Note: This post has nothing to do with books or writing. Skip if you only want professional updates. Also, trigger warning for childhood sexual abuse, sexual trauma, incest and talk of rape.
It wasn’t long ago that my husband was talking to an older relative of his about how one in four American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetimes.* She replied to him “Oh come on! That number’s ridiculous.” He tried quoting sources to her, but here’s something most of you already know: people don’t like giving up their beliefs when a lie brings more comfort than the truth. The truth upset her, so she clung to the lie. It was that simple.
It’s not simple at all for those of us on the other end of those stats. Granted, we might try to minimize our pain because there’s always examples of other people having it worse. That’s why some of us, maybe a lot of us, try to bury what happened under the heading of “It could’ve been worse.” Society certainly encourages us to do that.
Take this past week. How many times have you heard “It’s not like it was rape” or “If it was really a big deal, she would have reported it right away” or “It happened so long ago, why does it even matter now?” related to the Kavanaugh accusation? There are crueler comments than those, but I’m highlighting these three because when I see thousands of people saying them, I FEEL SPOKEN TO as well. Why? Because I know the answers to these questions, for myself at least.
It’s not like it was rape.
Yes, I’m grateful that what happened to me wasn’t completed rape since that would have meant more emotional pain. It also could have meant possible long-term physical repercussions in the form of STDs, or possible scar tissue that results in difficulty or inability to conceive, or (though I was too young at the time) possible unwanted pregnancy. But that doesn’t erase the fact that I was sexually assaulted. It’s like telling someone who’s been stabbed that she should be grateful she wasn’t shot as well. That’s true, but the stab wound is still there.
This was my emotional stab wound. I first talked about it publicly in 2010, almost thirty years after it happened. Yes, it took me that long to “come forward” to anyone outside my family, my husband and a few close friends. Even then, I still couldn’t bring myself to add the part I’ll add later in this post. To recap, many years ago, I wrote down what happened to me as if it were a scene in a story about other people. Since I’m a writer, that format felt… safer, I guess. But this didn’t happen to fictional people. It happened to me and a girl I was friends with back when I was eight. The only things fabricated are the names of the other people involved. I changed them to protect the innocent, even if by default, it also protects the guilty. Note: I tried to put this under a “read more” cut, but I suck at formatting so it didn’t work. Skip until you see the SECOND, BOLDED SETS of ### signs if reading this will be triggering.
Mary and I are playing in her room when her older brother, Guy, comes in.
“Come on, Mary, let’s go play Dark,” he says.
He grabs her arms, holding them above her head, and starts to drag her out of the room. She says ‘nooo’ in a way that’s drawn out. Guy keeps repeating, “Come on,” as he pulls her along. I laugh, thinking it’s a game, and tickle Mary’s armpits as Guy pulls her into their parent’s room. He shuts the door, pushing me out, and locks it. I bang on it, demanding to be let in, but he doesn’t open it.
I go downstairs to their kitchen and start checking their drawers for a butter knife. My sisters and I lock each other out of our bedrooms all the time so I know how to get in, if the locks are the same as the ones in my house. Finally, I find a rounded-end knife and go upstairs. Very quietly, I slip the butter knife into the lock of Mary’s parents’ room, restraining my giggles at the thought of surprising them. It works just like at my house and I open the door triumphantly.
Mary is lying on her stomach on a blue loveseat. Her short tennis skirt is pushed up to her waist and her underwear dangles by one foot. Guy is crouched behind her, his pants down around his knees.
“How did you get in here?” he snaps.
I still have the butter knife in my hand, but now I’m sorry I broke into the room. Something feels wrong about what they’re doing. I start to edge out of the room.
“No,” Guy says, getting up and coming over to me. “You can’t leave now. You need to shut the door and count for me. Don’t stop counting until I tell you.”
I don’t want to stay, but I do what he says. Guy shuts the door, returns to Mary and starts doing something to her. He grunts a lot. Once Mary says, “Ouch, Guy, that hurts!” I think he says sorry, but I’m not sure because he’s mumbling. I watch without moving, not able to look away. After a while, Guy asks what number I’m on. I don’t know because I haven’t been counting, but I say “sixty” because it’s the first number that pops into my head. Guy gets up. He has on a light-colored tennis shirt, but his shorts are still by the loveseat. He comes toward me, waving his hands.
“Now it’s your turn.”
I back away until the door blocks me. “No.”
He comes closer. “Yes, it’s your turn.”
I try to open the door, but Guy slams it shut before I can slip out. He starts pulling me toward the loveseat. Mary says, “Come on, Jeaniene, just do it.” She sounds mad at me, but I don’t want to do that.
“You said it hurt,” I tell her, still fighting Guy. She denies it now, but I don’t care. I know what I heard. Mary comes up to me, tugging on my arms while Guy roughly tries to take off my shirt and shorts. I keep twisting away and I start to cry as his hands grab me everywhere. I don’t want to lie down where she was. I don’t want to take off my clothes. I don’t want Guy touching me. I want to go home.
I start to scream. Guy doesn’t like that. He lets me go or I twist away, I can’t remember which. I run out of the room, down the stairs, and out the front door. Mary follows after me. She catches up with me and says she’s sorry, but begs me not to tell anyone. She says that “Dark” is a secret game her brother plays with her and her cousin, Violet. She tells me that sometimes when Guy plays Dark, he pees in her and Violet. She doesn’t want anyone to know that her brother pees in them. I promise not to tell anyone, and I go home.
Mary and Violet are both nicer to me after that, but I don’t go over to their house anymore. Several months later, we move out of state. I never speak to Mary or Violet again.
### ### ### ###
Here’s what this depiction doesn’t say. It doesn’t say that I knew, after that day, that people could hurt me and I couldn’t stop them. I could only scream, try to run and hope that they chose to stop on their own. That permanently destroyed my feeling of being safe, which is terrifying when you’re a child and you don’t have any coping skills yet. This depiction also doesn’t say that my trust in people was destroyed that day, but it was. I knew from then on out that “nice” people could turn dangerous in a blink. The aftereffects of that would be lifelong. The other thing that’s lifelong is the pain of not being believed. This is what I couldn’t bring myself to say in my prior post in 2010: my mother did not believe me when, weeks later, I initially told her about this.
Granted, I was too young to know the words “rape” or “incest.” This was also well before schools talked about “bad touching” to kindergartners, so I didn’t know any of the significant keywords. But my mother didn’t believe what I did tell her, and she told me not to talk about it again. Even though when I got older, I truly understood what had happened, that feeling of “Shh! Don’t talk about it!” remained. I didn’t speak of it again until I was fifteen or sixteen, when I confronted my mother over her not believing me. She apologized and said she now believed me, maybe because several years later, I was still emphatic about what had happened. All I got out of her for a reason why she hadn’t believed me back then was that they were such a nice family, and what I was describing was so horrible, it just couldn’t be true. But it was true, big house, fancy cars and rich, respected members of the community aside.
I’ll pause to say that I know the knee-jerk response by some of you will be to attack my mother. Please don’t. For one, she’s dead now, so attacking her would be the equivalent of screaming at a headstone. For another, she was raised in a home with an abusive alcoholic father, so the unhealthy coping tactic she brought into adulthood was “Always pretend everything’s okay no matter what!” She was also more than the sum of this failure, so attacking her will only hurl garbage at someone who was wonderful in many ways despite her screwing up in this one. Finally, it will hurt me if you attack her, and in case you can’t tell, this post is rough enough on me already.
The reason I admitted this was so that other survivors who haven’t been believed by their families would know they’re not alone. What happened to me was just as true when my mother didn’t believe me as it was when she finally did. It’s also still true despite the fact that to this day, I have no idea if my father knows about it. My entire life, I’ve never brought it up to him, and he never brought it up to me. Since he has dementia and early-stage Alzheimer’s now, I can’t ask him if he ever knew, either. So, having family member support is great, if you have it. But not having their support doesn’t negate the truth. I’m living proof of that, and so are countless other people.
“If it was really a big deal, she would have reported it right away.”
The reasons I didn’t report my assault right away should be obvious: I was a child. You might think child sexual assault is uncommon, but sadly, it isn’t. From 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate that 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse. A majority of child victims are 12-17. Of victims under the age of 18: 34% of victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12, and 66% of victims of sexual assault and rape are age 12-17.**
But why didn’t you report it when you realized what had happened as a teenager?
The same reason most women and men don’t report: misplaced shame, plus I expected not to be believed. You don’t know how powerful that doubt and “Shh!” response is until you’ve experienced it when you’re at your most vulnerable. It. Stays. With. You. I heard it personally. Right now, millions of people are hearing it via the responses on the news, online, and in opinions expressed by their own families. In a Tweet that has since gone viral, one young girl put it this way: “Hello, female high school student here. I would just like to say that the emergence of this whole ‘teenage boys should get a pass because they’re not mature enough to understand consent’ narrative is probably one of the most unsettling things I have ever witnessed.”
Every time the criminal behavior of sexual predators is excused away, especially on a national level, it enforces the notion that victims shouldn’t bother coming forward. It also enforces the notion that even if the assault did happen, it doesn’t matter. This is a horribly damaging narrative. Survivors face an uphill battle for justice even if they do report right away. Google “rape kit backlog” and see that DNA evidence collected by police from rape survivors can be shelved for years or decades without being tested. Or, worse, it’s thrown away, and that’s perfectly legal in far too many states. Organizations like the Joyful Heart Foundation are fighting to change that, so here’s another side note to say to donate to them and RAINN if you can.
“It happened so long ago, why does it even matter now?”
The title of this post is scars that still bleed. I chose it because every time I hear those minimization’s, rationalizations, excuses and “why does it matter now?” responses, it feels like a crowd of people watching what happened to me decades ago, and then deliberately turning their backs and saying “Eh, who cares?” That hurts in ways I will never have the literary skill to articulate. I know many other survivors are also triggered this way. How we handle sexual abuse as a society, whether that abuse happened yesterday or a long time ago, shows survivors whether we value them or not. It also shows whether we really care about stopping sexual assault or not. Repeatedly silencing and/or minimizing sexual assault has a chilling effect on ALL survivors, and sexual predators know it. They are counting on it in order to continue getting away with their abuse, even if the part of society that frequently shushes or shames survivors doesn’t want to admit that.
Yes, it’s easier to believe that the 1 in 4 sexual assault stats for women* and the 1 in 6 sexual assault stats for men* aren’t true since somewhere in those numbers is someone we care about, guaranteed. Somewhere in those numbers is also the “nice guy” we think couldn’t possibly do such a thing. And somewhere in those numbers is the knowledge that you or your loved ones could be next. That’s a damned scary thought. It’s so scary, society has come up with countless ways to blame the victims so we can tell ourselves that we and those we care about will be safe, if only we don’t do things that “bring it on ourselves.” But this simply isn’t true, and excuses, minimizations, rationalizations, and victim blaming won’t change that. The truth is that the blame starts and stops with the perpetrator. Period.
The truth is also that false accusations are extremely rare (only 2 to 9%, according to various studies***) Imagine if we started supporting survivors according those stats, instead of masses of people rushing to claim that survivors are making up their accusations for money, fame, attention, spite, or whatever other excuse comes to mind. Imagine if our actions as a society had a chilling effect on predators instead of on victims. I don’t want to just imagine it. I want to see it, which is the whole point behind this post.
Survivors, I see you. It wasn’t your fault. You are not alone. I believe you.
If you need help, please contact RAINN at https://www.rainn.org/get-help or call the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE
*Source that one in four women and one in six men will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime: https://endsexualviolencect.org/resources/get-the-facts/national-stats/
*** Source: https://www.ourresilience.org/what-you-need-to-know/myths-and-facts/ , https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/Publications_NSVRC_Overview_False-Reporting.pdf and https://web.stanford.edu/group/maan/cgi-bin/?page_id=297