Content warning: sexual assault
On May 3, 2022, the day after the Supreme Court’s decision to repeal Roe v. Wade was leaked, I sat in my car in the parking lot at the hospital. I just left my therapist’s office, and she told me that if I could wait to go to the hospital later, she could go with me, or else I could ask a friend to go—but that seemed too embarrassing, to have someone witness what I was about to do. Before I got out of the car, I typed out a quick text to a group chat, a group of girls I video chat with every Tuesday.
My text read, “Update: After seeing my therapist, I’m going to the hospital for a SANE exam,” and they seemed surprised, and I worried again that I was being dramatic. The night before, I had cried to them, saying, “The more I think about it, the more I’m realizing that I don’t like how it happened. He said he would be gentle, but he wasn’t.” They were encouraging though, cautiously telling me I was brave, asking for further updates—like they were holding their breath for an answer too.
I put in my earbuds, corded things the kids are calling “vintage” these days, and turned my music up loud enough to maybe hurt my eardrums and definitely drown out my thoughts. Songs with piercing, whiny guitar riffs, songs that made me feel cool, like I wasn’t someone writing “sexual assault nurse exam” under “reason for your visit.”
Someone escorted me into a private room. They brought me a warm blanket, like it had just come out of the dryer. It was folded, and I took the mass of it and pressed it against my chest, like a hug.
A male doctor came in with a sad smile, something that said: I know something’s wrong, but I want you to know I’m friendly. He asked me, “When did the assault take place?”
I said, “Monday,” two days before, “but I don’t know if I can call it that.” Part of the reason I wanted to get a SANE exam was to have it confirmed, to have someone say, “Something horrible happened to you,” to echo what my body was already telling me. The other part was that Steven didn’t use a condom.
“Okay,” he said, unphased. “Do you have any injuries?”
“I have bruises,” I answered, my stomach squirming. When he asked where, I said hesitantly, “On my … chest,” but motioned at my breasts with my hands, uncomfortable at the notion of drawing his eyes there.
“Did he punch you?!” the doctor asked incredulously, and I laughed, even though that question felt like an attack too, the idea that someone could hit me with a closed fist. I laugh when I’m uncomfortable. I laughed when Steven asked, over and over, if I wanted him to choke me.
When I had to tell the doctor no, I felt dismissed, like being grabbed hard enough to leave marks wasn’t enough proof of trauma.
The doctor called into the hallway for a “female chaperone,” like he needed an extra hand at a middle school dance. With her standing by, smiling at me in that sad way, he inspected my torso, pressed on my stomach to check for internal injuries. He called the bruising on my breasts “superficial.” Later, I realized he meant that he wouldn’t need an X-ray to investigate further, but I heard: You’re making a big deal out of nothing.
After taking a sample of my urine for an unclear purpose, they told me to go to a local nonprofit, where the remainder of the exam could take place in a more private setting. I’d be more comfortable, they said.
I had an hour to get to my appointment, so I stopped at Panera Bread for lunch, and I ate food, and I listened to my music, and I got back in my car, and I cried because Steven had seemed nice. I liked him. I had been looking forward to getting to know him better.
I drove to the nonprofit and buzzed my way through a door that had a different organization’s name on it, so I wasn’t sure I was at the right place. A woman in scrubs answered the door and greeted me with a southern accent from somewhere other than Texas. She pointed me to an exam room. Another woman introduced herself to me as the “advocate,” which is my title at my weekend job. Two weeks before this, I got hired at a domestic violence shelter where I helped women who were hurt by the men closest to them. I hated that I needed an advocate now.
I had all my things in my hands—my keys, phone, sunglasses, and my Panera drink—and I dropped everything to the floor. I slipped into the open seat and held my body like, if you saw me for the first time, you might (rightfully) guess that I’m queer: leaned forward with forearms on my knees, slightly spread. Masculine. Powerful. They were giving me such concerned looks, and I wanted to tell them I was okay, that they didn’t need to worry.
But the nurse told me, “We offer free counseling and legal aid. Our organization will be a resource for you for the rest of your life,” and tears sprung from my eyes without warning, and I couldn’t make them stop.
For the rest of my life.
I was already in therapy for sexual trauma. My therapist and I had been doing EMDR and parts work to alleviate some of the symptoms of my PTSD, and I had been making a lot of progress. After a nine-month dating hiatus to put some serious work into my healing journey, I felt ready to “get back out there” and try again. I was ready to be vulnerable, because it seemed like the worst parts of my life were already behind me.
I told them the same thing I told the doctor: “I don’t know if I can call it rape.” I wanted them to know that maybe they shouldn’t waste their resources on me. In a way, I hoped they would tell me I was wrong, that I could have done more, been more communicative, more assertive. I could have stood up for myself. The fact that I didn’t was a symptom of my PTSD, and it wasn’t that there were men just lurking and waiting to hurt me for their own pleasure.
“Did he ask you for your permission before he did it?” It being anything. Did he ask permission before grabbing me by the hair and marionetting me where he wanted me?
I shook my head, tears pouring silently down my cheeks. No, he didn’t.
“That’s assault,” the nurse said.
“It’s not your fault,” the advocate said and handed me a tissue.
I had to tell them the whole story, so the nurse could type it all out. “I have to write it word for word, and I type fast, but not that fast,” she joked.
I started with matching with Steven on a dating app, how his profile had said he had autism and was looking for an ally. He was funny and spiritual. He had the skinny skater look I liked. After exchanging a few messages, he told me he had been in a motorcycle accident; he had just gotten out of the hospital a few days ago and had selfies in a hospital bed to prove it. He had fractures in his scapula, his ribs, and his pelvis, so he didn’t have a lot of mobility and couldn’t leave his apartment for a while.
We had a FaceTime date, and I asked him a lot of questions about himself. He answered them but succinctly. I told him, “I’m used to steering conversations. You’re not giving me a lot to work with.” I already liked him, so I was only teasing. I wanted to see him and had already suggested we hang out at his place the next day.
“That’s just part of my autism,” he said. “I’m quiet when I’m nervous. When you come over tomorrow, you won’t be able to get me to shut up.”
With all his injuries, I thought nothing bad could happen. I had been much more reckless in my early twenties and made it out, for the most part, unscathed. Admittedly, Steven had made a series of suggestive jokes, and I had asked him about that, checked in with him. “Can you even deliver?” I joked back.
“Oh, I can deliver,” he had said. “I’ll just move a little slower than usual.”
And I thought about that, digested it, and said, “Slow could be good for me. It’s been two years since I’ve been with a man.”
My understanding of slow was slow, as in, “I’m still weighing my options,” which I also explicitly said to him.
My understanding of slow was also gentle, which I did not explicitly say. But what about me made him think I wanted him to be so rough? Did he equate queer with kinky?
When I went over to his apartment, I had been so worried about hurting him. When we cuddled on the couch, he adjusted his position, shifting weight off of his injured side, and I had been concerned that I had put pressure on him. “Show me where it hurts,” I said.
“Here,” he said, rubbing his hands on my body, “here, and here,” like I was a play therapy doll. And then he kissed me for the first time, and I smiled. I liked it, then, that he was bold.
I did not tell the nurse that I couldn’t feel it when he touched me. I knew he was hurting me, and I couldn’t feel it. In the future, I will wonder in what way he touched me that awoke me like a sleeper assassin, except the opposite: a sleeper victim, quiet and giving. Next weekend, I will be at my part-time job at the shelter writing a list of pros and cons, and on one side it will say, “My pets will miss me,” and on the other side, it will say, “I won’t be a victim again.” As I’m making that list, I will find out that a full-time job has opened up at the shelter, and I will take it, even though I already have a full-time job as a ghostwriter, because I will need to feel like my pain was for a purpose. I will tell myself this moment is fate, that this is my destiny.
At the shelter, I will learn that abuse cannot be done unintentionally, by some means of miscommunication. I will learn that survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault are often anchored to their abusers by a kind of weaponized vulnerability, by falsely equivocating power dynamics in their relationship. On the hotline, women will tell me, “I’ve got issues too,” still covering for their abusers out of habit. In the same way, I will tell my therapist, “What if he didn’t mean to hurt me? If I had just told him he was hurting me, maybe he would have stopped,” and then I will deflect and tell her about my job, and I will smile and be so filled with radiant hope for the future. She will tell me how worried she is about me. My friends will tell me how worried they are about me. And I will be so angry at all of them. Can’t they let this be who I am? Happy and fast and alive?
I did not tell the nurse about the future I do not know yet. According to my paperwork, she will not give me Plan B. In a few weeks, I will gain weight and throw up twice, and my lower back will be so tight I could scream, and on the day after the official announcement—Roe v. Wade is repealed—I will add these symptoms together and worry I am pregnant. But I will not worry the baby is Steven’s. Exactly two weeks after what happened, I will put on the same outfit, down to the underwear, and go to another man’s home because I will need the last time someone touched me to be softly, slowly, like there is a person inside this skin and if he isn’t careful, he might hurt her.
I didn’t tell the nurse that the pregnancy test will come back negative, how confused this will make me because I will not know what is wrong with me. When I tell all this to my therapist in a few months, she will say, “Do you know what somatic response is?” And I will throw something across the room and say, “Haven’t I healed enough already?”
I will be so tired of hearing how the body keeps the score.
As I told the nurse about the past, about what happened two days prior, she typed, and her eyes widened, and her eyebrows arched, like she couldn’t believe what had happened either, and that was nice: having my feelings mirrored back to me. It made me feel a little less stupid.
“It’s so confusing,” I cried. “He was so careful not to pull my earrings when he ran his fingers through my hair.”
The nurse just nodded like two things could be true at once.
After we were finished, she asked me to change into a paper gown. While I was in the bathroom, another friend texted me to ask about the materials due for our MFA program in a month, and I answered her, feeling safe because she didn’t know what had happened, where I was then. It was a good reminder that I was more than just a body. I had more things going on in my life than this.
In the examination room, the nurse opened my gown to take photos of my bruises, and when she saw them, deep purple and green streaks in the shapes of fingers, she said, “Oh, wow.” “Wow” with a period, like, what a shame, and that felt like retribution. Proof that they were not only “superficial.”
With my feet in stirrups, she inspected my hymen for bruising. When she saw the confused look on my face after saying “hymen,” she said, “Yes, you still have one.”
On my back, looking up at her, I just said, “Texas,” and shrugged. We all laughed, even the advocate. They only teach abstinence here.
The nurse took her photos and told me it was okay to get dressed, which I did right in the room. It seemed silly to feign modesty then.
The nurse handed me a cup full of chalky, awful pills that would clear up a few STDs if they arose. The advocate gave me a bag of new clothes and toiletries. She went over the resources, how if the hospital sent me a bill, I could forward it to the Crime Victim’s Compensation Program.
I will later learn that it’s only possible to receive funding assistance if you report the crime to the police, but that was supposed to be my choice. In a few days, I will report the incident to the dating app I met Steven through and get his profile deactivated and blocked. But I didn’t know if I wanted to go to the police. Now that I’d gotten the exam done, with all my fluids and photos kept safely in a cardboard box, I had a year to change my mind and report him.
I had told the advocate and nurse, “I can’t believe this happened again. How could it happen again? I’m thirty.” How strange to be an adult this time around, to have the vocabulary to describe what took place in my body, to have enough self-esteem to tell myself: You deserved better than that. “I mean, is it really that prevalent? Does it really happen this often?”
“Yes,” the nurse said simply. “It happens all the time.”
I have been carrying shame since I was a little girl, and intellectually, I’ve understood that what happened then wasn’t my fault. But my body still held that shame like a babydoll, to show others, This is where he hurt me.
The sexual assault nurse exam helped me understand where that shame came from: It was easier to say that I did something wrong, that even as a girl I had made a man hurt me—because then I could believe I had some control over the pain. I could choreograph a rain dance of sorts; I could change my movements and form new patterns to keep it from happening again.
I knew it wasn’t my fault. Cognitively, I did know that. But in the months to come, I will have to wrestle with that knowing because it will be easier to think I was my own assailant than to know there was nothing I could have done to protect myself—except stop living my life.
If believe you have experienced sexual assault and want to talk about it, contact the advocates at the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-4673
If you are having suicidal thoughts, reach out to the advocates at the National Suicide Hotline: 988
The above resources will point you to local nonprofits and other organizations.
Amanda Woodard is a queer writer and activist. In 2017, she received her BA in Social Science, with a focus in Psychology and a minor in Journalism, at the University of North Texas, and in 2022, she earned her MFA in Creative Writing at Antioch University. Amanda has been awarded runner-up twice in the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference’s Personal Essay Contest (in 2014 and 2020) and received a Best of the Net nomination from Prometheus Dreaming for her poem “Self Portrait.” Amanda lives in the Dallas Metroplex with her very anxious emotional support dog, Sirius, and her little cat, Young Bernie Sanders.