Supporting Victims of Sexual Assault
I’m a survivor of sexual assault.
According to the National Institute of Justice, most sexual violence perpetrators on college campuses commit their crimes in September and October, and over a four-year period, 1 in 5 college students will sustain a sexual assault.
In solidarity with the students of various ages who have been and will be sexually assaulted in the Tri States area, I tell my story.
On a sunny, fall day in a crowded hallway on my way to 8th grade Algebra, a male student grabbed my crotch forcefully enough to hurt me, then quickly continued to his next class. Because of the crowding, I don’t think any one saw.
In rural Tennessee in the 1980s, there were no words to describe what happened. When there are no words, there is forced silence, no vocabulary to explain or articulate what happened, and thus, no possibility for vindication.
Within this silence, I closed in on myself for three years.
I felt ashamed, isolated, guilty, and when at school, unsafe. Because no one ever talked about sexual assault, I assumed it was my fault: I shouldn’t have worn jeans, I shouldn’t have taken algebra, I should have been more popular, I should have been taller, I should have been invisible. It never occurred to me to talk to an adult: how would I talk to anyone about something that had no name, especially since it seemed my fault? I was too ashamed to tell my friends to watch out for this perpetrator—it never occurred to me that he was probably assaulting them as well. As an eighth grader assaulted during a time and place of shamed silence, I didn’t know to blame the perpetrator alone.
I was absent a lot in 8th grade— staying home was the best way to avoid my perpetrator. I came down with a stomach virus that dehydrated me so severely that I was hospitalized. I lost confidence in math. I was a pianist who routinely competed at state, but that year, I could not master my repertoire. My memory failed me while performing at a competition and I cried. The days I was well enough to attend school, I focused on avoiding my perpetrator.
My perpetrator remained a threat in 9th grade: at school, I could not control him, so I sought control of my body by denying myself food. I packed one boiled egg and one apple for lunch. I got by on 500 calories a day for 6 months. Menstruation stopped and my fingers went numb, but I kept silent about this as well.
I told my father, a minister, that it was too hard to be a girl in that town and I wanted us to move. I made this decision despite the fact that I had cultivated very dear and intimate friendships that could never be replaced. I was desperate to get away from my perpetrator, but I was also tired of what we now call rape culture-- sexist jokes and disrespect of girls were routine in that town.
It is a common practice for ministers to change churches every few years, and my father followed through on my request. The summer after 9th grade we moved to Houston.
My 10th grade year was very hard, as I was adapting to the move. Eventually, I attended Waltrip High, where I met very good friends and felt safer. Imagining popularity would confer protection, I dropped piano, ran for cheerleader, and was elected.
I wonder how it could have turned out differently for me: what if I had had the words and the support to name my sexual assault? What if I had told one person and she had accepted my story? What if my perpetrator had been caught and expelled? What if I had not had to wait 30 years to hear a U.S. President say “to anyone who has ever been sexually assaulted: you are not alone. We have your back. I’ve got your back” (President Obama, Jan. 2014)?
Maybe I would have regained confidence in math, stayed out of the hospital, continued to cultivate my friendships in Tennessee, graduated from High School there, and followed through on my original plans to study piano.
As a mother of an eighth grader and a teacher and mentor to college students, I am outraged that sexual perpetrators roam the hallways and sidewalks of schools and colleges. Faculty Against Rape (FAR) says, "Sexual assault . . . Is in direct opposition to our work of teaching students the knowledge and skills of personal well-being."
If we are to be successful educators, we must ensure student safety. When they report sexual assault, we must accept their stories. We must let them know we’ve got their backs.
Holly Stovall is an Assistant Professor of Women's Studies at Western Illinois University.
The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Tri States Public Radio or Western Illinois University.