The narrative of a woman being sexually assaulted while walking down a dark alleyway may still play out on many television screens. But in the real world, rape and sexual violence are far more likely to occur close to home and at the hands of someone familiar.
A young woman, identified in this report by the fictitious name Coletta, knows firsthand how the agony of rape can last a lifetime.
"I was raped. I found myself being a victim of rape by someone that I know, and feeling paralyzed immediately after the incident occurred," she said. "Up until that point I was a virgin, with little experience in relationships. It wasn't something I could just forget about and get over. What happened to me changed my life forever."
Coletta said she'd just completed boot camp and A School in the Navy and was on leave visiting family members before reporting for her first permanent assignment overseas. A childhood friend talked her into attending a house party in her neighborhood as a way to say goodbye to some of her old classmates. Early on, Mike, a person she knew who was two years ahead of her in high school, tried to get her attention. She wasn't interested and ignored his advances thinking he'd get the message and move on to another female. However, her response didn't seem to register with Mike.
"There was lots of alcohol at the party. I wasn't a drinker, but almost everyone at the party was drinking," she said. "He was drinking a lot and was relentless in trying to get my attention whenever we were in the same room. I was focused on having fun with my friends and really didn't want to start a relationship with anyone since I was about to leave town. Later that night, my friends and his friends left the main meeting room which meant he and I were finally alone in a secluded area of the house. I don't know why the others went to different area in the house. I didn't think anything bad would happen between us because we'd attended high school together and often attended some of the same gatherings. I knew he'd probably want to talk so I pretended I was preoccupied with something on my side of the room."
Coletta said she felt Mike staring at her. After a few minutes, he asked her why she'd ignored him all night and she gave him her reason. At the time, they stood on opposite sides of the room. He told he knew that she was about to go on a naval assignment and asked her to come over and give him "a goodbye hug." Since she didn't feel uncomfortable at the time, she got up from my seat and gave him a friendly hug. That's when things turned bad and she began to feel uneasy.
"He wouldn't release me from the hug. He kept holding me really tight and then pulled me down onto a nearby sofa," she said. "I tried to release myself from his grip. I kicked and screamed for a few minutes but knew no one probably heard me over the loud music that was playing throughout the house. I tried to fight him off, but my efforts were useless. I was barely 110 pounds back then and of average height. He was well over 6 feet tall with a muscular build and a couple of hundred pounds heavier than me. I can't recall how long this went on. He finally managed to pull off both our pants and kept me pinned down for what seemed like an eternity to me. I remember that the experience being so painful. I kept telling him to stop because he was hurting me. I never stopped screaming and crying for him to stop hurting me."
Coletta said after Mike raped her, her whole body went numb. He never spoke a word to her. He released her from his grip, got up from the sofa, pulled on his pants and walked away, leaving her half-naked and alone on the floor.
"It took me some time for me to pull myself together. I lay there and cried for a while, trying to figure out what my next step would be," she said. "My body hurt so badly. I finally got dressed and left the party trying hard to go unnoticed. All types of thoughts were running through my mind. I was in in shock, angry, sad and confused. I had never experienced sex before but I knew the violent act that had just occurred was not normal. I couldn't believe that I had just been raped."
Afraid that no one would believe her story, Coletta didn't report the incident to the police. She never saw a doctor. She never told anyone, but kept this painful secret to herself for several months.
"I never shared what happened to me that night," she said. "I had a strict, religious upbringing -- no sex before or outside of marriage so I couldn't tell my family. I couldn't tell my friends either. I didn't think they would believe me. I didn't want to be judged. I finally told my girlfriend that came to the party with me about incident a year later. I waited almost 12 years before I told anyone from my family. I felt I had to remain silent because I didn't want to be judged. I felt someone would say it was my fault."
A few weeks later, Coletta moved overseas to begin her first permanent naval assignment. She tried her hardest to forget her rape and put the incident behind her, but it was a challenge. She battled with depression and anxiety and other mental and physical health concerns for several months. But the secret she kept neatly hidden from everyone would soon be revealed to others.
While aboard a submarine overseas, Coletta became ill and couldn't eat anything. She was forced to see a Navy physician for medical care. She hadn't been able to perform her job for some time, so she was eager to get help so she could start feeling better. However, she said she wasn't prepared to hear what she thought at the time was the worst news of her life -- she was pregnant.
"I became numb when the ship's doctor told me that I was pregnant," Coletta said. "I asked the doctor if he was sure and he told me they'd done a blood test and it came back positive. I kept thinking, I can't be pregnant. I'm a virgin -- I've never had sex -- I've never even had a relationship. I had to force myself to remember that I'd been raped and now I was carrying his child. I thought I'd put it behind me. I felt like I was sentence to relive every single detail of the incident all over again, for the rest of my life."
During that time, pregnant women couldn't be stationed overseas and assigned to the submarines when they were pregnant due to the limited medical services. So Coletta was sent back stateside. She was relieved that she'd be closer to her family, but knew they'd soon find out about her pregnancy. It also became apparent to her medical staff there that something was unique about her pregnancy when she had a complete meltdown during her first prenatal examination.
"I didn't receive any information on abortion or adoption from the military so I thought these weren't options for me," Coletta said. "My first exam actually triggered memories of the rape. There were two persons present, and they had to hold me down. I was so angry during that time and was also acting out in the worst way. I tried to talk to my perpetrator about what he'd done to me close to the time I was about to give birth. I confronted him and he denied the heinous crime he'd committed against me. In fact, he told me that he never had an issue with someone not willing to have sex with him except for me. I was in disbelief that he didn't know that my yelling 'stop,' 'no,' and 'you're hurting me' meant that I didn't welcome his advances. I was left to feel angry, confused and in tears most of the time. I didn't want to have a baby and resented this so much."
Coletta went on to have her baby as a single mother. She didn't have much of a support system so she struggled to survive. The following year, she decided to leave the Navy and joined the Army hoping for a fresh start. She knew she still needed help, but was resigned to quietly adjust to her new role as a single parent and a Soldier.
"There was no SHARP (Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention) program: no SHARP coordinators, counselors or victim advocates to help survivors in the '90s," she said. "There wasn't a reporting system in place yet either, so we were left to deal with sexual violence on our own. When I began to spiral into depression again, I had nowhere to turn. The pain and agony of the rape controlled me. However, things began to change when instances of sexual violence were reported at Aberdeen Proving Ground (Maryland). The military was finally taking a firm stance on the issue."
Sometime around 2003, Coletta said she found the help she needed when she came across a SHARP brochure at an Army post in Virginia. She dialed the number on the pamphlet in hopes of getting help for her child, still not fully accepting that she was a victim of rape. She's thankful for the program because it's the reason why she regained the power that she felt was taken from her and learned how to set proper boundaries.
"My counseling sessions marked the beginning of my healing process," she said. "I didn't know what to expect. Surprisingly, it was all that I needed: a listening ear, compassion and sound advice. I was informed about all the services the Army offered for survivors and I was relieved that it was free. I finally felt safe and understood. One of the counselors who talked to me helped me realize that the person who raped me was fully aware of his actions. She was patient, kind and a good listener. She convinced me to stop blaming myself for what occurred and she told me that it was not my fault. If it were not for the SHARP program, I would still be in a lot of pain. They never judged me through the entire process."
Coletta decided to use her healing as an opportunity to pay it forward and become a SHARP professional. She didn't want anyone to go through what she'd experienced by themselves. She started out as a unit victim advocate in 2006. In 2013, she took on a larger role managing a SHARP program. She retired with more than 20 years active duty military service. She would like to continue supporting the program as a government civilian because SHARP is where her passion lies.
In 2008, Coletta said Mike reached out to her with an apology. He told her he was sorry for what he'd done to her and wished he could take it back. At the time, he had a wife and several children. She was also married at the time. Ten years ago, she finally shared her story with a family member, but didn't reveal the name of the person who raped her. She'll never tell her daughter about the origin of her birth because she has bonded with her siblings; and assigning her a label of being "born of rape" furthers a stigma that she shouldn't have to carry and gives power to the rapist.
"I really didn't care about his apology -- I'd already moved on," Coletta said. "Sadly, my family member showed me very little compassion when I shared my story. I'm not sure if they even believed me. I had to go through a lot. Thanks to SHARP, things are better now, but we still have work to do. We must find compassionate solutions to reduce the stigma of reporting. We don't know a person's story. The one thing we can all do for women who are faced with rape is not be judgmental of them. They've already been a victim once. We don't need to make them a victim a second time."