When I was a child, a girl that I knew told me that a boy, someone older, had molested her. She cried when she told me. I remember asking her questions, trying to ascertain details, trying to determine the likelihood that she was telling me the truth. Later, I talked to another friend, who also knew this secret, and together we agreed on the obvious: our friend had made the whole thing up, for attention. This was the logical conclusion. This is what I learned to be true of awful situations because this is what adults told me whenever I brought them distressing news, frightening facts, overwhelming (for them) feelings: they said I was making it all up, for attention.
I don’t know why we didn’t tell any adults. Probably because she begged us not to. But also probably because I was afraid I would get in trouble, by association. Because if she had been molested, or raped, as she had stated, then wasn’t it her fault, sort of? At least, wasn’t she not completely innocent? And, since we were friends, and had the same worries and sometimes the same crushes, and the same silliness and the same hopes from the world, wasn’t I then sort of asking for it, too? Wouldn’t I get in trouble for this, just be virtue of it happening? Wouldn’t she? And even if we did tell adults, wouldn’t they say what we already knew? That she was making it up, for attention?
Somehow, this conversation faded from my memory. I completely forgot about it until almost 20 years later, when I got sober and suddenly, there that memory was, along with a fresh horror of what I had done, of how I had dismissed her, and I wondered how we remained friends after that, how she had endured that all by herself.
Before that, when I was even younger, probably around 11 or so, I started noticing that things down there were different, that there were odors beyond urine when I used the bathroom, that my underwear wasn’t pristine anymore, that things were, well, happening in an area that had previously been dormant. This is natural, of course, for a girl’s body preparing for menstruation, but I didn’t know that at the time, and so I assumed that I had done something wrong, that there was something wrong with me, that I done something terrible to deserve this, that my general wrongness had invited this. I thought that if I asked my mom about it, it would be proof of what I had suspected, and therefore thought that everyone else suspected about me: that I was defective, inherently bad, that I was right to feel this burning shame about myself and my body, and now especially this, the most private part of me, now broken, now dirty. I thought I had done something bad in not protecting my vagina; one of the key tasks of my girlhood, it seemed, was to shield this sacred part of me at all costs, keep it immaculate, like the Virgin Mary. And the stains on my undies proved to the world that I hadn’t done this. The first time I noticed this change, in a tiny stall in the girls’ bathroom in my catholic school, I was terrified, frozen. I can still feel that sense of horror of having my badness stare up at me, damp, messy.
I didn’t tell anyone about this, and somehow I researched what I thought it was: an STI (even though I was still many, many, many years away from that even being a remote possibility). I’m amazed that I was able to access information on different kinds of STIs before Google – was I some sort of genius spy at 11 years old? I determined that I had a yeast infection (I didn’t) and that it would go away on its own (it doesn’t). And when my symptoms (of my non-yeast infection) didn’t go away, I looked up what would happen if I left it untreated and thought that if worst came to worst, it would OK to not have kids later on in life if it meant avoiding getting in trouble for being bad to my bones now.
It’s a sad little story, isn’t it? I forgot about that until recently as well – only this time, I simply forgot the content of the story, not the underlying emotive experience: the details of what grew to be an intense, fully formed understanding of the shame of me is what I carried with me, ever present, ever remembered.
Much like the rest of the women in this country, I’ve been thinking about my own experience with sexual assault (in college, we were both drunk, I didn’t really know him, I escaped before anything happened that haunts me – I was lucky). I’ve been thinking especially about why I didn’t report it. And there are so many reasons – so very, many reasons – why I decided not to, but what they all boil down to is: I didn’t value myself enough. And I thought that when the story got out and spread throughout our small campus, the response would be: you are saying this for attention. Or, you were drunk, you are always drunk, and your wrongness, both your drunkenness and the shame of you that you are trying to escape, invited this.
It’s a strange experience, to have all of these versions of yourself living inside of you all at once, desperate to be heard, but not being able to fully understand them anymore.
When I was assaulted as a 19 year old, I went to my advisor, and I told him what happened. I refused to tell him the guy’s name. He encouraged me – strongly – to report it. I told him I didn’t want to, that it seemed like it had been a mistake, that I didn’t want the guy to face lifelong consequences for something he had done to me – little old me. What if he got kicked out of school? My advisor looked at me gravely and told me that what happened to him wasn’t my problem to worry about. I hesitated. My advisor caught my eye and held his gaze as he told me, “He’s done this before. They never get caught the first time.”
I left my advisor’s office mad at him, and mad at my options: stay silent, and avoid doing the right thing, or report what happened and feel the wrath of his teammates, feel alienated in one of the only places that I had ever felt comfortable. I felt like I was being forced to do something I didn’t want to do by my advisor, exactly what this guy had tried to do the weekend before on the cold ground, the wet grass, his heavy, almost crushing, body on top of me. I felt pushed into a corner. I didn’t report anything.
It’s the choice of not reporting that has interested the 36 year-old version of me the most in the past month, given how strongly I feel about injustice in our world, how resolute I am in what is right and what is wrong, how confident I am that I would make the right choice in any given ethical dilemma, that I would stand up for myself, that I would stand up for others. That I would revolt, make noise, raise hell.
I didn’t do any of those things as a 19 year-old. And part of that is deeply personal; I was overcome with fear that I would be alienated by his friends, and my friends, especially my male friends, who might regard me with some suspicion now, since I had worked hard to present myself as a cool girl, who could drink a lot and who wouldn’t freak out about stupid things. I worried that people would think I was making a big deal about nothing, that it didn’t matter that much – that I didn’t matter that much. I worried that I would find out that my male friends thought that sexual assault was one of those stupid things that girls freaked out about.
(As an aside, I don’t think that’s a fair characterization of the guys whom I was friends with in college, or the guys who went to my college in general. As a gross generalization, the dudes at our school were a gentle, earnest breed and I never felt unsafe around my male friends, before or after this incident. Also, I did get drunk and freak out at them about stupid things, and they never seemed to mind).
I also worried that I would be a burden to my close friends, because I was sort of already a lot to deal with at that time.
But the other things that stopped me from reporting feel more universal, more of the conversation that we have been having on a national level for weeks. At that time, I had internalized and integrated the idea that a man’s life was more important than mine: this was so a part of my worldview and daily approach to life that I didn’t question why I thought the things I thought and did the things that I did. I was literally a cheerleader at that time, cheering on the men’s heroics from the sidelines, and I didn’t do it because I liked it, but because I thought that’s what popular girls did: supported, prettily. I thought my worth was estimated by how much a man valued me: I was desperate to have a boyfriend, and when I did start dating someone (who was wonderful, and really good to me), I was desperate for him to prove how much I meant to him, all the time. I needed the whole entire world to know that we were together, because I needed the whole entire world to know that a man valued me, that I had value.
And because I thought that much of my identity was in relationship to how a man experienced me or what he needed from me, I thought that I had to do what made men feel comfortable, even if that meant I forfeited my own chance at comfort. I spent so much of my younger life trying to figure out how to please men: how to make them interested, but keep them at a distance. How to make them laugh, how to play it cool. How to be confident, but not too sure of myself. How not to be mad when they didn’t call you for four days, but also not be a pushover, because men don’t like that, either. It was exhausting. It made no sense. No wonder I turned gay.
College offered a respite from this way of interacting with the men in my life because for the first time (and the last time in such a robust way), I was surrounded, for the most part, by men who seemed to value me, and women in general, as their peers and their equals, as co-contributors in the world, as co-producers. I felt then that I could have a real friendship with a man that wasn’t predicated on games or lies or me hiding behind stilted jokes and awkward attempts at flirting. And so, buoyant with this new freedom of relating to men, I dismissed what happened with this other guy, this real dude-bro, as a misnomer, and I didn’t understand until later that the same patterns of relating to men were still there, under the surface: a huge part of me didn’t want to report this guy because I was afraid he was going to be mad at me. Because I was afraid he wasn’t going to like me. I needed his approval. I needed the guy who assaulted me, who had no regard for my well-being or my existence beyond how I could exist for him that night, to approve of me.
If you take the gender norms out of it, this is something I still struggle with at times: at what point do I get to say no? At what point do I get to protect myself, to draw a hard boundary? At what point is my emotional safety and survival more important than someone else’s comfort, someone else’s approval of me?
As women, I think this is hard-won knowledge. I think for many of us, we are bruised and battered, sometimes literally, by the time we learn to set boundaries. By the time that we learn that we can set boundaries. That we have to set boundaries. This flies in the face of what we are taught. As soon as we are born, we girls are asked to be nice, first and foremost. We are tasked with being responsible for not just our own, but other people’s feelings, for solving their emotional difficulties, with being good listeners.
This is changing. We are understanding gender, and gender roles differently. This is long overdue. This is a triumph. This was not my experience.
To the girls who were drunk when it happened to them: you are not responsible for what he did to you. You are responsible for you, and only you. We have been taught that we have to prioritize the safety of the men who might rape us if we get too drunk, that they cannot be held responsible for their actions, that we left ourselves too vulnerable, too defenseless, that we made it too easy for them. I didn’t want to report what happened in college because I was drunk, and I should have known better. But there were also 9392090 other college parties that I went to, and got drunk at, and left, walking across campus alone, and somehow, the vast majority of men didn’t bother to attempt to assault me and a few of them even walked me home without touching me once.
There’s a lot to be said for why men assault and how the patriarchy harms men: by making them hide their vulnerability, by ridiculing their weaknesses, by making the feel like they have to dominate something or someone else to feel power. But I’m tired, and I don’t want to write this for men.
I want to write this for women who thought they were something to be ashamed of and for whom no one told them any differently, for the women who thought that they had to shine a little less brightly to make room for the men in their life, for the women who were afraid of anger erupting at the dinner table and who stifled the voice for safety, for the women who were catcalled, and followed home, who were called a bitch when they rejected a man, who were assaulted, who were raped, who were slapped across the face by a man whom they loved when he couldn’t contain his disgust at himself anymore, and who didn’t say anything because they didn’t think they could: go on and tell your story, and if people say that you are doing it for attention, tell them: Yes. I am.