It is Never Your Fault
This article is a little different than my usual newsletter articles. However, I think this is a topic that is important and timely. Sexual assault, sexual harassment—words we shy away from saying in polite company. We don’t want to hear about it. Secretly, many of us harbor doubts about those who say they’ve been assaulted, even if we don’t admit it publicly. We shame victims, explicitly or implicitly, treating them as if they are tainted, dirty. Victims are often re-victimized and vilified if they report sexual assault and some many stay silent. The truth is sexual assault is much more common than you think and it can happen to anyone. I can guarantee it’s happened to someone you love. You may not know it, but it has. It’s happened to me. Today I am sharing my experiences to shine a light on what is too often hidden, to let others know there is no shame, to let others know they are not tainted, stained or devalued. Sexual assault is a crime of power and personal violation, the responsibility for which falls clearly on the perpetrator, never on the victim.
The first time I was eleven. I was staying at a relative’s house. I was in bed, the covers pulled up. My uncle leaned over to say goodnight. He placed his hands on my chest and rubbed. He kissed me on the mouth. I knew it wasn’t right, but I said nothing, not to him, not to my parents, no one. I was afraid I would get in trouble if I said something bad about him. Years later I watched this same relative behave inappropriately toward my niece and my mother-in-law at the wedding reception after my wedding to my now ex-husband.
The second time I was twelve. A friend and I were walking through the downtown area of a small town in suburban Philadelphia. A man parked by the side of the road in a Camaro beckoned us over to his car. This was in the days before stranger danger and abduction paranoia. We walked over to the driver side of his car. He was completely exposed from the waist down. “Look at this,” he said, pointing to his genitalia. “Don’t you want to touch it?” We both screamed and ran. We laughed about it, pretended it wasn’t a big deal, but we didn’t tell anyone.
The third time I was seventeen and on a school sponsored trip. Twenty-five high school seniors in sleeping bags crowded into the living room of a hippie couple’s home in the mountains of New Mexico. The sleeping bag next to me was occupied by an exchange student from Germany. After lights out, it grew quiet. I was awake, but my eyes were closed. Suddenly, I felt a hand reach over and begin fondling my breasts through the sleeping bag. I realized it was “Klaus.” I froze, not sure what to do. I simply pretended to be asleep and rolled away from him. I didn’t mention it to any of the teachers on the trip. The next day Klaus acted like nothing happened and I did too.
The fourth time was the one that almost did me in, not because of the incident, but because of the aftermath. I was working on a research project at UCLA. The project administrative assistant’s desk was in the main office that housed the project files and all associated office equipment. On any given day ten people might go in and out of that office. The door was always unlocked unless the office was empty. On a Friday afternoon I needed a project file. I walked down the stairs (my office was on the sixth floor, the admin. Office was on the fifth floor). The office door was locked, so I opened it with my key. I expected the office to be empty, but as I opened the door I saw Frank (not his real name) sitting in his desk chair, his pants and underwear around his ankles. I will spare you the details, but suffice to say he was doing things one should only do in privacy. He was so startled by seeing me he fell out of his chair. I was so shocked I continued into the next room to retrieve the file I needed, went out the other office door, ran up the stairs to my office, went in and locked the door. I didn’t know what to do. My first inclination was to pretend it didn’t happen. I was in shock.
The only thing I could think to do was to call Soni. I explained what had happened and she told me I had to report it. I called the department HR manager. She was sympathetic and told me to call the employee counseling number and also to contact campus HR. I did and then I got in the car and drove home, as I was too shaken to stay at work. On my way home, my cell phone rang. It was the department manager. He proceeded to question me about what happened. These are the questions I can remember: “Are you sure his pants were down?” How far down did his shirt hang?” Are you sure you saw what you think you saw?” I didn’t know how to answer. I felt more abused by his questioning then by the incident itself. Finally he said, “It’s really your word against his. There were no witnesses. I will talk to him, but if he doesn’t admit to anything there’s nothing we can do.” I was flabbergasted, stunned, shocked. I found out later this same administrator had instructed the HR manager to stop helping me in any way and to not give me any more information. Luckily for me, Frank e-mailed me and admitted what he’d done. I thought that would make it a done deal. Not so much. In the end all that happened was that Frank was allowed to transfer to another department. The department manager made it clear to me that they didn’t want to risk a law suit if they damaged Frank’s reputation by firing him. He never once indicated he was worried about my well being, never expressed sympathy, never acted as if he cared.
I relate this not to get sympathy from anyone. I worked through the event and have no lasting scars, mostly because I had the support of my partner, Soni and because I didn’t stay silent. I share this because this attitude is all too typical. It’s what is playing out in the media right now, today. Most victims of sexual assault are women and most perpetrators are straight, white males. It is time to break the silence. It is time to stand up and say this is not okay. I urge you, if you’ve been the victim to stand up, to get help. If this has happened to you, it’s not your fault. It is NOT, It is NEVER your fault. If you or someone you know has been a victim, you can call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline and be directed to help in your area: 800-656-4673. You are not alone.