I am a survivor of sexual violence.
This statement has been five years in the making. Five years ago, I was sexually assaulted in a hallway of my grade school. Five years ago, I never would have thought I would tell anyone. Five years ago, I suppressed my pain and tried not to think about it. Five years ago, I felt like a victim, not a survivor.
My journey from victim to survivor took five long years because of the stigma surrounding sexual assault. Although the #MeToo movement has instigated many conversations, fear of stigma remains a silencing force.
Bstigmafree.org, a nonprofit committed to reducing stigma, bias and prejudice, puts it perfectly: “We live in a world that doesn’t like to talk about sexual assault. Sexual violence is grossly underreported to the authorities, victims are blamed and persistently stereotyped by society and the media, and there is a general lack of understanding about the extent of the problem and the true nature of the crime.”
For example, too many people who don’t understand sexual violence will blame a victim of assault because of what he or she wore. Others naively think that rape doesn’t occur in relationships, for example: that a husband or boyfriend could not rape a wife or girlfriend. Others think minors who get abused did something to lure innocent adults into illicit relationships. None of these things are true. Myths like these prevent many victims from coming forward.
Fear of being blamed or stereotyped causes victims to underreport sexual assault, but this shouldn’t block a person’s path to healing. Victims shouldn’t have to be afraid of seeking justice. Most people who report a sexual assault face a wide range of negative personal consequences, so the claim that they do it for attention is unacceptable and frankly disgusting. So many of these stories go untold out of fear: fear of not being believed, fear that no justice will be found, fear that it will happen again.
But no more.
The stigma around sexual assault hurts people, keeping them victims rather than survivors. It promotes a social climate that makes sexual assault seem acceptable and defensible, even though it’s not. We must break the stigma by talking about it. It took me five years to come forward, but I have discovered strength in sharing.
The sooner a perpetrator’s actions are discovered, the more likely future violence can be prevented. But without people speaking up, perpetrators may find there is no danger in abusing others, causing this cycle to repeat and people being hurt. Sexual violence may not end while we live in this sinful world, but to ignore it is to condone it. Change will not happen unless we demand it.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 995 perpetrators will walk free. This number shakes me to my core. These perpetrators could be anyone: a brother, a neighbor, a janitor, an employer, a parent, a teacher. Without the proper action being taken, however, we may never know the dangerous people walking right past us.
Speaking up is a key part in preventing this kind of violence, but survivors aren’t the only people who should speak up. Witnesses, family, friends and allies should all talk about sexual violence. In our society, sexual assault is not something often discussed.
Organizations like Take Back the Night, a nonprofit that seeks to end all forms of domestic and sexual violence through awareness events, and NO MORE, a coalition of allies, advocates, survivors, government agencies and individual citizens working toward preventing sexual violence, are trying to change that. These groups, among many others, seek to break the stigma surrounding sexual violence.
I will say it once, I will say it again, and I will never stop saying it for the sake of others: I am a survivor of sexual violence.
I spoke up; you can too.
If you aren’t a survivor, stand with those who are, and if you see something, say something. Your voice can change a life, can save a life. Allies and empathetic ears make a difference. The more people who feel empowered to say “me too,” the more victims can get the justice they deserve.
So I ask you: speak up.