Drowning: a story on sexual assault
Amanda Peña | Friday, April 4, 2014
I remember as a kid, my cousins and I used to have underwater contests to see who could hold their breath the longest. Having asthma, I usually lost — except those times I cheated by coming up quickly to breathe and back under to pretend I had been holding my breath the entire time. I found something exhilarating in the feeling of sucking in the sweet, precious oxygen after experiencing the burning sensation from not being able to breathe. I could never imagine, though, what the feeling would be like if you thought you might never inhale oxygen again.
Drowning is such a terrifying experience, but the thoughts and anxiety one feels as they are drowning are significantly worse than the feeling of the water rushing into your lungs. I had read a Fear Street novel in elementary school where R.L. Stein described a young woman’s drowning experience until her lungs burst (probably not the book I should have read at 8 years old, but whatever). The idea has stuck with me over the years and every time I find myself underwater, that is my first thought.
In my life, I have experienced the feeling of drowning three times. The first was on a family vacation in Yosemite National Park. We went rafting and crashed into a fallen tree; the jolt pushed me over and into the river. I was tossed around beneath the thrashing of water on rocks until my father pulled me back into the raft. I was safe, but couldn’t shake the panicked feeling of not knowing if I’d see the surface again. The second experience was during a snorkeling excursion on a vacation in Hawaii. A wave washed over my snorkel, and I inhaled salt water. Choking and sputtering, I couldn’t catch my breath as more waves continued to wash over me. I thought my lungs were going to burst … like a firework explosion or that bird from Shrek by Fiona’s singing. Time seemed to drag on, and I was certain I would never stop drowning. Thankfully, my lungs were fine and I made it back on the boat where my seasickness calmed my nerves and upset my stomach. The very last time I experienced that feeling was when a friend sexually violated me at a party last year (and right now sharing this publicly for the first time).
I managed to suppress and forget that awful night until the issue about rape made its way into my classes after shocking statistics sparked an online protest against rape culture. On March 27, Brazil’s Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA) announced that 65 percent of Brazilians believe women deserve to be raped based on their clothing choices. In response, nude pictures of men and women with the phrase #NaoMereçoSerEstuprada (which translates to #IDontDeserveToBeRaped) are dominating social media, earning the support of Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff. Many friends back in the United States have been asking me about this movement, since I am studying in Brazil, and while I only know of a few classmates that have participated in the protest, it has definitely become a part of the larger public conversation.
Given my articles and involvement on campus at Notre Dame, I find myself oddly silent and distant from this topic in Brazil. I stand firmly in my belief to speak out against injustice, but have had the most difficulty understanding how to actively live that out. I continue to create every excuse to avoid being labeled a rape victim; the guilt is much easier to accept since rape culture would say it was my fault anyway. Despite my friends’ amazing support and encouragement to report the incident when I was ready, I was drowning in guilt and shame. The single moment my human dignity was violated and taken from me stretched into a timeless expanse of panic, shortness of breath and fear that everyone would blame me, or worse, say I deserved it after drinking too much or wearing a skirt.
Witnessing the strong support from many Brazilians against rape culture, I feel I can finally share my story. Most people don’t blame others for drowning. They understand how some circumstances render others unable to swim toward safety — the current was too strong, he didn’t have a life jacket, she didn’t know how to swim and fell in the deep end. I pray we can change the conversation about rape culture by sharing more survivors’ stories rather than blaming them for what happened. The psychological and physical effects are traumatizing enough as it is. I knew how to swim, but the current was too strong, and although my friends and family are incredible life jackets, I still drown because society would prefer to blame me and other survivors for going swimming.
“Não mereçi ser estuprada” — I didn’t deserve to be raped. No one does.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.