As I walked up Constitution Avenue during the Women's March on Washington this past Saturday, I bit my lip in an effort to control the lump growing in my throat. To be out in force among hundreds of thousands of brave, smart, #nasty women was deeply affecting, to say the least. Then my eyes landed on one protest sign in particular, and I could no longer hold back the tears.
The sign featured a quote from Maya Angelou: "Each time a woman stands up for herself - without knowing it possibly, without claiming it - she stands up for all women."
The idea was overwhelming. Me, standing up for myself. Me, standing up for other women. Me, a survivor of sexual assault. I wasn't a prisoner of my past. I was here. I was doing it.
My assault happened in high school.
He was a college guy, and I was a sexually inexperienced 18-year-old H.S. senior who thought she was the s**t for being at a college party. After playing a game of beer pong, the guy invited me into a room with him "to talk." We hadn't flirted at all, I didn't know who he was, and I had already downed two cups of beer (a lot to a lightweight like me). I thought he just wanted to get away from the loud music and just, well, talk to someone. I was wrong.
He closed the door and pretended to listen for a few minutes while I told him my dreams of attending college in New York. Then abruptly, he leaned in for a kiss.
"Tell me if you want me to stop," he slurred.
Startled, I turned my face away. He responded by aggressively pulling me closer, which sent a terrifying thought through my mind: "No" wasn't really an option with this guy. He pressed me to a wall and leaned against me, kissing my neck and insisting that I wanted him. "Are you comfortable?" he asked. I awkwardly laughed and said I wasn't, but he continued squeezing my breasts and butt, moving his hands between my thighs and fondling my private area. He never asked if it was OK, and I never wanted any of it to happen.
He whispered that he would "take care" of me and told me to relax. Instead, I froze in fear. Was I about to lose my virginity to a guy I didn't even know? Too afraid to fight and not wanting to cause a scene, I fixed my gaze on the broken futon at the other end of the room, my eyes welling with tears.
The assault was interrupted when one of my guy friends at the party opened the door in search of a bathroom. Without a word, I grabbed my friend's hand and bolted from the apartment. We sat in the car for about an hour as he hugged me and tried to calm me down. I finally ventured back to the party for my coat, the college guy had vanished.
Not long ago, I would've told you that I had almost completely forgotten about the assault. At the time, I was busy with AP classes, college applications and extracurricular clubs. Whenever the memory creeped into my consciousness, I forced myself to ignore it. And I definitely didn't talk about it with my other friends or parents. The sooner I forget about it, the faster I can move on, I reasoned. By the time I started college, my assault felt very far away.
Six years later, though, Donald Trump entered the political spotlight. And it all came rushing back.
Trump's "p***y" comments triggered wrenching flashbacks.
At first, news of Trump's past sexist comments (like, "Putting a wife to work is a very dangerous thing") just made me angry. How could a man running for the highest office in our country have such intense disrespect for women - and not even seem to mind if everyone knows it?
It wasn't until the Access Hollywood tape leaked that my anger was joined by more personal feelings: disgust, fear, shame.
"I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss," Trump said of his sexual advances on women in a conversation with show host Billy Bush in 2005. "I don't even wait…grab 'em by the p****."
Upon hearing that, I was transported back to the college party in that dingy, dark apartment. I smelled the cheap beer. I heard the music thumping through the wall. I saw the broken futon. I felt the guy's weight against me, his beer breath on my neck.
I felt even worse when I saw people on talk shows and in my Facebook feed defending Trump's words. His conversation with Billy Bush was "just boys being boys," they argued, and had no bearing on Trump's ability to govern. Besides, the conversation was recorded years ago. Old news. Quit complaining.
Such comments made me question whether I was even assaulted in the first place. Maybe I'm making a big deal out of nothing, I thought. Maybe it was my fault. Maybe I'm being dramatic, still worrying over a drunken night after all these years. How would the Trump supporters in my life react if they knew what happened to me? Would they even care?
Still, no matter how hard I tried to forget or keep myself occupied, I couldn't get away from the memory of my assault. Donald Trump - first as a candidate and now as President - wouldn't let me.
I'm coping by coming forward and taking action.
As the campaign season dragged on, I found myself reading more about the many women who have accused Trump of harassment and sexual assault. Learning their stories validated my own - and finally gave me the courage to examine my own experience.
The more I continued to read about sexual assault, the more I understood something: Trump didn't create a culture of sexism and violence; the culture created him. So I vowed to throw myself into changing that culture, channeling my rage and disgust into action. I started donating to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) and other causes that help women, exploring ways to be more politically active, engaging in thoughtful disagreements with people, calling lawmakers to express my views, and paying close attention to the actions that follow.
I'm dealing directly with my assault for the first time - by advocating on behalf of others. For me, that combination is an empowering form of healing that is helping me move forward.
While activism certainly isn't the only way to come to terms with the trauma of sexual assault, working toward a more hopeful tomorrow is therapeutic for me personally. Being among so many powerful women in Washington, D.C., this past weekend strengthened my faith and my resolve. I know we'll get there - one step, one march at a time.
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