Trigger warning: This essay contains descriptions of sexual assault and childhood sexual abuse.
I was around five or six, and the three of us — my mom, our neighbor and friend Kip, and I — were playing Wheel of Fortune on the couch. We’d take turns guessing and coming up with the answers, and we all leaned down to write on the small coffee table that doubled as a dinner table and shelf space.
When my mom disappeared into the kitchen for a few minutes to grab food and drinks, Kip turned to me. He was a little younger than my mom, and he’d been coming over regularly for a while. As far as I knew, he and my mom weren’t dating, but they were good friends.
Kip put his hand on my scrawny left leg, sitting next to me on the couch.
“Can I touch your pussy?” he asked me.
I froze with panic. What was a pussy? He was awfully close to me. He was my mom’s friend, and I really liked him, but I didn’t like how he was touching my leg. I didn’t know how to say that, though; adults were the ones who made all the rules.
“I don’t know what that is,” I mumbled. I thought about telling him to stop, but words failed me.
He didn’t move his hand from my leg until we heard my mom hustling back in from the kitchen with boxes of Chinese food and beverages. I was uncomfortable the rest of the night, but I tried to play it off. If Kip, who was my mom’s friend and an adult, asked to touch my pussy, that couldn’t be wrong, right? I knew I could trust adults. My mom was the person I saw every day, and I definitely trusted her and other women slightly more — but I’d never felt unsafe with my dad, Uncle Ronnie, or Uncle Kevin, who were all somewhere around Kip’s age.
A few days later, I casually asked my mom what a pussy was. I had already asked my best friend, Kristen, who also wasn’t sure she knew what it was. My mom sat down on the couch next to me and explained what the word pussy meant, but stopped midway through our conversation.
I told her about Kip. My mom sounded a little frantic but immediately told me that we would never see him again; he wouldn’t be coming over, and if I saw him when I was out in the neighborhood while out with her or any of my friends, I shouldn’t say hi. She explained, in kindergarten terms, what consent was — that my body was mine, that I had full say over who touched it and when, which included innocent things like giving hugs, kisses, and cuddling. She told me that if anyone ever made me feel that way about my body again, I should come tell her as soon as possible.
That was the first time I was sexually harassed or assaulted, but it wasn’t the last.
And for many people, the viral #MeToo hashtag campaign — in which people are publicly sharing their stories of being harassed or assaulted — is the first time they have spoken up about their experiences.
The Me Too campaign was initially launched 10 years ago by activist Tarana Burke and became a trending hashtag again when actress Alyssa Milano shared it earlier this week.
I’ve written publicly about being a rape survivor. Every time I publish anything on the topic, at least a few people reach out to me; sometimes people I know, and often strangers. They send me Facebook messages. They text me. They write me emails. I’ve even gotten a few postcards (with my address given out consensually and willingly). Survivors tell me that they’re grateful to see someone else’s story, particularly if anything from my experience resonates with their own.
There’s an undeniable power in telling our stories.
Many survivors choose not to report their assaults or harassment for a number of reasons, and it can be extremely validating for someone else to listen to what happened, believe you, and witness your story. I feel empowered when other LGBTQIA+ and disabled survivors speak up about their experiences, because I often feel erased from the mainstream narrative as a queer disabled survivor. Other survivors have told me that reading my story allowed them to heal, that seeing me speak out gave them the courage to be vulnerable and tell someone about their assault for the first time.
I chose not to write a status on any social media platform about #MeToo, despite having shared all of my reported stories and personal essays on the topic.
Because, as Wagatwe Wanjuki, creator of #SurvivorPrivilege, pointed out in a viral social media post, “I know, deep down, it won’t do anything. Men who need a certain threshold of survivors coming forward to ‘get it’ will never get it. Because the focus on victims and survivors — instead of their assailants and enablers — is something we need to change.”
It’s been overwhelming to see #MeToo take off so quickly. It’s validating to see other survivors come forward, and particularly powerful for me when my friends and people I admire talk about issues that matter to me, especially when they’re inclusive of how sexual violence uniquely affects marginalized communities.
But it’s also exhausting.
Writing about assault (and reading about it, and thinking about it) is a taxing process. It often requires survivors to go back to the moments that traumatized us. Every time I see a status about #MeToo, I’m torn between two feelings: Grateful that the person posting feels safe enough to share their experience, and tired as hell that so many of us have been through this. It’s been over five years since my rape; I still have nightmares about running into my assailant while I’m standing in line at Comic-Con or seeing her face in a packed subway car.
To the survivors who are speaking out for the first time, I see you.
I see everyone who is worried their story isn’t enough, every person who had previously never named their harassment or assault because it didn’t seem “that serious.” I’m holding space for marginalized people who feel alienated by the mainstream narrative about white, straight, cis, non-disabled, thin women being attacked by cis men. I’m witnessing every single person who has ever been disbelieved, whether by law enforcement, an authority figure, a therapist, or a friend. I’m thinking about the survivors of childhood sexual abuse who may have blamed themselves for what happened and internalized that shame.
If you shared #MeToo for any reason or if you didn’t, if reading the stories has re-traumatized you, I hope you’re practicing self-care. I’m a little doubtful that this hashtag will create systemic change, although I hope it does inspire more people to do the work. But if it does one thing, I hope it’s this: Give voice to survivors of sexual violence and help create community among us — because we can uplift each other and take back our stories together.