The sound of pants zipping still triggers me.
I sleep with a nightlight because it always happened in the dark.
But it didn’t happen because of what I was wearing or I was too inebriated to say “no.”
It happened because a man in my life saw me as an object rather than what I really was: a 5-year-old little girl.
That’s when it first happened, at age 5. And it continued until I was 11.
I’ve long struggled with whether or not I should write about it. Talking about it is hard enough. But to sign my name to something such as this is something I’ve always been too afraid to do.
But I’m not afraid anymore.
Because I, like one in six women, was sexually abused before I reached the age of 18.
There’s always been some amount of guilt and shame I’ve carried with it. Some societally-assigned feeling of dirtiness and unworthiness, as if I’m already used and abused goods.
If I could go back in time and whisk that little doe-eyed girl away from the nightmare she was living in I absolutely would. But we’re light-years away from those technological advancements so for now, she has to live through it.
She’s going to be headstrong and determined to succeed, fueled by a desire to disprove naysayers and critics that point to sexual abuse as a root of failure, addiction and strife.
She’s going to be a fierce defender of human rights because she knows what it’s like to be stripped of all your humanity.
She will be an outspoken critic of the justice system, a system that is anything but “just.”
But she’s also going to be broken in many places. She’ll fear the touch of a man’s hand and the sound of a zipper. She’ll be set into a panic every time she’s alone in a dark room and she will dissociate at the simple mention of her abuser.
She, like so many others, will have to carry the burden of shame and disgust laid upon her tiny shoulders by a patriarchal society that places the virtue of virginity above all else and a man’s needs for release above a woman’s need for sanity.
But neither she, nor any of 433,648 individuals over the age of 12 that have walked the same road as she has, are not alone.
This is something that no one should, firstly, have to experience, let alone be ashamed of.
According to RAINN, every nine minutes a child becomes the victim of a sexual assault and 82% of victims are female.
I remember sitting in my fourth grade classroom getting “the talk” about periods, sex and protecting yourself against rape while the boys went and played on the playground. Some may argue that we need to teach our boys not to rape rather than our girls how to not get raped, but the fact is that the idea of “stranger danger” is simply a myth.
Now I’m a big fan of the show “Criminal Minds” and have worked out in my head a million different ways to get away from a sexual sadist but the truth is that rape and sexual abuse occurring in the home is much more likely than being assaulted by a Richard Ramirez type.
In 2019 RAINN found that 93% of perpetrators of sexual abuse against children were known to the victim before the assault. 34% of them were family members.
I won’t identify who my rapist was because I’m not here to give them that power, but what I will say is that those statistics are true. You’re more likely to be in danger in your own home than you are out on the street, especially as a child.
More than anything I wish I had a magic wand to make this all go away–the pain, the shame, the fear–but I don’t. No one does. I wish I had something revolutionary and groundbreaking to say that would stop widespread rape and sexual abuse globally, but I don’t.
All I have is my personal experience, my truth, to live by and I hope that those reading this can find some solace, some inspiration, in what I’ve said.
Being a survivor doesn’t mean your value has lessened in any way. It doesn’t mean that you’re used goods or less deserving of love and respect. It means that someone at some point in your life decided to use their power against you and there was absolutely nothing you could do about it.
There is no timetable for healing. There is never any “right time” to speak up or to own what’s happened to you. In the time it took me to write this piece I went from being inspired to absolutely petrified to sign my name to this.
Healing is not linear and it’s not about the destination. It’s about the journey there. Some days will be harder than others. Some days you’ll be able to stand the smell of that same cologne or hear the sound of a zipper and be okay. Other days you will be propelled back into a suffocating rehashing of all your trauma.
But it’s important to remember: you’ve made it this far, now keep going. They didn’t break you then and they sure as shit can’t break you now.
Resources for sexual assault survivors in Long Beach:
Counseling and Psychological Services at CSULB: (562) 985-4001
Office of Equity and Diversity: (562) 985-8256
RAINN: (800) 656-4673
What a brave and wonderful piece, Madalyn. You’ve helped many, many people today through your words. No one should have to experience what you did. I am so sorry, so very sorry that you’ve had to carry this with you. All my hopes for your continued healing.