Obviously, me too.
At this point I assume all women over the age of 16 have experienced sexual harassment. I assume all women over the age of 25 have experienced sexual assault. It can be simple as an unwanted grope or kiss. Or in my case, it can be rape.
Here’s what happened: I was raped by a masseuse named Carlos in downtown Los Angeles. I was 19 and raised to be sweet. When the man’s fingers strayed too close to my genitals, and when his hand cupped my breast, I froze. Made no objections. When he climbed onto the massage table and thrust his penis inside me, I closed my eyes and pictured myself as Samantha from Sex and the City – as a stranger who loved sex with strangers.
Here’s what should have happened: Carlos should have respected the terms of his massage license, the law, and the bounds of human decency. He should never have made sexual advances during a massage appointment, when his client lay prostrate and vulnerable before him.
Here’s what also should have happened: People of any age and gender should be taught to speak up when they’re uncomfortable – even against respected figures such as authorities and elders. They should be heard, not shut down.
And sex education should be about empowering students with choices, respect, and mutual pleasure – not shaming and fear-mongering. Girls should be told they are inherently valuable, outside the context of men.
The next few days oscillated between moments of rage and depression.
After reporting the assault, I was passed from campus police to the UCLA Medical Center for a rape kit. The social worker spoke to me in a singsong voice, simpering over my “victimhood.” I snapped at her, “Don’t call me a victim.” She responded, “Then what should I call you?”
For as long as Carlos’s penis was inside me, I was a victim. But as soon as that moment ended, I became a survivor. So call me one, and treat me like one.
A couple days later an LAPD detective called me into the station and took my report. After listening to my account he said, “I can’t tell you this is your fault because people will yell at me, but you really put yourself in that situation and you should be smarter next time.”
My whole body went numb. This man – this police detective, whose job it was to keep the public both safe and accountable – blamed me for everything. Because of what he said, I struggled for years with the agony of, “Did I ask for it?” But I never should have doubted it for a second.
It wasn’t my fault. It wasn’t any survivor’s fault. No matter how naked or alone or drunk or high or aroused or young or dependent or powerless they were. If there’s no enthusiastic, sober, adult consent – it’s abuse. If there’s any manipulation of power or privilege – it’s abuse.
After filing the report, my uncle pulled me aside. “Don’t tell anyone,” he said without meeting my eye. “Pretend it never happened. It’ll be better that way.” Hearing those words filled my stomach with heavy black dread. I couldn’t keep this secret – it would turn to cancer inside me.
If sexual assault is so widespread, why is there still a stigma attached to it? Why did I feel like an embarrassment to my family, like an object of pity, like I’d lost all control over mind and body? I didn’t choose this. Why should I suffer alone? I wouldn’t have to be ashamed if I’d lost a job, or relationship, or family member. It’s too much grief for one body to contain.
I didn’t want this rape to hold any power over me. I went out the next day and told every single person who crossed my path. Every time the story repeated, it lost a little power. I was taking it back for myself, little by little.
A good response I got from friends was, “I’m so sorry that happened. How are you doing right now? Is there anything I can do?” They focused on supporting me, the survivor. They listened – not just for my words, but for any underlying tones of anger or desperation. When they heard those emotions, my friends felt them with me. Showed me those thoughts were natural, understandable, okay.
My girl friends accepted me exactly as I was. Reminded me of my strength. My guy friends accepted me exactly as I was. Reminded me that men can be decent. They all treated me like I’d gone through something horrible, but I’d get through it. So I believed them.
But a common yet unhelpful response was, “Want me to beat him up for you?” This well-meaning question focused on punishing the abuser. And at that time my world was already filled with chaos and hate. Spreading more of it wouldn’t helped.
The best response came from my writing teacher. Her words saved my life: “You’re not alone. I’ve been there too. And it may seem like the end of everything right now, but trust me – hang in there – things will get better.”
She was right.
When all this happened, the only way I could fall asleep was to pray that I might never wake up again. When I did, I wept to be alive.
Death was not the answer. And as long as I lived – might as well keep going.
Eight years have passed since then. And just like my writing teacher said, things got better. Time helped. Finding passions (like photography, writing, teaching) helped more. Finding love (from my teacher, my sister, my partner) helped most. The wounds aren’t gone, but they’ve toughened into a scar I notice from time to time.
I’m happy. Healthy. Whole.
And I couldn’t have gotten here without those words from my teacher. So for anyone and everyone who’s ever needed to hear it, here they are from me to you.
You’re not alone.
I’ve been there too.
It may seem like the end of everything right now.
But trust me.
Hang in there.
Things will get better.