Courtesy of Beth Dubber/Netflix

I'm A Rape Survivor, & Here's What '13 Reasons Why' Got Right (& Wrong) About Sexual Assault

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I was watching the finale of Netflix's new show 13 Reasons Why when I reached the scene where Hannah Baker, the main character of the series, takes her own life. I had to pause the TV and run to the bathroom. Am I going to throw up? I wondered. (If you haven't finished the series, I'd stop reading here. Spoilers for Season 1 of 13 Reasons Why below.)

My friends had warned me that 13 Reasons Why was difficult to watch, which is why I had avoided starting it for weeks. Watching it was like swallowing knives: you know they're going to be sharp, but they're unbearably painful nonetheless. As I watched Hannah's suicide, I was reminded of a time many years ago when I had wanted to take my own life, for one of the same reasons that she did: I was sexually assaulted years ago, when I was around her age while I was growing up in rural Pennsylvania.

I was 16 years old. My friend Taylor told me his parents were going away one weekend of our sophomore year, and I convinced him that it was the perfect opportunity to throw a house party. One of the boys at the party, Nick, was a member of my friend group. Despite knowing I had a boyfriend, he always found excuses to sit next to me during art class studio time, and texted me constantly. At first, I enjoyed the attention. But the night of Taylor’s party was the last night I would appreciate it.

Courtesy of the author

As soon as I arrived, Nick began pouring me drinks. After a while, I noticed he was pouring my shots to the tippy-top of the double shot glass he had secured, while pouring barely anything into his own glass. I was quickly getting drunk, so I left the room and passed out in a chair.

I sat frozen on the chair, helpless.

I then woke up and felt someone on top of me. At first, I heard laughter, and someone saying, “Damn, she is so drunk!” I opened my eyes to see my friend Sean with a cell phone, laughing. There was a flash of light. Nick was on top of me, and his lips were on mine.

I sat frozen on the chair, helpless. I realized I had gotten drunk too quickly, and now things were spiraling out of control. Eventually, I rolled onto the floor and crawled into Taylor’s older brother’s bedroom. When people came in to check on me, I blurted out, “I’m really drunk, and I just want to be left alone!” Then I fell asleep.

Hours later, I regained consciousness. My clothes were gone, and someone, I didn’t know who, was on top of me.

Like Hannah, I didn’t scream.

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Unfortunately, that wasn’t where the similarities between my story and Hannah’s ended. Following my assault, I was slut-shamed by my classmates, who called me a "dumb slut" behind my back and on MySpace. To make matters worse, my rapist hung around my locker and shouted obscenities at me. Like Hannah, I eventually stirred up the courage to share my story with my guidance counselor, but he didn’t believe me, even after my rapist admitted what he had done via text. I had the proof of my assault that Clay so desperately sought, but it wasn’t enough for the guidance counselor to be convinced that I was telling the truth. Like Hannah's guidance counselor, he was unhelpful and was skeptical about my claim that I had been assaulted, asking me why I didn’t scream.

Unlike Hannah, however, I didn’t have anyone like Clay, or even a Tony, to ensure my rapist was punished. Many of the people I thought were my friends were there the night I was raped, but they ended up speaking out against me, telling my boyfriend at the time that I was "asking for it." I later found out my friend Taylor claimed that if the case went to court, he would have "no problem" testifying against me, even though at no point did I ever plan on pressing charges.

Eventually, the boys who raped in high school become men. And often, they rape again.

At the end of 13 Reasons Why, we don’t know what happens to Bryce, the football star who raped both Hannah and her former best friend Jessica. But my rapist was free to walk the halls for the rest of his high school career. That's not surprising, given that most rapists are rarely punished for what they do, nor are they shamed for their actions as Bryce was. In fact, according to the Rape and Incest National Network, 994 out of every 1,000 rapists will go free. They continue to walk among us, claiming to everyone that “she was asking for it” or “she’s just a slut, anyway.”

Eventually, the boys who raped in high school grow up into men. And often, they rape again. (In fact, according to RAINN, 375 out of every 1000 suspected rapists has a prior felony conviction.) We need to change that. But what we also need to do is change the fates of women like Hannah.

Beth Dubber/Netflix

I didn’t harm myself or take my own life after I was raped, though I’d be lying if I said I never thought about it. I knew if I could get out of my small rural town, I could move past the trauma of my assault, so that's exactly what I did. Like me, Hannah had dreams of moving to New York City, but no one encouraged her to pursue her dream. No one told her there was life after high school, a life where she could be loved and successful and happy. No one told her she just had to focus on getting out alive, no matter what happened, which is why she never made it.

It isn’t until Hannah takes her own life and releases her tapes that people start to believe her and feel a semblance of guilt over what happened. At that point, however, it's too late. Her story is fictional, but for many women who are sexually assaulted, 13 percent of whom will attempt suicide at some point in their lives, her struggles are all too real.

What kept me going, somehow, was not the thought of making the people who hurt me feel guilty seeing me die, but guilty seeing me live.

Like Hannah, I didn’t have any support after I was raped. My teachers were ill-equipped to deal with me, and my parents didn’t seem to notice how much I was hurting, even after I told them what happened to me that night. But my story differs from hers in one key respect: eventually, I realized that the best revenge for me wasn’t to stop living, but to live my life to my fullest abilities. To show everyone what this “dumb slut” was really capable of. What kept me going, somehow, was not the thought of making the people who hurt me feel guilty seeing me die, but guilty seeing me live. And that is a lesson that all sexual assault survivors should take to heart.

If you have thoughts of self-harm, seek professional help or contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. If you have experienced sexual assault, call RAINN at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).