I thought long and hard about writing this hashtag.
Does my experience really count as sexual assault? What would happen if I share my story? Would my parents be mad or disappointed in me? Is my family going to treat me differently? Will my friends feel pity towards me?
Let me start by saying this: #MeToo is not my identity. I am not a ‘sexual assault survivor.’ These two sexual assault experiences that happened to me are just my history. They allowed me to grow, to learn, and to now share my story with others. Who I was during those assaults is not who I am today.
I’m currently a Graduate student at the University of Southern California who loves to practice yoga as a way of fostering positivity, mindfulness, and self love. A few weeks ago while I was driving to campus, l listened to a podcast titled “#MeToo in Politics: Then and Now.” It featured an elementary school teacher who was afraid of sharing her own sexual assault story because she didn’t want her students to think less of her as a role-model. Hearing her thoughts started to make me think: Does being a victim of sexually assault make me weak?
In fact, going through something like sexual assault, coming out of it, and sharing your experience with the world only makes you stronger and part of a movement to bring awareness to this vicious history of sexual harassment in our society.
Whenever I shared my experiences with people I trusted, they always responded the same way: “Did you press charges or tell the police?” It’s not like you wake up realizing you’ve been sexually assaulted and think, “I need to call the police right at this moment!” It takes victims a long time to process what even happened. There is so much guilt people feel after being sexually assaulted. Some of us feel that this was our fault because we got ourselves into this situation. But after seeing this outpour of women’s empowerment and the entire #MeToo movement, I started to feel more secure with what happened. I felt like there was community to stand by.
There’s another player in this whole sexual assault arena: alcohol. On average, at least 50% of college students’ sexual assaults are associated with alcohol use. How do I tell the police what happened when I don’t even have a full recollection?
Not only do we feel guilty, but sometimes we question our memory so much because we don’t want to believe it really happened to us. I doubted myself so many times, trying to think, maybe I did consent? Maybe something I did gave him the message I was okay with this? I was so drunk that maybe I did say yes?
A definition of consent I connect most with: “Is this person coherent enough to know what is happening?” In both of my sexual assault accounts, I was undoubtedly unable to know what was really happening.
How do you explain to the cops you were ‘sexually assaulted’ when you don’t even have the memory to back it up? All I had were the bruises to show.
The first bastard (as my therapist has quite graciously named him) was during my junior year of high school. I didn’t know the effects of alcohol. I thought partying was cool, and I didn’t know who my real friends were at the time. I woke up naked and covered in bruises with a guy whose name I couldn’t tell you today. My “friend” at the time laughed it off saying, “Now that’s how you know you had a good time!”
I barely had friends as it was and was not ready to put my life in the lights. My hometown of Sacramento is a place where you hear everyone’s gossip, at least in the private high school culture I was a member of. I was afraid of the rumors and drama that could start by pressing charges. I didn’t even know this guy’s name! I ran into him twice later on after the incident, and he had no idea who I was.
He was having a completely normal day without a care in the world. Meanwhile, I endured a minor panic attack and ran to my car to hide. I wasn’t strong enough to face him.
But I’m not running now.
“What about if he did it to someone else? You could have stopped him!” I understand that. But when you are a 16-year-old in high school, you are not the strongest version of yourself quite yet. I simply needed to process for myself what had happened, which took some time, and by then, I was ready to work through it to just come to a point of wellbeing.
The second incident was with someone that most people would say was a “close” friend. We were hoping to reconnect during a school break. He made sure I had more than enough to drink by forcibly driving us to multiple bars even though I could barely make a full sentence. I eventually found myself on the side of a road with my pants down trying to mutter the words “no,” but I could barely speak.
In college I had an emotionally abusive boyfriend who was my main emotional support. When I told him about the sexual assault by my “friend”, he responded instantly by saying it was my fault. He started questioning me, asking, “Why were you even that drunk? Why did you even get in the car? You should have known.” He was so convincing that I started telling myself that it was my fault too, leaving me drowning in guilt.
I saw my assaulter a few months later. He didn’t even acknowledge me. Some people asked, “Why didn’t you confront him?” When you see your assaulter for the first time afterwards, you don’t immediately feel anger and run to them screaming, “you bastard!” I was filled with complete fear in a crowded bar surrounded by our mutual friends. But I worked through this fear with my therapist and we planned that if I ever see him again, he will be getting a drink to his face.
After I write this, I will also be writing him a letter, and I have half a mind to send it to his mother since we are family friends. I hope to include the fact that I am now haunted by the freeway exit that he took before stopping the car to assault me, how disgusting of a human being he is, and I’ll throw in few cuss words my therapist gave me permission to use as a way to get out lingering anger.
I hope by sharing my own thoughts and experiences, those of you who have been questioning your own experience can gain strength. Maybe you won’t share your story or tell anyone—what you choose to do with your experience is up to you, and only you. And to those of you who have been on the other side of comforting a friend, I hope you see some clarity on what we may be feeling, and why they may respond the way they do.
Now, here I go.