The Aftereffects of Sexual Assault
It was 1966 and I was 12 years old. My mother invited me to accompany her to a party for the grand opening of her friend’s new shoe store. I was the only child at the party; the guests were friends and customers of the couple who owned the store.
Half an hour into the gathering, I felt thirsty. There was only wine and beer at the refreshment station, so I took a Dixie cup and slipped into the For Employees Only bathroom. Because I planned to only run the faucet to fill my cup, I didn’t lock the door behind me. Big mistake.
Mr. B. entered the bathroom. In hindsight I realized he must have followed me. I was standing in front of the sink, running water. He came up behind. Our eyes met in the mirror. He suddenly grabbed me between the legs. He squeezed hard.
“That feels good,” he said. “Doesn’t it?”
I stumbled out of the washroom and back into the store. A sharp-eyed lady who was the principal of a girls’ school noticed I seemed disturbed.
“Is everything all right?” she said.
“Yes,” I replied, too frightened and shocked to speak to this obviously caring person. “I just needed a drink of water.” An hour later, at home, I told my mother what happened. Her eyes darted around frantically for a moment before she said, “I don’t want to hear another word about this. Mr. B. is a big wheel in this community. Don’t be telling stories about him.”
I never spoke of it again. I never went into that shoe store again.
After several days of news dominated by a tape of Donald Trump describing his casual sexual assault of women – i.e. “grab them by the [genitals]” – I felt the bile rising as I recalled what had happened to me. Within minutes, social media was abuzz with everything from declarations of outrage to “So what?” comments.
I’ve listened to plenty of arguments saying this “locker room talk” – typical of things men say to one another, whether in a locker room or not, when women aren’t around. That’s why I was very pleased when Los Angeles Clippers coach and former NBA point guard Doc Rivers said that kind of talk represented a new locker room for him. Since then, dozens of professional athletes past and present have weighed in to concur with Rivers, saying much the same thing.
Distressingly, several women I know have told me they don’t find these crude remarks or violent physical actions particularly threatening.
But experts say that’s not surprising in a society where sexual-assault issues are ignored at best, or seen as part of life at worst. Dr. Christine Racanelli, a psychotherapist in private practice in New York, says that offensive and belittling talk has become so “institutionalized” in our society that many women just accept it as a matter of course.
And that acceptance has some significant ramifications, Racanelli says. It “becomes internalized into how a woman views her self and her self in relation to others, in turn emotionally infecting relationships and especially intimate relationships.”
And always, the question is asked by the doubters: Why haven’t more victims spoken up? Why wait until now if the story is for real?
“In a culture of rape, victims are publicly and intentionally mocked, disbelieved, discredited and blamed and shamed,” Racanelli says. “This serves as a warning to others not to come forward on college campuses, against public figures or even social or familial acquaintances thus perpetuating the acceptance of rape, supporting its perpetrators, and admonishing its victims.”
A nice woman I’ve known for years asked me not to write about this. “There’s enough trash and negative reminders,” this woman said. Talking about sexual assault isn’t trash, and the only reminder occasioned by a woman coming forward is a reminder of how strong and brave she has had to be.
Meanwhile more than 1 million women have shared their stories of casual sexual assault on a Twitter feed started by journalist Kelly Oxford who invited women to Tweet to her their first assaults.
I believe that as women, we have a responsibility to speak up. When I was a child, a grown man who owned the nicest shoe store in town cornered me in a tiny bathroom and touched me as he pleased. It was the worst moment in my life, but it was just another moment for him.
I’m finally talking about it.
For a list of resources for survivors of sexual abuse, rape or incest, click here.