Whose body is this? Are those my feet? Should I speak? Is that my voice?
That is the lasting state for a victim of sexual abuse or assault.
Did it happen? I know it happened, but was it my fault? Did I do something, say something to invite him?
We replay the incident (or incidents) so many times that somehow our doubt shifts us from victim to perpetrator—and we remain afraid to speak up.
When I was 14, I was sexually assaulted by an older man. Someone I knew. I was staying over at a friend’s house, and he was the boyfriend of the babysitter. We had been watching TV when the delivery food arrived.
Everyone jumped up and ran to the door. Except him.
As I was leaving the room, he leapt from his chair, body-slammed me onto the couch and pinned me down while forcibly kissing me and groping beneath my shirt and underwear.
I remember lying there wondering, why me? I was so flat-chested. I remember lying there, the wind knocked out of me, so shocked that I didn’t struggle. I remember afterwards, that I couldn’t feel my breath. It was lodged somewhere in my chest, but I had been holding it and now it wouldn’t leave.
I don’t think it lasted that long. Minutes, maybe. It was strange, because I could hear the others in the house after, and I almost felt like it didn’t happen.
But it did happen.
Sitting at the kitchen table while everyone was laughing and eating, I counted and recounted my fingers in an effort not to pass out. I tried to stay small and quiet, hoping that no one would notice my shame.
This had happened to me before.
When I was younger. By a different man. And here I was, trying not to look at him in case his girlfriend saw something in my eyes. I was so afraid that I had done something to send the wrong signals. I was so afraid of being blamed. He had tried on a few occasions before to drive me home, but I had always politely refused. My defenses had been up.
Looking back, it’s clear he was going to take me no matter what. I’m just glad I hadn’t let him drive me alone through country roads. Later, I heard from other women that he had done the same thing to them.
None of us reported him.
Often, when a male public figure is accused of this crime, many more victims begin to step forward. Then something ugly happens. Others reframe the original crime by asking, “Well if it happened, why didn’t they speak up at the time? Why did they wait decades to accuse him?”
It circles around and around like a raptor, rewriting our stories—and in many cases, it takes over. It is a strong enough state of being that it makes speaking up impossible. And it is an accusation made by those who don’t want to hear us.
We want so much to not be blamed that we refuse to lay blame.
So we live with it.
But sexual assault is real, and so is victim shaming. This isn’t the only sexual assault I have experienced. Yes, that’s right. It happened more than once and by more than one man, at different times in my life. I am not a slut. I didn’t “put myself” into any of those situations. I was not drunk, nor was I alone with them. I was surrounded by other people.
These men did not need remote, dark spaces to attack. They were overcome by the need to take something, and they took it. I was not a willing participant.
What I was—and still am—is a victim of a crime. Sometimes a victim is re-victimized. I have stared at my feet while being violated and wondered if those were my feet and if that was my body—and I have stayed silent about it.
I never reported these crimes. That doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.
Instead of speaking up and asking that these predators be locked up, I chose instead to sentence myself. I have lived with the shame of feeling violated and I have lived with the self-disgust of being a victim. I have lived with the shame of being a statistic and doing nothing about it.
In writing this, I am realizing I didn’t question whether or not I deserved those things to happen to me. I just accepted that they did. In saying the names of those men to myself, I am questioning why I let them get away with this, but I still won’t say their names out loud.
In seeing the way the media reacts to women who come forward, I know that if I spoke their names people wouldn’t look at them differently. They would look at me differently.
And there is something very, very wrong with that.
Author: Elle Newlands
Image: Author’s Own (Zentography)
Editor: Toby Israel