For a short time after my secret was discovered, I felt I was worse off than when I had kept quiet. As my case makes it’s way through the legal system, I can’t share details, but I can tell you this: I spent most of my teen, and a few of my young adult years being sexually abused by a family member. When a separate legal case forced me to bring this fact to light before I felt I was ready speak, I felt more violated by the system than I did my relative. There are plenty of reasons why victims might choose not to come forward. But as my case progresses, I have learned that even more reasons support the contrary:
1. My case could help other victim’s cases.
Perpetrators often act against multiple victims. News of one victim coming forward often prompts other victims to do the same. From Jerry Sandusky to Dr. George Doodnaught, there are several examples where the investigation of one allegation has resulted in more victims speaking up, creating a stronger case for all parties. When the police took my first statement, their efforts immediately turned to finding another young girl who I knew had spent time with my relative. While she was (thankfully) unharmed, I am proud that the door may now appear to be open wider for any other victims that may be out there.
2. I learned that I am deserving of good things.
There are several ways in which abuse can shape a person. For me, learning that I was simply an object in someone else’s gratification, and that other’s desires were held above my basic rights bled into other areas of my life. I became convinced that I did not deserve happiness, success or to be treated like an equal to those around me. I spent so much of my life letting people walk all over me, because I felt that is how I deserved to be treated. I happily accepted the short end of the stick, because I felt that was all I was worthy of. I felt uncomfortable receiving anything more. While I did not immediately receive universal support, one person told me that what happened wasn’t my fault and that I didn’t deserve it. I believed them. I have come to realize that shame can only be brought from choices. Being a victim of a crime is not a choice. It does not indicate my worth.
3. I learned that I am strong.
I would have always considered myself to be the type of person who could make it through anything. Yet this experience has allowed me to discover a new degree of mental and emotional strength that I could have never imagined to be possible. As I now pursue a degree at one of the world’s top schools, stresses that makes my classmates emotional wrecks don’t phase me. I spoke about my torment in front of a courtroom full of people. Presenting a debate to classmates who will undoubtedly rip me apart? No problem. An exam worth 70% of my grade? A few deeps breaths and I’m ready.
4. It helped me to establish a new community of support.
The most surprising thing that happened when those around me found out about my abuse were the reactions. While I fully anticipated an array of support, sympathy and doubts, I was caught of guard by how many people in my life pulled me aside to share two simple words: me too. While sexual crimes are far from uncommon (current data estimates about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men) they remain taboo. Since speaking out, I have not only found myself a community of support from fellow survivors. I can now serve as a confidante and resource to those around me. If sharing my story breaks the isolation that one other person feels, it will be worth every difficult moment.
5. A weight was lifted off of my shoulders.
As a student enrolled in a very intensive academic program, part of my hesitation in coming forward was how disruptive it would be to my daily life. I was nervous that the time spent talking to police would detract from my study time; that the stress of having to testify would be unbearable. But you know what else is disruptive? Living with my experience in isolation for several years. Sure it’s a difficult topic to speak out. Sure, it sucks when you’ve already been victimized and you’re thrown into a system where the underlying mandate is “prove it”. Sure, statistically, the odds of a conviction are stacked against me. No matter what happens, I will be liberated by speaking the truth. My story cannot be untold or erased. Whatever the outcome of this case, I will have the freedom to move on, with the resources and support that I need.