Editor’s Note: This story contains graphic language.
Her Catholic boyfriend said he was waiting until marriage to have sex, so she felt safe. But after she passed out fully clothed on prom night, she woke up naked with him on top of and inside her. She got pregnant that night, 36 years ago, and he paid for her abortion. Then he mailed a letter to tell her she was going to hell.
Five drunken frat boys piled on top of a college sophomore, who was sober, as the party’s loud music drowned out her screams in the dark room. They grabbed at and groped her. One of them penetrated her with his finger before she broke free and ran.
A 19-year-old studying abroad woke up to a young man fondling her and masturbating in her face. An older boy plied a 15-year-old with booze and, after she passed out at a house party, stole her virginity. Another young woman took the cocktail a cute guy offered on her 21st birthday. She didn’t know what to call it when the same guy had his way with her after she grew woozy, they left the bar and her body went numb. More than a decade later, when a friend of friends assaulted her, dislocated her jaw and left her bruised, she knew the word: rape.
These are just a sampling of the dozens of stories of sexual assault that were shared with me in recent days by phone, email and through social media. They are accounts from women in their 30s, 40s and 50s who I asked to reflect on their younger years, mostly in high school and college. They spoke out on the condition that they, and the accused, would remain anonymous.
Some called their sexual assaults a “cliché,” perhaps too common to be worth mentioning. One woman simply quipped, “Is there a woman who made it through college without this experience?”
With decades-old allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by Judge Brett Kavanaugh making headlines and threatening to derail his Supreme Court nomination, we’ve entered a new chapter in the #MeToo movement. Women are thinking back to their own experiences, many of them for the first time in years. They’re talking about their assaults online, in their homes and at dinner parties.
What are these stories stirring up in women? Are they putting themselves in the shoes of Kavanaugh’s accusers? And do they think they could or would come forward themselves if the men who assaulted them were suddenly poised for positions of power?
’Every scream I never screamed’
Plenty of those I heard from spent years blaming themselves and few, if they knew who their attackers were, reported anything to authorities or other adults, including parents. Those who did learned quickly why most girls and women don’t. They weren’t believed, felt ashamed and didn’t see justice served. They were fed the “boys will be boys” line, even by their mothers.
Some had never shared their stories before; others only with select family members or friends.
There were those who were relatively unscathed by their experiences. Others were not so fortunate and have years of therapy behind them to prove it. One woman said she dropped out of college for a year and couldn’t have an intimate relationship for eight years after her rape. The one who lost her virginity against her will at 15 listed off a series of subsequent assaults and spent much of her adult life struggling with low self-esteem and trying not to “feel like a slut.”
The last time she was assaulted, she was nearly 40. She was walking through a park in broad daylight when a man approached from behind, thrust his hand up her skirt and grabbed her crotch.
“At first I froze, but then I started to scream,” she said. “I couldn’t stop screaming. … It was every scream I never screamed.”
They were assaulted by men or boys they didn’t know, and ones they were fixed up with, knew since childhood or were dating. One woman’s attacker was a longtime crush; a second’s a best friend. A third woman’s attacker was a graduate student she looked up to as an undergrad; he was the “golden boy” in the academic department who could make or break her professional future. A fourth’s supervised summer legislative interns on Capitol Hill.
A fifth woman revealed she was assaulted by three men – relatives or people connected to family members.
“Until their parents die, until they move away and I never have to see their face again, until I die – most will never know that these people who walk among us have this fundamentally broken way of treating women,” she wrote in a social media post.
To come forward about these men before then wouldn’t be “worth the headache,” she said. But, “if any of these people got anywhere near one of the highest offices in the land, I’d air their dirty laundry. … Bless this woman (referring to Christine Blasey Ford) as she walks through this fire. I’m frankly relieved that I likely won’t ever be in her shoes.”
’Bookend to Brock Turner’
For some, this moment has been triggering. One woman called it a “bookend to Brock Turner,” a story that hit a number of the women I heard from harder than this. Turner is the former Stanford University student who, in January 2015, was caught on campus, outside a fraternity, sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. He was sentenced to six months in jail but only served three.
One woman said the election of President Donald Trump was what did her in. She couldn’t stop crying and was inconsolable the day after he won.
“I felt like my country had just said that a man who was known to be a serial sexual assaulter was worthy to hold the highest office, which meant that it was okay to assault women,” she wrote.
The growing activism of women give many of them hope, even if they fear that what they want to see will take time.
“The ground beneath these men has shifted in ways that they are still not prepared for,” one woman said.
They want to think, though, that high schoolers and college students are more sensitive and aware, better equipped to call sexual assault what it is and more inclined to speak up. They’re afraid they may not be right.
If they could talk to their younger selves, they’d take them by the shoulders and tell them they didn’t deserve the wrongs pushed on them.
Their own parents didn’t talk to them in ways they talk to their own children. Their little ones, sons and daughters, learn about consent early and aren’t required to hug or touch anyone they don’t want to hug or touch. They’re given lessons in boundaries and understand they have agency over their own bodies.
Some have told their older kids what happened to them, while others say the details are something they’ll never share. They don’t shy away from using words such as rape and assault. They talk openly about relationships and how to honor partners. They insist their sons treat girls and women – really, everyone – with respect and tell their daughters to be vigilant.
One woman is waiting for the day when her kids will let her sign them up for self-defense classes.
’A skeleton’ in his closet
They question if they’d come forward like Kavanaugh’s accusers.
There are those who can’t fathom putting their own lives under the microscope or exposing their families to the fallout. Some look back and, even after all these years, worry that they were partially to blame. One said she’d want to dig into her attacker’s more recent past, see if he’s shown respect for women and allow for the chance that he’d changed. Others want to believe that if the greater good depended on it, they’d be as brave.
“The more ‘the public’ sees that this happened to countless women who did not report it, the harder it will be to deny the accusations of those who do come forward,” one woman wrote in an email. “We can’t all be liars.”
A few women mentioned that they’ve Googled the men who assaulted them. They’ve monitored their lives and careers. One woman decided, timed with the 30th anniversary of her assault, to send the now-family man a letter. She never expected to hear from him – and she didn’t. She did it for herself. By putting words to what she’s lived with all these years, she felt better.
At one point the prom date who once vowed he was waiting until marriage to have sex, and then paid for an abortion after he raped his date, held a job in a state attorney’s office.
“I remember back then wondering what I would do if I learned he was running for public office. It seemed plausible that he would,” the woman said. “I wondered if he considered me and my abortion a skeleton in his Republican closet.”
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Just days after she first typed #MeToo on her Facebook page last year, even though they had no friends in common, he sent her a Facebook friend request. It was the first contact he’d made with her since he’d written 35 years earlier to tell her she was going to hell.
It felt a bit like “a litmus test,” she said. Would her accepting, in his mind, mean he was safe?
She waited a few days and then accepted.
She did it not because she was letting him off the hook. She accepted because she wanted him to see her every post, to know how strong she is.