Stepping Into the Light: Finding the courage to talk about sexual assault in the post-MeToo era
Despite praise from major media outlets, the response from many was that they wouldn’t publish this article because I’m not famous, while others expressed concerns about litigation. Our children need to know that their voices matter as much as those of celebrities, and despite my fears and misgivings, I am taking the plunge and publishing here on Medium.
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.
Eschewing convention and challenging the longstanding patriarchal power dynamic is courageous and moves society forward. This takes conscious choice and is not easy. Processing the feelings of powerlessness brought on by rape and sexual assault can take years, and similarly, stopping the cycle of self-destruction that often follows such an ordeal can be a long, difficult experience.
How do I know? Because for over 20 years I remained silent about a sexual assault and learned firsthand how trauma can impact one’s life when not dealt with expeditiously. Keeping one’s Me Too status private is a personal choice, but a woman who chooses to go public deserves to be heard. There is no role for shame or guilt in the narrative of sexual assault.
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.
The night was like many before; my nose was sun-kissed and my hair still salty from a late afternoon swim. Sand patches concealed flip-flop tan lines on my bare feet. After a day spent with friends at his house, I had returned home by curfew and then slipped out again through the back door conveniently connected to my bedroom. I rode my bike to meet my best friend and together we returned to his house. She and I, inseparable since age nine, remain the closest of friends to this day. Upon our return, things were as when we left, with nearly a dozen people sitting around drinking and enjoying the summer night, a half-eaten pizza on the table, Bob Marley in the background, smoke intermittently filling the room.
I remember being offered something to ‘spice up the pot,’ some added drug that would make things that much more fun. Sure, why not? That’s when things get fuzzy — at some point everyone left except him and me. Why didn’t I leave too? What kept me rooted to that pilling, slouchy couch? I trusted him too much to ever imagine what was to come.
I drifted into sleep and woke to a searing pain between my legs followed by the warmth of blood trailing down to my ankles. It took me a second to realize I was no longer on the couch — at some point I had either walked or been carried to his bed. His sweaty, heavy body pinned my arms and legs outwards, his deep breaths tickled my outer ear. The bed springs bounced up and down, one poking into my back intermittently. I had a sense of floating — was that from the drugs or some innate self-protective mechanism? Either way, that floating feeling continued as he led me to an outdoor shower, where I was briefly grounded by cold water on my bare skin. As he walked me back to his room things became hazy again. Did I pass out? Did I remain awake but subsequently block out the ensuing minutes? Whatever the reason, my memory is indistinct, and for that I am thankful. The only lingering vestiges were powerlessness and dread, feelings which had surfaced from time to time during the intervening 20 years but without a clear idea of their provenance.
Although the memory is vague, I recall finding my best friend and insisting upon leaving, now. We walked out of his house and sat for a while on a nearby dock before she helped me home.
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.
In the ensuing years, despite empathizing perhaps extra deeply with victims of sexual trauma, it never registered consciously that I too was in that camp. In my late teens I searched for a sense of ownership of my body while paradoxically giving it away without much fight. I struggled with self image and confidence, often feeling small and inadequate. Vulnerability was to be avoided like the plague, and despite being accepted to my college of choice, joining a sorority and forging deep friendships, and then matriculating into one of the best medical schools in the country, I often felt inconsequential. Self-loathing gnawed at me, along with a deep-seated pain, but I refused to examine these emotions.
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.
During the summer of 2016, my former friend turned rapist sent me a Facebook friend request. His motives remain a mystery but ultimately are irrelevant. I found myself acutely distressed by this action but was unsure why. My everyday life became infected with a growing unease.
If my husband reached for me while I was still sleeping I became instantly petrified, jolting awake with fear and a fiery anger that belied the everyday nature of the situation.
Flashbacks began, haunting me both in the daytime and while I slept. The mental images were vague at first but slowly became more detailed. I recalled waking up in his empty living room, feeling bewildered about where everyone had gone. Visions came of standing in the shower, feeling as if my legs were jello, and a sense of tunnel vision: walking towards his bed — his arms behind me, propping me up and guiding me forwards. Then, a heavy weight pinning me down, the skin of my arms painfully pinched against the mattress, while I stared vacantly at the wooden A-frame of the ceiling.
About two months after receiving his Facebook request, during a run, Lady Gaga’s song, If It Happened to You, relating her experience as a survivor of sexual trauma, played on my iPhone. I began sobbing, overwhelmed by a sense of devastation as the memory of that night fully flooded my mind.
I questioned my memory; how could I have suppressed such a traumatic event for 20 years? After my best friend confirmed that this incident had indeed occurred, I finally understood the origin of my deeply rooted self-loathing and anger. Shame and horror engulfed me as I thought about how I had allowed this event to fester and unconsciously inform so much of my life.
I was irritable, slept poorly and bristled at my husband’s touch but eventually, by way of explaining my recent behavior, recounted to him a brief synopsis of the event. Over the next 18 months I kept these revelations from everyone else in my life. Internally I had begun to process the experience in small increments, slowly allowing myself to mentally revisit it, working towards being able to do so without feeling weak or dirty, but a lingering guilt made me keep the story to myself.
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.
I have asked my parents, brothers, husband, family, and close friends to read versions of this essay so as to open up a dialogue, meanwhile starting trauma-focused therapy to work through the myriad of feelings that have accompanied this exercise in facing my past. The writing process is proving cathartic and has engendered in me a newfound feeling of ownership of the experience. During this time, I’ve opened up to my husband and expressed all appurtenant emotions at having been violated. Comparison is the enemy of both joy and healing, so rather than berating myself for remaining upset despite all life’s blessings, I’ve instead granted myself permission to grieve for the innocence lost so many years ago, another essential step in the healing process.
Sadly, versions of my story are incredibly common and are repeated over and over, day in and day out, with one in three women experiencing sexual violence at some point in their lives. It’s far more likely for a woman to be attacked by someone known to them than otherwise; depending on the study, it seems that anywhere from 60% to 85% of attackers are known to the victims. Based on results amassed from the National Crime Victimization Surveys of 1994, 1995 and 1998, in over 90% of cases, perpetrators of sexual violence are never charged.
Paradoxically, while assailants often continue their lives without facing consequences, victims are conditioned to remain quiet; speaking out means facing accusations of dishonesty and provocation. Perhaps her clothes were too suggestive. Maybe she led him on. Maybe she named the wrong man. Why didn’t she fight back? Why didn’t she yell louder? Why did she take a shower? Why didn’t she go to the authorities right away? If it was so bad, why didn’t she go to the hospital?
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.
I was raped. Fellow sufferers reading along who have not yet spoken these words aloud can take heart in knowing that we are all fighting the fight as best we can, learning to live with the fear that accompanies rape.
Saying #metoo means overcoming the social norms that dictate silence to be the appropriate response. Acknowledging the attendant vulnerability runs counter to the message my generation of women had pounded into us from a young age: we are strong, we are equal, we are entitled to respect, we can do anything if we put our minds to it. Sexual assault renders one powerless, subordinate and disrespected in the profoundest of ways.
Healing from such a serious trauma is painful but ultimately can reshape one’s life in positive fashion. Regaining a sense of ownership over one’s body and one’s choices is exciting; finding one’s voice, as I am starting to by writing this piece, is at once both terrifying and intensely satisfying. It’s been liberating to weave the trauma into my story’s fabric rather than allowing it to be the dictating force driving my past, present, and future.
I have begun to push back against the doubt, shame, and guilt but still have a long way to go. We are all at different stages of healing and each step requires us to be daring and to say my life matters more than what this person did to me.
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.
It is impossible to change what happened to me and countless others, all of us held hostage by a power dynamic where winning was not an option, but now we have the option to change the future narrative for our sons and daughters.
Since I began the process of writing this essay, the news cycle has moved on, apparently taking with it the window of opportunity where women felt emboldened to openly share their own past experiences of sexual trauma. #MeToo remains and hopefully has become a fixture in our collective consciousness, but personal histories of sexual assault have once again become taboo in everyday life.
At the same time, women’s reproductive rights are under attack, and our bodies are on the verge of becoming commoditized entities, controlled by men’s pens rather than our choices. After a brief moment of empowerment, women are once again in a defensive position. As a stark example, in some states, raped women could potentially spend more time in jail for terminating a pregnancy conceived through that rape than the rapist himself.
Perhaps most ironically, Justice Kavanaugh will likely be the deciding vote on whether or not Roe v. Wade is allowed to continue protecting a woman’s privacy, ownership of her body, and choice.
Remaining silent in the face of these challenges is tantamount to accepting that violence against women is acceptable. Keeping my thoughts and words private would mean my rapist still has control over my life choices. I must speak out.
My children must know that I am not ashamed of being raped, and once they are old enough, I will share this essay with them. I no longer harbor guilt. I can relate my story with dignity and hopefully empower other women to do the same. Will my rapist read this? I don’t know, and frankly I don’t care, because it isn’t about him anymore, it’s about me.