Recent revelations about sexual misconduct in Hollywood have breathed new life into the #MeToo movement. The hashtag is circulating all over social media to encourage victims of sexual assault to speak out about their experiences. It can give women and men a sense of empowerment as they find their voice and the strength to speak out, often for the first time in such a public way. It is that “knowing look” that victims give one another to say, “I understand. I’ve been there, too.”
Much has been made in the news that perpetrators get away with sexual assault time and again because, in many cases, their criminal actions are not reported or simply ignored. “Well, why didn’t s/he speak out sooner?”
Why? Because it’s difficult. Because the truth is more painful than you can imagine. Because others may not believe you. Because they may even blame you. Because maybe it wasn’t that bad, after all. Because they are still too much in shock to think that person would do the same, or worse, to someone else.
I know, because it happened to me, too.
When I was a young girl, I was molested repeatedly by an extended family member. He was in his fifties, and I was about five. I don’t remember how many times it happened, but I do remember the pure panic any time I was left alone in a room with him. Oftentimes, he would have me sit in his lap on a recliner and throw a blanket over me before he unzipped my pants. The audacity he had to touch me between my legs when my parents were upstairs is unnerving. Sometimes he would ‘accidentally’ walk in on me when I was taking a bath or even offer to help. I learned to start locking the door. For some reason, I didn’t tell my parents at that time. I wondered if they already knew and didn’t care. Eventually he stopped.
By the time I was in fifth grade, I knew what masturbation was. At a sleepover, one of the girls had a magazine that discussed how to pleasure oneself. She went around the room asking each of us if we had ever done it before. Of course everyone said “no.” And so did I but that was a lie. I had been masturbating for years as a coping mechanism to help me go to sleep. It was something I learned as a child. I just didn’t know there was a term for it.
About ten years after my last experience with that pedophile, a friend of mine was kidnapped and sexually assaulted. We were in middle school. Fortunately, she managed to get away. Her attacker was arrested, tried and condemned for what he had done.
This was because she told. It was an epiphany for me.
At the same time, my perpetrator was housing his granddaughter and her daughter. I knew then I had to say something. I wanted him to go to jail, where he could never harm another little girl.
When I told my parents what had happened to me nearly a decade earlier, they assumed I was mistaken or just confused or trying to get attention. They thought if I had to tell his wife, that I would come clean and say I had been lying. So they brought her over to the house one night.
In my pink bedroom on my twin bed, I told her what her husband had done to me. She insisted I keep quiet. It would ruin her life if we exposed his dirty little secret.
She knew! I was certain. And for some insane reason, my parents obliged to keep this OUR secret. They said they wanted to spare me the pain of having to talk about it in court.
About twenty years after being touched inappropriately, that pain my parents wanted to protect me from was pressurized. The pain and memory never went away. It only amplifies when you have your own children to protect. It amplifies when you learn that someone you know is assaulted. It amplifies every time you hear someone say “Me, too.” This was something I learned in time.
However, before I learned all that, I had come to the conclusion that the people who were supposed to protect you and fight for you, might not do so. That realization only led to more negative feelings of abandonment, anger, sadness and betrayal.
Growing up, I didn’t want anyone to know my secret because I felt like damaged goods. I stayed silent. Even as a young adult, when other guys would harass me in a bar or assault me, I stayed silent. No one could do worse than what had already been done to me. At times, I even felt like I was in control, when I wasn’t. I was just allowing their behavior. So when perpetrators grabbed me or harassed me or worse when I was in my twenties, I stayed silent. I allowed this behavior to continue by not standing up for myself, so I recognize that I was part of the problem.
Looking back now, I know that staying silent was wrong. However, it’s easy to look back and say, “I could have done that differently. I should have done something else instead. I should have fought harder/spoke up/told the world.”
To the brave who have spoken up, I commend you. I hear you. I see you on social media. I feel your pain. I wish I had your strength because 30 years later, I still find it difficult to speak openly (publicly) about my trauma. However, your valor and fearlessness is empowering and healing and preventing others from being victimized.
And to all you victims being told “You should have said something sooner,” or to others reprimanded by the phrase “S/he knew and did nothing.” I understand. I’ve been there, too.
The writer of this post requested to remain anonymous.