When I was eleven years old, on my way home from school in my uniform, a man exposed himself to me at the bus stop.
Terrified, I ran to the next bus stop and silently took a different bus home.
I never told anyone.
I had only recently begun travelling the three miles to and from school alone and was rapidly learning many new things about my city: the quickest bus routes, alternative ways home, the best day to buy a new bus pass. In my pre-teen mind, I knew that what had happened at the bus stop was wrong but I still turned it over and over in my mind on the way home. Was it just a regular thing in the adult world? Did men frequently pull their penises out at bus stops in front of schoolgirls? Was I just being a silly little girl who was scared for no reason?
I decided not to tell anyone. I didn’t want to be escorted to and from school by a parent. I didn’t want my family to think I wasn’t ready for the world. I didn’t want people to think I had made it up.
On Sunday night, I joined millions of women in responding to Alyssa Milano’s tweet with the hashtag #MeToo. I almost instantly regretted it. Not because I feared being asked to share my story or worried about being labelled a victim, but because of guilt. I did not report my sexual assault. I did not say a word to anyone about it.
As I scrolled through my social media networks, reading the brave stories of so many women, the wave of guilt came rushing back. Thousands upon thousands of women recounting their experiences in the hopes of encouraging others to report their assaults, and I could not join in. Even with the safety net of the #MeToo hashtag, I still did not feel brave enough to tell anyone what happened to me when I was younger.
I did not disclose my assault because of guilt. My assaulter was not a strange, scary man at a bus stop or in a bar, but someone I had a relationship with. I knew him by name. I knew him intimately. I knew that contacting the police would potentially bring an arrest and then a court date and I couldn’t do it. I could not bring myself to ruin this man’s life and send him to prison, choosing instead to remain locked in a prison in my own mind, terrified to trust or touch anyone for years afterwards.
And so I was not brave enough to share my story in solidarity with millions of other women online, just as I was not brave enough to report the assault that left me bruised and scared. Maybe I will never be brave enough to do so, but this feels like a gentle baby step in the right direction. I hope every woman who feels that same guilt and fear has a trusted friend to turn to. The world is listening and ready to help victims and survivors in ways never seen before. I wish I had known that when I was 21.
A few weeks after the bus stop incident when I was eleven, I sat on a different bus to go home. I was absorbed in the book I was reading when I overheard a conversation between a few other girls in my year. One of them was talking about a man at the bus stop near her house who had exposed himself to her. One by one, the others joined in. They had also seen the same man. He had done the same thing to them.
I stayed silent. I wasn’t friends with those girls and didn’t wish to reveal that I had been eavesdropping. But knowing that other girls had been through the same thing? Knowing that the whole thing wasn’t a figment of my imagination? It was the greatest comfort I had ever known.