The leaked tape of Donald Trump bragging about abusing women has stirred up more than controversy.
The hashtag #notokay has been blowing up with stories from women sharing their first sexual assault.
Am I surprised by the multitude of women who are speaking up about being assaulted, abused, and molested? No. My experience matches theirs. I haven’t spoken up about my personal experiences publicly before now…why?
In part because I don’t want to be defined by it. I have always pushed against being defined by any one characteristic: a role I’ve held, a school I once went to, or a single experience that I’ve had. I am more than any one thing or experience, although I can’t deny some experiences have shaped me more than others.
And I also haven’t spoken up about my experiences because being disregarded, being told that it “wasn’t that bad,” deepens the wound. Perhaps we stay silent to avoid that damaging rejection. As Brené Brown has so eloquently stated, “People have to earn the right to hear your story.”
However, I applaud every woman who is sharing her story and I do believe it is important that we speak up about this and call it what it is: abuse, violation, illegal. I believe that we can only heal, individually and collectively as a society, by shining a light on this darkness.
Pretending it doesn’t happen may work for a short time—denial is a powerful coping mechanism—but to fully heal and to create a better society where this type of behavior isn’t accepted as “normal if regrettable,” we must speak our truth and be heard.
It takes courage to speak up, even to admit the truth to ourselves.
A few months ago, I was telling a friend of my first (and unfortunately not only) experience from when I was seven or eight. I told her, “He molested me, or, well, he touched me inappropriately.” She kindly and firmly told me, “That is molestation.”
I was trying to make light of it, to give the guy the benefit of the doubt, to lessen what happened to me. It is possible to deny the abuse even to ourselves, by not calling it what it is. Our society has done this, too, by sweeping this behavior under the rug, excusing violence towards women with ridiculous platitudes like, “boys will be boys,” and having more concern about how the punishment might affect the bright future of the perpetrator than how the ridiculously short sentence might further damage the victim.
While I am saddened by the magnitude of the stories coming out, I am hopeful that our current awareness of the pervasive violence against women will allow for change and healing.
For the women who have been abused, a critical step in healing is having a compassionate witness recognize and validate your experience. My friend did this for me with her kind words of calling my experience what it was. By acknowledging that it was molestation, it helped me recognize it was abuse, and I could then understand why I reacted with fear and avoidance.
It may have taken me three decades to speak about it, but the fear and desire to hide was still as strong as when I had stuffed that experience away all those years ago. Pulling it out now, when I am safe and have more coping skills to deal with it, allowed me to work through the feelings. I was able to talk about the situation with a couple of loved ones and explain why I was choosing not to have any further contact with this person.
I was finally able to stand up for that young girl who couldn’t.
If you haven’t been on the recipient end of this kind of abuse and violence, you have an opportunity to be a part of the healing by being a compassionate witness. That involves listening: the type of listening that strives to understand what the other person’s experience has been and how it has shaped them. It also involves responding in a way that doesn’t minimize or shame the person sharing.
In addition to healing individually, through sharing our stories and being heard, I hope we can also take this opportunity to heal our society.
To recognize and value each individual as a human being, regardless of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status.
To remember and uphold that we are all created equal and deserve equal protection and respect. To stand up for each other when we see violations.
To educate and enlighten those who don’t recognize that their speech, behavior, or inaction violates these principles.
May we use this as an opportunity for growth, to become a better people.
Author: Emily Downward
Editor: Sara Kärpänen