Saturday, October 15, 2016

10/17/16—Putting Assault in Its Place

Let's talk about my first sexual assault.

But before we do, a little background. The US Department of Justice defines sexual assault as "any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient." They go on to list everything from uninvited fondling to rape.

In response to the Trump audio where he bragged that he can grope a woman and get away with it because he is a celebrity (aka sexual assault), a woman named Kelly Oxford (@kellyoxford) started the hashtag #NotOkay. She asked women to tweet about their first sexual assault..."first", because so many women have been assaulted multiple times. During the first 14 hours, she estimates she received 50 tweets per MINUTE.

Trump's comments clearly conjured up a whole lot of emotional stuff that women had shoved away in a corner—unhealed, unaffirmed and, in many cases, brushed off by society—hopefully never to be dredged up again. Even I, a woman who has escaped relatively unscathed, have had a lot to think about this week.

It's estimated that nearly one in five women will be raped in her lifetime. And, after talking to friends and reading accounts and googling statistics, I estimate nearly every woman will be stunned and/or traumatized by otherwise unwanted, uninvited and inappropriate sexual actions from a man. It is not rape, and in some cases, is not even sexual assault. But that doesn't mean it's not damaging, intimidating and completely inappropriate.

So here are two of my stories. Like most women, I have more, especially if you include the category of "inappropriate sexual behavior". My first story is one of those. I was 16 and walking back to my car in a mall parking lot. When I got to my car, I look over and see the man parked next to me jacking off. I still remember it clearly 35 years later, because it killed a little piece of me. It wasn't violent, nor was it even directed at me, but right or wrong, it was an introduction to "men aren't safe".

This episode left me feeling vulnerable and scared because I didn't know what it meant. If he was doing that, would he try to attack me? I didn't know. So it was also the first time I felt sexually vulnerable and endangered by a man. An innocence and trust was lost. It was, for lack of better words, heartbreaking. At that time in my life, I had not even had a boyfriend yet. Read a few accounts from other women and you'll see that 16 was kind of old to encounter behavior like this for the first time.

My second story fits into the category of sexual assault. It happened in my early 30s. I was on a city bus I rode to and from the Metro every day with pretty much the same group of people getting on and off at my stop. So one evening, a man swoops into the seat next to me. I'm at the window, so I'm blocked from exit. And he starts running his hand up my thigh and into my skirt.

I'm shocked. I had no idea what to do. So I stand up and push past him to change seats, and he tries to lift my skirt as I pass. I get to the next seat and sit on the outside so he can't get next to me. Passengers get off the bus and he takes the seat across the aisle from me. He reaches across the aisle and does it again. I scream at the top of my lungs, "What the eff is wrong with you?" He then gets up, pulls the cord and runs off the bus.

To add insult to injury, the people I shared that bus with every day just sat there staring straight ahead. Nobody came to my aid. Not one came up to me afterward and asked what happened. As we were walking back to our complex after we got off the bus, not a word was spoken. Worse, when I told my best friend about the situation, she said, "That's what you get when you wear short skirts."

I felt traumatized and alone. And I had no idea what to do with that trauma. When the first person you tell blames you, and when everyone who witnessed it pretends it didn't happen, you learn not to reach out. So you cry and try to make sense of it alone. Eventually, you shove it into some corner of your psyche where you can't see it as it ferments over the course of a lifetime...until something like recent events happens and it comes up again. Until ALL of them, from inappropriate advances to assault, come up again.

So if you wonder why some women don't say anything, that's one reason. You've already been traumatized enough, so why risk being traumatized again by telling the story to people who blame the victim, cops included. Or maybe the abuser is an authority figure in your life and you're scared of the consequences. Or a family member. Maybe you've been threatened with harm. Maybe you're ashamed and self blaming. The reasons why we never tell are many. But make no mistake, not telling does not mean it doesn't cause permanent damage and pain that goes unhealed. Approximately 70% of rape or sexual assault victims experience moderate to severe distress—more than for any other violent crime.

Rape is the most under-reported crime in this country. It's estimated 63% of all sexual assaults go unreported. One third of rape victims contemplate suicide. False claims are estimated to happen 2% to 10% of the time—there is no accurate data for that. When you consider the kind of abuse women risk by reporting these things—being called a liar, being told it's your fault or being called ugly and unworthy of sexual assault by your assaulter—the chances of a woman lying about this on an internationally televised stage just so she can "get attention" are probably pretty slim. It's your word against the man's, and when the man is a famous comedian or running for president, it's an even greater risk.

From catcalls to "carjackers", in the eyes of a woman, even the less criminal acts are intimidating. Men are, on average, larger, stronger and more violent than women. And the types of men who do these things clearly think they're entitled. Often, our court system reinforces that belief, as we saw recently when a judge didn't want to "ruin a young man's life" just because he violently raped a woman. So these acts of intimidation meant to debase and degrade women for the man's pleasure are often deemed acceptable. And when a presidential candidate brags about it and demeans his accusers, whether in a locker room or bus, whether he actually did it or not, it further promotes a culture that says this kind of behavior is OK. It's a threatening affront to both the women and decent, upstanding men of this country.

There are a lot of people out there who think all this talk of assault is a "political distraction". Instead, it's an under-voiced issue of REAL concern in this nation. Most women have a story to tell regarding this and, of course, men can also be the victims of sexual assault. This is a population—possibly a majority population—who is being criminally victimized in this country while people look the other way. It's an issue that knows no political divide. 

If we can obsess over the threat of terrorism in this country, we can obsess about this more frequent, more likely and equally traumatic issue. For many, this issue is long overdue for discussion and just as relevant to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." To dismiss it as a distraction is an insult. In fact, calling it a distraction is actually the distraction. The reason it's not going away is not because of some vast global conspiracy. It's because society has finally evolved to the point that behavior that compromises, insults and victimizes others is simply #NotOkay.

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