It was a Shabbos morning when I awoke and realized that my virginity was gone—against my wishes. But instead of seeking the help I desperately needed, I felt shame. For many years I did not fully comprehend the harm caused by that traumatic experience because at the time I was simply too afraid to admit to anyone that I was sexually involved with someone. So taboo was the subject that, at the time, I didn’t even consider the word “rape” to describe what had occurred.
Now I think that word is appropriate: It was a Shabbos morning when I awoke and realized that I’d been raped.
Every parent’s ultimate wish is that their child be safe. They do everything they can to protect and nurture their child so she can grow up to be a wonderful human being. I know that my parents did the best that they knew how.
I did not seek my parents’ protection or support after my incident because I knew that my own immodest action—being intimate with my boyfriend—was the precursor to it all, and the precursor was shameful in itself. I did not seek my parents’ help because I was ashamed of disappointing them by transgressing the shomer negiah (“guarding the touch”) restriction in our Orthodox Jewish community.
So my parents did not protect me. Even though they were good parents, raising their kids to be honest and hardworking, with refined midos and good manners, they did not know that I needed protection.
I grew up in a Chabad community on the West Coast and spent my 20s in the Lubavitch community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn.
For 27 years I considered myself religious: I observed Shabbos and kept strictly kosher. But I never “guarded the touch” like we were supposed to. Touching and being touched by a man was too exciting for me, and felt too natural for me to deny myself. Besides, I told myself, I was still technically Torah-observant by keeping kosher and observing Shabbos. As long as no one knew what I did behind closed doors in my personal life, I appeared to be fully Torah-observant.
Religious Jewish girls are expected to remain celibate until marriage. There are a bunch of rules to keep apart men and women who are not married to each other, to prevent us from having sex. I had no one to talk to about intimacy and relationships while I was growing up. I couldn’t speak to adults because the topic was completely taboo. As the oldest in my family, I had no older siblings to speak with. And I couldn’t talk to older friends about it either because I had to keep my reputation pure in order to be married off one day. Had I been able to communicate with others about my curiosity, questions, and challenges around sex and relationships—if I’d had positive or accurate information (ideally from a Jewish source like A Copper Mirror) and not been restricted in such a militant manner—I would have been more equipped to deal with what I experienced.
Instead, I navigated relationships and intimacy issues on my own for many years, with no guidance or confidants. Rather than making smart, purposeful decisions from a place of healthy self-respect, self-love, and confidence, I led a life in which naivete, stupidity, weakness, recklessness, and victimhood reigned.
Almost one year ago, my entire family was gathered at my parents’ house. Brothers and sisters traveled from all over the world to spend one week together for Passover.
One evening, as we were all hanging out in the living room together, the topic of sex education came up. I presented the case that by not talking to children about potential hazards with alcohol, drugs, and sex, parents put kids at risk.
“You learned about sex at a very early age,” my father said.
My response: “Learning about how babies are made is not the same as learning about the hazards associated with sex. Namely, youth pregnancy, infections, and disease.”
“If you keep the Torah’s mitzvos like we taught you, you’ll be protected,” my mother said with pain in her eyes and intonation.
My response: “If you expect the hazards not to exist in religious communities, your head is in the sand. Religion does not prevent terrible things from happening.”
Religion didn’t keep me from experiencing sexuality at a young age.
Early grade-school memories of sexual experimentation include: Playing “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” in my bedroom closet with my neighbor Aaron, the rabbi’s son. Playing “house” with my classmate Shira—we cuddled in bed together as “husband” and “wife.” Playing “doctor” with my nonreligious friend Melissa, which included putting various foreign objects into each other’s vaginas. Lying on the floor on my side as my friend Rivky rode me like a horse, using my hip bone to stimulate her clitoris; as we took turns “riding” each other, we didn’t know exactly what we were doing, only that it felt good and was probably something we should hide from our parents.
When I was 13, I discovered AOL chatrooms. The computer in my parents’ bedroom was accessible for what I was sure was inappropriate use only while they were out of the house. This was the era of “a/s/l” (age, sex, location): Users would introduce themselves to the group with those identifiers and then continue chatting privately with users who struck their fancy.
“18/F/CA,” I announced myself, lying about my age. “20/M/NY,” a user responded. He then messaged me privately and proceeded to give me my first lesson in self-pleasure. It felt exciting to be speaking to a stranger and to be learning new things that felt good in my body. But it felt icky for the same reasons, so I signed off and didn’t speak about this incident to a soul.
Except I didn’t cover my tracks very well. Unfortunately, my mother was alerted via a porn-like pop-up on the computer, signaling to her that her daughter must be up to no good. She decided that she would investigate my extracurriculars by gaining access to my email and sifting through my communication with classmates. I doubt she found anything interesting, but my trust with authority was broken forever.
Religious life was all I knew for many years. The world beyond my bubble didn’t entice me. At the same time, however, my relationship toward Torah observance was far from positive. My school, summer camp, and mother forced strict observance beyond the letter of the law. Punishments for nonconforming were swift and unwavering.
The beauty of Shabbos and holidays was something I only experienced at the homes of other families. In my family, Shabbos was a huge stressor.
“Don’t come to the Shabbos table without a dvar Torah.”
“You may not go to shul until you change into something more modest.”
“You may not eat at Shira’s house because her mother doesn’t cover her hair.”
I couldn’t wait to get away from home and have some freedom. At 14, I left for religious boarding school and thus began my foray into all things previously shielded from me. Things that had been forbidden became particularly enticing.
At 16, I became sexually active. (By “sexual,” I mean intimate in general.) I kissed Menach, the slobberer. Meir, the daredevil, felt me up in an alley. When I was 18, Eli, the heartthrob, encouraged me to get naked and told me I was beautiful. He performed oral sex on me but respected that I wasn’t comfortable touching his penis yet.
I assume that my discomfort was rooted in the belief that being with a man was prohibited, shameful, and disgusting. It wasn’t until a few years later that I was able to look past that education and be more intimate with a man I wanted to please.
I became an expert at lying to friends and family about my whereabouts. Restriction and subsequent deviation led to dishonesty and deception.
Mendy wanted to have sex, but I did not. At 21, I was still saving myself for my fairytale true love, which wasn’t him. In the dark, he crouched on top of me, telling me that I would enjoy it and to just let him enter me. He had abandoned me in the past due to my boundaries, and I did not want him to leave me again, so when I said, “No, please don’t,” it was with a weak voice. It didn’t occur to me to move my body away or to push him off of me. I said no, but he said, “You’ll love it, you’ll see,” and slipped inside me.
I was unfeeling, numb. I made no movements of my own. My body lay on my bed; my mind hovered somewhere above it, detached, observing. As he moved his body against mine, he grunted with pleasure. “This is what all the rave is about?” I thought.
Cue the first of multiple intimate situations that would take place over the next 10 years or so in which I would quiet my resistance to something that harmed me or made me uncomfortable. If I liked a guy, I wanted him to like me back. So when my voice would not be heeded, I learned to just shut up and check out while he did as he wished. My desire for him to like me and not reject me was stronger than my resistance.
Later in life, I would learn that someone who doesn’t consider my feelings doesn’t care about me and therefore doesn’t deserve to be with me. I deserve to be with someone who respects and appreciates me. We all do.
The morning after that fateful night with Mendy, I took Plan B to prevent against pregnancy (the condom had torn). At the time, pregnancy was my only concern. I was aware that my “status” had changed from “virgin” to a “non-virgin,” but I didn’t feel any different after I had sex than I did before I had sex.
I blocked out the whole situation until a therapist encouraged me to confront it six years later. She explained to me that I had been raped and she forced me to acknowledge that fact in order to work through it and allow myself to be intimate with men in a healthy way.
Therapy has helped me tremendously to see myself from outside myself. I tell that girl who lies there helplessly on the bed, while a man does to her as he wishes despite her pleading with him not to, that she is worthy of being treated right. She is likable—even lovable! She doesn’t have to lie there and take it because “this is just what happens” to her. She can change the situation.
“Stand your ground,” I want to tell my 21-year-old self. “Your voice is important. It doesn’t matter if men leave you, because if they don’t consider your words important, then they simply do not deserve you. It doesn’t matter if not complying with their plan causes them to not like you. You need to do what’s best for you. Love yourself, always.”
Yona Rose is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.