Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
Coming around to writing this piece has been a constant struggle for me. When I finally get to it, I am frozen like I was when it happened to me. I am angry and unable to coherently put my emotions onto paper. Over time, I have realized that I can turn this anger into something decent and use my ultimate coping skill, writing. So here I am again, trying to channel this anger into something that can be of use to other survivors out there struggling as well.
When I was 14, I was sexually assaulted by someone I grew up with. He was considered to be my cousin. We were both the same age, our moms were best friends, it was the perfect scenario. Until it wasn’t. Growing up, I noticed his aggressive behavior but was programmed to think it was just a ‘boy being a boy.’ When we’d play fight, he wouldn’t stop when I pleaded multiple times for him to. Sometimes he was too touchy, but I never thought anything of it. Again, I thought this was just a boy acting how society had allowed him to.
I realized his behavior was not normal when we went swimming at a hotel pool in my hometown. I still cringe when I see the hotel because I never disclosed this part to my parents. When we were swimming and play fighting under water, he grabbed at my bathing suit and tried to either tear it off or get under it. Either way, I was extremely frightened but brushed it off as I did in the past.
I didn’t know what to think about it. I don’t even think I did think about it. Instead, I kept it inside like I did in all other aspects of my life where I dealt with men who did not understand what boundaries or consent were.
Not too long after the hotel pool incident, I went to the movie theater with him. The original plans included other friends, including my boyfriend at the time, but they ended up bailing. The two of us went through with the plan to see the movie. I grew up with him — I didn’t think twice about going to see a movie alone with him.
Sometime into the movie, he took advantage of the moment and sexually assaulted me. Similarly, to many survivors of assault, I completely froze. At the time, I did not know this was a common response for someone going through significant trauma. My body felt like it was paralyzed. Since my phone was already out I pretended to use it, because I did not know how else to respond. After the fact, I left the theater and went to the bathroom to cry and try to understand what happened. I felt disgusted with myself for not punching his lights out like I would think I’d do in that situation. I did not understand why my body reacted that way and was not informed enough about it to know that it was normal.
After disclosing what happened to me to my closest friend, I came forward to my parents in fear that he would do what he did to me to his two little step sisters, if he hadn’t already. I was also highly afraid of being put in a situation where I’d be alone with him again. At the time, I told my father that I slapped him when he did that to me. I’m not ashamed to say that that part was a complete lie — I was ashamed of myself and did not want my dad to be disappointed with me. Now that I am almost 22, I am saddened to know that I spent years being embarrassed by this. Now I know that at that moment, I did what I needed to survive. I did what I could to survive.
I learned that this reaction to trauma is called ‘tonic immobility.’ The Arkansas Coalition Against Sexual Assault explains this perfectly: “for some victims, it’s corticosteroids, a group of steroid hormones, that have dumped out at very high levels and reduce the energy available to the body. For these victims, they don’t fight back or flee the situation. Their body freezes on them because of this hormonal activation by the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. It can trigger essentially an entire shutdown in the body.” (“What Happens to the Brain During a Sexual Assault?,” n.d).
Tonic immobility is the natural and terrifying response for those in a traumatic situation. In my situation, my body’s natural reaction to the shock of what was happening was muscular paralysis. I had already been on my phone when he became aggressive with me, and to get through it I pretended like I was texting but the rest of me was completely frozen. My mind stopped in a panic — any self-defense I always said I would be capable of in that situation went out the window. It was the scariest feeling, especially not knowing if it would end soon.
Although I have come to terms with what happened, I am angry. I don’t want the person who sexually assaulted me to be satisfied in any way thinking that he is the center of my anger, because there are a lot of components that come with it. I suppose the biggest thing I am angry about is not ever reporting it. I look back at that and internally struggle with being too hard on myself because I was only 14 and afraid of the whole process that would come along with it.
It also did not help that my assailant’s mother immediately blamed me and said that I was lying about the situation. This is someone whom I looked to as an aunt. She gave me advice growing up and was there for me, until that situation. It was immediate blame on me, a 14-year-old terrified girl who was never sexual with anyone. Her son took that from me and all she could do was back him up instead of getting him the proper help as a wise parent would. I still do not understand why she thinks I would make up something like that. I don’t get why anyone thinks sexual assault survivors would want to make up what happened to them and want to deal with what comes along with being brave enough to tell someone about it.
Ultimately, I am angry about how many women and men out there carry this burden with them every day. I want to be clear that I’m not saying it ruins our lives, because survivors are strong people that can thrive regardless of their past. But what happened to us doesn’t go away. I often worry about other women that have or will come into contact with the man who sexually assaulted me. I worry about his stepsisters’ safety. I’m angry that he walks around free even though he has done a terrible thing, just like so many perpetrators out there.
I’m saying all of this to make the point that we need to do better as a society when we talk about sexual assault.
If I had grown up in a world that supported sexual assault survivors and did not push rape culture, I probably would have reported the assault and dealt with the trauma afterward better — right away — instead of years later.
We need to frame conversations about sexual assault in ways that empower survivors and don’t make them feel that they did something wrong or could have prevented what happened to them. We need to let survivors feel comfortable enough to be open about what happened to them if they want to be. I spent years thinking it was inappropriate to express my feelings and talk about it. We can’t continue to shame people into feeling this way. I’m glad that more recently, sexual assault is a topic in the media with the #MeToo movement, but we still have a long way to go.
(Featured Image Credit: National Public Radio)