I Never Thought It Was That Bad
I remember the day clearly: it was a hot, humid summer day in Philadelphia, between my sophomore and junior years. I decided to stay near campus for the summer to be with my friends before we all went to study abroad programs around the world. Every night we had long dinners with wine and in the mornings, we exercised to make up for our long nights.
One particular Saturday morning, I decided to take a run. As I was jogging down the Walnut Street bridge from campus to Center City, I saw a man walking toward me. He looked like he’d had a rough go for a while, wearing a dirty white tank top, smudged and baggy jeans, a pick stuck in his hair. He was limping and taking up too much space on the sidewalk. From a distance, I could see him marching forward in the middle of the sidewalk so I reminded myself to choose a lane. I ran on the right. As we approached, he came into my side of the walking lane so I ran on the left side. Just then, he grabbed my body and touched me everywhere. Instinctively, I elbowed my way out and shouted profanities. He restrained me, and still standing, I wrangled out of his hold. I made eye contact with a UPS driver stuck in traffic and motioned for him to call the police.
The man seemed startled that I’d fought back and I sprinted away. I ran a block to some sort of meeting house and nobody seemed to care when I came in and said I needed help. I darted out and ran a couple blocks further to the main Post Office building and recalled seeing postal police standing guard. The officer took a look at me and asked if I needed help. Perhaps it was the intense look in my eyes and I started to tell him the story. I described the man in detail and told him what had happened. He called for backup to look for the guy.
Within a few moments, I felt tears burning my eyes and my throat was dry and scratchy. Then, my body turned hot. I was worried and thought I did something wrong (tell the police). Maybe I was wearing the wrong outfit (shorts and a t-shirt). Maybe I did something to provoke him (running?). Beginning as soon as I told the police officer, a new mantra started swirling around my head: It probably wasn’t that bad so I should just drop it. The police officers encouraged me to drive with them to the station and file a report. I was worried that I would not be able to get home, and they assured me they’d drive me back to my apartment.
Concurrently, two other police officers drove around the area looking for the guy and ironically, he was found across the street from my apartment. (This was random; he was likely not stalking me.)
At the station, I remember mistakenly coming into contact with the guy as was getting out of the police car. He flailed his arms and shouted gibberish. It appeared that he had a mental disorder. The police asked me if I still wanted to file a report and I said yes.
The officers took me to a small, wood-paneled room. We sat across from each other at a metal desk. I described the incident while they took notes on legal pads. They asked questions and listened to my answers. When I was finished, I waited for them to take me home while they made copies of the notes and completed a police report. Even though it was the middle of a humid, hot summer, I felt cold. In the meantime, I remember seeing a homeless woman who’d been raped and I felt terribly about her situation. Her story made me feel even worse about mine. I didn’t think what happened to me was that bad.
The next day I woke up to find a rash on my body, a sty in my eye, and fear of walking around campus. At the insistence of my parents, I went to student health who diagnosed me with nothing physical, but emotional stress. The doctor referred me to campus psychological services after I diminished my story from the day before. The doctor reminded me that I’d experienced trauma, but I downplayed it. I went to psychological services, mostly so I would not disappoint my parents or the doctor. Begrudgingly, I told my counselor what happened the day before. She seemed empathic and wanted to expore this. Decidedly, I didn’t want to touch this with a ten-foot pole. I decided everything was fine and said it wasn’t a big deal. She tried to convince me to come back, but I said it would not be necessary. I had two or three more weeks to stay on campus for the summer before going home and then flying abroad. I didn’t think it would even cross my mind again.
I was so wrong. At every turn, I was afraid to come into contact with any men. Taking the bus was nearly impossible because I’d have to sit too closely to a man. Walking over the bridge to my internship brought on scary memories of that Saturday, plus it was extremely humid and hot, like all Philadelphia summers, making it virtually impossible to get to my internship dry and dressed appropriately. Somehow, I persisted and the rest of the summer passed in a blur.
In the early Fall, I went abroad to Europe. I traveled briefly in Germany, Denmark and Western Sweden on my way to Stockholm. I was by myself most days, and it felt better than being with strangers. Additionally, the Northern Europeans were reserved and respectful and I never felt encroached upon by them. For the duration of the semester, I became close friends with various Europeans and Americans in my program and felt safe with them by my side. I don’t recall talking about the assault at all, but I know it crossed my mind often.
In retrospect, I realized that my entire study abroad experience was marked by close friendships, but no boyfriends or physical encounters of any kind. Normally, I despise cold weather, but wearing sweaters and heavy coats in Sweden gave me an added layer of protection. I also became interested in self-defense classes, and when I returned to my college campus in the Spring, began taking Muay Thai Kickboxing. At the time, I thought it was just because I wanted good exercise. Really, it was so I could learn how to protect myself.
You see, in all the years since this sexual assault occurred, I’ve downplayed it. Since I was not beaten, raped, or threatened, I felt embarrassed talking about it. I think about all the women who’ve died due to domestic violence. I remember women who have been raped and left for dead. I cry for women whose first sexual experiences with men were coercive or non-consensual. I think about sexual harassment in the workplace. I think of locker room talk and all the women who are the subjects of these piggish, disgusting remarks. I hold space for women who have been drugged, touched, catcalled and more.
In some way or another, we have all been there. Brock Turner’s survivor told her story with so much detail and raw description. She made an impact on me. I was moved and brought to tears by her story. And I also felt a strange combination of guilt, luck and confusion. Her story inspired me to begin revisiting mine again.
So many of my clients have confided in me about times they were raped. Two of my lovely clients had first sexual experiences with young men who raped them after they’d clearly said no. Other clients have expressed inappropriate and unwanted touching and stalking by strangers as well as by men they knew.
When anyone, whether a client or a friend, has told me her story, I’ve listened and validated her experiences. I’ve never even considered that other women’s stories were not bad enough to report or share. So why have I minimized my own? Why have I felt guilty?
I’ve felt guilty for the assault not having been worse. I did NOT wish something bad upon myself, and I’m glad nothing else and nothing worse happened. But still, I’ve devalued this situation for so many years because it wasn’t very dramatic or traumatic. It’s made me think I had it better than so many other victims or survivors, so I should simply not talk about it. I felt that talking about my assault de-emphasized other women’s stories.
Since the summer when many women began to publicly talk about their own experiences with mistreatment from men, I realized I needed to speak up also. In my silence, other people have also had to be silent or quiet. I don’t wish anyone to feel shushed. So, I’m coming out and stating that while it could have been worse, it was bad enough. You and I alike don’t need an experience to only “count” if it’s awful. With crimes like rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, or harassment, we are all in it together, and all of these occurrence need to be shared and spoken about. Though I believed it was not that bad, it was certainly bad enough. Could it have been worse? Yes. I’m relieved and grateful it wasn’t.
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Writing this piece has been a challenge, something I’ve worked on for months. The piece has made me revisit the experience and challenge my own silence. Unfortunately, we live in a society where rape culture is not a phrase nobody has heard. Rather, everyone knows someone (whether they recognize it or not) who has been a survivor of an unwanted sexual/criminal advance. I’m not alone in having this assault and not talking about it. I hope if you have had an experience of assault, rape, domestic violence, or anything else that brings you embarrassment or shame, you will feel safe to talk about it. I hope you won’t keep telling yourself “it wasn’t that bad” in order to soothe yourself or protect yourself/the perp. Instead, know that instances of this nature are not normal and are not okay. Please speak up.
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