*Warning: this interview contains personal recounting of rape and a suicide attempt*
When The Real World: Atlanta cast member Tovah was 16 — and in an act she didn’t see as particularly uncommon — she lost her virginity. She hadn’t dated much, and had only previously gone as far as an innocent kiss with a crush, but the guy in question was cute, and they’d hit it off. Plus, he was her neighbor and seemed trustworthy.
On the day in question, though, the guy got particularly insistent. Tovah had previously said no when he asked her to have sex — she told him she wouldn’t consider it unless she was in a relationship. She also said no in the moments leading up to the encounter. Finally, she said no while it was happening.
When it was over, Tovah felt a little bit confused, but not completely violated. Neither she nor the guy was drunk, he hadn’t drugged her or forced her into a bedroom and there was no tug-of-war, no bruises from battle. What she didn’t entirely process, though, was that she had, indeed, been raped. She didn’t realize that just because her assault didn’t evolve the way it had in movies she’d seen — complete with torn clothes, cries for help, tear-soaked pillows and police sirens — it didn’t mean the man hadn’t destroyed a piece of her or hadn’t set into motion years of pain.
Now 27, she’s only just beginning to grapple with the assault, and understand how severely it’s demoralized her.
It’s important, Tovah told MTV News, for viewers to understand that rape doesn’t unfold in explicit terms: It’s not spelled out on a marquee in fluorescent script, and there are no alarm bells to signal its arrival. Still, an understated assault like hers can be just as damaging — even more so — and she explained on the show’s most recent episode that her assault completely severed her being: On one hand, she was catapulted into a world of frequent sex with multiple partners in a desperate, reflexive act to secure agency. On the other, she hid behind ironclad armor, reduced to rote and droning speech, seeming disinterest and idle eye contact that has routinely made her look, by her own admission, dead.
“I don’t think I ever associate sex and love,” she said on the show. “I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to attach myself like that. When I tell people and I talk kind of monotone, it’s a defense mechanism.”
Sadly, that type of dissociative behavior — a personality that’s suddenly cleaved in two — is common among women who have sex for the first time by means of rape, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network Vice President of Victim Services Keeli Sorenson. Sorenson told MTV News that assaults like Tovah’s amount to a certain type of damage, particularly if — as was the case with Tovah — virginity is valued in the communities to which survivors belong.
“After experiencing sexual assault, survivors — including those whose first experience with sex is violence — can have a variety of reactions relating to sex and relationships, such as being hypersexual or closing themselves off to that part of life entirely,” Sorenson said. “Survivors from communities that prioritize the concept of virginity may struggle with their identity, feel shame or guilt and face additional barriers to getting help…[but] no matter when a survivor experienced sexual violence, we encourage them to remember that they are not broken, they are not alone, and there is nothing they did to deserve or ask for this.”
And while Tovah is still feeling the ripple effects of her assault, she noted on The Real World that she is finally on the path toward healing, and that being open with her roommates sparked a kind of clarity that she hadn’t quite experienced before.
“I was ashamed of it for a long time, but I’m not anymore,” she said. “I just want to talk about it like I own it.”
Tovah opened up to MTV News about her assault as part of a brutally honest interview in which she chronicled her assault, described how it took her years to understand its complexity and explained how it still informs critical parts of her life. Read what she had to say below, visit RAINN’s website if you’re a survivor or ally who needs help or additional information and see how Tovah’s story evolves when The Real World airs on Facebook Watch Thursdays at 9/8c.
Can you tell us a little bit about what you were like as a teenager? Friends? Clubs? Course loads?
Gosh, I was bullied so badly. But I was a really good student, straight A’s, because it’s really easy to get straight A’s when you don’t have friends. But no, I wasn’t a sports person, and in middle school I just kind of tried to keep to myself. I was very involved in temple and choir outside of school. Finally, in high school, I started to branch out and do cheerleading and then I was president of my freshman class for student council. I lived in Israel my first semester of junior year. I went to Jewish camp every summer and that was my saving grace from the tough parts of home.
How did the bullying begin and what toll did it take?
I didn’t really fit in anywhere, and I went to three different middle schools because the bullying was so bad. I was pretty chubby with glasses and really bad acne and kids used to call me pizza face — they’d basically mock everything that I couldn’t help about myself. And the triggering point came one day during lunch — because I ate lunch with the nurse every day — and in my middle school there had been a suicide prevention assembly. I told my nurse: I’m gonna kill myself. Why would I still be here if that was a choice? And that’s when my parents put me in therapy.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the circumstances surrounding your assault, or what role your attacker played in your life at the time?
I met him two weeks prior to what happened. He didn’t go to our school, but we had a mutual friend and I saw him at a talent show. We were actually neighbors, he lived about three houses down. I was like: this kid’s cute. So we started talking and just kind of hit it off.
I was talking to him, just this young 16-year-old hanging out after school kind of thing. I had just kissed a boy but nothing else, never even made out.
What happened that day?
He wanted to have sex. I said no, unless you’re my boyfriend. But he came over one day, and this is another reason why this is confusing for me: It wasn’t the textbook thing where we were wasted at a party and I woke up and my clothes were off. He didn’t force me by gunpoint. I told him no previously, I told him no then, it still happened, but that was my first time. I was like: This doesn’t really seem good, but I guess we’re dating, right? So I guess it’s OK? Then, since he didn’t go to my school, we didn’t speak. I didn’t really understand what had happened.
So, I just didn’t talk about it because I was so young. Later, I got a call from one of his friends who said: I need you to come over and talk. [The guy] feels really bad about what he did, just don’t tell anybody. And I was like: What? I wasn’t telling anyone anyway. I felt super weird about it. Then I started to get text messages from the guy, which said things like: I raped you and dropped you, stop talking about me. I took your virginity by rape, have a great f***ed up life.
It’s hard to remember, but he was the one who really told me it was rape. I don’t know if it was that I didn’t want to believe it or I was confused, but yeah, I hadn’t really processed it.
How long did he remain in your life?
Well we had been in California, but fast-forward to college now in a different state, and this was the worst. I saw him on the street and I realized now we’re both in the same town and he goes to the same college. By total fluke. I didn’t say anything, he didn’t say anything. But during second week of school, I got about 15 phone calls from my friend while I was in a movie. She said: I need to talk to you right now.
I left the movie, and she asked me if I knew a certain guy. It was him. And I was like: Hell no. I had already changed high schools. I’m not changing colleges. But she kept insisting and was like: I’m gonna tell you something, let me know if it’s true: He just sat down with my boyfriend and four other guys in their fraternity and told them and he took your virginity by raping you. Is that true? It was so bad. He harassed me all the time, all through college. I had to get a restraining order. But I still refused to believe it happened until I was 22.
Is that when you started opening up to people?
I think for a lot of people, things will trigger the memory. But yeah, one day I was sitting in my car listening to the radio and the song “In the Night” by The Weeknd was playing, which talks about a girl who was sexually assaulted. I started bawling my eyes out, called my mom and I was like: This happened to me. I was 22, it was 2015, and still hadn’t told anyone.
And my mom was like: Ok, let’s go to therapy, let’s do this.
How was therapy early on?
I actually started long before all of this, when I was 12, which was the first year I tried to commit suicide while the bullying was happening. So for a long time, I would sort of hide behind my depression in therapy and not really talk about the assault. Every time I saw a new therapist and they asked if I’d been assaulted I’d say yes, and when they asked if I’d worked through it I’d say yes because I didn’t want to talk about it. I actually avoided it up until The Real World house, always just putting it on the back burner.
I know you said you stayed very silent for years after the assault. How did you handle the weight of that in the years before your epiphany at 22?
After it happens, girls usually go one of two ways: Either they shy away from any sexual activity because they don’t trust men. Or, they do what I do and become very, very sexually active. I thought I was crazy. I was so numb. I thought I was a psychopath for having no feelings.
I think my promiscuity was me trying to get my power back, like I couldn’t choose my first time, but I choose you, I choose you, I choose you. But I didn’t get my power back; in fact, I lost more of myself until there was nothing. But I sort of convinced myself: Hey, that’s the hookup culture at college, that’s the norm. So I just kind of went on as a robot. Once I finally got out of college and the hook-up culture stopped, I actually had to put myself in sex addicts anonymous, because I would get huge panic attacks if I didn’t have a guy set up for the weekend. My whole identity was in a man and if they wanted to have sex with me. Meetings lasted two weeks before my panic attacks got way too bad and that’s when I spiraled out, that’s when I was 22.
When you first auditioned for the show, did you know this is a story you wanted to tell?
I applied when I was watching Bad Blood and I had been through a lot. It was right after I got laid off, I had just ended a relationship and was sitting in my childhood parents’ house just crying. I was so angry, and it felt like everything was hitting rock-bottom. The application asked me things I had been through and things I’d overcome and I knew my story could help. That’s when [The Real World casting process] turned into not just a cool experience, but a way to get my story out.
I knew people might call me a whore or a slut when I explained the aftermath — when I had become very promiscuous. But I didn’t see anybody on TV or in songs or in the paper — anyone to look up to that acted the way I did after rape. I wanted to show girls that you are not alone, and whatever actions you take after this happens to you is normal and it’s in your truth. That was my main goal.
Obviously your connection to Clint seemed to accelerate your choice to tell your roommates, but was there one moment or conversation that ultimately inspired you to share?
It was when Meagan and Yasmin brought it to my attention that I don’t trust people, and that I never told anyone anything. They insisted that everyone cares what I was feeling, so I started to open up, and that’s when I realized: Oh, crap, I really don’t ever tell anyone. I haven’t worked through what I need to work through.
Did you continue with therapy during The Real World?
Yeah, I saw a therapist during filming who said: You will react to everything as if you’re 16-years-old because that is when you stunted yourself. You’re not 27, you’re 16.
But if it wasn’t for the therapist that I had during The Real World …she was brand new, Justin actually introduced me. She is the only one I ever really connected with. I never thought any other therapist got me. I had never heard the things she said, and I’d been seeing therapists since I was 12. But the moment I really started therapy was when I found someone I trusted enough to open up. She listened and understood.
A lot of people — men more specifically — can’t seem to understand why women don’t come forth about assault right away. In the house, we saw Dondre saying: Why didn’t he go to jail? And according to RAINN only 230 out of 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police. Can you explain why you stayed silent, and why you think so many other women stay silent?
As you see in the media, it’s always going to be his word against yours, especially in a situation like mine where there are no bruises, no trauma. You can do a rape kit but I don’t even know if we were old enough to gather evidence or completely understand it. And it’s very shameful, no 16-year-old wants to admit she didn’t lose her virginity the way you see in the movies.
What was it like to get home after filming and realize: Oh, man, I said this and now there’s no turning back?
Actually the moment that I hit me is when I watched the episode and the ending RAINN message came up — the “If you need help…” — I started crying, and I’m not sure what emotions those were. I kind of blacked out a little bit, it was a real Oh, my God moment. But I was glad to know that I was going to help so many people. It was feeling like suddenly my pain was worth it.
How have the people in your life who’ve seen the show reacted to your assault?
I think the biggest impact was thinking how my parents were going to feel, because, you know, this is their child, and we never really talked about it. My mom and dad actually called me after the episode and we just kind of talked. It gave us a platform to talk about what happened because it was the first time they heard me describe it so candidly.
Otherwise, no one has really been able to say anything to me. People don’t really know how to handle it, which I don’t fault them for because I wouldn’t know how to handle it either. I think it must be strange to know someone for so long and then suddenly have to process this new piece of them.
Have you learned more about yourself from watching the show?
I saw for the first time that painful numbness in my eyes when I talked about it, and that kind of triggered me a little bit. But I had to be like: You don’t feel that way anymore. That was a part of your story, it’s OK to let it go.
You know with death, if you don’t feel incredibly sad all the time, or if you move on, people think you never actually cared? And you feel guilty? For part of me, I think I was holding onto it for so long, because I felt like if I let go of it, that means it didn’t happen, that means it hasn’t affected me, that means I’m just a slut, that I’m a psychopath, that I have no emotions. But I’ve finally learned that it can be a part of my story without having to affect me anymore. I learned I can let it go.
Has opening up about your assault changed your attitude toward the way love and sex intersect, or do you still see them on separate planes?
Right now with my therapist, it’s really important for me to not engage in any sexual activity —until I am able to create healthy boundaries within myself. So, as of right now, no, I still have that very hard disconnect. But I’m working to heal myself.
You mentioned you’re working with a therapist, how are you finding healing?
This became my whole identity, so it’s just about realizing that there’s stuff outside of that. I wasn’t really allowing myself to get to know anybody and I didn’t care about anything but having sex, so my healing process is really speaking to people before being intimate.
Healing was also learning that a guy does not determine my worth. You see in the episode I say: I was taught from the first time that I mean nothing, so I have to remind myself every day the value I bring to the world.
There are many movements in the contemporary social landscape that are finding women reclaiming their power — #MeToo, the features in the New Yorker about Harvey Weinstein. Were you inspired at all by those events?
Gosh, I think to be honest, when all of that was happening, that was very triggering for me, so if I noticed something had to do with #MeToo, I shut it down. I think it’s important for girls to understand that if you aren’t ready to identify with that type of stuff, it’s OK. I’m sure my story probably triggered some girls too, and set them back. It’s just important to know that taking a few steps back isn’t failure.
On the other side of the coin, what is it like to see someone like Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who testified during Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court Hearing that he had assaulted her, receive death threats and be discredited? Were you even surprised?
It wasn’t a surprise at all, which is why I didn’t really follow it. The second I heard she was coming forward, I commended her secretly, but I knew what was coming. Like if somebody can come with facts on TV, speak their truth and still be laughed at, how the heck do you think a 16-year-old or a 20-year-old can go up against a classmate or a college athlete? How the heck do they think a pimple-faced girl with braces will get anywhere?
I hoped it didn’t happen, but I knew it would. It’s a microcosm of why people don’t speak up.
If you could counsel yourself at 16, or another girl who suffered the way you did, what would you say?
I would tell her to just tell one person. I don’t care what the outcome is, because a lot of times girls are worried about: Well, he didn’t go to jail. But it’s not about him, it’s not about what happens to him, it’s not about getting what he deserves. Just speaking about it, whether you tell a friend, a journal, a random person on the internet—
Actually, I did that for a while. Triggering. I just remembered: Before I told anyone, I joined a support group for sexual assault victims. I told them the whole story, and they were like: Girl, no, you are right, this was sexual assault and we’re here for you.
Your healing process starts when you start to say it out loud. Tell yourself: What happens to him is none of my concern. My concern is living a healthy life. You can tell someone and still not have the immediate goal to prosecute him. Because I think girls struggle with that: How can it be so detrimental to me, but in the same breath I don’t want to prosecute him? It doesn’t mean what he did isn’t a big deal, it just means you aren’t ready, and that doesn’t disqualify your trauma.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell viewers?
As much as my story has helped them, their stories help me and help others. So thank you for telling your stories. You’re not alone, and if I can do it, you sure as hell can, too.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, help is available. You can call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800.656.HOPE or visit rainn.org.
Editor’s note: MTV isn’t identifying Tovah’s hometown for her safety and privacy.