I didn’t think of it as trauma when he raped me at the end of his drunken high school graduation party. I didn’t even think of it as rape. All I knew was that I felt a sense of awfulness the next day, sitting in my eleventh grade accelerated English class and looking around at all my classmates. I figured none of them imagined that my friend’s boyfriend — a star on our football team — had picked me up off the floor in that hotel room the night before, where I was lying mostly unconscious, and sexually assaulted me as she and another boy looked on.
I hardly knew him, and hadn’t spoken three sentences to him before he did that. A few weeks later, I saw him at a basketball game, and he tried to joke around with me and lightly, maybe even kindly, put his hand on my arm. I shocked him, and myself, when I quickly pulled my arm away, looked him straight in the eye, and said, “Don’t you ever touch me again.” My body knew, way before my mind or heart did.
I never set out to hide it, or to mention it. That night would just come up, in conversations about sex or parties, with friends or boyfriends. It took four years before anyone I told knew enough to call it rape. Most of us children didn’t understand what sexual violence was back then.
I saw the guy one other time, when I was in my mid-20s. It was at a neighborhood bar in Memphis on Christmas night, where my high school friends and I always gathered when we came back home from bigger cities to visit our parents. I escaped to the women’s bathroom and burst into tears. My friends came in and gathered around me. They told me they would stand with me whatever I chose to do: confront him, leave, or just stay and continue our evening. We just stayed. I needed to stand my ground. I also wanted to go over there and beat his smiling face into the ground. My mind knew.
I was 27 when I reluctantly told my parents, and well into my 30s before I told my three older brothers, or got any real therapy for it. That’s how this trauma crap works. I didn’t think of it much, and it didn’t define my whole life, or even my sex life. But that awfulness I felt the day after, lingered. It is shame, and grief, and rage. My heart knows that now.
When I first spoke about it beyond my friends and family, I went big. In 2013, I wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, reacting to the rape conviction of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio. I said there is no longer any excuse, for boys and men especially, not to know exactly what rape is, and that sexual violence is not okay, not even just a little bit. Five years later, on the day Christine Blasey Ford testified before that same Senate Judiciary Committee where so many of us had watched Anita Hill testify in 1991, I wrote a second op-ed for the New York Times. I begged those senators not to send a message to yet another generation of sexual violence survivors that no one really cares, and that they better stay quiet about it in public, as I had done for nearly four decades.
Both times I spoke out, I got horrible messages online from strangers. But I got far more messages of love and support. And then there were the many friends and strangers who sent me their stories, sometimes confiding for the first time to anyone.
That is what drove me to keep talking. It is not the only way to heal from sexual violence. Keeping quiet and even forgetting about it, when you can, is healing too. Either way, I have learned to quit prioritizing the opinions of those who willfully misunderstand, or freak out, or try to silence me, or try to make me speak about it when I don’t want to or can’t. And I certainly have stopped giving much space in my heart or mind to those who endorse the people who commit sexual violence. Instead, I have tried to find ways to use my voice and energy to support other survivors, and the loved ones of those who have not survived, as well as those whose very lives would be in danger if they spoke out.
Our collective power increases with each person who shares an individual story. Our shame subsides whenever someone voices rage at the entitlement to another person’s body and spirit that drives sexual violence. And every time the urgency finally dawns on anyone else that this violent epidemic keeps on infecting lives around us all with raw trauma — that sense of awfulness — we boost the chances of transforming our shared grief into some much-needed healing, in ourselves and in our world.