Editors note: The author of this essay is a 52-year-old Massachusetts woman. We've granted her request for anonymity because of the personal and painful nature of its content. We also believe her desire to remain anonymous, nearly 40 years after she was assaulted, says something powerful about the effect this experience has had on her life.
In March 2013, I published an anonymous essay about being sexually assaulted by five male classmates in 1981 when we were 15 years old. I was moved to write that essay because I was so angry about the way a teenage sexual assault victim from Steubenville, Ohio was being publicly vilified for drinking alcohol and passing out, which a group of boys then viciously took advantage of. The incident, including the victim’s clear incapacity, had been captured on video, which was probably the only reason the two rapists were held to account. My heart broke for the teenager who was being doubly victimized. First, she was sexually violated. Then, she was blamed in the national media for somehow “allowing” or even “encouraging” the rape to happen.
As sickened as I was by the incident, I only agreed to publish that article with the understanding that my identity would be kept private. I didn’t want my teenage sons to know what had happened to me. I didn’t want my current circle of friends to know about that part of my past.
I still don’t want my identity revealed. Even now, as women across the country step forward to share their #MeToo stories. And even as Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick bring allegations of sexual misconduct against Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
Keeping a “secret” is part of what is so damaging about sexual assault. It festers inside of you, allowing the shame to grow.
I don’t want to spend emotional energy discussing and reliving that awful part of my life with each friend or loved one who reads this essay. I also don’t want to risk the professional reputation I’ve worked years to build on the off-chance that someone I know — or who finds me on the internet — decides to harass me. I particularly fear harassment or humiliation aimed at my boys or my husband.
It’s true that almost 40 years after that incident and its aftermath, I still feel shame. It embarrasses me to discuss, or even to think about, the degrading details of my assault:
How I was new to town; how a popular boy I vaguely knew, “John,” called to see if he and four friends could come over to my house one Saturday night when my parents weren’t home; how we watched TV for a while with my younger brother before going into the living room to talk; how one boy asked if they could see what my bedroom looked like; how we talked in my room for a few minutes until John said, “one, two, three” and they all jumped on top of me and started tearing off my clothes; how I struggled and yelled to John to get everyone off me; how he said he would — as long as I would let each boy have a turn; how I agreed — I didn't know what else to do; how before that night, I had only kissed one boy, after he had been my boyfriend for several months; how I arrived at school the next Monday to everyone laughing at me and calling me a slut; how I had to endure three more years at that high school before applying to a college across the country and never looking back.
As a 15-year-old, I was confused, overwhelmed, devastated, alone. The adults in my life didn’t ask what had happened after my behavior markedly changed or ask how they could help, maybe thinking it was just normal teenage angst. I was naïve in not knowing how to ask them for the help I so desperately needed.
Keeping a “secret” is part of what is so damaging about sexual assault. It festers inside of you, allowing the shame to grow. Since you don’t have anyone else to act as a sounding board, you’re at the mercy of your own crazy repeating thoughts — replaying the incident over and over, wishing you had done some little thing differently in the hope that the assault could have been avoided. Additionally, you will do almost anything to make sure the secret won’t be revealed, which can make the initial situation even more damaging. You engage in self-destructive behaviors to blot the pain or to subconsciously punish yourself. Your self-esteem plummets. You think you are unlovable, dirty and bad.
I didn’t even know the concept of “rape” before it happened to me, so how was I supposed to know these seemingly cool boys were plotting something so evil?
Eventually, through therapy, I was able to understand that my behavior didn’t cause the assault — John’s did. Sure, I let them come over to my house when my parents weren’t home, because I was excited to hang out with boys who apparently wanted to spend time getting to know me. No alarm bells went off when one of them asked to see my bedroom. I had neat things in my room to look at, and the white desk where I studied was there, so I didn’t think of it as just the place where my bed was. I didn’t even know the concept of “rape” before it happened to me, so how was I supposed to know these seemingly cool boys were plotting something so evil? My fervent hope is that the #MeToo movement has educated potential victims so they will be more psychologically prepared to thwart an attack than I was.
No alcohol was involved when I was raped, though women are often blamed for their assaults if they have been drinking (our president said so just this week): as if there is an equivalency between voluntarily drinking alcohol and being sexually violated against your will. I don’t understand why this only happens to rape victims. For instance, in 2017 several male college students tragically died after being hazed by their prospective fraternities. No one blamed those victims for drinking too much alcohol or for putting themselves in a situation where others could easily take advantage of them. The blame rested squarely where it should have: on the aggressors.
I marvel at the strength of Blasey Ford, Ramirez and Swetnick, for coming forward — in front of the entire world — to describe the degradation and violence they say they suffered 35 years ago. They know, like me and so many other victims, that they will be blamed for the disgusting, criminal behavior they were subjected to. They will also be blamed for ruining Kavanaugh’s career (or at least his character) as if his alleged deeds themselves weren’t the disqualifying factor.
Regardless of Kavanaugh’s fate, their bravery moves us another step up the ladder towards a fuller understanding of why we must #BelieveSurvivors. I thank them for that.