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My #1Thing: Believe Survivors

My #1Thing: Believe Survivors

I was in high school drinking at a friend’s house with five or six other people. I don’t remember exactly how old I was or the names of every person that was there. My friend lived far out in the country so we had all planned to spend the night. I remember we rode 4-wheelers and played drinking games. I don’t remember which ones. I don’t remember how much I had to drink but I know I was inebriated. Eventually, I went upstairs to go to bed. I remember one of the boys coming into my room and getting into the bed with me. I pretended to be asleep, hoping he would go away. He did not seem to care if I was asleep and began groping me and pulling my clothes off. I told him to stop but instead he got on top of me. Again and again as I struggled I said, “Please stop.”

I don’t remember how I was finally able to get away from him. I remember him calling me a bitch as I left the room. I remember finding the friend whose house we were at and tearfully telling her what had happened. She responded by laughing and saying that I rode on the 4-wheeler with him and had been flirting so it wasn’t a big deal and I should just go back to bed. I remember her calling me a prude as I left the room.

I may not remember all the details, but there are aspects I will never be able to forget.

Like many women, I have had other similar experiences. There are countless smaller experiences that do not haunt me as intensely but add to my knowledge that there are men who feel entitled to my body – being followed by a pack of strangers as I was leaving a bar with my friend, an acquaintance groping me and then “joking” he just wanted to see if I was wearing underwear and a bra, an ex-boyfriend who used his power in our relationship to demand sex from me.

Recently, I was talking with some male friends about their experience on dating apps. One was complaining that some of the girls he wanted to meet up with “flaked.” Another then said, “I bet she was afraid you were going to murder her.” It was an off the cuff statement intended as a joke but I could tell that he almost immediately realized the truth in it. They asked if I ever felt that way meeting a man for a first date. My completely honest answer was, “Every time.”

I told them how before I met someone I would text my best friend their name, their phone number, where we were going, when I should be home. I told them how I would discreetly text her throughout the night to let her know I was still safe, and that I would let her know when I was home safely. I felt compelled to do that every time – and all of that was for men I deemed a potential romantic interest.

It was clear to me that these men – men I know to be “good guys” – had never considered the lengths to which women have to go to feel safe.

My brother is an exceptionally good guy, and a sexual assault survivor himself. He told me that until a female friend explained that she is constantly aware of the potential to be physically overpowered by the men around her he was completely unaware that even he may be intimidating. This was distressing for him because he knows that he would never assault anyone and he assumed that she knew that also. Even though she assured him he’d never done anything to make her feel uncomfortable, the awareness was still present. We talked about how, even after his experience of assault, he could not identify with that pervasive feeling of fear. It was troubling to him to realize that many women, because of the experiences they’ve had or because of the experiences they’ve seen their friends and family endure, don’t feel truly safe.

I would like to explain why I asked that this be published anonymously. I work for Safe Harbor. I know how to advocate for myself and have the means to do so. I know that my family and friends would be supportive. But, for many reasons, I still choose to keep these experiences private. It is painful to think about them. I just don’t want to have to talk about them. I feel ashamed. I know it would be painful for my family to learn these things happened to me and I want to spare them. I’m afraid I’ll be pitied. I blame myself. Intellectually, I know that these are not all rational. But those feelings are still very real for me.

Also, I get messages – from men and from women – which reinforce those feelings and continue to make me afraid to share publicly. Some comments I have heard in conversation or seen on social media in the last two weeks:

“If this really happened, one of the people there would remember something.”

“Why didn’t she tell anyone or report it to the police?”

“I taught my daughter to be strong and to not put herself in situations like that.”

“I don’t have scars in my hippocampus requiring years of therapy and two front doors.”

“My momma raised me to be strong. If that happened to me, I’d tell.”

Watching survivor after survivor come forward with their stories of sexual assault or abuse, often for the first time, has been both painful and inspiring. In considering whether to share my own story, I thought about those conversations with men in my life. I thought about how even the “good guys” weren’t fully aware until a woman they know shared their personal experience with them.

It is every survivor’s right to share their story where and how they decide, if at all. Not every person making comments like these will have a person in their life who feels comfortable or safe enough to share their story with them. I, like so many others, decided to share with the hope that the people who make those comments and hold those attitudes will hear our collective voices and be made aware.

When we say “Believe Survivors” it is because those kinds of comments show me that if I shared my story it would be judged. I would be judged. Those kinds of comments show me that there will be people who assume that I am lying, or overreacting, or exaggerating. Survivors of domestic abuse know these attitudes all too well. Many tell me how knowing they would be judged in these ways encouraged them to remain silent. I often wonder if the boy who assaulted me has hurt anyone else.

If we lived in a culture that believed and valued survivors’ stories perhaps I would not have been so afraid to share my story. If that were the culture we lived in perhaps I could have prevented that next person from being hurt. We believe survivors because not believing them puts all women at risk.

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