I was fourteen years old when I was cornered in the band instrument locker room of my high school by four of my male athlete peers. They exposed themselves and thrust their crotches inches from my face--cackling through their braced teeth like hyenas while I stared in terrified silence. They were young, sophomores. But I was the freshman girl. A girl who had not so much as kissed a single soul. A girl who was surely not ready to kiss a single soul. A girl who came to school to put pencil to paper, book to brain and learn. A girl whose safe spaces were the corridors of the choir room and the noisy auditorium of play practice.
And yet, these young men invaded my safe spaces without my consent. They chose for me when I was ready to lose my childhood innocence. They did not ask if I wanted it. They did not think twice of if this encounter would force me into an unrelenting, unforgiving fight with anxiety and depression for the next seven years of my life.
They did not think because they did not care. And if they didn’t care enough, they might have forgotten this all happened already.
But I have not forgotten.
The harassment didn’t end after this encounter. Instead, rumors swirled about my supposed promiscuity. I didn’t know why my classmates started calling me “Anal Hymen”--what they thought was a clever play on my real name, Ana Jayme. Or why boys started shouting the names of my harassers at me during passing periods or study hall. I wanted it to be over. I didn’t want to think of it again. But I couldn’t forget because no one would let me. I didn’t have a choice but to relive it in silence, to take in the “jokes” and the “teasing” as high school banter when I knew, deep down, that this wasn’t banter at all.
What it was was a nightmare, but I just had to laugh.
Later on in the same school year, I met a boy who I liked and who liked me. He was kind and attentive. He was “popular” and popularity wasn’t something I was familiar with. The summer before I started high school I had my grand transformation from awkward kid to slightly-less-awkward-I-can-wear-A-cup-bras-now teen and while in secret I was the same scrawny kid, in public I had changed. So when this boy paid me attention, it was validation for all my glorious, confusing, pubescent evolution. I realize now as a 21-year-old woman that I was internalizing some sort of misguided understanding of what I was supposed to be as a girl and that I believed recognition from men for my newly matured physicality was proof I was doing something right--but in the moment it meant everything.
The rest of the story goes like this. I had a crush. Until I didn’t.
And when I didn’t--when I rejected his advances--this same kind and attentive boy who I trusted for a portion of my second semester took it upon himself to spread more rumors about my nonexistent sexual activity. In his eyes I was a slut, a whore, and my personal favorite: a prostitute, for not engaging in sexual relations or a relationship with him.
I became these things in my eyes too.
I moved away the summer following my freshman year to another state half-way across the country. I left behind a group of girlfriends who were there for me in every sense of what you’d expect fourteen year old girls would have to deal with, but I never told them what was done to me in that band instrument locker room or how much the name-calling and false rumors isolated me from them in more ways than I could count. That same summer, the formerly kind and attentive boy decided that me skipping town caused him enough guilt that he Facebook messaged me a paragraph long apology for what he’d done--but it was too late.
I tell these stories now--seven years later--because me too. Goddammit, me too. Every time I open my social media feeds I see a new allegation from another soul who has had to suffer through the pain of sexual harassment and assault for years--sometimes half of their lives. So many of us sit in silence, afraid, the secrets gnawing at us from the inside out, sabotaging our happiness and peace, dragging us into a darkness you won’t know exists until it happens to you.
I wasn’t ready to tell my stories until this week when I had an encounter with someone I loved about why people stay quiet for years on end before making claims of sexual assault. To me his reasoning sounded like shaming--that these brave women and men kept their mouths shut for money, glamour, and success.
And as I sat there, I sat on my seven year old secret. I could feel my heart begin beating too fast and my mind racing to form one eloquent thought to defend these survivors. But I couldn’t be eloquent because I. Was. Furious.
I had to tell my story.
And so I did. But I didn’t feel relieved and I wasn’t rejoicing at having gotten it off my chest. Instead, I felt the same suffocating shame I felt years ago when I blamed myself for what had happened. That in some way I was asking for it, that maybe I was toying with these boys, or maybe if I’d just given the kind and attentive boy what he wanted that I could’ve been spared--he was "kind" after all.
But this isn’t true. These men did what they did because of who they are, not because of who I am. Not because I flirted too much or my growing fourteen year old breasts were too enticing or because I’d slept around with hundreds of boys. And even if I was flirty or kissed boys or wore low cut shirts, I never asked to have any man corner me and expose himself nor did I deserve to be called a hooker and a whore.
Because victims of sexual harassment and assault never deserve to be victims. I know this now.
When I first started college in 2014 as an admittedly intimidated freshman, I had the opportunity to write a paper about being a feminist. I chose to write about victim-blaming and how four years earlier I would have blamed myself and other girls for the disgraceful actions of our male peers. I never disclosed the extent of my harassment but I did have time to reflect on how far I’d actually come as a young woman and how liberation from my past--though it would always be a part of me--was fueled by the sisterhood that I was discovering amongst other women. And today, three years later, I believe in women and this movement more than ever.
It is with the utmost respect and gratitude for the others who have come out about these traumatic experiences that I come out with my own. And while I wish with my whole heart that not one more person has to share a story like this, there is comfort in knowing that I am not alone. That you are not alone. That the next time the weight of the world threatens our existence or there feels like there is no escape from what was done to us, that we have each other. That from now until forever we will keep fighting for our rights as women and as humans, for our dignity, and for a safer future for generations to come.
Thank you to Tarana Burke for creating the #metoo campaign ten years ago as means to connect with sexual assault survivors.