I am six years old. I think. It’s unclear my exact age because my parents never talked about it growing up and the legal records are now sealed. I am six, give a take a few years, and I am sitting on my bedroom floor between my bed and the wall. I’m not wearing pants and my legs are spread apart. He is sitting across from me, his hair is slicked back, in a pony tail. He uses his fingers to spread the lips of vagina apart. He is inspecting it. He has to lower his head to see what is down there, in there. Sticking his fingers inside me, he opens my vagina up. He inspects me with his eyes and fingers. He is ten years older than I am and my babysitter.
Where is my younger brother while this is happening? Is he with my parents? Where are they? What are they doing? It’s the daytime so why would they need me to stay home? What would they both be doing? They don’t do anything together.
He takes out his penis. I am surprised by how much it looks like a mushroom. He tells me to touch it. I touch it. I don’t remember anything else.
I hate that I touched it. Why didn’t I say no? I am disgusting.
I know what happened was wrong but I don’t know why. Most likely because I was allowed to watch adult movies and television religiously from the time I was three years old. I catch my mom in the hallway, and I tell her that I have something to tell her. We go in my parent’s bedroom and sit on the bed. I tell her.
I hate that I can’t remember the details from that day. Is it because nothing else happened? Why are the police records sealed? Are there even court records – did it get that far? I have no idea. Don’t I have a right to see them? I hate that I don’t know what happened.
I see a child psychologist a handful of times. She has an office filled with toys, which are more interesting to me than talking about this event. I love this bouncy ball with streamers attached to it. I tell my therapist it looks like a comet and I show her a reenactment of a comet flying in the air and crashing on earth. At one appointment, she asks me to draw a picture of his penis. I draw a tall mushroom.
What did I tell the psychologist that would have been helpful for me? Did she say something to me that helped me? Why did my parents stop taking me? Did I even know what was going on? Was I in pain yet?
The incident is not talked about inside our house again. I know that I have been molested but I don’t know why or what it means. I don’t know that I am just one of millions who experiences molestation, assault, or rape. I don’t realize yet that I am the victim of systematic violence and oppression. I don’t know that the assault had nothing to do with sex or pleasure, but it was about power and taking advantage of my vulnerability.
I keep my secret, for the most part. When I am at a new best friend’s house for a sleepover, I will tell her my secret while we lie there in the dark. I cannot wait to tell her. To tell anyone. To say it out loud. I am in pain and want to be heard. They never know what to say. Nor should they. They will not get their period for five, six, or seven years; why should they know how to console a friend about molestation?
I learn to live my life, almost normally. When I am in college and start to meet other women, who have been sexually assaulted too, I notice that most other women’s experiences are much more violent than mine. I have a sick gratitude for this fact. But I feel their pain. I feel it all. I silently note that most of the women telling me about their assault were adults at the time it happened. I can’t imagine being fully formed when it happened and having to remember everything from that day. Always knowing life before the rape and then having to live the next 60 or 70 years knowing life with the rape. The blessing of being a young child when you are assaulted is that you don’t know any different. I think it’s normal. I don’t remember a time before the assault. I don’t know any different. I adapt.
I grow up hating my body. I am filled with shame. I am on high alert for predators. On a field trip to the orchestra in fourth grade, I am sitting next to a boy from my class. He is new. He transferred mid-year from the local Catholic grade school. We are watching the concert in silent and he puts his hand on my thigh without taking his eyes off the stage. I am stunned and uncomfortable. I flick his hand off me. Moments later, he puts it back on and moves in closer. I remove his hand with my hand but I do not say anything. I know the rules. Don’t talk during the concert.
I also know that what he did was not okay and I tell my mom. I am called into a meeting with the principal and she asks me to recount the events that happened. I go back to class. Someone, probably my mom, tells me that the boy said he fell asleep and it just happened while he was sleeping. I ask, “Then how did he put it back on my thigh after I flicked it off?”. Nothing happens.
This event does not traumatize me but it leaves a small scar.
Every time I am violated, my skin is ripped open. Eventually healing but permanently leaving scar tissue on my skin. The permanent discoloration makes sure I never forget what happened.
Other times though, the healing is not as clean. Some things hurt too much. Some scars are hypertrophic. This happens when the body produces too much collagen, producing a raised scar. Running my fingers over these scars, I can feel the unevenness between the scar tissue and the healthy skin. There is a drop off. The contrast between the two are fractions of millimeters but is a reminder of life before, even if I can’t remember that life.
Each scar I get tells me something: They tell me to be more careful. Be more militant. Your body is disgusting. Hate your body. You need attention from men. Men don’t like you. Your body is not yours. It is theirs. Be angry. Hold onto resentment. You are, and always will be, unsafe.
I am visiting my dad for Thanksgiving. He lives in a city just ten minutes outside of Portland, Oregon. This is where we lived when my parents were married. But it’s a different house. It’s my dad’s girlfriend’s house, from when she was married. I am sleeping.
I wake up to a feeling. I am being touched.
On the lips of my vagina.
I move a bit and he withdraws. I am fully awake now but pretending to sleep.
There is a boy my age staying in the bedroom next to me and I see his messy brown hair ducking below the mattress. He does not want me to see him. I continue to pretend I am sleeping. I do not know what to do. He tries again to touch me. He creeps his fingers up the shorts I am wearing. I move before he can get there. And he retreats. This goes on for another 20 minutes until he gives up and leaves. Other than the attempt that woke me up, he does not get further than my inner thigh again.
I am terrified. I am confused. I am in shock. I am frozen.
What the fuck just happened?
I lie in bed for a few hours thinking about what just happened. I go downstairs to use the family computer. At 4:00am my dad wakes up, which is normal for him, he usually wakes up between 4:00 and 5:00am. He walks downstairs and sees me on the computer.
What I was reading or doing on the internet? This was the time before MySpace or Facebook. The only thing for someone my age to do on the internet was instant message friends. And it since it was 6:00am in Michigan, none of my “buddies” were online.
He yells at me for being up so late/early. He demands to know why I am not sleeping. I cannot provide a reason. I knew why but I could not tell him, so I argue, “Why do I have to go bed now? You’re up”. This does not win him over. He walks me to my room. He is still upset with me as he shuts the door watching me to make sure I am laying down in bed. He doesn’t know any better.
When the door is shut, I start to cry. I am scared. I am scared what will happen when the door is closed. I do not know if I can protect myself again. I sob. Deep down, I want my dad to hear me but I am too scared to be loud. He might hear me but chooses to ignore it, thinking I am crying because I can’t go on the computer or because I got in trouble. That’s not it. I cry because I cannot keep my body safe, even in a family home. I am defenseless against predators who believe that they have every right to my vagina whenever they want.
I cry until I fall asleep. I wake up the next morning and think about it but tell myself not to. I will it to not have happened. But before I can completely do this, I tell a friend who lives in my dad’s neighborhood. Other than that, I keep it a secret. I feel this scar in private. Until six months later when I am home in Michigan with my mom. It is the day before I leave for my Dad’s house for the summer, which I do every year. I am at my mom’s work and using her computer to instant message friends. The same neighbor friend instant messages me.
Her: Remember that thing you told me that he did to you while you were asleep?
Her: He did it to me too. Last night.
At this point, I have not thought much about that night since it happened but I somehow know that it is serious now. I know that I have to tell my mom. My mom calls my dad and tells him. The next day, the boy who touched me while I slept admits it.
I was supposed to go to my dad’s house a few days after this all started but I didn’t go, for obvious reasons. Now things are settled. It is okay to go now. I don’t know why. But it is. A new airline ticket has to be purchased for me to come out, as I did not get on the original flight booked for me. All that is available is first class. I am told how lucky I am.
Lucky? I do not feel lucky. I feel gross and dirty. I feel confused and violated. I followed the rules. I did what I was supposed to. I went to bed. He did not follow the rules and got away with it. He should feel lucky. But that is not what I say. I feel bad. I have caused a disturbance in our family. I created drama, like I always do.
When I arrive, we all head to California for a vacation. At the hotel, we are given our room keys from an adult family member. It is explained to us that boys will sleep with boys and girls will sleep with girls – to avoid any funny business.
Funny business? It wasn’t a game. It was an assault. This has nothing to do with where I was sleeping. This is his fault. He is a predator! Why is this being put on me too? I’m not at fault. I was just sleeping. Help! Help me, please! Can anyone protect me? But I don’t say this. I feel bad again. I rub my raised scar. It is my fault. I deserved this.
My parents do not send me to therapy this time. But again, we do not speak of it at home.
It will be a decade before I can sleep with men without thinking of it. And I don’t feel “lucky” when I remember it. I feel dirty. I feel ashamed. I feel disgusting. I don’t remember what the plushy first-class seat felt like but I remember exactly what his fingers felt like on my vulva.
Throughout college, I break down sobbing in the middle of sex, more than once. Sometimes a man will graze his fingers over the lips of vagina and they linger just a little too long. I am flooded with memories. I can’t breathe. I am too dirty. I can’t do it. I’m disgusting. I can’t breathe. Drunk or sober. Boyfriends or one-night stands. For years, these unassuming men are the only people who know what happened to me or the demons in my head or the scars on my naked body.
Alone, I look at myself naked in the mirror, I see my scars, both even and uneven. I have beautiful thick, (mostly) naturally blonde hair and when I smile I expose straight, white, albeit large, teeth. But I don’t see my hair or my smile. I stare at my scars, rubbing the raised ones. They aren’t that long or wide. But they are thick. My skin is soft but uneven. I am told not to speak about what happened. So I do not share it. I was silent and my silence numbed me. But my body craved to feel. So I rubbed. When I feel the uneven texture, I feel alive.
I think about why these scars healed this way. It’s because my body went into overtime trying to heal me. She was in pain and she felt every last cell of that pain. She felt so much and she worked so hard to heal, which left an excess imprinted on me. I feel too much and so does my body. My skin’s uneven texture is an illustration of how much pain I am in, but also how much I feel, how much I love.
“I don’t tell you this so you think of me as a victim. I am not a victim. I tell you this because my story has value. I tell you this because I want you to know what I know: to be rendered powerless does not destroy your humanity. Your resilience is your humanity… I will not allow my story to be destroyed. What I would have done to have heard a story like mine, not for blame, not for reputation, not for money, not for power, but to feel less alone, to feel connected. I want my story heard.”
Hannah Gadsby, “Nanette”
I did not write this essay to acquire likes and followers. I did not write it to garner sympathy. I did not write it for shock value or to be controversial. I wrote this piece because my story has value. Value for any survivor of sexual assault, including myself, so we feel less alone.
When survivors of sexual assault are alone, we cannot completely heal. The opening in our skin might be closed, but when we are alone we rub our scars. Repeatedly. We don’t even know we’re doing it. You might bite your nails unconsciously but we have scars to rub. We rub back and forth, until they are inflamed. We don’t mind; we’re alone so no one can see the damage to our bodies or the pain we are in. We are so alone and in so much pain.
But then I share my story unfiltered and unapologetically; and the urge to rub my scars lessens. My fingers don’t gravitate towards my scars as much as they used to, now that I’ve said it out loud and someone has heard me, now that someone has validated me and my pain. Someone heard my story and told me that they too had a story. We’re not trying to start a movement or a hashtag; we are only looking to feel less alone. We instantly feel connected, on the most vulnerable and guttural level. That connection starts the healing process.
I know it was not her fault so I start to believe it was not my fault either.
The inflammation calms a little bit.
I know that she is not disgusting so I realize I am not disgusting either.
The redness subsides.
I know I am not alone. I never was. I just had to use my voice, to share my story.
We rub our scars a little less now.
We’re no longer alone. We’re no longer spending our excess energy rubbing our scars. We spend it on love. Loving each other. Loving ourselves. Now that we don’t have to rub our scars so often, our hands are free and we’re in control. In control of our stories. In control of our lives.
— Stephanie, age 29