Brave?

Stepping Into the Light: Finding the courage to talk about sexual assault in the post-MeToo era

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Dock’s Edge by Sara Wong

Victims of sexual assault are considered to be brave when they share their stories, but why is coming forward so difficult that doing so is considered courageous?

Even in the face of solid evidence against a perpetrator, society consistently favors men over women. It has been ingrained in our minds that women should feel guilt and shame for being raped, that the onus is on us even if we were overpowered, drugged, underage and / or said no. The status quo is slowly changing, yet for many, the deep conditioning is hard to shake for both the victims and perpetrators and even society itself, with old norms continually reinforced by current happenings.

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My hand is raised: #metoo

I was sexually assaulted at age 16 by someone whom I considered a close friend, almost a big brother. I trusted him. His parents were away often and his house was a common meeting point for our group of friends. We drank, smoked pot, and felt older than our years.

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Monsters In The Deep

I then closed the door on that night. I did not report the experience to anyone — in my adolescent mind it was at least partially my fault — I had willingly smoked whatever it was that left me defenseless and had stayed there when everyone else left. Maybe I had sent the wrong signals. Maybe I had failed to say no. I presumed my parents would be disappointed and angry at me for sneaking out after curfew. They wouldn’t be as trusting, and my nightly exit strategy would be thwarted. Would our collective friends believe me or side with him? Social isolation was a fate worse than death, so after weighing all these factors, I let it go. I continued to hang out with him, but only in groups, playing along as if nothing had happened, and began to believe that to be true. By the end of the summer, this false narrative became my reality. I had completely blocked the experience from my memory.

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Drowning in Plain Sight

Socially and professionally I strived for perfection. Anything less was unacceptable. I trained for and became a psychiatrist, focusing on women’s mental health. I got married and had three wonderful children. Life was good, but instability lurked below the surface, manifested by deep-ridden fears of loss, of being hurt, and of being unable to protect myself and my family.

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Coming Up For Air

The November 2017 exposés by the New York Times on sexual misconduct by media moguls, and contemporaneous accounts by luminaries such as Uma Thurman, Ashley Judd and Alyssa Milano, left me feeling raw and sad, so I distracted myself with family and career; it was easier to tune out isolated stories from celebrities than to face my past. The subsequent mass disclosures by other women that accompanied the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court hearings and confirmation finally dislodged me from my paralysis; I could no longer pretend everything was ok. Women I have known for years began sharing their experiences openly at dinner parties, at the playground, and at the office. The compassion and kinship I felt gave me the impetus I needed to openly face the past and shed the attendant shame and guilt. I was not alone.

Women are continually expected to defend their claims and their integrity, despite approximately 96% of accusations ultimately ending up substantiated. The de facto requirement that a woman prove her innocence before her assailant is forced to means that more often than not, these transgressions go unreported and men walk away scot free.

Dr. Blasey Ford stood up in front of the world and spoke out against her alleged assailant, Justice Kavanaugh, despite the foreknowledge that her previously comfortable way of life would be annihilated (three months later she was still receiving death threats, had moved out of her home, and hired private security). While her actions were brave, I struggle with the idea that telling my story in this manner is likewise courageous. I have kept silent until now and have opted not to identify my perpetrator. Is keeping the event a secret for 20 years, even from myself, a valid defense? How many women have suffered as a result of my cowardice? This realization, which will haunt me forever, threatens to obliterate any notion of bravery.


Afterword

Many have asked the impetus behind sharing this essay with countless strangers. How will it feel to have new acquaintances, patients, colleagues, friends and so on know the most vulnerable aspects of my past? I don’t know, but I feel sure I will never regret this decision.

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