*For context, this article was originally published Jan 23, 2019 and is being redistributed here.
“I think that little by little I'll be able to solve my problems and survive.”
I’ve wanted to write about this topic for some time, but it’s been very hard for me. I haven’t had the courage to do it, but I’ve been trying to gather it. Even now, I’m writing this with shaky hands, not because I care about this being public, but because I care about it being known by my family. The reason it’s important for me to finally speak up is because I believe shame shouldn’t fall on the victims, and victims shouldn’t have to worry about making others uncomfortable while they suffer silently.
I’d like to write about my journey with sexual assault, from the beginning numbness and denial, to the shame and guilt, and through the repeated trauma of headlines recounting the stories and tragedies of many other victims. I also have a message for men and women who are either perpetrators or victims.
Before I get into my story, I want to explain why I’ve waited a year and half to write about this. I shouldn’t have to explain, but I know a lot of people don’t understand why victims don’t come forward. When the hashtag #metoo was going viral in social media, I didn’t add mine because my uncles, aunts, and cousins are my friends on Facebook. If I wrote #metoo, they would know something happened to me, and I wanted to spare them the pain and myself the shame. I’m very close to my family, but I couldn’t bear the thought of them seeing me differently, and particularly blaming me or saying anything hurtful about my experience. I respect my aunts and uncles so much that if anyone of them ever put any kind of blame on me, I knew I’d immediately lose respect for them and I couldn’t handle that. I was already blaming myself so much.
I was scared of their blame because before the #MeToo movement became popular over a year ago, one of my uncles who I have so much respect for said that any girl who wears provocative clothing is “asking for it.” He compared it to someone who walks into a known bad neighborhood and then complains about getting mugged. His mentality was that if you know you are walking into danger, then you are to blame. I didn’t agree with this, and before my assault, before this became personal, we had a civil argument about it. But now, this is too close to home for me to argue about it civilly with him again, because now he’s talking about me. Now he’s saying that I asked for what happened to me. That’s it’s my fault and I should’ve known better. The tragic part is that a big part of me agrees with him. Even though I know none of it was my fault, it’s a hard truth to believe.
My attempted assault happened in August 2017, right before the fall of Weinstein and all the other #MeToo reckonings. Since then, it’s become a topic in many group discussions. When my dad’s family has gotten together to have breakfast, the topic has arisen on at least two separate occasions that I was part of. My dad has four brothers and one sister. My aunt is the matriarch of the family and her opinion garners a lot of respect from everyone. When I heard my aunt putting the blame on the celebrities who spoke up against Weinstien, I knew I couldn’t ever talk to my family about my experience. She and my uncles were talking about #MeToo as if it were a witch hunt toward men and they feared for the safety of men, not caring about all the victims or knowing I was one of them.
Even in my church group, I once almost had to get up and leave when one of the women was also talking about those same celebrities. She said that they knew what they were doing by going into a hotel room with Weinstein. They knew what would happen. They accepted money and cared more about their careers than their self-respect. The rest of the women all nodded in agreement, which completely bewildered me. The only reason I kept myself from crying and getting up and leaving was because I didn’t want to make a scene. I didn’t want them to question why I was taking it so personally, though I later confided my experience with them but without any details.
I respect my family and I respect the women in my church group. I think they are all wonderful people and I love them, and I know they all love and respect me. They don’t know that when they say the things they say, they are talking about me. They don’t know they are talking about me because they don’t know my story, and it’s this ignorance about victims and their experiences that keeps perpetuating the problem. What inspired me to write now is because I still have trauma. I’m fine 99% of the time, but once in a while I get triggered, and I know that’s no one’s fault except the guy who assaulted me.
My boyfriend didn’t even know about the documentary until I told him about it. I have a lot of respect for him too, but he can look away from the problem because it doesn’t affect him. I normally don’t broach the topic with him or with many people because I don’t want to make them uncomfortable, but I don’t want to keep silent anymore. It’s not fair to myself and the many other victims of sexual abuse that we keep quiet so that others can be comfortable.
To spare my loved ones pain, I’m not going to disclose personal details about the experience, but I’ll relate the things that still haunt me. It was a coworker who did it. He took me to the beach and afterward when he was dropping me off, I directed him to park across the street of my apartment so that we could make out. I thought I was being safe and smart about the whole thing. I had only known him for a couple weeks, but he was well-liked at work for his charisma, endless energy, and the huge smile he always wore. Going to the beach was a public place, so I figured it was a safe place to go. Parking across the street from where I lived was also a safe choice because I could get out of the car at any time and go home.
However, I think about people who say that those celebrities went into Weinstein’s hotel room. What did they expect? For me, it was broad daylight on a weekday. We were in a neighborhood crowded with houses. We were in the backseat of his car. What did I expect? I expected that we’d only kiss a little and that was it. But after the experience, the pervasive thoughts that kept going through my head were that I led him to the parking spot. I could’ve just had him drop me off. I got into the backseat with him. I could’ve just gave him a quick kiss goodbye, or none at all. I kept telling myself, “It was my fault it happened. I led him there. It was my fault.” And I was so afraid of anyone else – cops (if I had reported it), my family, strangers – telling me the same. I was ashamed.
Beverly Engel has had forty years of experience working with victims of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. In her article, “Why Don't Victims of Sexual Harassment Come Forward Sooner?” she says, “Shame is at the core of the intense emotional wounding women and men experience when they are sexually violated.” Shame causes us to believe we are defective, unacceptable, unworthy, unlovable, and bad. It makes us feel isolated and causes deep pain and humiliation. Engel says, “We believe we should have been able to defend ourselves. And because we weren’t able to do so, we feel helpless and powerless. This powerlessness causes humiliation — which leads to shame.”
I stopped the assault by getting out of the car, but not soon enough. I told him to not tell anyone at work about what happened. I couldn’t stop shaking for an hour and after calling two of my closest friends immediately, who came over as soon as they could, the first thing I did when I got home was take a shower. I felt dirty. For four days after the assault, I felt numb, like I couldn’t explain how I felt in the backseat of his car or how I felt about everything afterwards. After the four days, I realized that it was fear. Engel says, “Many women refuse to believe that the treatment they endured was actually abusive. They downplay how much they have been harmed by sexual harassment and even sexual assault. They convince themselves that “it wasn’t a big deal.””
The next time I knew we’d be working together, I got to work fifteen minutes early and couldn’t stop shaking in my car. I called a friend and focused on breathing. I felt unsafe seeing him again, and whenever we had to come into close contact, I silently begged that he wouldn’t talk to me. For the most part, he didn’t talk to me, which made me feel a little safer. I kept silent at work about what happened, not wanting to make a big deal about it, but it was hard watching him laugh with my coworkers, knowing how much they liked him and how they had no idea what he did to me. The worst part is that I cared about not ruining his life. I didn’t want anyone to know and didn’t report it, because I didn’t want his life ruined because of me.
Two weeks after my incident, I found out he did nearly the exact same thing to another coworker. I only found out because we both confided in a mutual friend. Then the guilt set in. If I hadn’t kept silent, I could’ve saved her from him. It was my fault what happened to her. I stopped keeping quiet and warned many of my female coworkers about him. When me and the other victim decided to go to our manager together, he said since it happened outside of work, there was nothing he could do. He said if we felt unsafe, he could have us transferred. I responded by asking if he was going to transfer every girl that came forward. It wasn’t until I talked to my female assistant manager that things got moving for our assaulter to get fired.
For the next few months, I developed many fears. I could not be alone with any guy I was not comfortable or familiar with. I would jump or tense at any kind of physical contact from a man who was not a close friend or family. This included handshakes, a pat on the shoulder, or a high five. I irrationality hated men for months and was so angry. I was starting grad school and only wanted to make friends with females. I didn’t want to date, and was fearful of getting into a guy’s car. A male coworker who I enjoyed talking to wanted to get dinner one day, just as friends, and he wanted to pick me up. The thought of being in the car with him terrified me and I kept insisting I drive myself. He simply wanted to be gentlemanly, but I was too scared to let him.
The American Psychological Association explains that about half of all individuals will experience at least one traumatic event in their lifetime. They go on to add, “Although the majority of individuals will be able to absorb the trauma over time, many survivors will experience long-lasting problems.” For me, it was a slow progression of months before many of my newly found irrational fears subsided. With time, I felt completely normal again, like the assault had never occurred. I had thought about seeking help multiple times, but I felt so normal and fine most of the time that I didn’t think I needed it. Then I learned about triggers.
According to PsychCentral, “A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his original trauma.” Triggers are personal to each person and their respective trauma. Survivors may avoid certain situations to avoid being triggered, and they react with the same emotional intensity that they experienced at the time of the trauma when they are triggered. My triggers have often surprised me, because it’s not easy to know what will trigger me before it happens.
The biggest one I had was visiting the beach almost exactly a year after my incident. My best friend and I drove to 1,000 Steps Beach, which is right next door to Laguna Beach, where I went with my assaulter. As we drove along PCH, she wanted to find a bathroom, and our search took us to the Laguna Beach area. I never thought I was afraid of going back there, and I hadn’t intentionally avoided it, but it was my first time revisiting the area since I went there a year prior. I started feeling fearful and shameful the moment I saw familiar sights in Laguna. Simply seeing the architecture and designs around the area triggered me. I didn’t want to ruin our beach day before it had really begun, so I didn’t say anything to my friend at first and tried to push the feelings down. But they didn’t go away. We got to the beach, and as I sat there on my towel, the same towel I brought with me a year earlier, intense flashbacks of being with my assaulter brought deep feelings of shame. I was ashamed for ever wanting and liking his attention. I felt stupid for ignoring all the warning signs that led up to the assault. I started crying on the beach and wanted to go into the ocean to feel washed and clean.
Throughout my journey will dealing with the aftermath of sexual assault, I've come to learn some of my different triggers. My most common ones are the headlines of continuous stories about more accusations against powerful men. Whenever I see a headline about sexual assault or harassment, I can’t ignore it. It’s not so much the stories that trigger me, but the responses to the stories. I always expect everyone to be empathetic and understanding of victims, but when they aren’t, when people I love and respect aren’t, I fall back into fear, self-blame, and guilt all over again. When Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court despite Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against him, I was saddened. But when thousands of people laughed at her at a Trump rally, I was devastated. One of her specific fears for not speaking up was being laughed at.
Knowing that these recurrent headlines are a trigger for me, someone might say that I should just stop reading about it. Here’s my response to that. I can never forget when Senator Jeff Flake was accosted in the elevator by women demanding that he hear them. One woman kept telling him, “Look at me… Don’t look away when I’m talking to you.” The truth is that when you are not a victim, you can look away. It’s easy. If you don’t think you know anyone who this has happened to you, then it’s an easy problem to ignore, because it doesn’t affect you. But I can’t look away, because I would hate for anyone to look away from me.
When I initially started telling the women at my work about my assault, the unanimous reaction from every female was immediate shock and belief. Right away they were done with the coworker they once liked so well. Right away their opinion of him changed. They needed no convincing. They were all with me. For the few men I told at work, their reactions were greatly, “I can’t believe he would do that.” It’s not that they didn’t believe me. It’s that they had a hard time seeing their charismatic coworker and friend as someone capable of doing something like what he did to me. They wanted to come to his defense immediately because of all his other great qualities.
Women don’t often need convincing, because we know. We know it so intrinsically and understand it so well. This is why since the R. Kelly documentary came out, Lady Gaga, Celion Dion, the Pussy Cat Dolls, and Ciara all pulled their collaborations with him from streaming services. Notably, Chance the Rapper, who also pulled his collaboration, issued an apology saying, “[T]he truth is any of us who ever ignored the R. Kelly stories, or ever believed he was being setup/attacked by the system (as black men often are) were doing so at the detriment of black women and girls. I apologize to all of his survivors for working with him and for taking this long to speak out.” What’s missing from artists keeping quiet about their collaborations with R. Kelly is a lot of men, ten to be exact, as well as two women.
More women than men are ready to speak up and take action, because it’s more personal. One out of every six of us is the victim of attempted or completed rape at some point in our lives, compared to one of out of thirty-three for men. Both numbers are tragic, and I don’t want to want to diminish the experiences of male victims. I only want to emphasize that nearly every women in America has experienced or knows one or more other women who have experienced some kind of sexual abuse. It’s happened to my mom, my grandma, a few of my friends, another woman in my church group.
One in three girls gets molested by age eighteen, and when I was in high school, out of six of my closest female friends, I knew two of them had been molested. One by her older brother’s best friend who would sneak into her room when he’d sleep over. The other by her uncle. They never told their parents or anyone else besides perhaps a few trusted friends. Engel says, “In a study issued last year, the co-chairwomen of a commission task force said that roughly three to four people experiencing such harassment never tell anyone in authority about it. Instead, they said women typically “avoid the harasser, deny or downplay the gravity of the situation, or attempt to ignore, forget, or endure the behavior.””
I never reported my assault. The truth is, though, that even if I did report it nothing would happen to him. RAINN statistics show that, “Only 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are reported to police,” and, “Out of every 1,000 rapes, 995 perpetrators will walk free.” Kavanaugh got confirmed to the Supreme Court. R. Kelly is charting better than he has in years. Founder of the Me Too movement Tarana Burke says in her Ted Talk, “I've read article after article bemoaning wealthy white men who have landed softly with their golden parachutes following the disclosure of their terrible behavior and we're asked to consider their futures. But what of survivors?” I never wanted to report what happened to me because I didn’t want to ruin someone else’s life, but I know he’s ruined plenty of others.
At first I told a few trusted friends. After about a month I told my mom, but even then it was difficult and hard to tell her the whole story. The hardest person to tell was my dad, which took me a full year to do. It was the same day I was triggered by going to the beach with my best friend. After the beach, I was supposed to go with my dad, stepmom, and sister to a rooftop movie. Even though I had cried at the beach before seeing them, I tried hard to hold back as many tears as I could so that they wouldn’t be able to tell I had been crying.
Another big reason so many men don’t know about the experiences of women is because we spare them. In Monica Hesse’s article, “Dear dads: Your daughters told me about their assaults — this is why they never told you,” she says, “A lot of effort goes into protecting men we love from bad things that happen to us. And a lot of fathers are closer to bad things than they’ll ever know.” She starts the article by explaining she got an email from a dad who responded to an article she wrote about street harassment. She says, “He was so glad… that his college-age daughter never experienced anything like that.” Less than a day later, he took it back, because he talked to his daughter and learned that it’s actually happened to her a lot; she just never told him.
One of the reasons I didn’t tell my mom right away was because I knew that anything that hurt me would hurt her too. I finally told her because I believed she could take on my pain, because she always had in the past. I couldn’t tell my dad for a year because I knew it would hurt him in a way different than the way it hurt my mom. I was scared it would hurt him too much and that he would do something afterward to get him in jail.
When we drove home from the rooftop movie, I was in the backseat with my sister thinking hard about whether or not to tell him. I wanted to because I needed him. I needed him to hug me, make me feel better, make me feel safe and protected, the way he always does. But I had been protecting him, and I didn’t want to stop. When my sister fell asleep in the backseat, it was hard to continue to hold back tears. I needed my dad, which meant I needed him to know.
When we got back to his place, I knew he’d walk me to my car like he always does, and I was glad my sister was asleep and being taken inside because I didn’t want to cry in front of her, and she didn’t need to know about any of this. I started crying to my dad and had a really hard time saying anything, but with the little I did say, he understood enough. I cried long and hard, and he hugged me just like I had wanted him to. He cried a little too and reacted in all the other ways I knew he would. But he assured me that he was strong and that he could handle anything, which meant that he could handle knowing what happened to me. He didn’t want me to keep something like that from him.
Women don’t just protect their fathers like this – they protect pretty much all the men in their life who they care about. They sometimes confide in men, just I have, but we care a lot about not burdening someone else or making them feel uncomfortable. This is why so many men were shocked when the hashtag #metoo first went viral, but most women weren’t. It reached nearly 8 million total tweets in October 2017 when Alyssa Milano first asked survivors to write #metoo. Since then, the movement is still going and has cemented itself as a social media movement.
Like many other survivors, I’m empowered by the Me Too movement. Tarana Burke, the founder of the movement, says in her Ted Talk that she started it one night while lying in bed thinking about all the sexual violence in her community. She took a piece of paper and wrote, “Me too” at the top. Then she wrote an action plan “for building a movement based on empathy between survivors that will help us feel like we can heal, that we weren’t the sum total of the things that happened to us.” One of the biggest things I’ve hated about what happened to me is that I hate feeling like a victim. Like something is now wrong with me. This is why I love the Me Too movement and what it stands for. It promotes communal healing among survivors.
Burke says, “… the violence doesn't end with the act. The violence is part of the trauma that we hold after the act.” This is what the Me Too movement is all about – recognizing the survivors and the pain and trauma they carry with them often for the rest of their lives. According to the APA, “Research indicates that women are twice as likely to develop PTSD, experience a longer duration of posttraumatic symptoms and display more sensitivity to stimuli that remind them of the trauma.” We carry our pain heavier and longer.
Healing comes to survivors in many ways. It comes through support, through being believed, and through being listened to. There is something else I believe would also bring so much healing, but is probably the hardest thing for survivors to get: sincere apologies. When the allegations against Kavanaugh and the hearing were all happening, I kept thinking to myself that I understand this man wanted to defend his reputation and his career, but it would be so much better if he simply apologized. Blasey Ford was so clearly upset and had been silent for so long. Even if Kavanaugh truly didn’t remember the incident, he should’ve believed her, apologized for being a terrible teenage boy and showed how different and better he was now. It would have spared both parties a lot of pain and humiliation.
As a Christian, repentance is very important. It means to “turn from evil, and to turn to good.” It is a call to turn away from sin and turn to God. I think this is something survivors crave from their perpetrators. I know it’s what I want. I want the guy who assaulted me to recognize that he did something wrong, because I know he doesn’t. I want him to feel bad and ashamed, instead of me feeling that way. I want him to never do it again, because I know he probably still is. When I gave him my number and typed my name in his phone, several other girls of the same name popped up. Two weeks after he assaulted me, he assaulted another girl, but this time when she told him to stop just as I had, he got angry with her telling her he thought she was different. I never think of forgiving him or ever expect an apology. However, I’d like it from so many other people.
Engel explains, “Research shows that survivors of previous abuse and assault are at a higher risk of being sexually assaulted again.” This is true for me. My assaulter of a year and a half ago wasn’t my first one, but so far he’s been the last. As for the other men who’ve hurt me, if I ever knew they were sorry, that they shouldn’t have done what they did, that they shouldn’t have expected anything from me or pushed for more than I wanted to give, it would probably give back a piece of me that was taken. I even appreciate all those apologies men give on behalf of other men, or who take a stand for women. It means something to me, because it means there are men out there who listen and care.
What happened to me a year and a half ago isn’t comparatively the worst sexual assault I’ve had, but it was the most traumatizing. For the nearly two years I was depressed before it happened, I sought ways to make myself feel better. Many seek it through drugs, alcohol, or meaningless sex. I sought it through affection and attention. I kept dating guy after guy hoping that someone would make me feel good, that someone would fill this huge gap I had inside of me. I had such low self-esteem at the time that I didn’t care what happened to me or my body. I just knew I craved a man’s hands on me only because I craved physical contact. I allowed things to happen with a few men that I didn’t want to happen, but afterward I never felt traumatized. I just knew I never wanted to see those guys again.
By last summer, I was in a better place emotionally and mentally. I wasn’t depressed anymore and I was done dating just to feel good about myself. That’s why I blamed myself so much for what happened. I was supposed to be smarter and know better by then. When I was depressed, I didn’t know how to say no, but last summer I did, and I said it numerous times. Just as many other women know, it’s exhausting to have to say no so many times until you finally relent to a yes. It’s exhausting being the one responsible for how far sexual activity goes. I did say no. I did say stop. I did get out of his car eventually. I did blame myself.
I know I’ve written a lot, and to me, everything I’ve had to say is important either because I haven’t said it before or because I don’t think it’s been shared enough. The last thing I have to say is what I’ve learned from my experiences and the Me Too movement and what I’d want to teach other women. In the New York Times article, “45 Stories of Sex and Consent on Campus,” a college girl explained, “I need to find my ability to not just say “yes” or “no,” but also “not tonight” and “that hurts.” I need to stop being polite about it.” This is what I’d like every woman to know.
Right now, I have a pretty great boyfriend who has known about my assault very early on. It was important that I tell him as soon as possible so that he would understand that I get triggered and that it’s not his fault. Before I started dating him, I was once triggered on a date by a guy who wouldn’t stop touching my knee through a hole in my pants. It sounds dumb, but I didn’t want him touching my knee honestly because I hadn’t shaved my legs. He made it a kind of game and kept touching it despite how many times I told him not to. Before my assault, I wouldn’t have cared and would have played along. But now, I am very sensitive to whenever a guy doesn’t respond to my small no’s. My assaulter ignored so many little no’s before he ultimately ignored the big ones, which I didn’t realize at the time was such a red flag.
What I appreciate so much about my current boyfriend is that often times, I don’t even have to say no. Since the beginning, if he’s ever tried doing anything I wasn’t obviously very receptive to, he simply stopped trying. I don’t have to verbally say no. He automatically understands this basic thing that every guy should: if a girl doesn’t seem into it, don’t try to coerce her to get into it. Any kind of sexual activity should only open when all individuals involved want it to happen.
I know I am lucky. I have support, I have sought healing, and I have always been believed. I know so many other women don’t have these things. Despite all this, it’s still incredibly hard for me to deal with what happened to me. I’m signed up to attend a support group this week and I’m so scared. I want to talk about it to other survivors who understand, but I’m scared and it’s hard. It’s hard to sort through all the messiness of the pain that I think is gone most of the time but still creeps up now and again. I’m not scared to relive what happened, but I’m scared to face the fact that I may not have the support of my family if or when they find out. I’m scared to waddle through the shame, guilt, and self-blame. I’m scared in ways I don’t know how to verbalize. I’m just scared.
That’s why I needed to write this. I need to feel like I can be brave. I need to not be silent anymore, even if the voice I add to the noise is such a small one. I needed to finally write #metoo.
p.s. This video came out months ago in response to Trumps words once saying it's a scary time for men. I still appreciate the video, so click here to take a look.
“As soon as healing takes place, go out and heal somebody else.”
*Update: Since the original publication of this article, I have been to group therapy through Project Sister, a non-profit that opens its doors up to all victims of sexual abuse. They provide free one-on-one or group therapy counseling. It has been an invaluable help in my journey.
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