The UN estimates that at least 1 in 3 women worldwide will experience physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. Sexual violence is defined as any sexual act, attempted sexual act, unwanted sexual comments or advances, or acts to traffic against a person without their consent. Sexual violence includes sexual assault (i.e., rape, attempted rape, groping, forcible kissing, incest, child molestation), sexual harassment (i.e., unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, street harassment, revenge porn), stalking, child marriage, and sex trafficking.
I am 1 in 3.
In 1985, my family moved from the quiet suburbs of Washington, DC to Paris, France. I was nearly 10 years old and had already gone through puberty. By the time I was 15, I had been attacked in an elevator; sexually assaulted and bullied by five classmates on and off for three years; flashed by homeless men on my way to school; groped multiple times by “dirty old men” while taking public transportation; struck by a male principle with a fillip; catcalled by random men while going about my everyday life; and the recipient of an offer of child marriage. In the more than 25 years since, I have experienced numerous incidences of sexual assault, sexual harassment, stalking, and lewd behavior. Nearly all of my perpetrators have been acquaintances: classmates, colleagues, dates. I did not report the majority of these incidences to authorities or tell my community. Partly because, for a long time, every time I spoke up, it cost me more than if I hadn’t said anything at all. And partly because, by the time I was in my 30s, low-grade sexual harassment felt like the cost of being a woman in a man’s world.
For years, I blamed myself and, whenever yet another person (usually, a man in the first wave and, if I shared, a woman in the second wave) hurt me or disrespected me or violated me, I minimized, de-escalated, and stuffed down my anger, fear, shame, and frustration. I was in such denial that, in 2013, when I decided to address my toxic relationship with myself and my emotional eating, it was a shock to discover that both stemmed from my sexual assault in middle school. I began opening up about my experiences in the various women’s circles I belong to in an effort to heal and gain a better understanding of the ripple effects that individual experiences had on my collective life story.
Two amazing and unexpected things happened:
- The more vulnerable I was in safe spaces, the more women met me with support, sisterhood, and empathy, the more my shame melted away, and the more empowered I felt.
- Having the courage to share my survivor stories gave other women the courage to stand up and say “me, too” and share their survivor stories — the first time a man paid them unwanted attention, the first time a boy or man pinched their buttocks or fondled their breasts without their permission, times when they felt unsafe walking down the street in broad daylight or returning home at night, the last time a colleague misused his power and made unwanted advances, times when they were nearly raped, or times when they were actually raped — as well as times when they confided in a friend or family member who blamed them or stigmatized them or judged them or silenced them for being victimized.
We live in a society built around a culture that benefits from keeping women small, disempowered, and scared. Many people still — unconsciously or consciously — believe that sexual violence against women is inevitable because boys and men not only have a right to girls’ and women’s bodies for their own pleasure but also they cannot help themselves. After all, “boys will be boys.” The truth is sexual violence against women has nothing to do with raging hormones or sex and everything to do with fear, anger, power, entitlement, shame, and a narrow, outdated definition of the masculine ideal.
From the conversations that I have had in the past couple of years, it has become clear to me that our society is experiencing an epidemic and way more than 35% of girls and women have experienced some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Unfortunately, the shame attached to being a victim is so deeply ingrained in the fabric of our lives that few women are willing to speak up, which makes each new victim feel like maybe it was her fault, maybe if she hadn’t worn that dress or had that glass of wine or taken that bus or or or; maybe it’s no big deal, maybe she’s too sensitive; maybe being on the receiving end of an intimate partner’s violence is the cost of being loved; maybe being a nice girl means staying quiet when a boss crosses the line; maybe…
What happened to you is not your fault. You are not alone, love. Your voice matters. Join me in sharing your survivor stories and taking your power back. Together, let’s shed light on the darkness of rape culture and step more fully into our sovereignty as girls and women.