Ending Shame For Sexual Assault Victims
Far too often shame is directed at, or internalized by, people who are victims of rape.
In the summer of 1984, I was a University of Florida student. One night, just after 3 a.m., I was awoken by a man who had broken into my apartment.
He pinned my arms down, straddled my body, tied my own clothing around my head and face to blindfold me, and forced clothing in my mouth. He told me that if I fought or screamed or tried to get away, he had a knife and he would use it. He cut the side of my hand to make sure I understood. At that moment I realized: Whatever is next, it is just going to happen. There is nothing I can do.
I started thinking what it would do to my mom if she got a phone call from police that I had been stabbed and was in a hospital, or that I’d been killed. She would never recover. I told myself: I have to live through this. Finally ... he left. I had been raped.
Life is made up of a million moments. Some are beautiful. Some moments are so intense and terrifying that it’s hard to imagine that you can, and will, live beyond it. Here is what mattered: I lived and I am able to tell this story.
Just a few months before this happened, the man who did this to me had been released from prison after serving only eight years of a life sentence for strangling and raping a 79-year-old woman. After I was victimized, he was caught and arrested in Gainesville for four counts of sexual battery against four victims.
For a long time, I was fearful and humiliated. It took over a year before I felt safe being alone in a house or apartment. I felt shame that I had not been able to keep this from happening. Until that point, I thought that if you wanted to prevent rape, you could by screaming, fighting or getting out of the situation. I feared that people thought I had not tried to do these things.
What I came to realize is that cooperation and compliance, when it comes from terror or threat of harm, is not the same thing as consent.
I was 23 when this happened. For the next 23 years, the only times I spoke about what had happened to me was when I appeared and spoke at a parole hearing, to tell why this serial rapist should not be released from prison.
Twenty three years after I was attacked, I decided I wanted to have a victim/offender dialogue with an inmate. I wanted to confront this man who had attacked me. I contacted prison officials to make this happen and he agreed to meet me.
A few days later, he backed out. I was devastated. Once again it seemed he had all the power. After getting the news, I sat down and started writing a screenplay. It was a story about me meeting with and confronting this man. I was in complete control of this story. I wrote how the conversation would go. This time, everything was on my terms.
Through luck and a bit of determination, my screenplay was made into the film “Somewhere Beyond.” This screenplay allowed me to change the ending to this chapter of my story. In the process, I let go of feeling so self-conscious, ashamed and embarrassed.
I have spent the last 29 years as an advocate for crime victims, a profession where it is possible to have an impact on the endings of stories, and to support people who have felt shame, sadness and hopelessness about the circumstances and behaviors that were directed at them. Rape can’t be erased, but devastation can be diluted with kindness, respect, support and regaining control of your life.
Last year, I created a website (Unshame.org) and Facebook page that connects victims of rape with a supportive community through messages of hope, resilience and compassion.
Far too often shame is directed at, or internalized by, people who are victims of rape. Shame can impact a person’s decision to disclose or report their attack.
One in 5 women and 1 in 16 men are sexually assaulted in college. Sixty three percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. Only 2 percent of incapacitated rape survivors report assault. Eight in 10 survivors knew their attacker.
These statistics were the impetus for the Me Too campaign. Because you know who has been a victim of rape? Your co-worker, the person you sit by in church, your child’s teacher. They are us. I created Me Too to bring visibility to the people behind the statistics and an end to feeling ashamed by someone else’s behavior.
Every sexual assault survivor is invited to wear a Me Too wristband, button or temporary tattoo. Good people who support rape victims and survivors can also wear a Me Too button.
Because you know what is shameful about rape? Blaming a victim. There is no shame in being a survivor of sexual assault. And my story? It isn’t finished yet.