Once again the news is filled with a debate about the authenticity of women who claim to have been sexually assaulted by a prominent powerful man. Last year it was a well loved comedian, this year it is a billionaire who is now running for the most powerful political office of our country. I am not going to debate the moral and political issues here. I want to speak up for victims/survivors of sexual assault, of which I am also, as once again we hear the charges that “if the assault was true why didn’t she speak up at that time or press charges?”
I know the questions well. When I share my experiences of incestuous abuse by five family members, of being raped at 14 and nearly raped as an adult. I am asked, ‘Why didn’t you tell someone, or run away from home? Why (as a child) didn’t you say no? Did you try to get away? If the abuse was as bad as you claim why didn’t you leave your family until you were 28 years old?’ For me and many victims the questions feel like piercing indictments skepticism that subtly questions our truthfulness.
As a child I was taught saying “no” was never an option for me. I certainly had no right to say no to the adults in my family – to even look at my mother with any negative expression was to bring down more anger and abuse. I was told from the age of four or five that I was to obey my older brother at all times and that any complaints I might have would not be listened to. By the time I was a teenager I had been so programed to accept the sexual abuse, running away from home was not even on the radar of my mind.
When I was gang raped by 5 classmates at the age of 14, I did say no (they weren’t family so I somehow found the power to say no) but it did no good. I was out numbered and thus physically powerless. Why didn’t I tell someone then? Because as soon as I stood up from the river bank and brushed away the sand, I also brushed the memory from my conscious thoughts, I buried it in my mind. When it finally rose to the surface I was in my mid twenties. I did tell some people then, one friend was supportive, another didn’t believe I could bury such a trauma so completely, and my family accused me of inciting my attackers and being a willing participant. That night my grandfather tried to get into my bed in the middle of the night (he and my grandmother had separate bedrooms). I finally found the voice to say “no” to a childhood family abuser, and he did stop and left my room. I then spent the rest of the night sitting up in the bed shaking as I kept watch of the bedroom door in case he tried to return. Early in the morning my grandmother found me crying in the garage. I told her what had happened and she blamed me, saying I got him worked up by telling them about being rape when a 14 yr. old.
In my late twenties a neighbor in my apartment building that I had spoken with many times in the hall way (never once did I mention my past history of sexual assault) invited me in for a cup of tea. Once seated on his sofa he soon began to force himself upon me. I had to wrestle my way out of his apartment. I was so shaken I immediately went to see a female friend down the hall and told her what had just happened. She blamed me for going into his apartment. I told the management of the HUD subsidized building what happened, and they told me it was my word against his so they would take no action.
My abusers were not powerful by the world’s standards. They had no funds to hire pricey attorneys to bog me down with lawsuits or jeopardize my financial or work situation. So I understand completely why women often don’t report assaults unless something potentially more terrible is about to happen, like a perpetrator seeking the most powerful office of our country. Then the fear of not speaking out becomes greater than the fear of being called a liar and having your name and reputation dragged through the mud.