One in six women and one in 33 men will be raped at some point in their lifetime. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of 18. And even though sexual assault and rape are clearly such a common occurrence, there is still a stigma. We are still afraid to talk about it.
There is only one way to fix that - to start talking about it - and although it is not my platform I feel I have a responsibility as a survivor to talk about it. And with April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month, it seems like a perfect time to share my story.
I was sexually assaulted when I was just 13 years old. I don't feel completely comfortable yet sharing the details and I'm not sure that I ever really will, but I can tell you how I felt and my journey dealing with it after. At the time when it happened, I was confused. My parents chose not to take it to the police because they were afraid it would cause me more trauma, but that did not stop people from finding out or making judgements.
I grew up in a small town where everybody knows everybody and everybody knows everybody's business, which can be a good thing and a bad thing. In this case, it was a bad thing. A lot of people found out and rather than judging him for what he had done to me, they judged me. People at school were mean to me and some parents didn't want their children hanging out with me anymore. The backlash from my assault was almost worse than the actual assault because I felt so alone and isolated. For years after, and sometimes still, I have had trouble trusting my peers because I was so afraid of feeling like that again.
As the years went by though, I did my best to just not think about what happened to me. But of course, that never really works. I realize now that many of my actions in high school, many of my relationships (or lack of relationships) were because of what happened to me. And then a few years ago in my freshman year of college, I was forced to confront it.
In the October of my freshman year of college I came back to Berkeley Springs for the Apple Butter Festival. I was in the parade as your then Miss Potomac Highlands WV, and I hosted the hog calling contest. On my way to the contest a familiar face appeared, and it wasn't one I wanted to see. He was standing across the street from the contest. I froze. Suddenly time was moving very slowly and my body felt heavy. I couldn't speak. I wanted to cry or scream or do something but I couldn't because I was stuck there in front of a crowd of people.
I went back to Ithaca after that and couldn't pretend that I was okay. I started having flashbacks and panic attacks and feelings of paranoia. I felt that wherever I turned he was going to be there. I started to have trouble in class or even making it to class and became depressed. I was scared to go back to Berkeley Springs for Thanksgiving or winter break and did my best to avoid being at home. Finally in January when I returned to school I sought help in my college's counseling center and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
The years since then have been better. I went through counseling and group therapy for the rest of that year and started to feel better. I still have some PTSD-related problems like the occasional flashback or panic attack, and I still have some trouble with relationships. Those who have experienced sexual assault know that it's not really as simple as getting over it. You can't just stop thinking about it. It doesn't really go away. But it gets easier to deal with. And for me, the more I talk about it, the more I deal with it.
Last March I spoke out about my experience with sexual assault and the response was amazing. I heard from so many survivors, some who had gotten help or spoken out and some who were still not ready, and it helped to have a community of survivors and supporters who I could talk to who understood. (At the same time, of course, it felt wrong that there were so many of us, but it just proves how frequently it really does happen.)
So I'm not really sure where I'm going with this, but my point is, there are a lot of survivors - like 1 in 6 of the women you know. And we might not be able to stop rape and sexual assault from happening altogether, but we can support each other and refuse to be silenced. It took me 7 years to speak up about it and for others it might take more or less, but we have to refuse to be silenced by anyone. Because there are more of us out there who feel isolated and scared and ashamed and they need to know that they're not alone. And because when we allow ourselves to be silenced, our abusers win. So for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I'm speaking up, and I'm encouraging everyone else to do the same - if and when you feel comfortable, and in your own way. We can't keep letting ourselves be silenced.