of her rapist and knew in that moment that in order to live she had to lie and assure him that nothing was wrong and that she would see him at school tomorrow. A child who knew, in that moment, how fragile her life could be, and how firm his grip was on her arms.
This badge of resilience and strength was affixed to me on April 23, 2009, my scarlet letter, my Jewish star, and it has been burrowing into me since, eroding my spirit, and rotting me from the inside out. The transformation began with anger, rooted in wanting to take action. I made calls for justice, wanting to share with other victims of sexual assault what their rights were (because mine were violated). I (unsuccessfully) petitioned my high school to create a new club – RAWR – Raising Awareness for Women’s Rights. I was told that this was not an appropriate topic for a high school club (because the school and administrators were unwilling and unable to acknowledge that while high school students shouldn’t be raped, that did not mean that they weren’t being raped). When the anger wore me down, I began to lose my voice, a dampening of my fire. I capitulated, with my feet planted on the ground, as I looked up at the systems and structures designed to oppress women which seemed to grow so far up into the sky, that you could never see the top. And then I began to rot – my PTSD diagnosis slowly but surely chipping away at my body, resulting in 2019 in a complete and total utter breakdown of my physical being. I could not keep food down, I could not sleep, my hair was falling out in chunks. It took the COVID pandemic, and my being forced to stop running from thing to thing, to see that my PTSD had not resolved itself as I had believed it did in 2010, but that it was alive and well, raging in my body – adrenaline pumping through me – not allowing me to ever rest or recover in my sleep. I had to admit that my relationship with productivity, desire for achievement, and the constant busyness that filled my life (full-time job in consulting, part-time MBA program, bi-coastal living) were a function of me running on adrenaline, afraid to slow down for fear of what I might find in the darker recesses of myself.
April 23, this day, this point in my life, is a pivotal moment that rears its head in expected and unexpected moments. The rape, this one moment in my life, is a dark, sticky substance that no matter how hard I try, I cannot fully extricate from myself. It is a part of me, it is a part of my darkness. But, more frustratingly, a culture of sexual assault and rape are a part of the fabric of the United States. Going through this experience at a formative age showed me early that the function of police is not to keep community members safe (unless they are cis, straight, able-bodied white men). It showed me that detectives weave a story through their lived experience to present to district attorneys who pick the cases they can win so that they can keep their jobs. It showed me that incarceration is not an answer to heal someone’s wounds or to fix the most violent and dangerous parts of themselves. It showed me that with all of the data and research in the world, you will not, on that information alone, be able to change systems and minds. In crossing paths with others as I healed, I found what I believed to be two groups of people. The first, full of empathy, that reflected as equal parts apathy – an unspoken understanding that they were deeply sorry, but “this is just how it is.” The second, lacked empathy completely, and over time, I realized, the second group was no different from the first group with the exception that they did not make puppy-dog eyes at me or pity me. I came to accept, in my privileged position to receive resources and support, that the system is not set up to prevent rape or sexual assault from happening and that people were more comfortable investing in the aftermath than preventing the trauma in the first place.
I used to think that, in some way, surviving rape was the awakening of a different version of my consciousness, the murder of my naivety because someone violated my physical, emotional and mental well-being in an irreparable way that proved to me – in the most direct and terrifying way possible – that I was not invincible. Today, with perspective and more lived experience, I can see that I was raped not only by my assailant, but I was assaulted by the system too.
I am sharing this experience, and how I feel about it today, because I am not alone in my experience. In the United States, one in six women will be raped in their lifetime (RAINN). Of 1,000 sexual assaults that occur, 230 are reported to the police. Of the 230 cases reported, 46 result in arrest. Of the 46 arrests, nine assailants are referred to the district attorney’s office. About five of the nine assailants will be incarcerated (RAINN). Men and gender nonconforming people are not spared from the statistics. Men represent 10% of victims and transgender and nonconforming individuals experience rape at higher levels than both cis men and women (RAINN).
If we are to think in a capitalistic framework, the estimated lifetime cost of rape to a victim is $122,461. If we were to extrapolate that data and illustrate the population’s economic burden for rape over this lifetime of victims, the total is nearly $3.1T. Costs are related to medical costs, lost work for victims and perpetrators, criminal justice activities, and other costs (Peterson, DeGue, Florence, et al. 2017).
While those may be dollarized costs, we will never truly have a mechanism to adequately or appropriately quantify or qualify the harm done to victims and the people who surround and love them and share in their pain.
I share this to emote. April 23 will always be an emotional day for me, a proverbial tick on the wall in the prison of my mind that keeps track of this trauma and its relationship to who I was, who I might have been had this not happened, and who I have become in spite of it.
If you are a victim of sexual assault, and are seeking resources, I recommend the following channels and tools:
- For support by phone, call 800-656-HOPE
If you are not a victim of sexual assault, but are seeking to deepen your understanding and empathy, I recommend the following books:
While I am not a professional or certified individual on this topic, I am sincere in my hopes to build community and welcome anyone who would like to reach out to contact me through my website: shelbytaylorduncan.com.
Citations in order of appearance:
Peterson C, DeGue S, Florence C, Lokey CN. Lifetime Economic Burden of Rape Among U.S. Adults. Am J Prev Med. 2017 Jun;52(6):691-701. doi: 10.1016/j.amepre.2016.11.014. Epub 2017 Jan 30. PMID: 28153649; PMCID: PMC5438753.