What I Wish You Knew About Sexual Assault Before You Opened Your Mouth - Why I Never Reported Being
When I was seventeen years old, I was walking home from a night out on the town. A man was waiting for me in the shadows. He was someone whose advances I had turned down earlier that evening. He grabbed me, pushed me into a stairwell, and put his fist above my face. “If you say a word, or if you scream, I will make sure you are never able to go out on the town again.”
I was petrified and wasn’t thinking clearly. I remember the face of this man over me. I had found him quite handsome earlier in the evening, but now he was the personified culprit of dark fear, and a sense of pain in my body and soul that was ripping me apart. I knew only two things in my bones: that he intended to punish me for turning him down and that I would never be the same again. Each thrust was about his desire to show me who was really in control. It was about him violently taking back the power that he felt I had taken away from him by initially flirting a bit, but then ultimately refusing his advances.
Lately, I am flooded with messages from some of my friends about how, in the case of sexual assault, victims should not be believed unless they have “hard evidence.” These friends continue, “by-the-way, why do they wait so long before they come forward?”
To me, and likely to most women, men, or children who have been sexually assaulted (and that is at least one in every four girls or women and one in every six boys or men in the US) to see these comments echoed repeatedly, and from political leadership as well, is like being punished over and over.
Every year in the US, 250,000 people report sexual assault or rape. Yet, it is estimated that only one out of every three cases are ever reported. Due to the difficulty proving that a rape took place versus consensual intercourse, typical lack of witnesses (who are not themselves accomplices), and victims being traumatized making them more likely to produce conflicting testimony, very few cases of those reported end with sentencing of the offender. In other words, if you are a rapist, you have a really good chance of getting away with it. Chances are, the rape will never be reported, and then, it will likely be a matter of “he said/she said.”
And who do parents, teachers, judges, juries, and those in power believe? Are you a black worker who stands accused of raping a white woman from high society? Or are you a white man with an impeccable record who is accused by a young teenager who herself has a few strikes against her record?
When I was raped, I had hard evidence. It was running down my legs after he was done. Now, where could I go? Should I go to the police? The local police chief has just told my dad that my ex-boyfriend was known for smoking, and suspected of selling, weed. My dad had been livid and told me to end the relationship. No, the police was not a good option. Here I would be questioned. There would be witnesses who had seen me turn the guy down at the bar, but they might well testify that I had let him buy me a drink or had spoken with him earlier in the evening. Should I seek help at our family doctor’s office? I had just had my first gynecological exam there, because I had become sexually active. The doctor had not been kind.
His examination had been painful, full of disdain, and his fingers had probed into areas that I know now we're not necessary for the exam. I had come away from the exam feeling belittled and shameful, and without really understanding why.
Whether I went to the police or to the doctor, I feared that I would be distrusted, scolded, and put in my place. Was it the right thing to do, and would I have done something different knowing what I know today? Maybe, but I am honestly not sure. Back then, I feared another round of abuse — this time from well-meaning adults who probably sincerely only wanted what was best for me, but who were unable to understand my situation or take it into account. I know that I would not have been able to explain myself then as I can now. My calculation was that if I did not get a venereal disease or became pregnant from the encounter (and I didn’t), it would be much less painful to just shower, shower, shower and then forget, forget, forget.
And so I did.
I never planned on coming forward with this. But recent events in our political arena, have made these memories pop up — mostly at night. They keep me awake, angry, and feeling powerless all over again. From near and far I hear heartless commentary about Dr. Ford such as: “why didn’t she report it then?” or “how come she didn’t tell someone at the time?” or “why didn’t she scream, make a scene, right then and there?” “She cannot remember when and where.” I hear them without knowing it directing their outrage at me. Because Dr. Ford’s experiences could easily have been mine. I cannot remember exact time and which exact stairwell. The face of my assailant, the pain and the fear is however permanently emblazoned in my psyche. According to them, I should just have…. what? Screamed and risked having my face pummeled into a pulp or gotten killed? Told my parents, the doctor, or the police, and have been told-you-so’ed and shamed? All options would mean that I would have had to be put through third-degrees that would not allow me to forget any detail, and at the end of it all risk being told that it was all my own fault anyway.
Shame and self-preservation made me act the way I did. It worked for me. I didn’t have to deal with any of it in public. I hid it for decades and pushed it aside and told only very few trusted people many years later. I hid the feelings of disgust, distrust, shame, anger, and self-loathing that they brought with them and paid the price in private.
Now, however, with friends and acquaintances pontificating online about the need for victims to either shut up or produce hard evidence in cases of sexual assault, I realize that my story still must be told even though the man who raped me, who to me obviously was morally corrupt and of questionable temperament, never decided to ascend to high a position from which he would have great influence over the lives of others. I write this now, thirty-seven years later, for those who are hiding, afraid, and feel humiliated because their experiences, and their reasons for keeping quiet are publicly made suspect, questioned, and downright ridiculed by comments online and by leaders in politics.
In this, as in many cases, an either/or, black/white, right/wrong mindset serves us poorly. Obviously, nobody should be convicted if and when insufficient evidence is present. Sexual predators, like all criminals in our society, are legally innocent until proven guilty. That is of course also the case in the case of sexual assault survivors. It is up to police, the forensic team, the prosecutor, etc. to corroborate their testimony. In reality however, victims may feel that the burden of proof is on them to deliver, and for a variety of reasons, they are afraid that they will not be believed. This is why recent commentary about Dr. Ford “making things up,” or “having an agenda” fuels an inner fire in all of us who have been through this. The feelings of pain and agony we have carried for all these years are suddenly brought back. I urge all of you who speak out in cases of sexual assault without ever having experienced it yourself that there are many complex reasons why victims cannot produce evidence or decide to not report what happened to them.
I urge anyone speaking out about sexual assault to lead with compassion and seek to understand the complexity of the issue. Two things can be simultaneously true: A victim can be telling the truth, and lack of evidence can make the perpetrator innocent in the eyes of the law. That does not mean that such perpetrators are in fact innocent. It only means that not enough evidence could be produced to prove the case. And in our legal system, we will have to let it go.
Since the accused is presumed innocent until proven guilty, please keep in mind that the victim is likely someone who has been punished over and over for years already by the violation itself, by memories, by nightmares, by feelings of distrust, by anxiety attacks, by doubt, by self-loathing, etc. All of us who speak about these issues need to understand that our implicit biases are likely to favor those we agree with, those we look like, and those we feel most closely represent ourselves.
To those of you who question the reasons for victims speaking out or not, I urge you to stop. Stop pummeling those of us who lived through it with easy answers. You may never understand, but it is not up to you to judge.