I was barely in middle school the first time it happened. I wasn’t even a teenager the first time a boy put his hands down my pants while I was asleep. I was at a sleepover with a friend from a former school, a girl I knew only briefly, but vetting your friends for possible pedophile brothers shouldn’t be a thing when you’re eleven (or ever). We fell asleep after watching movies and talking for what felt like hours. The night – and our vast and seemingly unending supply of energy – faded quickly. Becky sprawled across her dad’s favorite armchair as I settled into the soft folds of the family’s well-worn sofa. I remembered her telling me that she had a brother as his hands slid down my pants and slowly, tentatively found my still pre-pubescent vagina. It stayed there for what seemed like hours until suddenly, it was over. I exhaled, rolled over, and lay awake until morning came. When I got home I told my mom I never wanted to go back to Becky’s house. When she asked why I shrugged and told her that we just didn’t have much fun, and besides, she was a friend from another school, in another town, and it seemed like a hassle.
That lie will haunt me for the rest of my life.
The second time it happened I was a teenager. I had spent another typical-for-me-at-the-time day snowboarding with my friends. As was normal, the evening found us all still together at makeshift house party. I hadn’t been drinking, not many of us had actually. I wasn’t asking for it and I certainly wasn’t flirting, but somehow after falling asleep in a room by myself I woke to Kyle’s hands down my pants. This time, however, the assault wasn’t exploratory or cautious, it was aggressive. He had one hand inside of my vagina, nails scraping my insides, and another up my shirt angrily harassing my left breast as he whisper shouted at me to “wake the fuck up already.” I steadied my breathing and stayed as still as I could. I endured his hands all over me for the better part of an hour certain of two things: This was 100% my fault and if I showed him I was awake the attack would only get worse.
Eventually he gave up and fell asleep on the bed alongside me, his arm draped over me as if we were lovers spooning tenderly. As soon as I was sure he wouldn’t wake I moved into the next room where two of my best friends were sleeping (who are also men (who are not rapists)) and curled my body as small as it could get between them and fell into a fitful sleep. The next weekend I saw him snowboarding. And the weekend after that. On and on it went – I’d watch as his friends treated him the same and I died a little more inside. My silence, once again, was deafening. I quit snowboarding halfway through that season. When some of my closest and truest friends at the time asked why, I simply said “I’m getting injured too much and need to take a break.”
Another lie that would change my life and fail to impact my attacker’s.
The third time it happened was New Year’s Eve. I was at a cabin for a bonfire and relatively sober, low-key evening with three of my male friends and a host of other kids who frequented the coffee shop that had become our haven, a clubhouse for us misfits. Over time we had become a sort of family. As the night wound down I curled up on a bed that had been offered by the host, and fell swiftly asleep. Awoken suddenly and all too familiarly by my friend Mark’s hands down my pants. Yes. My friend. A man I had hiked with, shared stories with, camped safely with. A boy I thought I knew was doing this and I got angry. This time, as his hands fumbled to get my underwear down without taking my pants off, I rolled over and away from him. When that didn’t stop him I got up and crawled into bed with my friend Tim, a sweepingly handsome man who stood a towering 6′ something over my 5′ frame and whispered “help me” into his ear. He grabbed onto me, putting me between his body and the wall, and cocooned me for the rest of the night. I woke before the others and drove home in a fit of tears and showered until I couldn’t feel my skin anymore.
I’ve never shared these stories, the tragedies of my past. These men are the reason I was depressed in high school and tried to take my own life when I was 15. They are the reason I shaved my head and dressed in men’s clothing when I was 17 in an effort to de-feminize myself, and they are the reason I decided to “just say yes” to losing my virginity instead of risking falling asleep amongst friends and yet again finding myself the victim of assault. These three men, one of them still a boy himself at the time of my attack, are the reason I still struggle with healthy intimacy and feelings of self worth and crushing – fucking crushing – shame. And they are the reason I’m terrified to be a woman, to be a mother to daughters, and to be alone with anyone of the opposite sex, despite the tenure, trust, or strength of our relationship.
I still don’t know how to navigate all of the things that I am and have become because of what these men took from me, and some days – especially days like today when sexual assault is going viral – are still a crazy struggle. But these men, these cowards and thieves, will no longer be the reason I stay silent.
1 in 5 women have been sexually assaulted. ONE IN FIVE. Which means you know more than one woman who has had this, or something like it happen to her. Sexual assault can be as (fucking ridiculously) culturally appropriate as a woman getting her ass grabbed in a bar and as vicious and violent as rape. It can also be – and often is – somewhere in between those two extremes. But no matter how or why or what it looks like it is still, is always, sexual assault. It is never justified, it is never boys being boys, and it is never okay.
Because I exist in a society that shames victims and teaches women how not to get raped, somehow always making our attack at least partially our fault, it took me years to understand that what happened to me wasn’t my fault. That my body is my body and the simple act of being around men doesn’t make it any less so. Not because I’m someone’s daughter or sister or mother or friend. Because I am someone. My body, any woman’s body – unconscious or otherwise – does not and will not ever belong to anyone simply because it exists. Rape happens because some men are rapists. Sexual assault happens become some men sexually assault women. PERIOD. That’s the end of the discussion on “Causes of Sexual Assault.” This is real. This isn’t just happening to women behind dumpsters on college campuses, or to women in male-dominated military roles, this is happening to women you know in places they felt safe by men they trusted who you might also call a friend. Largely, the women are silent. They don’t talk about it. Socially constructed blame and shame weasel themselves into our minds and, along with the attack we just endured, will crush pieces of us. Some small, some large and wholly irreparable, and more often than not our attacker will go on his merry way. Unfettered, unchanged and without consequence (and, even sometimes after being found guilty, with very little consequence).
I don’t have the answers for how to end sexual assault for good, but I do know that it starts with all of us making a concerted effort to stop saying “boys will be boys.” It starts by not teaching young girls that a boy being mean to her is his way of saying he likes her; cruelty is never akin to healthy affection. It starts by teaching our boys that women’s bodies belong to women (that a person’s body belongs only to that person). That grabbing a girl’s ass, or breasts, or hands, or any part of her fucking body without permission isn’t okay. EVER. We’ve spent decades teaching women how not to get raped, let’s start teaching boys how not to rape. Let’s start shaming “your fellow bros just as quickly and deeply as people shame women for being the victims of these acts.” Because, as Davide Dellanave so perfectly put it, “every time you joke, even among just your buddies, and minimize sexual assault you promote a culture that tolerates what should be intolerable.”
I can’t go back and change what happened to me. I can’t go back and tell my mom that Becky’s brother assaulted me and beg her to call his parents or the police or someone, anyone, and do something about it. I can’t go back and tell all of Kyle’s or Mark’s friends what kind of man they are. I can press charges against them for what happened to me a lifetime ago, but society will require me to go to trial, to be victim shamed for staying silent for so long, for “ruining the lives” of men who “shouldn’t have 20 minutes define their last 20 years.” Even women will say that I should have stayed quiet. That because I didn’t speak up right away I shouldn’t speak up at all. But fuck that and fuck them. Staying silent doesn’t help. Staying silent hasn’t made the emotional scars of my attacks go away, and it hasn’t held the men who victimized me responsible for what they did to and stole from me.
I’ve realized all too late that our voices are our strongest asset.
Speak up. Stop assault. End rape culture.
About The Author
Athena Pelton is a photographer, storyteller, motorbiker, and self-professed do-it-all-er. She creates with a fervor and zest and her work embodies a tangible, heartfelt passion. Recently her writing was recognized by NPR and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. She lives near Minneapolis with her husband and two wombfruits.