A Tinder conversation led to a study break, which led to a beer. I was having an amazing time, but I was also completely preoccupied, thinking about when and how to tell him. When is it ever appropriate to tell a man you’ve just started to date that you’re a rape survivor?
I didn’t know how to be myself and still be light and fun and all the things that you’re supposed to be on a first date, but I knew that this guy was sweet and funny and we had been talking for hours—so I decided to just tell him, even if it was our first date.
He was kind and open as I talked about my experience and how it’s shaped my career goals and ideas about health, and we eventually moved on to other topics of conversation. Despite our plans for the following week, the date came and went without a word from him. I knew why, of course. I was frustrated and sad, but I also moved on and laughed with my friends about how men seem to think disappearing is an acceptable form of communication.
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Three months later, he sent me a long text. It came under the guise of an apology, but it included phrases like, “It was a lot to reveal to me within hours of meeting you.” I felt blamed and shamed for his disappearance. But how am I supposed to explain who I am, where I’ve been and where I want to go without explaining the things that have shaped me?
A million things went through my mind about what I should have done differently—how I could have revealed less, how I could have been softer or tougher or liked him less or laughed a little more. But while I will do my best to shift and shape how I present this part of myself in the dating world, I’m also not going to settle for anyone who makes me feel like I need to ignore or deny any value of myself in order to be worthy.
To make the dating world better for me—and for the millions of women who will be assaulted in their lifetimes—we have to take rape off of its pedestal. Not to say it’s not horrible and traumatic and intensely violating—it is all of those things—but we have to talk about it. Survivors are still human after all, and humans have emotional and physical and romantic needs that we still have to acknowledge, no matter how messy they feel.
Men need to know that they’re living in a world where one in five American women will be assaulted in their lifetime, and women need to feel like they can still be desired and take risks if they find themselves among that jarring statistic. Women need to be told that this one aspect of their identity doesn’t overshadow all the others, that acknowledging layers of complexity is what makes us human.
Yes, I am dating as a survivor—but I’m also dating as a feminist, as a proud daughter to two lefty Jews, as a sister to two incredible brothers (one disabled, one not) and as a dedicated women’s health advocate. Those things also define who I am, yet I don’t feel like I have to hide them in order to convince someone I’m deserving of romance or love or fun.
All my status as a rape survivor does is add one more layer to who I am as a human being. For the millions of women who are coming forward with their experiences, we cannot forget that they also want to still take risks, that they still deserve to be supported in taking a leap of faith, in feeling loved and getting to love someone else. We have to change the conversation because if we don’t, we’ll be failing the women across the world who’ve survived this epidemic.
Anna Abelson is a masters student at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and is a long-time advocate for women’s health as an avenue for political and social equality.