#MeToo and What I Was Wearing
Just before the exposure of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual assault incidents, a harassment incident had happened in my neighborhood. I found it remarkable because this type of incident is rarely reported in my neck of the woods. What was less remarkable were the comments and questions from neighbors in relation to the threat this woman was facing. Many questions were cut from the same cloth of alienating the victim and hiding what we fear most, our own helplessness to undo the unthinkable. It’s time to change the narrative when it comes to responding to sexual assault and abuse. Sexual abuse and assault is not about what the victim was wearing on the outside. It’s about what we are choosing to wear on the inside.
My neighbor, who was being stalked, alerted the neighborhood via Nextdoor to help others keep informed and stay safe. One man persisted in trolling for the value of comedic affect. Another questioned whether the woman was certain she was being stalked. It was enough to make my blood boil. Because I have been in her shoes. We didn’t have social media back in 1991. But I remember clearly without the aid of a FaceBook memory. I was terrified. I lived alone in my apartment. One afternoon, I was awakened from a nap by a pounding on my door. Foggy brained, I asked who it was through the door. The man answered, “I have the pizza you ordered.” My heart jumped into my throat. I had enough wits to tell him that he was a mistaken. He insisted I let him in anyway. Right away, I called the police. He had left by the time they had arrived. The police were able to track him down because I was able to give them a good description of his vehicle. He was issued a warning to stay off my property. Thankfully, they didn’t ask me questions like: “Are you sure he was following you?”; “What were you wearing?”; “Were you drinking?”
I managed to get away that time. However, I wasn’t so fortunate another time when I was just a 9 year-old girl. I had to sleep overnight at a family acquaintance’s home because my single mother was away. One of her sons proceeded to sexually molest me while I was sleeping. I didn’t realize what was happening. I was terrified and full of shame. I know, I know – you may be wondering how this could happen. Maybe you have the following questions:
- “What was I wearing?” I was wearing a long, cotton gown that reached my ankles. It had long sleeves and I was covered in blankets up to my neck.
- “Did I have too much to drink?” Gee, I’m not sure… I think the last thing I had to drink was a glass of milk.
- “Did you go to his place?” Yes, I was being watched over by his mother while my mom was making a living waiting on tables that night.
- “Did you lead him on?” I don’t think I ever realized he was in the house until he forced himself on me.
- Why didn’t I speak up? Because I was terrified. I never spoke of the incident until well into my 40’s. I was child in a fractured family. At the time, my mom was a single-mother overloaded by poverty, working long shifts as a waitress and trying to care care of three young children. My father was still struggling with severe alcoholism. I was afraid to tell anyone because I didn’t want to be a burden. Anger was the predominant reaction to anything that sniffed of vulnerability. I was afraid that I must have done something wrong to have this happen to me. Many years later, I confessed this incident to my mother, she asked me “Why do you have to bring this up now?”
Preposterous, isn’t it? These are the questions our children hear us asking the victims. What do you think this teaches them? If anything, I’d argue that it subconsciously plants the seeds that the victim is to blame and the perpetrator doesn’t have to be held accountable. We deflect the attention from the offender. It is a narrative that enables a perpetrator to lurk in the dark while we blindly step on the victim.
It took many years for me to be able to acknowledge that this wasn’t something I brought upon myself. I had buried the anger from what had happened to me deep in my soul. Constantly, I beat myself up for this incident and others. I convinced myself that I wasn’t worthy of anything good, giving away any joy I had to others. I did things to myself like bulimia, binge-drinking and choosing relationships that validated my sense of unworthiness. I thought I was the monster. This subconsciously created a huge strain on my body until one day I was physically sick with breast cancer. I learned that I had to give myself the empathy I needed in order to heal. I had to change my perspective regardless of other people’s inability to show up for me in the way I needed them too. I learned that I could have boundaries that allow me to stay safe.
But it’s never too late to show up for someone in your life that has been sexually assaulted or abused. Here are some better questions or things to ask or say in order to help your loved one heal and become stronger:
- “I’m so sorry.”
- “I love you.”
- “Please forgive me (if you asked a question that points blame at the victim).”
- “Thank you for sharing your story.”
- “How can I help?”
- “Are you okay? (Of course the answer may be “NO. What do you think?!” – just sit silently and allow her/him to express the anger.)”
- “How do you feel?”
- “I want to help you but I’m scared (or I don’t know how).”
- “There are no words…”
We cannot go back in time and change what happened with blame-tinged questions. We cannot launch into the future to pretend it won’t happen again. The most powerful moment for healing is the present moment when the victim is ready to speak. We cannot help the victims by putting her/him on the defensive. We must allow those who are hurting to speak their truth in non-judgment. Our purpose in this situation is to hold a safe and sacred space to allow the assaulted and abused to know that they are worthy to feel safe and supported. The #metoo movement is powerful because it will allow us to open up the dialogue and begin much needed healing. Don’t ask “why do you have to bring this up now.” Instead, let’s be grateful for the sharing. After all, sexual abuse and assault is never about what the victim is wearing on the outside. But the healing is about what we are willing to wear on the inside.