We speak about mental health, the need to stop the stigma and bring issues out into the open. We speak of poverty, homelessness, and helping those less fortunate. We encourage physical activity and eating right. We stay silent about sexual assault.
I am writing this as a plea to bring the sexual assault conversation to the forefront.
When I was 12 years old, not even a teenager by most standards, I was sexually assaulted. My youth and innocence were ripped from me in a single moment, and repeatedly for months at a time. The assault took place in a swimming class, where a man at least 30 years my senior seized upon every possible moment to violate me.
I spent days and nights confused about what was happening and at a loss for what to do. Was this normal? Was I overreacting? What would happen if I came forward? Who should I tell?
I felt betrayed. Betrayed by those around me, who knew it was happening and did nothing. Betrayed by my offender, who touched me in every wrong way, and played it off as a joke. He was a man in uniform; the type of person who, as a child, I naively thought would keep me safe. The image of his face and salacious smile is still clear-cut in my mind today.
After months of inner turmoil, I finally spoke up. I could feel my heart pounding through my chest as I mustered the courage to tell my parents, completely unaware of what might ensue once I did so.
As a result of my coming forward, the assault stopped. But much to my dismay, it didn’t end there.
I spoke to the police in a small, claustrophobic, brick-walled interrogation room ‑ a room usually reserved for sexual offenders like my own. I can still remember the pale blue, peeling paint on the walls as I was told to point on an imaginary figure where he touched me.
I was questioned for what seemed like hours, and asked to remember and describe, in as much detail as I could, every single invasive touch, as if one wasn’t enough.
I kept countless details to myself, withholding numerous incidents of assault, because they were just too painful and confusing to share with two older men: one—my father, who was trying his best to protect me—and another, a police officer, who failed in doing so. Maybe, just maybe, if I didn’t say it happened out loud, it didn’t actually happen.
I was asked by the police officer if I could ever imagine having a relationship with my offender. This was a baffling question for a 12-year-old girl with only a vague knowledge of intimacy and sex. It remains baffling to this day.
Did I ever receive justice?
No. The case was dropped. But as a 12-year-old, I was relieved. I thought it would all be over. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
It took a few years for me not to think about the assault every single day. My relationships with males, physically and emotionally, have since been affected. Sometimes, just when I think I have put it past me, it turns up again, and hits me like a blow to the chest.
I am not suggesting you—a survivor of sexual assault—share your story publicly as I have done. I understand that there is a healing process, for lack of a better word, since I’m not sure an experience of assault is something you can ever fully heal from. Instead, I’d like to encourage a new way of thinking about sexual assault.
When we were young, in elementary school, we were taught the appropriate response if someone touched us in an inappropriate area. We took this knowledge solemnly, put it into the back of our minds, and vowed that we would be ready and armed if it happened.
The years passed, and the advice changed to that of guarding our drinks at clubs. We were taught not to let our drinks out of sight, because that’s when strangers could drug and rape us.
Somewhere along the way, an important message was lost. The idea that people who were a part of our everyday lives could harm us seemed silly. We dismissively shook our heads in disbelief.
And yet, according to Statistics Canada, “Both police-reported and victimization surveys suggest that sexual assault incidents are most likely to occur when a victim and offender are known to each other.”
The 2004 General Social Survey counted around 512,000 incidents of sexual assault among those aged 15 and over. More notably, police-reported sexual assaults in 2007 counted at 24,200. These two numbers demonstrate the huge discrepancy between actual totals and reported assaults.
To translate: it happens, but we often keep it quiet.
In the sexual assault cases that were reported to the police in 2007, victims under the age of 18 made up over half of the victims.
I truly believe that if sexual assault were brought out into the open, just as physical and mental health have been, then maybe, just maybe, girls would not let assault occur for so long without speaking up.
Of course, in an ideal world, sexual assault would never occur. And yet it does occur, each and every day. And we need to talk about it. This needs to be known. Because the more we keep silent about it, the more we endorse the idea that sexual assault is something for a woman or girl to be ashamed of.
Instead of keeping sexual assault under the radar, talk about it. Talk about sex, and talk about assault, with your children. Do this until they roll their eyes as children do.
Talk about sexual assault with your friends and family, and share your stories with those close to you who respect you and support you.
Let it be known.
Do the hard work now, so that someday young girls will not have to suffer as I did. Sexual assault is never limited to a single incident. It is something survivors carry with them – for the rest of their lives.