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What do you think rape culture means? How prevalent is it and where/how do you see it play out in everyday life? What are the steps we can take as college students to change it?
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AnnaLynne McCord: Why I'm Done Staying Quiet About My Sexual Assault
Onscreen, Dallas and 90210 star AnnaLynne McCord radiates pure confidence. But before she found Hollywood success, she survived a strict, violent upbringing and a sexual assault by a close friend. Now she's speaking out to help other women who don't have a voice.
When I was on 90210 a few years ago, the character I played, Naomi, was raped by someone she knew. I welcomed the story line, thinking it was important for viewers. I memorized my lines and rehearsed the scenes. I felt ready to go. Then when the cameras were rolling on an intense scene — a fight with an unsupportive friend after the assault — I broke down, sobbing uncontrollably. My castmates thought I had done a great job playing the part. They had no idea that I had actually been sexually assaulted by someone I knew in real life.
For you to understand what happened to me and my reaction to it — burying the assault deep down inside — first you need to know a few things about my life. I’m telling my story now because I think it’s time to talk about the truth. When I was a kid, my candor got me in a lot of trouble, and I learned to stay quiet, to keep my feelings to myself. But no more. I’m in spiritual warrior mode.
I grew up in an extremely religious and conservative family in Georgia, mostly in the small city of Monroe, near Atlanta. My dad was a nondenominational Christian pastor. My mom homeschooled my two sisters and me. My sisters and I rarely got to watch TV, mainly just old episodes of Little House on the Prairie. We could never watch anything like Harry Potter because it had witches in it. We never talked about sex. We weren’t even supposed to kiss until we got married. It was like we were living in 1902.
My parents believed in strict “discipline,” as they called it — I would call it abuse. The punishments were painful and ritualistic. We would have to bend over the bed, sometimes with our pants down, arms outstretched, and get spanked — with a ruler in our younger years and later with a paddle that my parents bought when they thought the ruler wasn’t strong enough.
I found it all very confusing. I knew my mom and dad loved me, and I loved them too. I still do. My dad always told me I could be anything I wanted to be. But at the same time, my parents hurt me, which told me they hated me. I know they were doing what they thought was right to discipline their kids. But it really messed me up. One day, I would suffer a punishment, and the next, my family would have a lovely day at the beach and I would tell myself,Maybe it’s not so bad.
When I was 15, I finished my schooling and my parents got divorced. Amid the upheaval, I took the opportunity to convince them to let me sign with a modeling agency. I moved to Miami and lived in an apartment with eight other models.
On my own for the first time, I was meeting lots of hot boys. I had all these crazy, intense sexual feelings — the energy and desire a guy would have for me was enthralling. I became sort of promiscuous but didn’t actually have sex. I’d get right there with the guy and then stop, thinking I’d go to hell. Then I’d go to church to cleanse myself. At the same time, I pushed men to be violent toward me. After all, as I had learned in my childhood, people who loved me hurt me.
I would slap the guys, antagonize them, until I believed they wanted to hit me. My sexual relationships were dark and violently dramatic.
Things calmed down a bit when I was 16, when this gorgeous model walked into the agency. He was a runner, the son of a hippie. We had an immediate spark. He would become my very first. We moved to New York City together when I was 17, and we both continued modeling. We’d make dinner and sit at a tiny table in our apartment in Brooklyn. Afterward, I’d sit on his lap, listening to Bob Dylan. It was a solid, content time of life, although I still struggled with feelings of shame for having sex.
One night, I had a vivid nightmare about my childhood, and my boyfriend said I should confront my parents. I mustered the strength to do so. I went home and told them, "What you considered discipline, I considered abuse." My dad cried; my mom seemed to be in denial. But it was an important step.
When I was 18, I moved to Los Angeles to audition for roles. My boyfriend planned to come later. One night, a guy friend called. He said he needed a good night’s sleep for a meeting, as he’d been crashing on someone’s couch. I had known him for some time, so I said to come over and I set him up with a clean towel. We sat on the bed and talked for a while, then I fell asleep. When I woke up, he was inside me.
At first, I felt so disoriented and numb, I closed my eyes and pretended to be asleep. I wondered if I had done something to give him the wrong idea. I felt afraid of making him angry. Believe it or not, I didn’t want to offend him. I just wanted it to be over. My childhood had come back to haunt me again: Because of the physical abuse, I didn’t believe there were borders between other people’s bodies and my own. I didn’t believe I had a voice.
And then, suddenly, my thoughts took a practical turn: I could get an STD. I could get pregnant. I have a boyfriend. I said, "Please, don’t!" He stopped and went in the bathroom and finished. I lay there and stared at the ceiling for the rest of the night, frozen. At dawn, I wrote a note to him and left. I sat outside in a car and waited for him to leave. When he did, I went back inside, took a shower, and pretended it hadn’t happened.
I didn’t tell anyone other than asking a friend if I should worry about getting pregnant if a man pulled out during sex. I went to an audition, then to dinner with friends. I acted strong — fake strong. Over the next few months, I began to go dark. My friends would invite me to events where the guy would be, and I would stay away. Then one night, I did go to a club with friends, and I saw him there. We made eye contact and I felt like throwing up. I turned and ran, sprinting into traffic.
Around this time, I landed a role on Nip/Tuck. My character, Eden, was confident, sexy, audacious. But privately, I was reeling. I would drive to a secluded place, park underneath a tree, and write dark poetry on my arm, then slice myself with a massively sharp knife, rubbing in the blood.
And then my attacker confronted me. We were at a club, and he cornered me, wanting to talk. I said, "You know what happened." He said, "What are you saying? What we had that night was beautiful."
My boyfriend came around the corner, and I got away. Later, a male friend told me my attacker was going around claiming I was in love with him. Finally, something in me snapped. "He raped me!" I said.
My friend’s reaction surprised me: He was so angry. I realized I was allowed to feel angry too. I told another friend, and she burst into tears. Again, I thought, I’m allowed to feel like this. I told my boyfriend. I told my older sister, Angel. It was another step. But it would take an outright breakdown to truly turn things around.
And that's exactly what happened a couple of years later, in my early 20s. I accepted the role on 90210 and was dating someone new, an actor. The relationship was tumultuous — we broke up about 45 times. We had our biggest fight when I was on a trip to Europe. I lay on my bed in a hotel in Madrid for days, feeling increasingly alone and hopeless.
I had pills and water in hand and thought seriously about killing myself. I didn’t fear death — it felt like a solution. When you’re in that mode, you don’t think suicide is a selfish thing to do. You think you’re doing everyone a favor.
I called my sister Angel; I called my dad. No answer. I got ready to swallow the pills and suddenly heard myself screaming, "Stop!" Then Angel called. She got on a flight to Spain immediately. I knew she was flying to me. I calmed down. I waited for her.
Afterward, with some professional help, I started facing my past — all of it. I read books about psychology and philosophy. I forgave myself for not standing up for myself, and I began channeling my experience into something good.
I met a woman named Somaly Mam, who rescues girls from sexual slavery in Southeast Asia. The girls are kidnapped or sold as young as ages 4 and 5. They live in grimy brothels where they are raped every day. At one of Somaly’s shelters in Cambodia, I met dozens of young survivors. They became my friends, my sisters. Through helping them heal, I began to heal myself.
I still had a ways to go. The rape plot on 90210 came around this time. When I, as Naomi, fought with my unsupportive friend, she said the rapist had claimed I was in love with him. It was a little too close to real life, sparking my meltdown. But the story line gave me an opportunity. I talked to viewers about rape, and I heard from young women across the country.
It took me my whole journey to get to the place where I am today. I’m 26, and I visit Cambodia every year. This fall, I’m going on a college speaking tour. I’ve started a website where I write poetry, TheAnnaLynneMcCord.com. I have a new role, on Dallas. I have my family; we are all in touch. And I have a profound intimacy with the man I love, Dominic Purcell. I have wonderful, mind-blowing sex with my man, and it no longer causes me guilt or shame.
Most of all, I have my message for women and girls: You have a voice. Don’t put yourself in a box. Don’t let the polite lies of society silence you. Honestly, I would endure everything all over again — it has led me to my own revolution.
If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual violence, help is available 24/7 through the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800-656-HOPE and online.rainn.org.