As women, we have been battling sexual assault and sexual violence since the beginning of time, and now I feel the tide shift as we are starting to change socio-sexual attitudes.
For centuries, men took for granted their control over women. Men strong-armed and absorbed women into their lives along with their money, their property, their rights, and their bodies—forcing them to comply with male desires regardless of how violent, horrific, sexually abusive, or emotionally devastating.
We take for granted many of our current freedoms, as women are more educated than ever before and have become successful at their chosen careers, enjoying a decent amount of financial freedom. Heck, a woman is now Vice President of the United States for the first time.
You might be surprised to know that it wasn’t legal for a woman to have a checking account or a credit card separate from her husband’s until 1974. Workplace sexual harassment wasn’t recognized until 1977, and until 1980 it wasn’t illegal to fire a woman from her job for being pregnant. Shockingly enough, in the United States, marital rape didn’t become illegal in all 50 states until 1993. These dates shock me as they have all occurred in my lifetime. When my mother was married in 1964, none of these laws protecting women existed.
Before these laws were enacted, this centuries-old, systemic, unfair, venomous power play kept all legal, financial, and sexual power in the hands of men. This was all while simultaneously destroying the individuality, peace, and safety of women—devastating our wives, daughters, sisters, grandmothers, and subjugating them to dependence on the men in their lives.
Twenty percent, or 1 in every 5 women, has been victimized by sexual violence. That means that every one of us either knows someone who has been a victim of sexual assault, sexual violence, rape, or we, ourselves, have.
For centuries, women have been put in dangerous and tumultuous situations where they felt if they didn’t comply with some man’s sexual advances (since most sexual violence is perpetrated by someone we know well), they were not safe physically. They were often left feeling like they might not make it out of many scary situations. All of us know someone who has been sexually assaulted—raped—by a close family friend, male relative, or even her father. Almost every woman I know has faced this herself, and it makes me sick. We should all be furious!
This must change!
Imagine this scene—imagine yourself in this position (or maybe this has truly happened to you):
You are a young woman, at the beginning of your young adult life, filled with hopes, dreams, passion for life, and innate trust in the goodness of your world. On a warm, balmy July night, you go out with a charming guy, who you met through a good friend from college. Let’s call this cute guy, Bill. Bill is everything you find attractive in a man. He is charming and funny; he has sandy-brown, wavy hair, and dark brown, soulful eyes. He’s tall, over six feet, and he works out a lot, so he has broad shoulders and strong biceps that make you feel safe and protected when he hugs you. This is sexy to you. And despite just knowing him a few short hours, you feel quite attracted to him.
He takes you to dinner at a restaurant, where you sit outside at a candlelit table on a boardwalk overlooking the ocean. Between the soft ocean breezes, the faint strains of music coming from inside, the crisp, cold Chardonnay, and his intoxicating laughter, you are relaxed and thoroughly enjoying yourself. You’re high on life and the promise of a blissful summer romance.
After dinner, he suggests you take a long drive in his new car along the shore so he can show you around his town. You relish the thought of getting to know him through his geographic touchstones. He points out his neighborhood—a row of quaint, sturdy, New England-style houses nestled into the embracing landscape. And you imagine him as a young boy riding a red bicycle with his friends. He drives down a desolate road as the sun sets, throwing long, dark orange shafts of light along the horizon. Underneath a cluster of weeping willow trees stands two police cars parked with the driver’s side windows facing one another. You glimpse the officers talking. Somewhere in the back of your head, you realize that they are the only other people you have seen along this strip for a long while, and the hairs on the back of your neck perk up—just a bit. You dismiss that shadowy thought; you’re having too much fun feeling free and infatuated on this blissful summer night.
Bill parks the car, and you both sit in silence as the sun disappears beneath the horizon. The dark summer sky envelops you. He switches on the stereo, and soft, romantic jazz fills the world as you sit amiably listening and talking (you have no idea what about). The moment feels thick with summer romance and anticipation.
The next thing you know, Bill is kissing you. At first, the kisses are soft and sensuous, and you like it. But quickly, they became quite passionate—insistent and hungry. Too insistent and hungry. Bill is leaning toward you, moving his whole body closer and closer, his hands everywhere at once as if he had turned into a handsy octopus. You realize he has you pinned in the passenger seat. His desire and physical force became so insistent that he hurts you as he tightens his grip on your left arm and the back of your neck. His knee is between your legs, and you are utterly helpless to resist him.
You try to pull away and tell him that you’re not interested in sex with him on the first date, especially in his car, and certainly not like this. But he does hear you and does not care. Your entreaties and attempts to pull away seem to egg him on as he grabs you harder, more insistently, and tears at your clothing, exposing your breasts.
As acrid tears sting your eyes, your fear and pulse escalate; you do some quick mental calculus. If you somehow could physically separate yourself from him, could you get away? Are the car doors locked? Would he chase you? If you screamed, would anyone hear you? Could you make it back to those parked police cars before he caught you?
All of these potential escape scenarios seem too risky. Who knows what would happen?
Bill is much larger and stronger, and his sexual hunger and physical strength are overpowering as you continue to struggle. Your fear is palpable and immobilizing. So, you decide to acquiesce. Right now, you feel that not complying with his sexual advances would mean you would get hurt or worse. It is easier to give in and be compliant.
You force your body to relax or at least stop fighting against him, and he takes this as a sign that you were feigning your protestations in some futile or antiquated notion of chasteness. Girls say no, but they really mean yes. He hikes up your skirt and unzips his fly in one fluid motion, plunging ahead, without a condom, into his unchecked desire. You close your eyes and imagine you are anywhere but there.
Afterward, you sit in the passenger seat in your torn and disheveled clothes, and he drives you home in silence. You are sickened by what just happened as you try, unsuccessfully, not to replay that whole awful scene in your mind. You try to ignore his hot liquid leaking between your legs. You’ve never felt so dirty and ashamed. Ten thousand showers won’t be enough to wash this away.
You, obviously, never see him again. You learn to make sure that you never put yourself in this position of being alone in a car on a deserted road with a man you don’t 100 percent trust ever again.
Little do you know, but unfortunately, every woman to whom you will ever tell this story will tell you that she, too, has had almost the same experience.
Terrifying and horrible.
This must change!
Tarana Burke, the #metoo movement founder, said on the #MeTooMvmt Instagram account that so many people gloss over sexual violence and try to blow it off as something unimportant. We hear people say, “Oh, I remember that guy. He’s the one who inappropriately touched that girl.” And then they blow it off. Tarana wants us to replace the verb touched with the word murdered and repeat the sentence.
“Oh, I remember that guy. He’s the one who murdered that girl.”
This completely changes the whole meaning and impact. We suddenly realize the gravity of it and can’t ignore it anymore. Sexual assault murders the innocence and wholeness and peace and safety that a woman or girl feels in her own body and her own life.
This must stop!
When talking about how to heal from sexual assault and sexual violence (she was raped at gunpoint when she was 19), Gabrielle Union said, in therapy, she learned that “Trauma has to complete.” Healing from this—and anything traumatic—is a process. It’s time-consuming; it requires time, compassion, and honest, brave, soul-searching. Our feelings have to be felt. That’s why they are called feelings. We need to feel them. We cannot circumvent our feelings. They require acknowledgment to process them, to put them in their place in our catalog of life experiences, so we can begin to heal.
As I always say and have tattooed on my right forearm, the only way out is through. We must go through our feelings to heal from them. Avoiding them will not make them go away; they’ll surface in unexpected ways and haunt us forever.
Sharing our stories brings awareness and empathy. Empathy promotes healing, and as we listen to each other’s stories, fear, and pain, we realize more and more that we are not alone. We are not alone in these terrifying and violating experiences. We are not alone in our fear. We are not alone in feeling our misplaced shame. None of this is or ever was our fault.
We are not to blame. We can move past this only after acknowledging it and allowing the experience to pass through us into our past.
Talk to your friends and family. Find a good therapist to help you find your way through to healing.
Educate your children and teens about boundaries, sexuality, kindness, and empathy. Raise strong, feminist women who can stand up for and take care of themselves. Raise caring, sensitive, kind, respectful, feminist boys and men who don’t buy into the toxic masculinity and the screwed up misogynistic culture of socio-sexual power.
We must continue to stand up and say no more!
We must take the lead in dating and rewrite courtship ritual.
We must continue to treat each other with empathy and shout a resounding #metoo.
Daily, we will continue to organize, speak, share, and create ripples of change in every corner of the planet.
We will not stop until we are all safe.