My attacker wasn’t powerful or famous—but my testimony helped put him away so he couldn’t harm other women. Why we need to make it safe for victims to speak out.
I was a 20-year-old student, living my dream in Manhattan when my nightmares materialized in the form of a monster who held a gun to my temple and threated to “blow my f-ing brains out.” I was naive enough to assume that he would, at most, rob me. It wasn’t until I was completely naked, bent over a railing with the cold hard steel of a 9mm semi-automatic being rammed into my back, that I realized I was about to be raped and probably slaughtered. Me. A daughter, a roommate, a colleague and classmate. Did this really happen to people in real life? I know better now. Sexual assault happens to 1 out of 5 women and 1 in 71 men.I managed to survive the attack and found my way to my apartment, where my roommates picked me up off the floor and urged me to go for a rape kit examination. It went against everything I wanted to do in that moment—which was to take a hot shower, curl up in a ball, and try to forget it had ever happened.  Most of all, I didn’t want anyone to ever know what had just happened. I blamed myself for it; surely everyone else would as well.I was taken to the hospital by ambulance and sat in the ER waiting room for what felt like days. My body was the crime scene. As painful as the experience was, I have never regretted going through that process. Not even after I found out that the rape kit containing evidence of the crime committed against me had sat on a shelf collecting dust for nearly a decade.

I was in a long-distance relationship at the time with my high-school boyfriend. It took me a few days but I eventually told him what had occurred. While I don’t recall his immediate reaction to the news, I do remember his mother’s. She immediately accused me of making it up, refused to speak with me, and demanded instead to contact the police to find out if it were indeed true. She never apologized for not believing me, even after the police explained the event to her in detail (after receiving permission from me to do so).  She broke my heart.

Every time a victim comes forward and is shamed, judged, or ridiculed, I remember what it felt like to not be believed. Even though the police and my family and friends believed me, that one voice of doubt is the one that haunted me most. It seemed she echoed all the things I was telling myself—this is YOUR fault.

I only agreed to go public as a survivor of sexual assault after the man who viciously attacked me was caught through a DNA match, tried by a jury of his peers, and convicted. I agreed to go public after Melissa Mourges, the amazing prosecutor in the case against the man who raped me, informed me of how few victims report being raped. When victims fear coming forward, rapists remain at large and create a public-safety hazard. Victor Rondon, the man eventually convicted of raping, sodomizing, and robbing me, was on a nationwide crime spree in the years preceding his DNA match to my rape kit. He was arrested for a variety of crimes—some violent and some drug-related—and he left a host of victims in his wake.

You have likely never heard my story before. The man that raped me wasn’t famous. The assault wasn’t digitally memorialized. No one was debating my character over social media. In most cases, no wants to talk about sexual assault, the rape-kit backlog, or the plight of victims and their families. Some media outlets have told me that my story is “too hard for people to handle” or that the rape-kit backlog is “too confusing for viewers to comprehend.”

Then, someone famous is accused of sexual assault and it becomes headline news. Suddenly, we as a public can “handle” hearing all the details.

Not only are we clamoring for details, we’ve decided that we are the judge and jury and that the victims coming forward are the ones on trial. We assault their character, judge their motives, and suggest to them that they could have avoided the assault only if they did THIS or didn’t do THAT.

According to the Justice Department, false reports are “estimated to occur at the low rate of 2 percent.” According to the FBI, only 24 percent of rapes lead to arrest. No doubt, there are wrongful convictions that result from misidentification and coerced confessions. But among the wrongfully incarcerated, you’ll rarely find someone rich, powerful, or famous. Instead you will find men like Timothy Brian Cole—his family and the victim, through the Innocence Project of Texas, sought to clear his name and eventually did so posthumously. The rich and the powerful have resources at their disposal that people like brave Mr. Cole do not.

If there is one thing you take from all of this, I hope you’ll give the benefit of a doubt to people who come forward and admit to being assaulted.  It’s not easy to go public. It’s not easy going through a rape-kit examination. I hope you’ll recognize that rapists are a threat to public safety and that it is far from a rare occurrence. I’m not telling you what to believe and what not to believe, but every time you start debating this publicly and slamming people, victims are less likely to come forward for fear of ridicule. And rapists feel empowered knowing they can easily get away with it. And they prey on those that society will be least likely to believe.

Tell a victim you believe them. Or at least tell them you believe IN them. Give them a number they can call for help. Encouraging any victim of crime to come forward makes us all safer.

It’s common sense: Victor Rondon did not wake up one day and decide to rape me at gunpoint. He, like so many other serial rapists, began his career hurting those he knew—in fact, a former girlfriend had a restraining order against him. Like many other criminals, he then escalated to more violence against strangers and used a gun to force his prey—me—into submission. Victor Rondon posed a threat to everyone. Victor Rondon was a public-safety nightmare. Think what would have happened if he wasn’t finally taken off the streets. His one-man crime spree would have continued. And more individuals and families like mine would have suffered. We need rape victims to come forward to make our communities safer. Let’s make it easier for them to report this horrendous crime and ensure they receive the support they deserve.

Natasha Alexenko is the Founder and Spokesperson of Natasha’s Justice Project. and the founding member of Rape Kit Action Project.