When “me too” started buzzing around the internet as a way of saying that I too am a woman who has been sexually harassed and/or assaulted, I knew that I should chime in. It’s two words. All you have to do is type them and share them. People need to know that this sort of thing is far more common than anyone wants to believe.
But I was scared. I knew that I should tell my story, but it’s hard. It is hard to tell the truth about something when for far too long you’ve been told to be silent about that very thing.
See…here’s the thing. On Saturday, September 20, 2008, I was sexually assaulted. I was not raped, but I was taken advantage of. I was young. I was naive. And I was in a foreign country. I was in a place where everyone said that I had to experience the local culture. I had to explore. I had to try new things. I had to do things that I wouldn’t normally do.
So I bought a dress, a dress that was very pretty. I put on the dress. I let someone do my hair. I did my makeup. I went to a club. I wanted to have fun. I wanted to avoid Red Bull and Vodka.
By the end of the night, I had managed to avoid Red Bull and Vodka but not the smell of that pairing. And I had not had fun.
I’d gone into the evening with an idea that I’d dance with a few girl friends and maybe a cute guy. But I just wanted to have fun. I thought I was safe because I fit in with Spanish women. I was olive-skinned and dark-haired; surely, Spanish men would find me boring. They’d have no interest in me in my pink and brown halter dress with my brown sandals. Oh, I was wrong.
Instead, I’d had a random man I’d never even spoken to pull me away from my friends and stick his tongue into my mouth and his hands in places well…I wouldn’t want to tell my mother about. I was scared stiff. I went along with what he was doing because I didn’t know what else to do. I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking. I don’t know if I was. I just know that I was scared. I don’t know what would have happened if not for Colorado Boy.
Colorado Boy was a boy in my study abroad group who was nearby when this happened. I don’t know if we’d ever even spoken before. (I don’t even know if he was actually from Colorado; that’s just what my brain named him for this post.) The first time that I was aware of CB that night was when his hand was on my shoulder and he was saying something about his girlfriend. He pulled me away from Spanish Dude #1 telling the guy to get off his girlfriend. Who knows what SD#1 thought of CB? I don’t care. What I care about is that CB pulled me into a circle of girls who asked me if I was alright. They was kind. They were gentle. They reassured me that they were there if I needed any help.
The night went on. Another Spanish Dude wanted to dance with me. I wasn’t yet smart enough to say no, and I didn’t realize how far he’d managed to get me away from my group of friends until he asked me if he could take me home to meet his mother. I’m not dumb; I knew what that meant. But I couldn’t see any of my friends. I didn’t want to pay my taxi fare back to the hotel alone, and I didn’t want to disappear on my friends.
And somehow, I figured out a way out. I told SD#2 that I’d go home with him to “meet his mother.” But first I needed to tell my friends where I was going so that they wouldn’t worry about me. I walked off where I claimed I saw my friend and hid in the bathroom for ten minutes. When i came out, SD#2 was gone. Who knows what he thought about me in that moment, and honestly, who cares? Then, I went off in search of my friends. I eventually found them, and one of my friends and I agreed that we were ready to go home (being a bit bored of the club thing). So we began (slowly, it took over an hour) collecting our friends and back to the hotel we went.
I woke up the next morning tired and a little wiser and much sadder. I threw away the dress and shoes. Over the next several months, I battled an odd sadness that I couldn’t understand. Why was I so sad about what had happened? I’d been willing to dance with those men at first. I’d gone along with what they wanted. Sure, I jumped every time I heard a song (that I don’t even know the name of) that had been playing in the club that night. Vomit rose in my mouth whenever I smelled Red Bull. But I couldn’t understand why; I’d let those guys touch me.
Odd as it might sound, it wasn’t until I began watching Downton Abbey that I began to realize why I was so sad. It was 2011, more than two and a half years after my Spanish escapade. As Lady Mary’s storyline with Kemal Pamuk began to unfold, I heard so many of my friends condemn Lady Mary as impure or unchaste for her behavior in that night. And through that, I finally came to understand the sadness that even a good and kind therapist hadn’t been able to help me through.
If Lady Mary’s behavior with Kemal had been all her fault, then so had mine with those men. I had gone along with their actions because I was afraid. I didn’t know what to do, and so I let them do what they were doing. I hadn’t fought back because I hadn’t known how to. And I’d never told my story because I was afraid of being judged as impure or unworthy. That I hadn’t ended up hurt more badly or in more trouble was purely an accident of grace-CB’s timely intervention and an open bathroom stall where I could hide.
It took me a long time to accept that I’d been assaulted. It took me a long time to accept that what had happened was not my fault. But here’s the thing. It wasn’t my fault. None of the stories that have come out recently about women who suffered sexual harassment, assault, or abuse were the woman’s fault. Too many women (myself included) haven’t told their stories out of fear of being judged or not being believed. Someone once told me “You were in Spain. You just didn’t understand the culture.”
I don’t know that the problem was my lack of understanding of Spanish culture. I think the problem was that far too many people forget that every other person with whom they meet is a person, is an individual. It is too damn easy to treat others like objects and forget that these are individuals with rights and dignity. We need to change that. We have to change the narrative-not just for women, not just for men, but for all humans. We need to treat every human with respect and dignity.
Far too many people-both male and female-have stories like mine. We need to change the narrative so that more people feel safe saying “Me too” and so that fewer people have a reason to say that.