While I wish that we didn’t have to have these conversations, I am so glad that this past year has seen a flurry of talk about sexual assault. Each person that speaks out gives confidence and affirmation to others who have stayed silent. And every day, we see more and more people coming out and saying enough is enough. The funny thing is, though, I never related it to myself or even considered telling my story…. And I’m not sure what changed or if I’ll ever tell the full story, but I just started wondering…. with so many people speaking out, why do so many of us continue to protect those who have sexually assaulted us?
The aftermath: Denial, Fear, Avoidance
In the hours and days after an attack, there seem to be a few competing reasons for why we stay silent. And for each of us, it is most likely a mix of these reasons and other reasons that I may not have even considered or that may be specific to that person or the situation. And these things, these reasons, are probably not even something we consciously think about. They’re just there. Waiting until we’re ready to confront the demons.
Everyone reacts differently to trauma, and I won’t assume that my experience is the same as any one else’s experience. But I thought it might be important – for the world, and for myself – to talk about why I never said anything after I was sexually assaulted. I didn’t press charges (I’m not sure I even knew that was an option). I definitely didn’t tell my parents (wouldn’t that just reflect badly on me?). I only told my very closest friends at that time. Though now as I’m thinking all of this through, and remembering how quickly secrets ran through our small town, I wonder if everyone knows about it but keeps the secret right along with me.
I initially – and for a long time, thereafter – figured it was at least partially my fault. I should not have been so drunk. I shouldn’t have laughed that uncomfortable laugh when I didn’t want to make a scene and couldn’t quite bring myself to believe that it was actually happening. I should have been more forceful in trying to push him off of me. I should have screamed.
I should have locked the bathroom door quicker.
And it’s funny how just writing that last sentence made me believe – maybe for the first time – that this wasn’t my fault.
Another reason that many of us never speak out is because we don’t want to be seen as victims. We don’t want any suggested weakness to be out on display. As a woman who has fought for equality and frequently argued that women can do anything men can do, it disgusts me to admit what happened that night. However, I find it very affirming to read about people in the military speaking out about their experiences with sexual assault. Here are arguably the most badass of all Americans who are not afraid to come out and say that they were assaulted. These are not weak people. I admire all of the people who have spoken out and not been afraid. And though I am still afraid, I hope that my voice can join the chorus in letting others know that we are not victims, we are not weak, but we will be heard, and we will demand change.
Maybe the biggest reason that we don’t say anything after a sexual assult is that we don’t want to make a scene. This is the culmination of our fears. If we say anything, people might not believe us, might blame us, or best case scenario, might see us as broken or damaged. Sexual assult is deeply personal. There’s no escaping that. But we are resilient. We are not broken.
Years and decades later: Fear and optimism
Even with people becoming more aware of the prevalence of sexual assault and accepting, at least in theory, that it is not a drunk woman’s fault if a man rapes her, many of us still refuse to share our stories. Or even if we tell the story, we won’t name the attacker. I’ve debated this in my head many times over, trying to figure out why I haven’t called out the man who attacked me. Here’s what I’ve come up with…
Again, I still don’t want to cause a scene. This man went to my high school. He was/is friends with people who I was friends with. He is friends with people I still occassionally see and hang out with. He is family to someone I consider to be an awesome person. All of them are probably closer friends with him than they are with me at this point since I have moved 3,000 miles away to escape the small town circles. Is it worth the drama that I would stir? Would anything positive come out of it? There’s no way to know until you take that leap, but I’m not sure it’s worth the risk.
This leads right into my second reason for keeping the silence: the eternal optimist part of me wonders if he has changed at this point wherein, my “speaking out” would only completely crush any positive changes he has made in his life. I’m a “greater good” kind of person – if he is not a danger to other people anymore, I have no need to say anything.
People do really shitty things sometimes, but it doesn’t mean they are all around shitty people that can never change. We so often like to pretend that rapists are monsters lurking in the night – that strangers are the ones we should fear even though we have all heard the glaring statistics that the vast majority of rapes are committed by friends and acquaintances. This is why everyone’s knee jerk reaction is to blame the victim. We don’t want to recognize that our friends, our family members, our coworkers are capable of sexual assault. But we have to start really being honest about this and taking responsibility for the role that we all play in creating a society in which women’s desires and words are not validated and respected.
After having worked in behavioral health for several years before becoming a teacher (which arguably is still behavioral health), I am very well aware of how much our environments and our families affect who we become as people. And from what I know of this man, his environment was not so great as a kid.
Do I feel bad for my attacker? Weirdly, yes. And while I know that it is really difficult for people to change so dramatically from someone who sexually assults women to someone who is a decent fucking human, I am a fatal optimist. You have to be if you work in the field of behavioral health or education. You have to always believe that people can change.
So what if he has changed? I don’t have any need for revenge. I’m not a vindictive person. My only reason – which granted, is a big one – for possibly sharing his name would be to stop him from attacking others. And especially hearing woman after woman, spanning decades of time, share their stories of how Bill Cosby assaulted them, I wonder, is my attacker continuing to attack other women? Do I have a responsibility to say something?
I am very interested in hearing other people’s ideas on this matter. What would you do in my situation – or if you have been through a similar experience, what did you do?
Thank you for writing this. I have been struggling through the same thoughts as well and I just can’t bring myself to speak up. I’m happy to know I’m not alone. I have come to the conclusion that it is not our responsibility to speak up about an assaulter if we don’t want to. It is the assaulter’s responsibility to stop themselves. His attack on you was not your fault, the possible future attacks on others is not your fault, none of his actions are your fault. It is all his. And it is HIS responsibility to change that. We as survivors can choose to speak up or not, but it is definitely NOT our responsibility.
You made some really great points. Women are so often “put in charge” of sexual morality, but each person is in charge of their own decisions. We are not responsible for preventing rape except in terms of us personally not raping anyone. Thanks for your comment!
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I talked to trusted friends despite the shame i felt because it was not mine it was his to feel. Speaking to trusted people for a short period of time and probably no more than 4 or 5 at that felt healthy. Any more and it becomes a drama x
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Really interesting post — thank you! — and all questions I have pondered myself. For me, the issues around speaking/not-speaking or naming/not-naming come down to questions about what impact I want — or need — my words to have. I began telling my story about a year and a half ago (so, ~25 later), when it became clear something in me still needed healing. I began writing my story down and sharing it sometime last year, and I have found both that (as you say) my words seem to “giv[e] confidence and affirmation to others who have stayed silent” and also that I myself am affirmed and healed by those who tell me they see themselves in my stories.
Healing through community is invaluable. Finding our way as a society to raising fewer girls into fewer women who carry such burdens and need such healing would be even more priceless. It is a broader goal than any one survivor or any one perpetrator — which is, for me, the deciding point in never naming him. We too went to high school together. I am sure that if I went looking, I would find overlaps in our circles of acquaintances even now. But — unlike someone like Bill Cosby, for instance — I have no knowledge that this individual is still an active predator. (Other info? Other decision.) My story is *not* about him — it is about the cultural messages and social dynamics that contributed to his choices and my reactions. That is the story I want — and will continue — to tell.
I appreciate you giving me the chance to articulate these thoughts! (Even for myself, quite so specifically.) I look forward to reading more of your work!
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It is great to get affirmation from people around me (even online people!). And I completely agree that for me, it is about the big picture, not necessarily my individual experience. It did feel good to put it down in words though and share it with the community at large. Thanks for sharing your experience as well!
Honestly, I’ve never been in this position….Something about me makes men cower away. Good? Bad? Who knows? But I find it greatly encouraging that you can keep such an optimistic outlook after a dreadful incident. Thank you for sharing!