I want to write about something that’s uncomfortable—something that’s been a source of shame for most of my life, something I’ve kept secret. When I was a child, I was sexually assaulted—not raped, but I was repeatedly fondled and kissed by an adult male who was supposed to be someone I trust.
That does something to a person.
Why, you might wonder, is there shame attached to being sexually assaulted? I honestly can’t answer that, but until the “Me Too” movement I felt like, if people knew what had happened to me, they would think I was weak or pathetic or that something was wrong with me. I felt like people would judge me the same way they judge (unfairly, I might add) alcoholics and addicts and those with mental health issues.
So I kept quiet, but that’s not to say I haven’t dealt with the trauma. (And even as I write the word “trauma,” I wonder if I’m being overly dramatic. But you know what? I’m not. It happened to me, and it tore me up inside, and it’s only in the past few years that I’ve begun to heal.) I wrote about it in a roundabout, fictional way in my novel A Work of Art. But even after my book was published, I still wasn’t ready to admit publicly that I’d been sexually assaulted. I remember distinctly my publicist asking me, given the content of my book, if I was going to make it public, and I said no. If I was asked, I would say that someone very close to me had been sexually assaulted (which was true), but I wouldn’t reveal that I had been a victim myself. It wasn’t just me who was being evasive. My publisher made a conscious decision not to reveal on the book’s cover that the main character had been sexually assaulted by her father. It was deemed too off-putting. Maybe it still is. But I’d like to change that mindset.
Sexual assault happens more than you might think. If you don’t believe me, here are some statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
- One in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives
- In the U.S., one in three women and one in six men experienced some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime
For child sexual abuse, the numbers are even more bleak:
- One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old
- 34% of people who sexually abuse a child are family members of the child
- Only 12% of child sexual abuse is ever reported to the authorities
Pretty sobering, right?
I don’t mean to be a downer, but I think it’s important for people to realize that this happens all the frigging time and that, due to our “blame the victim” culture, survivors often either keep their assault a secret or, if they do tell, they often aren’t believed. And even if they are believed, they’re often blamed—“You let this happen to you.” Or they’re seen as being weak for having to air their dirty laundry. “Suck it up,” we’re told. “Deal with it.”
Well, that’s what I’m doing. I’m dealing with it by opening my mouth, by telling the world that this happened to me, and it’s not okay. It messed me up for a long time without me even realizing it, but thankfully I’ve found a path to healing. That path started with writing a fictional book. And it continues today with me being brave enough to admit that it happened. (Even now I almost typed that I let it happen.)
But here’s the thing: Being a victim of sexual assault doesn’t define me—it doesn’t come close to defining me. Even so, I want people to know it happened so that I can be part of the solution. I’m opening my mouth to create awareness and to help create a culture where victims are believed and not stigmatized, where they’re seen as strong survivors rather than weak victims.
My book A Work of Art deals with a teenage girl who has mixed-up feelings about what happened to her. Because it was her father who sexually abused her, she’s wadded up the experience and pressed it down tight, afraid to acknowledge it, afraid to even believe that it happened. That’s what happens to many of us, and I think it’s time we felt less afraid. For me, that means acknowledging the truth and trying to give back in order to heal. In fact, trying to give back has been a big part of my healing process. And that’s why, in honor of April being Sexual Assault Awareness Month (#SAAM), I’ve created this Goodreads giveaway for my book.
Before I go, I want to leave you with one more statistic from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center:
- Rape is the most under-reported crime; 63% of sexual assaults are not reported to police
Why is that, do you think? Is it because the victim is stigmatized? Not believed? Is it because our culture teaches us to suck it up and keep our mouths shut? Well, I’m done keeping my mouth shut. I was sexually assaulted as a child, and one of the reasons he got away with it is because I was too afraid and too ashamed to say anything. No more. #Time’sUp.
If you’ve been sexually assaulted, you don’t have to deal with it alone. The National Sexual Assault Hotline can give you free, confidential, and anonymous support. 800-656-HOPE