October of my freshman year of college, my father bought me a pink can of pepper spray to keep with me at all times. Starting college in 2015, everyone was talking about sexual assault. The statistics were circling, nearly a quarter of women attending college would be sexually assaulted. Across the country, young women were stepping up and sharing stories about the ways their bodies had been treated as objects. Young women, like the student at Columbia University carrying her dorm mattress across campus from class to class, were brave and inspiring in their fight to create awareness. I struggled to imagine why any victim of sexual assault would keep their story private in this time of social change.
Reporting and charging sexual predators was such a simple concept to me at the time. Perpetrators of sexual assault deserve to be charged and disciplined for their actions. More importantly, they need to be prevented from continuing a pattern of harm. This was the way I understood sexual assault and society’s reaction to it. I knew charging sexual assault was never easy; I had seen plenty of stories in the news about men emerging with less-than-appropriate sentences as the legal system chose to put their future over those of the affected women. However, despite the difficulties that came with legal action, I felt that it was every victim’s responsibility to act and ensure their assaulter would never be able to harm another. What I was not able to comprehend at the time is that I was one of the many women that had been sexually assaulted and chosen not to act on it.
As a young girl I was repeatedly molested and assaulted over a period of roughly two years. I was a 10-year-old girl smitten with the boy down the street, certain I was in love. He was a 14-year-old boy taking advantage of the power he knew he possessed over me. It took me years to realize that what had conspired between the two of us was not consensual, though it may have felt it at times. No matter the feelings I thought I felt for this boy, I was in no way capable of consenting to the actions that took place in dark corners of the park and empty bedrooms. Despite eventually coming to this realization, I never considered myself a victim of rape. I saw it as a chapter in my past and tried to believe I had left it firmly there.
Half a year ago I realized my past was not stagnant. My sexual assault is a fluid part of my existence, affecting my mental state to this day, and with this reality came the understanding that what happened to me was significant. My assault was just as significant as that of the young woman at Columbia carrying her mattress on her back. My assault was significant and if I chose to do so, I could take my rapist to court. I began preparing myself mentally for the battle ahead and went through old Facebook messages looking for evidence. I met with a close lawyer friend and explored my options, ranging from restraining orders to a lawsuit. For a week or two I believed this was finally my path to closure. The process of having my assault recognized legally would force me to fully accept what had been done to me and move forward. I was sure of my decision, until I returned home for winter break and found myself frozen at the idea of telling my parents what had happened to me.
I was acting, doing something I considered to be my responsibility by making sure my rapist wouldn’t be able to impact someone else’s life in the way that he had impacted mine. This was what I believed in. So why couldn’t I tell my parents? I told myself that I was being a coward and, with a bit of bravery, I would eventually be capable of confiding in my parents this dark stain on my past. Every time I contemplated telling them I remembered things: the day my dad bought me pink pepper spray and told me that he would have to kill someone if they ever hurt me, the pain and worry in my parents’ eyes and voices when I struggled with depression and panic attacks as a freshman in college. I couldn’t bear to see their reactions to one of their worst nightmares coming true.
For months I lived with my decision not to tell my parents about my assault or pursue legal action. I saw myself as a hypocrite for not acting on what I perceived to be a personal responsibility. How could I expect others who have had similar experiences to take action when I couldn’t? The thing about sexual assault is that you are never fully healed; it is never a fixture of the past. Every day I make decisions that are affected by my assault, even though it happened over a decade ago. It took me 10 years to process what happened to me and I am just now starting to recognize the significance of my experience. Right now, the healing process includes sharing my story with those closest to me, including my parents. For me, healing will probably never include taking legal action like I might have thought six months ago – and that’s okay. I am slowly learning, no victim of assault has a responsibility to take outward action. The only responsibility we have is to become survivors and do what is necessary to make ourselves start to feel healthy again.