Until the day she found herself checked in to Vanderbilt Hospital’s Psychiatric Center, Sarah Thomas referred to a drunken sexual assault at the end of her freshman year of college as simply a “very bad night.” When her psychiatrist instead used the R-word to discuss to the incident, she was taken aback.
"I never had considered myself a rape victim," Thomas wrote in a piece detailing her experience for xoJane. "Can you call it ‘rape’ if he makes you an omelet in the morning?"
In all, it took Thomas 10 years to fully acknowledge that the night was more than “a bad memory,” and to call the evening what it really was: rape.
Thomas’ story is familiar to many. Every year, thousands of young men and women have very bad nights. These are nights that legally fall within the definitions of rape or sexual assault, but because they weren’t violent, didn’t involve the heteronormative definition of sex or were so clouded by alcohol or fear that consent was never explicitly denied — are not characterized as a crime, even by the survivor.
The frequent confusion and denial surrounding sexual assault make up the basis of a forthcoming study in the journal Gender & Society, in which sociologist Heather Hlavka concludes that sexual violence and harassment are considered part of everyday life for many middle and high school-aged girls. Hlavka interviewed 100 youths between the ages of three and 17 years old, and found that they frequently wrote off harassment and abuse, noting the female subject “overwhelmingly described [it] as ‘normal stuff’ that ‘guys do.’”
Rape and sexual assault are among the most under-reported crimes in the world, but until now little consideration has been given to the fact that some survivors don’t report because they do not realize that they were raped in the first place.