Moira Pyhala, 19, is a student at the University of Alaska-Anchorage. When she was 15, she was raped — and didn’t know where to turn because having never received comprehensive sex ed, she didn’t know how to even think about what had happened to her and what kind of care she needed. That’s when she went to the Planned Parenthood health center just two blocks from her house. Her story, in her own words, below.
When my assault happened, I was 15. Before that, I had what I think of as a pretty normal teenage life: I hung out with friends, did sports in high school, was part of the cheer team. My whole outlook on high school was really altered after my assault happened the summer after my freshman year.
Sexual assault wasn’t even something on my radar because it had never been talked about, especially by my school. We didn’t have comprehensive sex ed, so there was no talk about what consent was or what a healthy relationship looked like. All I was taught was that a sexual encounter was a sexual encounter — I had no way of distinguishing between consensual sex and rape. And I never thought rape or sexual violence could happen to me.
When I look back on it, I realize I didn’t even realize I had been assaulted until a week after it happened. Because after it happened, I was scared. To me, I had just lost my virginity — but I didn’t even realize I had been assaulted.
What had happened that night was that I was hanging out with some friends and we decided to go to a party. We didn’t know the people whose party it was. I had a beer when I got to the party and after a few sips I was blacked out drunk. To this day, I’m not really sure, but I believe I was roofied. Because it just doesn’t make sense, to be sober one minute and completely blacked out drunk the next. And that’s something I am still unsettled with — that I don’t know what happened to me that night.
The next day I woke up and came to the realization that I had sex, but that I didn’t remember it. All I remember of that night is telling my perpetrator, ‘Please don’t get me pregnant’ — which is a terrifying thing to have to say. I know that night one minute I was fine, and the next minute I wasn’t. What my friends say they say is that this guy handed me a beer, was flirting with me all night, and then we left. They didn’t think there was anything unusual about that, which is troubling too.
I had never had any previous sexual education, so my first thought was, “I need to get Plan B,” not, “Oh, I’ve been sexually assaulted.” It took me over a week to piece that together, which is pretty terrible. No one should have to take that long to piece that together. The next morning, I was just really afraid about what this meant. So many scenarios ran through my head: Did I get pregnant? Would I see him again? What kind of rumors would circulate around my really small school that only had 200 people in it? I was so afraid of what people would think of me and my situation and where I would even go from here. I didn’t even know what the next step was in terms of providing care for myself.
And when I came to the realization that I had been sexually assaulted, my first thought was to go to Planned Parenthood. I was too afraid to talk to my parents about it — my parents are great and I love them, but they were not comfortable talking about sex with me. So I just had so much fear about what to do next — until I thought of Planned Parenthood. I grew up in a small town and was disconnected from knowing there was anyone who thought there was anything controversial about it. I just knew it was a woman’s health clinic to get care for little to no cost.
I had never been to Planned Parenthood before that. I walked there because I was 15 and didn’t have a car and wasn’t going to ask my mom for my health insurance card and explain to her why I thought I needed to see a doctor. To this day, I am eternally grateful that Planned Parenthood was there for me and that I just walked in. They could tell I was really nervous and scared. No questions asked, they gave me the care I needed and never asked for anything in return. From the moment I checked in, I felt comforted because I knew I could open up there and knew that everything I said there was confidential. I could tell the women there safely what had happened and would get the care I needed.
I originally told the doctor there that I had unprotected sex and that I thought I needed Plan B or something like that. And the doctor said without any judgment that a lot of women have unprotected sex and started talking to me about how to use protection in the future and what kind of options were available to me. And I said, I not only had unprotected and unsafe sex, but I also don’t remember it.
She was the one who raised to me that it was sexual assault. Not that I didn’t know at heart, but I really didn’t want it to be true. I had almost talked myself out of knowing I had been sexually assaulted because I was so busy blaming myself. I was scared and embarrassed and ashamed. But my doctor at Planned Parenthood made it clear to me — and told me it wasn’t my fault.
At that time she said, “We can provide counseling. We can connect you with that right resources if you want to report it.” It was such a relief that she and everyone else there had my back. Now I am so embarrassed that I didn’t report it, but at the time I was embarrassed to report it. But from that moment at Planned Parenthood on, I felt like I could start to rebuild and figure out a plan to cope with everything else that was happening.
After my assault, there was a lot of really negative stigma surrounding me at my high school as people learned about what had happened. There was a lot of “Oh, she was asking for it” and just negative connotations among my peers in my community, not just in my school but in the whole town. I was really angry for a long time. I felt like no one could understand what I was going through.
I realize now that I wasn’t the only person who had been through this. At that point, I hadn’t really found my voice. I was just going through the motions. I was so relieved when I finally graduated and could get out of that environment. I have a lot of regrets. There are a lot of things I wish I had done differently. I wish I had talked to my parents. I wish I had reported my rape. I wish I had confronted the slut-shaming. But at that time, I was just scared.
When I started college, it was in the middle of all the attacks on Planned Parenthood, people saying they were killing babies based on some videos that were obviously false. And I was pissed. I was so angry that a group of people were targeting the health clinic that saved my life. In the state of Alaska, the sexual assault rate is two and a half times higher than the national average, so I knew I had to do something. I joined a club on campus called Generation Action, which was there to support Planned Parenthood, and now I’m the president. It was there that my inner activist really took flight, and today our main focus as a club is on sexual assault prevention.
The reason I chose to not talk about my assault before then and report it was because I was afraid. It was an issue that my peers and my parents and the people I looked up to never talked about as an issue — which makes no sense, since I know now that in Alaska, sexual assault is a huge issue. The way we view sexual violence, we make it seem like it’s an issue that’s private and not public. And on top of that, there’s the whole nature of not believing survivors.
We don’t have comprehensive sexual education in Alaska in schools, which is why I think that sexual assault prevention is an issue that most students can rally behind and why we’re seeing so much support with the work we’re doing on campus now. I have decided to commit myself to making sure there’s comprehensive sexual education in the state of Alaska before I leave. I have a 9-year-old sister who lives in the same town I grew up in, and I won’t rest until I know she’s safe among her peers and her community. I know it won’t be easy, since this is a pretty red state, and overall, sexual education is viewed negatively in Alaska. That’s why this work is so important. We need to support our youth to make sure they can be successful. And they can’t be successful without sexual education to take care of themselves.
When I went to Planned Parenthood after my rape, the biggest thing they provided me with is knowledge. I am eternally grateful to the doctor there that I saw. It sounds corny, but knowledge is power. I had to learn the hard way what consent looks like. I got tested for STIs and got Plan B and got birth control. But the biggest thing they did for me was give me an education. That day, my doctor walked me through it all. She said, “I’m sure you’re aware, but your encounter wasn’t consensual. You were raped.” She gave me the rundown: “Here’s what consent means. Here’s what a healthy relationship looks like.”
No one had ever talked to me about any of that before. I was so surprised in that moment. It was like, “Why have I not received this education at school?” This is clearly really important. I’m not stupid. I know that an unhealthy encounter looks like. But it had never occurred to me that I could be a victim of sexual assault until I was. And the biggest thing I was upset about after my rape was that no one had ever talked to me about rape before. We had sexual education in school, but it was abstinence only. It was obvious to me that my school district was not preparing students well enough for these situations. I was angry at the whole situation because I felt that if I had received proper education, I wouldn’t have been sexually assaulted.
When I tell people my story, I have had people say, “I never viewed Planned Parenthood as a positive thing but seeing how they helped you made me think differently about the organization as a whole.” Even after my sexual assault happened, I have continued to go to Planned Parenthood for my health care. I have been there for everything from getting tested to having a cold, and not having insurance since I’m just a student, I know I can always get the care I need there. I think Planned Parenthood saved my life. I didn’t know where to go or what to do after I was raped, and they provided me with care. And that’s not just physical care, but a community I came to rely on.
What’s going on now in the state of Alaska is not working. I truly believe the only way we’re going to fix the problem of sexual assault is through comprehensive sexual education. If you don’t give people the tools they need early on to succeed, how can you expect us to protect ourselves? And part of the solution is supporting Planned Parenthood. You can’t say you want to help survivors of sexual assault but be working against Planned Parenthood. I want my legislators who are working to defund Planned Parenthood and who think we don’t need comprehensive sexual education to know that I don’t want to have to say that they are wrong, but they are wrong. There’s so much we can do to help ensure that no one else is the victim of sexual violence — and ensuring that everyone has access to comprehensive sexual education and making sure people can access Planned Parenthood are two big steps in the right direction.
As told to Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy
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