by Gretchen Hanson
For many of us it started early, an insidious lesson we were taught so young it became a part of who we are. For me, it was my mother’s friend bathing me with too much attention to my private parts. Then it was my beloved uncle putting me to bed at night when I was six, touching first, later the private “games” I was to tell no one about.
Keep quiet, I was told, it’s our special secret.
Keep quiet, I would tell myself, as I buried my head in the pillow to keep from screaming.
And for many years I was silent.
When I finally spoke out, I was 16 years old. I had been raped repeatedly since I was six. Of course, I was the one who was blamed. Of course, as a little girl, I was asking for it. I was accused at sixteen of being provocative, of being a troubled teen trying to steal the spotlight from the older successful family member who had raped me. I was desperate for attention. I was airing our family’s’ dirty laundry in public. When he admitted it, I was branded the provocative slut who had tempted him. When I had finally had the courage to say I had been raped, and to ask for help, I was shamed by my own family.
Be quiet, you asked for it.
Be quiet, you’re the bad girl.
One in five women are sexually abused as children. Many victims of childhood sexual abuse feel intense shame and end up with a variety of coping mechanisms including being promiscuous, substance abuse and eating disorders. Often they subconsciously and repeatedly act out their rape drama. I was no exception and I spent most of my teens and twenties looking for someone who treated me the way I felt I deserved. I was involved in panoply of abusive and often violent relationships. Sixty-three percent of children who have been abused sexually as children are raped again after age fourteen. I was raped three more times in my late teens, once a date-rape and then being gang-raped by complete strangers.
I never went to the police.
I never told. I never breathed a word.
I felt responsible for the date rape. I slut-shamed myself and kept quiet. What happened to girls who spoke up was well known; invariably you had to leave school or you would become a permanent outcast. So I made excuses for his behavior. He had obviously gotten the wrong idea from the way I was dressed. Wearing a mini skirt and flirting with him had sent him the wrong message, I thought, and blamed myself. He was a gorgeous and popular senior basketball star; whereas I was an awkward freshman. I continued to interact socially with him and apologized internally for his behavior. I told myself it wasn’t intentional, just a ‘misunderstanding.’ It wasn’t really a legitimate rape. It was the price of being a ‘sweetheart’ at his fraternity. Who would everyone believe? Having already been shunned and blamed by my own family for crying rape, I was not inclined to trust anyone ever again, and certainly not an anonymous police officer with a rape kit.
I was set up on a blind date with a boy from a neighboring college. We were to meet at a swanky midtown Manhattan hotel and then go to a party. My drink was drugged and I woke up hours later with two strangers holding me captive in a room for the rest of the night and the following day while they took turns with me. They had already torn the sides of my vagina and I woke up screaming when the drugs wore off. They put a ball gag in my mouth to keep me quiet. The metallic rubber mixed with the aftertaste of the drugs and then with the copper taste of my own blood. They had used my credit card to pay for the hotel suite and while I was being held, They maxed it out with purchases from the busy electronic shops in midtown. When they were finally through taking turns with me– and my credit card– they beat me up, leaving me barely able to move.
I stayed in the hotel room for the next twenty-four hours, scalding my skin in a series of showers as hot as I could stand. The smell of their sex and blood still lingered in the room, making me heave and gag. I slept in the bathtub in a miasma of painful bleeding and denial. They had run up $1,200 in charges that I paid for. I never told a soul, certainly not my parents who took away my credit card when they got the bill. (“Two days in a hotel suite? What were you thinking?”) When I finally managed to get up and take a cab back to my dorm room, I stayed there for a week so no one would ask questions about my swollen face, cut lips and the bruises which covered my arms, stomach, and inner thighs. I bled for the next month and when I finally went to the school doctor he distastefully informed me that I had chlamydia. His censure was palpable and I was ashamed.
Be quiet, little girl.
It’s your own fault.
As a grown woman, I have been harassed throughout my career as a chef so many times that I have lost count. Even when I have been the boss, I wasn’t immune. I was asked “How could I possibly be offended that a man found me attractive?” when I rebuffed overt sexual advances from wealthy customers. Obviously, I didn’t want my restaurant to be successful; I was told when I refused others in the industry more successful than me. Men in powerful positions in my community and field commonly made unwanted advances or comments. They would grab and they would squeeze and they would leer. While I can handle it now, and I have gotten better and more vocal about telling them that their attentions are unwanted and undesirable, their reactions are uniformly a combination of shocked disbelief and sneering. How could I possibly take offense at their “compliment?” How could I possibly not know how seductive I am? It’s my fault they found me attractive. They just couldn’t help themselves.
Be quiet, little lady.
You know you want it.
Violence against women is real. It happens so often, yet we don’t want anyone else to know our shame. I didn’t. Most of the women of my generation saying #metoo didn’t tell anyone when it happened. Sexual activity that you do not consent to is sexual violence. Violence against women is not okay anymore. It wasn’t when I was a child, wasn’t when I was a young woman, and it certainly isn’t now. The bullying of women who said #metoo on social media was another attempt to silence our voices, since many of us are just speaking out the first time. The only way it will be stopped is by telling our stories loudly until each and every woman no longer has to defend her right to personal safety. Since the explosion of #metoo, women are beginning to speak their truths and finally, are being heard and believed. Women are telling their stories and refusing to be shamed or humiliated or victimized. Women are reclaiming their power and toppling their predators.
I will continue to say #metoo loudly as this new generation takes up the gauntlet and demands to be safe from predatory sexual behavior and actions. This week, my eleven-year-old daughter marched into the school counselor’s office and filed an incident report because a boy violated her “personal bubble” and she felt threatened. She did this unilaterally, and without discussing it with me first. She did it because she knew it was not okay to be made to feel uncomfortable or frightened by anyone because they are physically stronger or older. She learned that from the women in her life, her community and her country who persisted to make sure she had the right to be safe.
I don’t want my daughters or anyone’s daughters—anyone’s children—to ever have to say to say #metoo again. So from now on, I will say it loudly. I will say it without regret and I damn sure will not apologize for my ferocity or for being a woman. At this point in my life, I expect and demand that my value will not be based on my good looks or archaic notions of subjugation. I am more than the abuse I have survived. I am more than a victim. I am a strong and fierce woman who is shouting loudly and demanding to be heard.
Me, fucking, too.