I’ve carried the darkness for 23 years. As I’ve reflected on why I didn’t report, I’ve come to realize that I’m part of the universal cover up. I’m embarrassed. I want my privacy. I don’t want to be affiliated with debauchery or promiscuity. I didn’t want to be labeled the radical poster child of the “women’s movement.” But I know now that I am at a precipice. I can no longer support justice quietly, from my safe haven of privacy and solitude. I need to shoulder some of the risk, I need to normalize speaking out.
I was 16. I was introverted and studious. I was committed to athletics and school, to going to bed early and maintaining a healthy diet. I’d never been to a high school party. I didn’t drink, I didn’t smoke. I had few close friends, spending my time with my high school sweetheart, reading good books and working out. That’s when sexual assault came knocking on my door- or rather, storming right through it.
It was roughly 11 PM on a summer night. I don’t remember the exact date. Years and trauma have washed away the transactional details- what remains are the vivid emotions. I had long since been asleep in my own bed, in our quiet neighborhood, in sleepy Des Moines, IA. I was a light sleeper and heard my bedroom door open, a shadowy figure outlined in the space. He closed the door quickly behind him and I knew... I was not naïve to darkness in the world, to catcalls, lingering touches, the leers of men both young and old. My life had been lived with the caution required of being a young female in this world. I had an older brother and his friends came and went into our home frequently. Usually filling the space with laughter, but tonight filling it with something horrible.
Adrenaline was pulsing through me, I scanned the room for an escape. We lived in a small home and it took him just one step to leap from the door to my bed, smothering me with his 18 years of masculinity. The smell of alcohol was pungent, a sour stench radiating off of him. I recognized him as a boy who had attended my high school, a few years older than me. He had been on the wresting team, muscular and athletic. I knew almost nothing else about him.
There were no words, no kind gestures. He aggressively kissed me, forcing himself on me, making me gag on the abrupt attack and sour taste. There was no pretending that he intended anything to be consensual. He forced all of his weight on me, frantically grabbing at my body. I was sleeping in a t-shirt and athletic shorts. My instincts had taken over and I was fighting back with all of my might, turning my face away, trying to push him off of me. I plead, “STOP, STOP, STOP, GET OFF!” His hand was up my shirt now, clawing at me and tears were in my eyes as I pushed against him with all of my power and will. Why didn’t I scream? To channel what my 16 year old self was thinking is difficult because I am a different person now. Today I’d scream from the top of my lungs. I’d bite his ear off. I’d be unapologetic about defending my body and soul. But we, the world, don’t teach girls to be unapologetic. We teach them to question, to be thoughtful about others, to be polite with words and level with actions. We teach them not to be presumptuous, or rude or hurtful. I was a “good” girl, a rule follower and not a wave maker. I wanted to defend my body, but be humble and kind while doing it.
He was grasping at my shorts and I was in pure panic. It was exactly what I held up, of all of the fears in my young mind, as my worst nightmare. He was grinding on me with his full body weight, enjoying the game of cat and mouse. I was sobbing, my neck straining to get my face away from him. I couldn’t move, his 50 pound advantage pinning me down. I suddenly felt his body go limp and he chuckled lightly. He stood up, staggering slightly, and sheepishly grabbed at his pants, indicating he’d “finished” what he started earlier than he meant to. He staggered out of my room without another word.
I was left with the weight of shame and fear, and I wore it like a coat as the years ticked by. I was diligent about my personal safety, I steered away from men, dark spaces, college parties, any place where I didn’t feel in total control. I went on one date, with one boy in college, breaking it off after he tried to kiss me. I didn’t tell my mom, my best friends or my eventual husband. I didn’t label what happened. I didn’t say, even to myself, “that guy sexually assaulted me.” When the attacker’s name on rare occasions came up in social circles, I’d mutter quietly, “that guy was always a creep” and drop it.
Today, I am done covering it up. It’s inhumane to take dignity and safety from another person and I will not perpetuate the notion that it’s dirty to talk about being a victim.
I am a CEO. I am a leader of people, a protector of youth. I am strong, achievement-driven, intelligent and compassionate and I am standing here today saying what happened to me was someone else’s wrong. It was not dirty or scandalous. It was not deserved or radical. I teach girls every single day about self worth and strength, and it is my duty to risk something, and share in the job of shouldering the enormous weight of changing the way we talk about sexual assault. In the words of my high school basketball coach, “this isn’t a spectator sport, get in there and fight.” Maybe it took 23 years, but I’m in the fight.