Trigger warning: There are general references to my personal experiences throughout the piece.
When I saw the #breakthesilence campaign last year, I immediately wanted to contribute. I was excited to spread awareness. I thought about what angle my contribution would take and how I would relay my story in a way that would get my point across.
But I ran into roadblocks. Many roadblocks. The three major reasons I did not contribute last year are: (1) I wasn’t sure if I qualified as a sexual assault victim, (2) I didn’t want people to judge me or look at me differently, and (3) I had to relive what had happened while reflecting on what to write and that would put me in a bad place. I found myself trapped and unable to contribute. I found myself unable to break my own silence.
So this year, my final year of law school, I’ve decided to stop letting those things keep me from being part of the discussion. To me, this cause is too important. Below, I’ve explained each of the three reasons why I originally did not participate and why it was a roadblock.
Roadblock 1: I had never thought of myself as a sexual assault victim. Correction. Survivor. I knew I’d gone through something no one should have to go through. But I’d always thought that I didn’t fit into the definition. My grade five teacher was convicted on two counts of invitation to sexual touching (one count related to myself) and because there was no actual touching, I didn’t think it “counted” as sexual assault. I didn’t think I could meaningfully contribute to the conversation because my experience didn’t match up with what I understood “sexual assault” to be. But recently, I’ve started thinking to myself: maybe the label “sexual assault” does apply, maybe it doesn’t. Either way, it doesn’t really matter. I was a ten-year-old girl that was taken advantage of and used for sexual gratification.
The fact that I’ve even debated whether or not I can identify myself as a sexual assault survivor tells me that you can’t pigeonhole the many different forms sexual assault takes. Just because someone wasn’t sexually assaulted in the “traditional” sense does not mean it doesn’t count or that there aren’t triggers. Trust me, there are. And when they hit you, they can hit you hard. When a discussion about child exploitation, child pornography, or inappropriate teachers unexpectedly comes up, I am frozen. My stomach starts producing acid at a rate not previously known to humans. Or so it feels. Not to mention it feels like my brain has been injected with anaesthetic and fear tingles through my entire body. Suffice it to say that, when I don’t expect the topic to come up, I don’t end up participating in the conversation.
Roadblock 2: Like it or not, when people find out what happened, they look at me differently. Even if just temporarily. But the feeling it gives me when I get that look makes me want to do whatever I can to avoid getting that look. There’s the pity, or the shock, or the taking up of arms on my behalf. It makes me feel like a spectacle. Trust me, I’ve already gotten more than enough attention in relation to what happened in the form of bullying (by both students and teachers) and from the media during the court case.
Many survivors are like me and don’t talk about their experiences. So when you’re thinking about participating in the conversation about sexual assault, keep in mind all the possible silent survivors who will be affected by what you say. It’s not that we don’t want to be part of the discussion. We simply ask that you keep your discussion thoughtful and respectful. Otherwise, you run the risk of excluding the very people that form the basis for the conversation.
And don’t take for granted how much courage it may take a survivor to tell his or her story. Society seems to attach a stigma to sexual assault survivors, one that discourages openness. Victim blaming isn’t just a concept, it’s a reality that individuals face. And that is not ok.
Roadblock 3: Although I’ve mostly overcome what happened to me those many years ago, reflecting on it in any meaningful way requires me to relive at least parts of what happened. And when someone recollects those sorts of experiences, it is very hard not to relive the feelings of fear, powerlessness, confusion, and worthlessness that they felt when it was happening. That feeling is not something I enjoy and try to avoid.
So be sensitive to the fact that there can be a wide range of triggers and that those triggers can have strong, long-lasting effects. It might seem like a passing word or sentence to you, but it might stick with someone who has a connection with it for hours or days and discourage participation in the conversation.
The discussion above does not mean “don’t talk to me about sexual assault because it might upset me”. I’m just asking that you do it in a respectful manner. Without a conversation, we can’t know where to start to find a solution. Moreover, not talking about what happened is giving him more power over my life than I ever want to give anyone. Breaking the silence is difficult but I believe the rewards are worth the risk.