I don’t have a neat label for what he did to me.
All I’m really sure of is he took something from me that I didn’t want to give, and now I have the trauma but no proof.
I was home for the summer before my senior year of college. I saw him for the first time on stage, playing guitar and leading worship for the youth group where my parents were leaders. Mild flirtation on MySpace became hanging out and then going on a real date. He took me to the driving range on a warm summer night, the air laced with humidity and possibility as he showed me how to angle my club just right. I heard the thwack and saw the ball sail into the sunset and fall gently to the ground.
Within a month we weren’t exactly going on dates anymore. He was 26 to my 20, and though he worked full time, he was always tight on money. His wife had left almost a year ago, and his extra income went to legal fees to make the divorce final (or so he said). We opted instead to watch TV at his house, and perhaps this is where people would say the real trouble began. (You know, the same kinds of people who would ask, “But what were you wearing?”) What was I, a 20-year-old, doing running around with a 26-year-old, still-technically-married man? And why would I go to his house alone?
The very first evening I was there, I said no, and he insisted.
Well, I did let him lead me to the bedroom.
I said please, no, we can’t do this, but it didn’t seem to matter to him.
Well, if he’s as good as guy as everyone says, then maybe it’s not as wrong as I think.
I tried one more time to get him to stop.
He pressed on: “I was married until recently, and now that sex has been a part of my life, I still need it. I can’t control it.”
Well, I guess he has a point.
Later that night, back in my own bed at home, I cried myself to sleep.
It wasn’t just that one time. Over the course of our two-year dating relationship I was coerced into sex constantly with lines like, “Don’t you love me? This is how I need you to show it,” and “When you refuse, I think you don’t want me,” and “When you say no, I can’t help but think there’s someone else.”
He never pinned me down with his arms, but he did with his words. He never clamped a hand over my mouth, but still I felt like I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak. I grew accustomed to my own silence.
The second instance I can clearly label sexual assault. Perhaps it’s because he was a stranger and there was no guise of consent. He didn’t coerce; he just took.
I stood in a crowded El train car, packed in with hundreds of other people on their way to see the Chicago River dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day. My shoulders were pressed against my friends’; there was hardly any room to breathe let alone run.
As we chatted, voices raised to be heard above the drunken hubub, I felt it: there was something between my legs. I froze.
Surely I imagined it, or it was an accident. We’re crammed in here like sardines; how easy it would be to brush against someone the wrong way.
I returned to my conversation, and less than a minute later, it happened again. This time I was certain: there was a hand between my legs, and then a finger trailing along the crotch of my skinny jeans. I struggled to turn around in the crowd, but as soon as I did, I saw him. He was shorter than me, and his navy-blue beanie was pulled low on his head. I looked him in the eye, and I could tell that he knew that I knew it was him. I shimmied backward, trying to put distance between my body and his. He got off a few seconds later at the next stop.
I told my friends what happened, and another girl in our group exclaimed, “He did it to me too! That’s why I awkwardly tried to move a few minutes ago.” I felt simultaneously disgusted that she had experienced it too and angry that her instinct for self-preservation had put me in his path. But, I thought to myself, I did exactly the same thing.
Years later, when I told this story to my husband, he asked me, not ungraciously, “Why didn’t you yell, call him out, make a scene?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, mystified. “That never even crossed my mind.”
A few days ago, I was listening to a Voxer message from a friend. Responding to something unrelated to sexual assault, she told me that she admires my straightforward and clear voice, both in the way I write and talk.
Me? I thought. I come across as straightforward?
I’ve never thought of myself as straightforward, preferring instead to dance around hard topics and not share what I really think. I have opinions, of course—oh lord, I have such strong opinions that for most of my life I’ve been afraid to unleash them. It’s almost never that I’m afraid I might be wrong. It’s that I’ve been taught throughout my life, in obvious ways—like these experiences with sexual assault—and also in very subtle ways—being told by my loved ones that I’m “too argumentative”—that keeping my mouth shut is not a choice but a responsibility. Staying quiet keeps peace. It preserves relationships. It allows us all to believe in a more palatable version of reality.
I’ve known this friend for less than two years, and as I thought about who I’ve become in these recent years, I realized that there has been a marked shift in how I engage with the world. I have turned up the dial on my own voice without quite realizing it, and I have surprised myself by refusing to back down in situations where I historically would have not said anything in the first place.
I asked my workplace to expand paid parental leave, and when I was told no, I revised my proposal and asked again. Where I used to hide behind Christian-y language, I now write and speak honestly about my changing faith. When everything in me wanted to stop before I’d finished the first sentence on this essay, the fire inside pushed me to keep telling the truth. Somewhere along the way, I started to believe that my voice matters.
At first I assumed this was part of my coming-of-age story, a normal shift that happens as women move into their 30s and start to care less about what people think. But as I examined the timeline of these changes in me, I realized that they were kicked off not with my thirtieth birthday but with the election of 2016.
Throughout the election season, I never for a second entertained the idea that America might actually elect Donald Trump, a self-proclaimed predator who has bragged about the ways he’s assaulted women, to the highest office in our country—arguably, the highest office in the world. His own words—“grab them by the pussy”—pretty clearly name my own experiences. Harassment. Assault. Abuse. Trauma.
When my alarm woke me on November 9, I rolled over to check the election results on my phone. My stomach lurched as I scanned the headlines announcing my new leader, and I wondered how I could have been so heartbreakingly wrong. To half of America, assault is something we can blink our eyes at. To half of America, my story doesn’t matter.
I knew it in that moment, as surely as I know the sky is blue: No one was going to tell my story for me. No one was going to ask me to come forward. No one was going to hand me a microphone. It was up to me name my experience, to say that what happened wasn’t okay, and in doing so, to check the power that we give to predatory men. From that moment forward, I resolved to lean in to the opinionated nature I’d always been told was a fault—not to create abrasion and division for the sake of it, but to speak truth to power and demand better on behalf of other humans.
I thought something in me broke that day, but looking back, I see that what was broken had actually been fused back together. Out of that once-broken place, everything I had repressed for three decades came pouring out: righteous anger, devastation, trauma, clarity. Most importantly, the sound of my own voice.
And now I control the volume.