Zoë Rayor was first sexually assaulted when she was 18, living in Tel Aviv, Israel. Just a few years later, when she was 21, she experienced her second assault by another, unrelated man in Sarasota, Florida. That time, Zoë fought back—and managed to escape before being raped. Being attacked again opened the floodgates on emotions and trauma that she’d never allowed herself to fully experience.
Here, Zoë, who’s now 25 and working as an independent artist in Colorado, shares her story of moving on with her life after not one, but two life-changing attacks.
Note: Portions of Zoë’s story have been adapted from her essay in We Believe You: Survivors of Campus Sexual Assault Speak Out.
STYLECASTER: How did the first rape happen?
Zoë Rayor: I left home at 17 to attend New College of Florida, in Sarasota. A young feminist, I wanted to escape the Bible belt of north Florida as soon as I could, and I skipped a year of high school to do just that. I took classes on gender studies and Hebrew and became interested in conflict resolution. After turning 18, I traveled to Israel as part of a program geared toward Jewish students called Birthright, after which I moved to Israel during my sophomore year to attend Tel Aviv University.
One afternoon in the fall of 2009, I took a taxi from my dorm to the beach to meet up with some of my family. I sat in the front seat and began to smoke a cigarette. The driver was an Israeli man old enough to be my dad or even grandfather. We were almost to the beach when he pulled into an alley and locked the doors. It took me a second to realize what was happening and then I frantically tried to open the door but couldn’t. I froze.
The man began groping me and then shoved me into the backseat. I didn’t know what to do, I went into shock and completely let go of control. He yanked my dress off, pulled down his pants, and raped me. After he was finished, he crawled back into the front seat, told me to put my dress back on, and then drove me to the beach as if nothing had happened.
I didn’t know what to do; I was in a daze. I had no way to identify this person, and my Hebrew was fairly shitty. Confused and numb, I walked out to my family and tried to act normal. One family member asked me what was wrong, and I told her I thought I had been assaulted, but said I didn’t want to do anything about it because I didn’t think I could and I hadn’t fully processed what had happened. It just didn’t seem real.
What happened after the first rape?
A few months later, I spoke to my mom on the phone and she described a date she had gone on during which a man tried to grab her and force her to kiss him. She was very upset and asked if I had ever dealt with anything like that. The question came out of left field and I broke down and told her that I had been raped. She was completely shocked and desperately wanted to be there for me.
The reason I had kept it from her was because I didn’t want her to know, to feel the distress of having her only child raped at eighteen, in a foreign country, alone. I didn’t want her to experience the pain of being unable to do anything. She immediately booked a flight for the next month and helped me move my life back to the U.S.
While I was still in Israel, I started sleeping with a ton of people. I didn’t totally understand what I was doing or why, but in hindsight I was desperately trying to regain my power and dignity as a human and a consenting sexual partner. I began to compartmentalize my experience of rape and tried to sweep it under the rug, although my PTSD and the trauma surrounding the experience would continue to dramatically impact my life.
I think I was able to psychologically separate myself from what had happened to me because I had escaped from the physical place where I had been assaulted—both the cab and the country. I know this now because when I was later assaulted in my own space I felt very differently about it. After the first assault, I did go to therapy, but I felt that talking about the assault over and over was more hurtful than helpful. For the next few years, I tried my hardest to forget about it.
How did your second assault happen?
After I returned home from Israel, I decided to change majors and pursue gender studies and religion. I shared an off-campus, three-bedroom house with a friend and Josh, my boyfriend whom I started dating my first year of college and reunited with after returning from Tel Aviv. He was incredibly supportive and loving when I told him what had happened in Israel, but it was horrible to have to talk to him about my assault and infidelities. Having sex with someone I loved turned out to be much harder than the random sex I’d had overseas.
One night in September 2011, I came home late from a party and Josh had gone to sleep in his own room—we usually slept together. I woke up two hours later, around 4:30 AM. I vaguely remember someone embracing me, trying to wake me up; I thought it was Josh. I pushed him off and mumbled, “No,” before falling back asleep.
Right after that I suddenly woke up again with someone on top of me, and my body was pinned to the bed. As my eyes adjusted, I could see he was wearing a black hat pulled down to his eyes, and a handkerchief over his face. He said, “Don’t say anything or scream or I’ll kill you.” Time stopped. A million thoughts came into my head: Is this really happening again? Who the fuck is this? Am I going to be raped again? Am I going to let this happen?
I realized I was not going to let this happen. I don’t know where my confidence came from, but I decided I wasn’t going to freeze this time. I was going to fight. I couldn’t move my arms, but I immediately began screaming and my right leg shot up and kneed that fucker in the balls. He jumped up and ran, and I chased him. I watched as he fled through the backyard, hurdled over a seven-and-a-half-foot fence, and took off. I collapsed on the floor.
Josh and my roommate came running into the living room to see what was wrong. I could only keep repeating, “Someone was here!” over and over. They thought I was having a nightmare, but I pointed toward the open back door and they immediately called the police.
What happened after the second assault?
The police arrived soon after I chased that piece of shit out of my house. They poked around, asked a lot of personal questions, and did a lot of nothing. After I found out the same man had completed the rape of six other women, the ineptitude of both the city and campus police became shockingly clear. Either they were the most saddest squad of police alive, or they didn’t give a shit. Maybe a bit of both?
They were paternalistically condescending, asking if I’d known I was being stalked, asking if I knew I could be seen through my closed blinds. They alluded to me being sexually open and promiscuous, all while Josh stood by. They insinuated that I was “asking for it” by living my life completely unaware that a known serial rapist was stalking me. After weeks of dealing with the police, waiting for answers that never came, I went to the press. If the police and college weren’t going to talk about a serial rapist assaulting multiple students, I was going to.
Unfortunately, no matter how much press I got and how many emails I sent to the student body, the assailant attempted to rape a friend of mine down the street just three months later. To this day, the police “do not have any DNA evidence” and have never found out who the rapist is. (My Israeli rapist was never caught, either.) If I had known who my rapists were, I’m not sure I would have pursued legal action. Considering only three percent of rapists ever see a day in jail, legal action most likely would have meant being violated over and over again by police, by the courts, by the press. The cold truth is that legal action probably would have caused much more harm for me than my assailant, who likely would have gotten off with a slap on the wrist, free to rape again.
There is a reason why victims and survivors of sexual assault and abuse don’t report. We are not believed, we are forced to relive our worst experiences over and over again, and we are placed in positions of extreme vulnerability—usually to no avail. With that said, I would never discourage another survivor from reporting. We each have to do what is best for us.
What was the emotional fallout of being attacked twice?
The first time I was assaulted I was alone, in another country, and in shock. I had a small support system, but we were all 18 and didn’t really know what to do, so I attempted to emotionally sweep it under the rug. I think the second assault was a huge wake-up call for me. I realized that no matter what, my experience of rape was not going get up and leave my mind. The breakdown was lingering beneath the surface and the second assault broke me and let everything out all at once.
The fact that the second rapist attacked me in the most vulnerable way—while I was asleep, in my own bed, in my own house, with my partner and roommate inside—really shook me to the core. Not only had my body been violated, but now my safe space, the house and bed I shared lovingly with a partner who tried to help me heal from the first rape, was also brutally invaded and vandalized. Then the overwhelming fear, shame, nausea, and depression set in. My PTSD became impossible to avoid. That’s when it all came crashing down.
I couldn’t be alone; I locked the doors over and over again; all of the windows in my house were covered; I was paranoid that every man I saw at the bar, on the street, in my classes could be him. The fact that he was unknown made him feel omnipotent. I became incredibly depressed, I stopped writing my thesis for three months, and I drank a lot.
I attempted suicide and ended up in a mental institution, which was awful. I felt both isolated and surrounded by people who were in very mental different places than I was, since PTSD is different from mental illness in many ways, and may not truly be considered a disorder. I could only see my mom and partner twice a day for an hour. It was difficult and lonely, a sterile and robotic atmosphere. It did not promote healing as much as it simply provided a place to store the “mentally insane.”
I did, however, meet a best friend and someone to whom I could relate. She was there for different reasons, but we had a lot in common and she had experienced sexual assault, too. She also snuck a stash of nicotine gum, and during lunch we sat and shared pieces. For a while, she seemed to be one of the only people who really “got” me. The period after my second assault is a blur to me now, but somehow I was able to begin to heal, to get to know other survivors, to talk about the epidemic of rape, to rewrite my college’s Title IX policy, and to graduate.
If the second assault hadn’t happened, I believe I would have had a breakdown again eventually—I probably would have been raped, assaulted, violated, harassed, stalked, or victimized by a partner down the road, and then all of my emotions and PTSD would come flooding out. The statistics on multiple victimization is staggering. In fact, as of right now I have endured four incidences of sexual violation—the most recent two were by people I know—and yet I continue to work toward leaving my shame behind. In fact, it is larger society—with our citizens who sit by while our friends, families, and partners are debased and dehumanized—that should be unbelievably ashamed.
How has being assaulted affected your romantic relationships?
It definitely makes romantic relationships more complicated. When sex has been used as a weapon, as a tool of power and dehumanization, it’s difficult to equate sex with love. Even though I’m very open and public—and published!—about my experience of assault, it’s always an uncomfortable topic that I don’t typically look forward to talking about with a new partner. Sex can be very triggering.
A particular movement or action or word can bring me to tears. It can be very awkward when I first start dating someone; when do I bring it up, how do I explain that rape is always in the back of my mind when I’m having sex? It’s difficult to open up to someone who hasn’t experienced assault or who may not understand how ubiquitous the fear of being assaulted again can be.
What are the most important things you’ve done to help yourself heal?
Moving from an intellectual understanding of self-love to a truer, internal, emotional, and grounded belief in my worthiness has been quite a process. through EMDR—eye movement desensitization and reprocessing—and mindfulness therapies, I have been able to handle my PTSD and unravel the stories my past has created about who I am.
Over the last few years, I’ve been able to set up boundaries around my relationships, I’ve cut out the people and jobs that do not serve me, and I’m living my life like it’s one that I’ve intentionally chosen and created. I’ve allowed myself to be vulnerable with a select group of people—and now the public—and have been able to find power and strength within this openness.