My husband, sons and I were watching the news, and a story came on about Kelly Oxford’s tweet (@kellyoxford) where she asked women to share their stories of their first sexual assault and the age they were when it occurred.
“I tweeted about mine,” I said.
My husband and sons nearly fell off their chairs and then seemed ready to battle with this stranger they never knew existed. “What?” my husband asked with incredulity. “When? Who?”
I don’t know what it says about women, our times, sexual assault, but I was shocked at their shock.
“Of course I have dealt with sexual assault. Are you kidding me?” I thought. “Hasn’t every woman?”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one in five women experience a sexual assault in their lifetime. Does that statistic really include every one? What about all the stories, like my own, that are never told?
I babysat for the family who owned the nearby country club. The caretaker for the club, a maybe 5-foot-tall, older man who always chewed on a cigar, would take the kids and me in a golf cart from the pool to their house when they were finished swimming.
On this ride, he would put his hand on my knee, then my thigh, and when he ventured further, I would position myself so that my legs were out of reach. I did this by swinging my body all the way over to the edge of the passenger seat, with my legs dangling out of the cart and my grip on the metal handle maintaining my precarious position on the seat.
I was 12.
Ms. Oxford’s tweet launched an outpouring of responses, a million that evening, and they continue to pour in with the hashtag #notokay.
Could one silver lining of Donald Trump’s “locker room talk” be the new understanding by men of what women have been dealing with in silence? Certainly, my family had no idea. How did an experience so common to women remain a secret to men? Is it that like the air we breathe, that sexual assaults are a ubiquitous part of being a female?
I asked Alyson Culin, associate director of the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, about this reluctance to share our story.
“The media portray women and girls as sex objects,” she responded, “while society demands that we are nice and quiet. When sexual attention makes us uncomfortable, we often don’t know that we have the right to speak out against it. And especially when girls are being sexualized at young ages, that kind of unwanted attention becomes normalized even when it is inappropriate.”
A friend of mine said: “I’m 62 years old. I can’t imagine any woman my age not having experienced an unwanted advance.” She and I related story after story of ourselves and our friends being groped and grabbed and the sometimes negative consequences for refusing this unwelcome attention. Is that why we don’t say anything? Are we afraid of the consequences?
Ms. Culin suggests the reluctance to report an assault is tied to concerns about how it will be received: “I think people who experience sexual violence are afraid of how people will respond when they report,” she said, “It’s unfortunately very common but also very inappropriate for victims to be blamed for violence committed against them. Survivors who do share may not receive supportive responses from family and friends, much less from law enforcement or other officials.”
Clearly, this is a huge problem, if not an epidemic, if a million people respond to one tweet in an evening. I wonder if it spurred conversations in other families like it did in my own. What can we tell our young children to keep them safe, and what can we tell our older children so they may become “active bystanders,” who do or say something when they see this type of behavior rather than ignoring it?
Ms. Culin said the OCRCC teaches young kids that “you have the right to say no” and that it’s always OK to talk to a trusted adult. But she also cautions that it is not the individual’s responsibility to prevent their own victimization. “We talk to older kids and adults about not perpetrating violence and also about being active bystanders who intervene in situations that look inappropriate or questionable. It shouldn’t be on one person to prevent being assaulted. It’s on all of us to build a safer community.”
Maybe the question for women isn’t “have you been sexually assaulted?”, but rather, “when? And how many times?”
The Orange County Rape Crisis Center offers a number of support groups and workshops for survivors and their loved ones. You can learn more at ocrcc.org. Their 24-Hour Help Line is 866-WE LISTEN (919-935-4783).
You can reach Mary Carey at www.primaryily.com or on Twitter @maryhelenecarey