If you are reading this post strictly to gain an understanding about some of the reasons why it's difficult for people to come forward after sexual abuse, assault, trauma, and/or violence, please skip down to the very bottom where I've listed them out. If you came here for additional insights and thought processes, grab a pot of coffee and take a seat.
Warning: this post contains explicit adult language and graphic sexually violent descriptions.
If you or someone you know is being or have ben sexually abused, assaulted, and/or raped, please seek help and call 800.656.HOPE (4673) to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area or visit https://hotline.rainn.org/online/.
Chapter One: 15, Dazed and Confused
The first time I was raped was when I was 15.
Some of you may be thinking... first time? Why did you put yourself in the situation to be raped in the first place and then again? What did you do to cause those circumstances?
You are one of the top reasons why it's so fucking difficult for someone who has been sexually abused, attacked, or otherwise traumatized, to come forward.
But despite your judgements and naivety, I'm going to continue my story.
I stayed the night at girls house that I didn't know too well but we had recently bonded. I can't really recall how the sleepover came about but my parents agreed and my Dad drove me to her house. Except, we didn't spend the night in her house. We immediately went into a small garage type room right next to her house that her older brother occupied. Which, at the time, felt like his "place." He had several friends in the room with him. We were the only girls. I felt unsure, but followed her in anyway. This was next to her parents house, after-all. Her brother was older, I'm guessing around 17-years-old.
I remember thinking that he was cute. Tall and strong with chiseled cheek bones and well-groomed black slicked back hair.
I remember what I was wearing. Relaxed fitting blue pants - you know the baggy lightweight material kind - like you'd wear to the beach. And, I had on a cut off "wife-beater." This was the early 2000s when grunge met hip-hop. And, knowing me back then, I probably had some type of 70s-type hippie jewelry on.
There was alcohol and pot. Being nearly 20 years ago now, I really couldn't tell you how much I consumed.
I remember I was sitting next to her brother on a couch. My memory has faded on all of the peripheral details. Partly because of the years that have passed, partly because of the substances consumed at the time, and partly because of what came next.
That part, I do remember.
The mood in the room shifted and I felt uneasy. My friend exited and I was left with her brother and some of his friends at which point he gave everyone a distinct "nod" and they all proceeded to leave. It was just us two left in the room. This was before cell-phones and long before texting. There was no one I could alert.
I felt confused.
He brought me over to a different couch that was bigger and longer. He said "just don't say or do anything, I'm going to rock your world."
I am 5'4" and at that time, probably about 100 lbs. Heck I may not have even been 5'4"yet. A little girl. He was 3 times my size. More man than boy in terms of stature.
He covered my mouth with his hand and forcefully penetrated my vagina with his penis. I realized what was happening and tried to yell no. He held me down more aggressively. I attempted to move... he was so heavy. I was completely trapped. I said no several more times and attempted pushing him off me. His shoulders were so big. I remember I wanted to be careful, because I didn't want to piss him off. Who knew what would happen if I made him angry? There was a time when he let go of my mouth with his hand and buried my face in his shoulder.
I have no recollection of what happened after that. Now, in my 30s, I know that clinically, this is referred to as fragmented memory due to trauma - more commonly referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. When your in a high-stress state of being, your brain’s fear circuitry kicks in and your brain actually focuses in on certain things (like my face in his shoulder and suppresses other things). This is an extremely complex topic in which I wont get into at this time.
The next thing I vaguely remember is calling my Dad from her parents house phone the next morning to come pick me up. I don't remember the car ride. I imagine he asked me if I had a good time and I am sure that I lied and told him I did. I know telling him about the rape wouldn't have crossed my mind, but even more than that, in my 15-year-old brain, telling him would have meant that I would have to tell him that we weren't in her parents house and that I had drank alcohol and smoked pot. No way. I would be grounded for sure. And, in my young and confused brain, it would have meant that I was "sexually active." At that point, I hadn't yet fully accepted or processed that a rape actually occurred - not consensual sex.
You'll know by now that I wasn't the model adolescent. I tried my first hit of pot at the very young age of about 13. A child and yet I yearned to be a free-spirit in my 20s with long hippie hair, slender physique, bell-bottoms, cigarette from my lips, and singing Joan Baez with a flower in my hair on Height Ashbury. Of course, with no care in the world or regard for how I would support my livelihood. I masked my delves in drugs and alcohol with a deep admiration of the 60s and 70s and most adults simply just called me a little flower child. Endearing... until it wasn't.
After the rape occurred, I went to school as if nothing ever happened. Except, I could't stomach even looking at the girl whose brother attacked me. I saw her and saw a rapist. My poetry grew darker and darker, I withdrew more and more from my family and friends.
Months later I confided in my on again-off again boyfriend. He brought one of my best friends into the conversation and they convinced me that I had to tell my parents.
Even to them. Both also involved in drugs and alcohol, I was spiraling out of control and needed help.
It became harder and harder for me to mask my behavior with an innocent affection toward the hippie era with The Doors, Led Zeppelin, Janis Joplin, and smell of incense oozing from my bedroom. Even more, I cared less and less about my own mortality. I hurt myself, parents, siblings, and friends repeatedly with my reckless behavior.
I was getting so much heat, questions, frustration, and sadness from my parents that I decided I should indeed tell them..part of the story. Maybe then they would understand my confusing behavior. A child that once love to ride her horse everyday, go on hikes and walks with the family, and spend time with her siblings had increasingly become less interested in previous beloved activities - over the course of about two short years.
I'll never forget the look on my Dad's face when I told him.. part of the story along with a lie. A half-truth.
In a recent phone call to my sister, I learned that what I told my parents and apparently my sister was that he forced me to perform oral sex on him in a hot tub. I vaguely remember this lie. I'll never know why I thought this was a "better" story. Maybe I thought it was less serious. Maybe I thought that it wasn't exactly sex. Maybe I thought it was more believable. Maybe I thought my parents wouldn't be as upset or mad. Maybe I was too afraid to tell the whole truth. I'll never know why I thought this lie was "better" than the truth.
When I told my (inaccurate) variation of the story, it was sheer anger in my Dad's eyes. Not at me. It took everything my late step-mom had to calm him down enough and to think rationally enough to be the bigger person and law-abiding man that he is and bring it to the police department. I hated that they now had that knowledge about me. That my Dad had those images and descriptions in his head about me, his youngest daughter. The same daughter he told stories to on evening walks, taught how to fish, danced with at school dances, coached through the commitment of shaving her legs for the first time, brought to her horse shows, found at the neighbors house trick-or-treating when it wasn't Halloween, and brought to the movies three times to see Titantic.
I was disgusted, ashamed, and embarrassed.
That night, we cried and embraced each other. Alas, my acting out did not stop. I remember seeing a therapist. I don't remember it helping. I don't remember feeling any sort of relief. Perhaps I would have if I had told the whole story. I don't know.
I felt like I had quickly changed from my Dad's little girl to someone he was ashamed of, disappointed in, and who just grew into a teenager that he wasn't proud of calling his daughter.
Mind you, he did not say nor convey any of those sentiments. That was my 15-year-old scared and confused brain.
My parents comforted me and assured me I was safe. I made them broken promises that I wouldn't be involved in any more bad crowds or make any more bad choices.
A short-while after I came forward to me parents, I came home from school one day and my Dad told me that his lawyer said we didn't have a case. There was nothing we could do. Because I didn't come forward right away and there was no evidence. It would be my word against his and likely his friends' and sister. And, because I was dressed inappropriately (according the the lawyer, the fact that I had a tank top that revealed my belly, I was dressed inappropriate), then I would be "made to look like I was a slut." WOW! That hit my 15-year-old brain like a bullet to the heart. In addition, the fact that I partook in drugs (pot) and underage drinking, and flirted with the attacker earlier that night, made it so we had no case whatsoever.
I cannot remember anymore details of that conversation - I do remember it ended quickly. Knowing my Dad, I know it was unimaginably difficult for him to discuss and I likely said something closed, like "ok."
It was at that point that I didn't feel that I could be accepted as part of the family - as who I was before all of that took place. I felt... like a disappointment. I felt... like my family (especially my Dad) viewed me differently. Like... a deviant. Like... a slut.
Again, I never expressed these feelings to my Dad or anyone else. My walls built tall and thick, I kept them bottled up inside and sought the outside distraction of drugs, alcohol, and the attention of boys to fill the emptiness and cover my shame. Things I felt like would accept me. Or perhaps more accurately, things that affirmed my new identity. A deviant.
My Dad didn't love me any less. My family didn't treat me any different or shun me. In fact, they desperately wanted Ashley back and they grew increasingly concerned.
Chapter Two: 17, Helplessly Hoping
Fast forward a couple of years. I had received help and guidance and was "on the straight and narrow." The good thing about getting into shit in your younger years, before just about everyone else, is that if you do have the grit and support to straighten up, you get out of it before everyone else too, learn massive lessons, and mature quickly in time for when real-life begins. If there is a silver lining, it's that.
I was working as a receptionist at a hair salon and completing my high-school in a different district. Out of the blue, I received a call at the salon from a girl I use to go to school with, let's call her Nell. She sounded timid. I didn't know her all that well, an acquaintance. I took the call standing by the backdoor with the door open so I could hear and get some air.
Nell said she had heard what happened to me.
And then told me it happened to her to.
By the same person.
I pleaded with her to go to the police. I assured her that I would stand by her and that I would testify and that maybe if she came forward, they would then believe my (full) story. I told her she wouldn't be alone.
She said she couldn't.
I pleaded more.
She told me that they just wanted me to know that I wasn't the only one. That I wasn't alone.
I remember telling each other that we were so sorry that it happened to the other. I could feel her hug through the phone line.
I never heard from her again.
Chapter Three: 24, Newly Single and Independent
I was raped for the second and third time when I was 24, by two men in the same incident.
God willing, there will never be a fourth.
At 24, I was early in my career and working at my first job out of college. A technology company in Boulder, Colorado.
My boyfriend of 4.5 years and I had recently broken up and I was feeling the independence of being a newly single woman. I was living alone and felt... empowered.
Meanwhile, a cousin, let's call her Adi, of mine and her soon to be husband, let's call him Josh, were having a house warming party one Friday night at their home in a small mountain town. Being attached the hip for just about our entire lives, even when we lived in different states, of course I was going to go to Adi's party. Even though I would be going to the party solo.
After all, I was a strong, intelligent, and capable woman.
Both my Mom and sister had trepidation about me going it alone. I assured them I would be fine especially because I would be with Adi.
At this time in my life, cell phones were a thing as was texting. However, I didn't get cell reception at their house.
It was Adi, Josh, two of his friends, and me. A very small gathering. I had known Josh from my previous life of drugs and bad choices - but I had been trying to give him the benefit of the doubt despite his continued use of drugs. I had changed, so maybe he did too (even though it appeared he had not).
I recall that I had wine and Josh had some wine from Chile. We laughed, did some yoga poses, and listened to music. Loudly. The stereo was in Josh and Adi's bedroom but there were no doors, it opened up into the living area. The entire house was small, about 900 square feet. The wine kept pouring and I remember feeling a little guilty for "partying" but quickly forgave myself. Ah hell, I'm amongst friends and even family! Enjoy yourself Ashley... you haven't in so long. You're safe.
Josh and Adi retreated to bed and it was myself and the two guys. I used to remember their names, now all I remember is that one was a yoga instructor and the other, if my memory serves me right, had the nickname, Bear. Let's just call one David and the other Bear.
We were standing in the kitchen when it happened. Josh had walked out. I really am not sure why. The four of us were chatting when they looked at Josh in what I have later put together as a look of approval. I can't confirm this. It's that gut feeling.
The next thing I knew, I was being pushed into the hall bathroom by David and Bear. The music in the house was still on. Playing loudly. Bear starting crushing up some pills he said was ritalin. All three of us partook in a line. I can remember immediately regretting that decision. It brought back flashbacks of my old life and although I don't remember feeling anything in particular from it as I was already intoxicated - I was disappointed in myself for not turning it down.
It was shortly thereafter that I realized they weren't letting me out of the bathroom. I banged on the door. Bear laughed. "We aren't done with you."
I felt... paralyzed.
Bear pulled my pants down while I was standing up and leaned me against David. David had an apologetic look on his face. I remember looking at him in fear and confusion as he held my upper body. Bear then penetrated my vagina with his fingers and his tongue. I began crying and begging David to "make him stop... please make him stop." And begging to Bear, "please don't do this. stop! stop! stop!"
He didn't stop. And when he finally did, he had David take his turn in same manner except Bear wasn't in front of me like David was. The wall was in front of me and the two of them were behind me, positioning me folded over the toilet while I cried. They were each twice my size.
When they were done with me they passed out in the living room. By this time It was the wee hours of the morning. I was too intoxicated to drive back home. I waited on the couch for Adi to wake up, never closing my eyes to sleep. I still felt paralyzed. Is an assault like that rape if they didn't use their penis? I later learned that yes, it is.
"In 2012, the FBI issued a revised definition of rape as 'penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.' The revised law is gender neutral, meaning that anyone can be a victim. More."
Was it my fault because I had been flirting with them and chose to be under the influence of alcohol and even drugs? Did I allow this to happen because I didn't kick and scream or try to fight them off me? Was it my fault for going by myself in the first place? Should I have just laid on the couch and gone to bed with Adi went to bed? It's my body, I should be solely accountable for what happens to it... right?
Adi woke up perky and her and Josh wanted to go to breakfast. I was still in shock and despite the pit in my stomach, went along with them. Bear joined. It was as if nothing happened. Having known me since we were in our Mom's wombs, Adi could tell something was up with me. When we returned I took Adi into the bathroom to confide in her as it was the only room in the house with a door that shut - but not before she said Bear wanted to see me before he left. Both Adi and I walked out to his truck and he said he "really liked me, and wanted to see me again." I just looked at him in confusion and Adi said something like "ummm, you are married..."
We went into the bathroom and I told her everything that happened. I was sitting on the floor, crying, and she perched up on the counter. She was noticeably upset, crying, and telling me that everything was going to be OK and that I would never have to talk to or see them again. And, that she would tell Josh.
I left Adi and Josh's house and halfway through my drive home I broke down - emotionally. I called my sister and her husband and told them I had been sexually assaulted. My sister, always worried about me and trying to protect me my entire life, was devastated. Her husband was also devastated and I'll never forget him picking me up when I fell to the ground out of my Jeep Liberty. We went inside and I was extremely vague on the details and they didn't pry. I didn’t want them to have those horrifying images in their head. I didn’t want anyone else to have that knowledge. I recall telling them “it could have been worse. I am OK.” I cried with my head in my sister's lap and had her take me upstairs so I could shower. I just wanted to feel clean.
They asked me to turn them in and go to the police. I just wanted it to be over with. And, I didn't want to give them any more power than they already had. By talking about it...by spending any time and energy on it... I felt I was giving them power. I felt... I would be letting them win. I wanted to move on, I wanted to get back to my "normal" life. And, what if I did turn them in? And they were questioned, and then released... what then? Would they come after me in retaliation? What if I told my story and I wasn't believed? What if I was told that I would be viewed as a slut, case closed, again? And, talking about somehow made it all more... real. When you talk about it, there is a feeling that you have to relive it. Even now, it's extraordinarily difficult to compartmentalize my emotions apart from simply sharing my story and stating facts.
I had a solo vacation to Los Angeles coming up the following week and I just wanted to hurry up and get out the state, go to the beach, see my friends, and forget it ever happened.
Monday came and I was convinced I had a urinary tract infection (UTI). I called my gynecologist and made an urgent appointment. I withheld telling them what happened and just told them I was feeling off. They didn't see anything in my urine to indicate an infection under the microscope and they also tested for any vaginal infections. They sent the specimens to the lab for further testing. Since I was leaving on vacation and was clearly worried and didn't feel right, my doctor prescribed me an antibiotic, Macrobid for a UTI, just in case while we waited for the test results. I felt comforted knowing I could take an antibiotic, somehow this made me feel like I was cleaning my system... getting the bad out of me. It took me years to recognize why I did that.
That same day, I was sitting at work eager to get to L.A. and my hotel in Westwood, when my phone began blowing up with text messages and phone calls from Adi and Josh calling me a liar, a whore, a slut, and cunt. I briefly spoke to Adi and she told me that she "talked to Josh and he said his friends wouldn't have done that." My closest cousin of 24 years had sided with a person I couldn’t even call a man.
I soon realized that there was no changing either of their minds. I recall sending Adi a message shortly after that I didn't feel safe around her or her fiancé and had to end our friendship - which also meant ending our relationship as cousins as we knew it. The only thing that remains of our relationship is sharing some of the same genetics. Years went by before I spoke to her again and quickly learned that nothing had changed. We still do not speak.
I ended up going to L.A. and taking the full course of Macrobid - which later gave me an allergic reaction with a full gambit of side effects including hives over my entire body and joint swelling. As it turned out, all of my test results came back negative for any sort of infection. This was long before I knew the risks of taking antibiotics - especially when they are not necessary.
What transpired after was years of battling eating disorders, digestive distress, fear in unfamiliar situations, and social isolation. Yes, there were numerous other factors that contributed to my struggles - most notably deeply rooted esteem challenges and dysfunctional romantic relationships. But, I will no longer pretend that these events had no impact on my life or influence on my behaviors. I refuse to tuck them under a rug as if they never happened because what happened to me happens to others (male and female) everyday in various ways and it's still being buried. What happened to me does not rule my life, it has passionately influenced it. It has not hardened me, it has made me even more soft. After years of trying to deny my sensitive, vulnerable, and nurturing nature - I've come to embrace these qualities and allow my rugs to hang out in the open. Someone may need one.
Chapter 4: 32, Hello Darkness My Old Friend and The Era of Coming Forward
Comedian Louis C.K., Pixar and Disney is Animation chief John Lasseter, Actor Kevin Spacey, Producer Harvey Weinstein, PBS and CBS host Charlie Rose, NBC News booker Matt Zimmerman, NBC "Today" show anchor Matt Lauer, and one I heard about most recently Indian Yoga Teacher and founder of Bikram Yoga, Bikram Choudury. Though like all of the others, the corruption and sexual violence had been going on for years before the spotlight was on them. There are of course, countless other prominent figures and thousands of "everyday" people. I've pointed out the recent ones and ones who come from all walks of life from comedy to yoga.
Bikram yoga entered my life about a decade ago and quickly became a crutch. A lifeline. A saving grace. It helped me heal from unhealthy relationships, sexual violence, and eating disorders. It helped me to feel more empowered. And more... me. I would sweat, tune out, and even enter to what I could only explain as an altered state. I could think more clearly after class and felt.. alive.
Eventually, I found other yoga practices and have come to love Vinyasa and Yin. I let go of the extreme and rigid nature of Bikram and the 105º F heat that Came with it. Though, I continued to respect the practice - never knowing the history. I went years without ever hearing about Bikram Choudury or taking it upon myself to learn the story of how Bikram yoga came to be. I was so immersed in learning the poses and spiritual elements brought by my (wonderful) teachers. It wasn't until the recent podcast by ESPN's 30 For 30 on Bikram that I became aware of the real Bikram story. Only then to discover that Bikram Choudury is one of many fraudulent "gurus" in the yoga world. It's taken a minute for me to still honor my roots in yoga, and my experience with yoga while knowing the horrific corruptness and sexual harassment and violence that has and still takes place. I am extremely blessed that my yoga journey has been untainted by the pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth of Bikram Choudury and others in the community. And, very grateful for the teachers and guides I have had in my yoga world.
Learning about Bikram Choudury and his sexual power trips hit me a little more than the others. It felt, a little more personal. What has been plaguing me when I hear these stories in the media and my own experiences both what has happened to me as well as close friends, is the all-too-often-heard blame-shifting question to the victim(s).
"Why didn't you come forward sooner?" In The Era of Coming Forward, that's the first thing we hear after someone (or several people) come forward.
There is some validity to that question. One would think that the sooner someone comes forward, the better the chances are that any evidence to prove their case will be discovered. They are also far more likely to remember critical details. Though, keep in mind that fragmented memory and PTSD can cause memory blocks. Just because it happened last night, doesn't mean that the person with PTSD will recall things fully or accurately this morning. More importantly however, the sooner someone comes forward, the sooner they will be able to heal. And the white elephant, the sooner the person comes forward, the sooner the perpetrator can be prosecuted and punished (the perfect scenario in an imperfect situation).
So, without further ado, I'll attempt to answer that question based on my experience, what I've observed in the media, and experiences of dear friends (men and women) who have confided in me about their trauma.
15 Reasons Why It's So Fucking Hard to Come Forward
- You have to admit to yourself and others that it happened
- You fear that if you talk/write about it, you'll have to relive it, you just want it to be over
- You fear that they will come after you once they've discovered you've told someone
- You have to share explicit details that include your reproductive organs; which brings an extraordinary amount of embarrassment and shame, YOU are suppose to be able to protect yourself and your body and decide who gets to touch you, where, and how
- You have to state anything you may have done or said prior to the event(s), making you feel like it was/is your fault
- You don't want anyone to have those types of images of you in their head, it's bad enough that you have to live with the knowledge
- You don't want anyone's perception of you to change, i.e. will people think you're weak? How could you let that happen? Why couldn't you fight them off? Will people think you've lost your innocence? Will people think you're a whore? A slut? That you wanted it? That you're homosexual/straight (for those who have been attacked by someone of the opposite gender they are sexually attracted to)?
- You don't want to ruin someone else's idolized image, this is especially true in families such as a a parent, sibling, or other relative as well as famed and prominent figures who are often well-liked
- You fear you will not be believed, after all, what happened is that horrible
- You fear people will think your accusations are a cry for attention, "they're just doing it for attention," we've heard this time and time again in schools, workplaces, and in the media
- You fear the facts will be twisted and it will be made to look like your fault, why were you at the party? How much did you drink? Why were you at the gym so late at night? Why were you wearing a short dress? Why were you there, at that time?
- You fear you will lose something important to you such as family members, friends, your position at work, scholarship, reputation, certification etc.
- You second guess yourself, have I blown it out of proportion? Did I give the wrong signals? Is this my fault? It's it as big of a deal as I'm making it out to be in my mind? It could have been worse...
- When people do come forward, the the focus is on irrelevant details such as what the victim was wearing suggesting or outright saying that "they got what was coming to them" or that you "wanted it" and the perpetrator is ultimately excused
- When people do come forward, the focus is on if the victim behaved in any sort way such as flirting implying or outright saying that it was "their fault for luring them" or "asking for it" and the perpetrator is ultimately excused
We (as in society, encompassing: law-enforcement, teachers, family, friends, media, and other trusted figures) are taking a heinous offense and instead of highlighting what the attacker did, we are highlighting what the victim did or didn't do.
In other words, victims are asked "what did you do to cause this?"
If we as society want people (men and women, including children) to come forward sooner, then we need to step it up and make it a safe space for them to do so. The perp may be innocent until proven guilty, but that goes both ways. The accuser is also innocent until proven otherwise and that means supporting them, listening to them, putting yourself in their shoes, respecting them, showing compassion, and giving them as much privacy as possible.
Coming forward sooner means a culture shift, and you can't change culture with the same behaviors and beliefs.
This starts with me and you. The friend, the family member, the law enforcement officer, the teacher, the boss, the significant other, the neighbor, the trusted confidant.