Content warning: descriptions of sexual assault, graphic discussion of rape and assault, proceed with caution.
In the midst of #MeToo, I find myself confronted by a myriad of thoughts and emotions:
Happiness, for all the victims who finally feel able to tell their stories.
Empowerment, from the strength and resilience they have shown in the face of adversity.
Anger, at the men who have been protected by society and allowed to do what they do for far too long.
Dismay, at the apologists and deniers, for all the harm they continue to cause.
Thankfulness, for a much more personal reason.
From public figures and normal people alike, we as a society have borne witness to a surge in accusations of sexual assault. Not because it’s “suddenly trendy” or because it’s “in fashion now”, but because it happens. Daily. On an unprecedented scale.
We have heard harrowing recounts of rape, assault and harassment, and they have, largely, been taken seriously. Usually, when people hear “sexual assault”, they tend to think of the most violent acts a human can inflict on another: forced intercourse, forced oral sex, severe groping and more.
Yet, after hearing about Louis C.K. coercing women into watching him masturbate, or Ben Affleck grabbing the buttocks of make-up artist Annamarie Tendler at a Golden Globes party, and then hearing these “less violent” acts be affirmed as the sexual assault and abuse we know that they are, I am thankful. Thankful that these stories weren’t dismissed entirely as boys will be boys. Thankful that they weren’t shrugged off with a “worse things could happen”. Thankful that the thoughts I’d had about my own sexual assault were not applied to these women’s ordeals.
By which I mean, all of the things I’m thankful that they didn’t happen (well, they did, but to a lesser extent than expected), I did them all to myself. As do many victims of sexual assault. We refuse to admit to ourselves that what happened was assault, diminishing the event, burying it away and pretending it wasn’t anything much. If genitals or fingers weren’t jammed into us we say it wasn’t that bad, could have been worse. At least it wasn’t rape.
I was 16 years old when, on a work trip, a boy my age who I thought was a good friend of mine, pinned me down on his hotel room bed. He held down my arms whilst I pleaded with him to stop. This isn’t funny anymore. Please get off me. Get off me now. Stop it. He continued to restrict my movements with his body weight and strength, whilst his free hand roamed my upper half. He forced his lips on mine but I refused to reciprocate. I eventually fell silent, my reaction was to freeze, like so many people do in the midst of trauma. And then he just stopped. I still don’t know why but I didn’t stop to find out. I ran out of the room and into my own, shaking and whimpering in fright.
The next day he apologised. I told him he should keep his hands away from me in future. He told me that he knew I liked it really. This would become a sort of catch phrase of his. Ten minutes later we both got asked to fetch something from the boss’ empty office, and he shut the door behind us and groped my ass.
Thus began two years of me pretending nothing ever happened. In fact, I swear I would totally forget it ever did sometimes. Two years also, of continued friendship. An awkward friendship where he would frequently grab or smack my behind, make innuendo or ask for hugs that always lasted a little too long. After those two years, he confessed his undying love for me. Told me he’d leave his girlfriend for me and that he wanted to pick me up in his car and take me for a drive whilst we discussed “us”. It was then that I realised that I was afraid to be in a car alone with him because I thought it highly possible he would rape me. And only with that realisation did I admit to myself how toxic and dangerous he was. I didn’t really speak to him again after that.
In the two years after that, I had an internal conflict about what really happened. I refused to call it an assault even in my own mind. I read the statement of the Stanford victim and cried because I felt like I could relate to her, and then I cried even more because I hated myself for even comparing my pathetic troubles to her unimaginable trauma and suffering. What an insult to the sufferers of worse ordeals than mine.
But the truth was I was finding it difficult to be with men intimately without my mind wandering, looking up and seeing his face above me instead. I’d have flashes in my mind of that night. I couldn’t enjoy myself, in fact, I dreaded sex. It got worse as the years went on. I would find myself sat on my bed, revisiting those memories and I’d start to cry. Then about a year ago I read an article about a woman who was grabbed in the street and touched all over before quickly breaking free of his grasp. It felt as if she had peeked inside my brain and put all of my thoughts into words. She also called what happened to her sexual assault.
This was huge. She spoke of feeling guilty because so much worse had happened to others, of downplaying it and acting like it wasn’t a big deal despite the internal chaos it caused her. I finally realised that these feelings must be far more common than I thought.
A few months later I would eventually reach out to someone on the RAINN online chat. I remember sitting there in a virtual queue for quite a while, waiting to speak to somebody. I remember feeling guilty that I was taking up time and space that I didn’t deserve. There will have been people behind me in that virtual queue who have been brutally raped, or assaulted, but their sexual assault will have been worse than mine. I held on regardless. I connected with a woman who listened whilst I typed out the entire story. She gave me affirmations that my feelings were valid. I explained to her my feelings of self-reproach, how I was worried my silly story was a waste of her time but I just had to tell someone before I lost my mind. I told her I didn’t call it sexual assault because I didn’t think it was bad enough to be classed as such. But then she said four words and I exploded into a cascade of grateful tears.
You were sexually assaulted.
Sounds crazy, to be happy about being told something like that. Sounds kind of sick the more I read it over. But for me, those four words ended a four year long personal struggle. It was confirmation that I wasn’t overreacting, that whilst it could have been worse and I’m thankful it wasn’t, it was bad enough and worse than anyone should have to go through anyway.
Despite being able to take myself seriously now, I still worry that others will not. I’m convinced there will be plenty of people reading this who think I’m a whiny little girl who should be glad I don’t have real problems. But those people won’t keep us silent any longer. And whilst I’m well aware that we’re still on the bottom rung of a very long ladder to progress, the #MeToo Movement has given me hope.
So this one is for all the folks out there whose sexual assault wasn’t “that bad”. It was bad enough. You did not deserve it, nor the guilt that came with it. I urge you all to tell someone, if not a friend or relative than at least somebody at RAINN. Remember, your feelings and your experiences are valid. You are valid.