Before I was assaulted, I loved wine.
I would say my relationship with wine might even have bordered on a minor obsession. Before I started my writing career, I had a lucrative gig as a bartender at a high-end hotel. There, I started to appreciate wine and learned about every aspect of its culture; I fell in love with searching for new varietals and lesser-known vintages, and learned how to pair them with dishes. I attended tastings as often as I could, and learned rituals such as swirling the glass to release the bouquet and to determine the “legs.” I even joined one of those exclusive wine clubs. The hotel industry gave me the opportunity to travel, and I chose my destinations based on my passion for regional wine. My first trip outside of the country was to Italy, primarily because I wanted to tour a few vineyards in Tuscany (and, of course, indulge in pasta).
Wine and “wine culture” can mean different things to different people; for me, much of my enjoyment had to do with the never-ending choices at my disposal. I had the option to choose red wine or white, bubbly or flat. Depending on my mood, I could choose dry or sweet wines; Old World or New World; cheap boxed wine, or expensive vintages. I had my choice of region, grape, and vintage. My growing knowledge of the industry and confident decision-making in choosing wines became increasingly empowering.
Then came the night that changed everything for me.
One evening, several years ago, I went out with a few friends for dinner and cocktails. After dinner, we went to another bar for one more glass of wine. One glass turned into three more. Eventually, I ended up in a car with a man who promised to drive me home. Instead, halfway to my house, he yanked me out of the car on a secluded road, threw me down in some bushes, and sexually assaulted me. My choice was taken away from me that night, and with it, my love of wine was ripped away as well.
A stream of questions ran through my mind after my assault. Like many women, I assumed that because I was drunk, it was my fault. I also decided that because I willingly got in his car, I should blame myself for what happened. Maybe I should have had less wine? Maybe I lead him on? I thought about all of the things I could have done differently; I blamed myself, my friends for leaving me alone, and of course, I blamed the wine. I blamed everyone and everything except the person who assaulted me.
After I confided in a male friend what happened, the first thing he asked was how much I’d had to drink that night. And as I began sharing my story with people I trusted, I received the same reaction over and over—the same questions about the amount of alcohol I had consumed. I consciously knew I didn't deserve what happened to me, but things felt difficult to put into perspective.
One in five women will experience some form of sexual assault in their life, and research shows that nearly half of all sexual assaults involve alcohol. However, this obviously doesn’t mean alcohol consumption is the cause of sexual violence. According to the results of one survey on alcohol-related sexual assaults on college campuses, men who committed violence against women used alcohol to excuse their violent acts, while conversely, alcohol consumption served as a source of shame and guilt for women.
Blaming victims of sexual assault has become so pervasive in our society that it’s not always obvious when it’s happening. Even the act of asking a woman how much she had to drink on the night of her assault reinforces the idea that women should be the ones to take preventative measures, or that rape is somehow less of a violation if alcohol is involved. These questions—and the stigma attached to them—also perpetuate the self-blame, guilt, and fear of humiliation that further discourage women from reporting their assaults.
Because of these factors, the incident remains one of the 63 percent of sexual assaults that are not reported to police at all (making it the most underreported crime in the United States).
After my assault, I couldn’t sleep for months, and I didn’t touch wine for nearly a year; in fact, I stopped drinking altogether. It was a reminder of what happened to me, of the fear, shame, and guilt I felt, but mostly, it reminded me of my loss of choice.
When I returned to work, I had to continue to describe and sell wine to guests of the hotel. Each wine has a specific aroma, and each particular aroma has an incredible ability to trigger memories and emotions. In the beginning, simply helping guests pair wine with their meals was triggering. But eventually, teaching people about wine began to remind me why I loved it so much. It took many months, but eventually, I decided I wasn’t going to let my attacker keep me from enjoying something that brought me so much joy.
While I found my passion for wine again, it has never felt quite the same. It took years of therapy to come to the realization that the only person responsible for sexual violence is the predator—period.
There is something to be said about drinking responsibly, for health, decorum, and for the safety of one’s self and others. But when it comes to sexual violence, there’s no way to start a conversation about how much the victim had to drink without pushing the conversation into a space of blame, shame, and guilt.
Just as wine can tell its story by the environment from which it came (what the French call “terroir”), wine tells my story. My story remains one of empowerment and strength.