The election forced me to confront my family about their reactions to my sexual assault — here’s what happened
Like many people, I was surprised by the results of the 2016 presidential election. I was even more surprised – if such a thing is possible – that the result triggered memories and nightmares from my sexual assault, which took place nearly a decade earlier. But it did.
In the days following, I didn’t talk to many people about the election because so many of my feelings over the result were tied up with feelings surrounding my sexual assault.
You see, I’d been able to handle hearing about the #TrumpTapes because I was sure no one would elect a man whose words demonstrated that he thought sexual assault was okay. When the alleged victims came forward, I believed them, because it is never fun or rewarding to share what can feel like a shameful, deeply personal, painful experience. I also know what it is like not to be believed. The actual assault was traumatic, but the aftermath — the loneliness, the lack of support — can be nearly as bad.
My dad – my number one fan, comforter during breakups, an attendee of every soccer game I played in – has never denied my sexual assault. But like many people I care about, he’s never gone out of his way to understand it or to recognize rape culture (which is just as important to me).
He’s not the only one who falls into this category and it would be unfair to single him out, but the story I am about to tell is an important one, even a hopeful one.
We’re told activism starts with our families around the table — but I would rather try to convince strangers than my own stubborn family.
Yet, after the election, I realized that when I told only a few people back in the day, and received hurtful reactions from some of them, I had internalized this message: it was emotionally safer for me not to speak of it at all than risk a painful response.
But after the results came in, not only was I upset and triggered — a part of me was angry and depressed. It felt very much like half of voters (or half the electorate) had invalidated my experience of sexual assault and the experiences of my friends and countless others. One out of six American women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime — and let me remind you that this is an underreported crime. Most likely, the number is much higher.
During this election, my dad said things like, “I understand why you cannot vote for Trump. You are so passionate when it comes to the issue of sexual assault against women.” In the post #TrumpTapes era, a strange détente took place between us.
But when the results of the election came in, and I was unexpectedly triggered (a first for me in ten years), I actively avoided those same people I had excused for years (including my dad).
When we finally spoke, he asked me how I was doing. I was honest about the fact that the election had brought back memories of my assault. I was sure not to mention particular candidates, but I knew I was entering an arena with the distinct chance I would leave it feeling unsupported.
Dad’s first response was, “Well, you have to get on with your life.” At least he sounded sympathetic?
Before November 8th, I would have let it go (let’s be honest, I would not have brought any of this up in the first place). This time, however, I put my foot down. The electorate may have invalidated my experience -- but I wouldn’t allow my own family to do the same.
The truth is, I have worked hard every day in therapy — and outside of it — to come so far. I have gotten on with my life. I have moved on. I will not allow anyone to knowingly or unknowingly demean the progress I have made in moving past something I never asked for. The shame should never be mine.
As you can imagine, the conversation went downhill. I became more and more upset. He felt misunderstood. I tried to provide tools for him (it’s as simple as saying I’m sorry that happened to you) — neither of us were at our best. I sobbed for the first time since the election (I was long overdue) when we hung up.
My tears were drying when I received a text from dad, in which he told me that he was limited in this area and that it was best we did not speak about the topic.
At that moment, he chose not to name the thing that had happened to me. I thought that was about as good as it could get — which made me even sadder. It hurt that this thing I had never asked for – my sexual assault – was my responsibility to carry alone.
I felt pretty hopeless about the holidays. How was I going to get through them? I needed an exit strategy since dinner table activism was clearly not for us. So I was shocked when my dad reached out to me a few days later with a completely different attitude.
He admitted that he handled our call poorly. He apologized for that. He told me he was sorry if he had never apologized for the fact that I was sexually assaulted (He had). He told me no one should have to go through that. He made sure I knew that he now realized that -- even though it happened in the past -- there are certain things that can trigger memories.
The man who earlier in the year had asked me what trigger warnings were — and if we really needed them — used the word trigger! He promised that if I ever needed to talk, he would try to be a good listener.
I cannot express how much my heart swelled. His words were simple and to the point and they meant the world to me.
I am not alone, I realized. What an incredible feeling.
Like a lot of people in my life, my dad and I may never agree on politics. Someone decided it would be brilliant to schedule elections right before the holidays, and I know I am not the only having difficult conversations with family.
But the evolution of my dad’s understanding of my sexual assault – in the span of a week – not only soothes some wounds, but gives me hope for society at large.
Hope feels scary right now. A part of me wants to keep my defenses up, remained closed. But after avoiding hurtful discussions, I experienced the healing that can come out of conversations that feel like land-mines.
So I won’t stop speaking. I won’t quiet down about what happened to me.