Reflecting back on her first year of high school, junior Grace Johnson realized the relationship she was in was not healthy. Johnson knew she was not happy while she was dating her ex-boyfriend, a senior at the time, but when the two were together she said she thought she was happy. She remembers her time with the boy as a blur, like she was looking at a different person in her place when she was with the boy. She said the beginning of her relationship was good and normal; however, the boy slowly became more manipulative.
During the summer before he went to college, Johnson said she and her boyfriend felt the need to spend a lot of time together. She said spending time with him was fine, but then he would get mad when Johnson tried to hang out with her other friends or throw a fit so she was paying attention to him and not her friends. So, Johnson stopped hanging out with her friends.
Eventually, Johnson said the emotional abuse shifted into sexual coercion.
“[Recognizing the abuse] was a really gradual realization,” Johnson said. “Looking back on it, I was like, ‘This was probably unhealthy; this wasn’t cool.’ It’s still kind of like a gray area because technically I wasn’t saying no while it was happening or whatever. I realized the emotional manipulation before I realized anything else.”
While she was dating the boy, Johnson’s parents would not allow him to be with her while home alone. Because of this, the boy often asked Johnson to have sex in his car, which Johnson was uncomfortable with. When Johnson refused, she said the boy would stop talking to her for the rest of that day, so she stopped saying no.One August day, someone caught Johnson and the boy in his car, though they were still fully clothed. After the incident, she told the boy, “I’m not doing anything. I don’t care if we’re home alone. I am uncomfortable.” The next day, however, was the boy’s birthday, and he wanted to have sex. He tried to engage her, and she froze up, visibly uneasy, and voiced that she was uncomfortable.
“You always know the stats, ‘Oh, one out of four girls who go to college is gonna get raped.’ You’re like, ‘Oh it’s fine. I’ll just not be dumb and not drink’ or something,” Johnson said. “I didn’t really know what was happening, kind of. I didn’t outright say, ‘No’ to anything. Well, kind of. Like, I was convinced into not saying no, so it wasn’t like a blatant — it makes it kind of complicated, I guess.”
While Johnson does not recall exactly what happened, what she recollects over everything else is the boy telling her, “You’re safe. You’re safe. It’s okay. You’re safe.” The only aspect of his actions Johnson remembers questioning is why he tried to convince her she was safe if it was true.
“It wasn’t really obvious. It wasn’t like I was like, ‘No! I’m not doing this,’ and he was doing stuff anyway. I would just be like, ‘I’m a little uncomfortable,’ and he would just kind of ignore that. It was like either way I wasn’t going to win,” Johnson said. “I was either going to have to do stuff, or he was going to be mad at me, so I felt like I was obliged. I feel like that’s still kind of that gray area. Like some people are like, ‘That’s not really assault.’ I don’t know.”
“I was either going to have to do stuff, or he was going to be mad at me, so I felt like I was obliged. I feel like that’s still kind of that gray area. Like some people are like, ‘That’s not really assault.’ I don’t know.”
Although her experiences with the boy were not significant to her at the time, Johnson began to realize the abuse she endured and broke up with him months later. One day, in Advanced Placement World History, the class researched the abuse hotline as a part of an assignment for their “The Handmaid’s Tale” project. Johnson said she got lost on the website and began reading about the descriptions of sexual coercion and realized the boy’s actions during their relationship were, if not abuse, sexual coercion.
“[I stayed in the relationship] because I didn’t realize what had happened. The emotional abuse and the coercion had been happening for so long that I didn’t realize really that that was wrong because it had started so slowly that I just kind of accepted it as, ‘Oh, I didn’t say no, so it was fine.’ I just tried to ignore it,” Johnson said. “I had very much convinced myself that what happened was okay. Once I was out of that relationship I started realizing, like, ‘Oh, this was emotionally abusive. Oh, this was wrong.’”
During their relationship, Johnson said she convinced herself everything was going well. As soon as Johnson put the pieces of the abuse she endured together, she confronted the boy. She explained to him all the aspects of their relationship that were not okay, and she said he acknowledged what happened but defended it.
“Literally [I told him], ‘These are the things you did.’ He was like, ‘Yes, but they were justified.’ That was hard because he knew that he had done it, but he thought that it was not wrong. It was more like he justified the emotional abuse, and it kind of, like, it was clear that he thought I owed him time, like, my time and my energy and my love,” Johnson said. “It was clear that he thought I owed that to him because we were in a relationship, and he didn’t ever admit that he thought that about sex too, but it was clear that he thought that, and it was justified because we were in a relationship.”
Johnson associated the boy excusing what he did with what she told herself while the two were still dating. Johnson said when the boy tried to convince her nothing he did was wrong, she felt like someone was telling her “the incorrect truth.” Despite this, Johnson said she does not think the boy intentionally abused her.
“I think that it was just how he was as a person,” Johnson said. “You kind of expect, like, if you’re in an abusive relationship they’re intentionally doing bad things, and they don’t really love you and all these things, but I knew he loved me, and I knew he wasn’t intentionally doing these things.”When Johnson told two friends, the only people who know the details of her relationship, one of them related to her experience and recognized why Johnson kept what happened during the relationship to herself. The other, however, did not understand why Johnson did not reach out and why she had only recently started thinking about the emotional abuse and sexual coercion she experienced.
“Society tells you, like, ‘Oh, you just report it to the police, and they’ll fix everything,’ but that’s not how it works,” Johnson said. “[My friend was] just still very much like, ‘Why are you just saying this now? Why is it relevant? Is it really true?’ So that really sucks.”
Regardless of what other people think, Johnson said her experience personally impacts everything she does in her life. If she has to leave school late at night, Johnson waits until her “designated guy friends,” who are bigger and stronger than she is, leave the building so she can walk out with them. Johnson also never goes to the bathroom alone, and if she’s at a party with more than three guys, she always gets up and gets her own drink. She said she does not actively think about protecting herself, but she does so subconsciously.
Despite her actions of self-protection, Johnson said she still does not know how to articulate her feelings. She knows what happened and knows how she feels, but does not know if she is justified in feeling such a way. She said what happened to her is a “gray area” of assault.
“When these stories come out of Brett Kavanaugh or Trump, you see all these people where there’s a lot of evidence against them, and it doesn’t matter, and those people have accusations like, ‘I said no, and this still happened anyway,’ and ‘Here’s physical evidence of when I went to the police,’” Johnson said. “For me it was like, ‘I didn’t say yes. I was clearly uncomfortable.’ I didn’t know if he knew this was wrong, and then I didn’t tell anyone for a year. There’s going to be people who look at me and say, ‘She’s probably lying,’ or, ‘She’s just the sad ex who wants to get back at the person,’ or something like that, which sucks.”
“For me it was like, ‘I didn’t say yes. I was clearly uncomfortable.’ I didn’t know if he knew this was wrong, and then I didn’t tell anyone for a year. There’s going to be people who look at me and say, ‘She’s probably lying,’ or, ‘She’s just the sad ex who wants to get back at the person,’ or something like that, which sucks.”
Subtly but more often, Johnson began speaking about what happened to her, but without giving details. She said she has friends on the football team who often make jokes about rape, and she said at one point, she told them to not make those jokes around her. Johnson found telling the general public and friends she was not close about her experience with harder because she did not know what their reactions would be or if they would change their opinion of her.
“I [felt abused], but [was it] validated? I don’t know. Sometimes I question myself on that just because, like, I didn’t say, ‘No.’ I just kind of sat there and froze up, like a lot of people do, I think. The thing that’s the worst is when I confronted him about it and he kind of acknowledged that it had happened but kind of validated it — I think a thing that helps a lot of people is knowing that they’re [an] assailant or whatever is going to live with guilt for the rest of their life, and knowing that mine won’t be was probably the worst part about realizing what had happened.”
Art by Moy Zhong