More than a decade ago in middle school, I found myself surrounded by a group of young girls. They all leaned in, quiet with interest. We swapped stories about boys and “firsts” — the young girls’ version of “locker room banter.”
My tear-stained face told them what I had to say was important. Devastating, even. My then-best friend, Jennifer, was there. She pressed her hand against my back, like a mother soothing a child.
I revealed my secret between sobs. The girls remained silent. Moments later, I was called into an office and questioned by my teacher and a counselor. I felt naked and vulnerable. They said that the accusations were serious and they were going to call my mother.
“No, that never happened to me,” I responded in a panic.
I was too ashamed to tell the truth — that I had suffered sexual abuse at the hands of someone I was supposed to trust, a family friend, someone I thought of as an older brother. So I lied.
“Jennifer was the one who was abused,” I declared, my eyes cast downward.
I never forgave myself for choosing the safety of a lie over the discomfort of the truth. I never forgave myself for selling out my friend — who weeks earlier had revealed to me that when she was a child a relative raped her — to protect myself from confronting that I, too, was sexually abused. Now 26, I finally have found the courage to no longer hide.
The version of “locker room banter” that too many girls and women know is the intimate sharing of stories of sexual assault and abuse by men who view them as nothing more than things to be grabbed, as Donald Trump suggested in the 2005 “Access Hollywood” tape.
He should know that every two minutes an American is sexually assaulted, and that every eight minutes that victim is a child, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an advocacy group. Just 6 out of every 1,000 perpetrators end up in prison.
Jennifer’s relative is among the perpetrators who never served a day in prison. After she was dragged through a legal process that lasted years and tore apart her family, she was told there was not enough evidence to prosecute him. It was her word against his. My abuser also never suffered any consequences for his actions. A couple of years ago, I contacted him via Facebook. I needed closure and understanding about what happened all those years ago. Was it my fault?
“You liked it,” he wrote. “You wanted to.”
For years, I’ve been consumed by guilt and shame. Shame over whether I liked it? Fears that my abuse was my fault. Shame over the decision I made that forced a friend to publicly relive the trauma of her abuse. I wished I had never said what I did that day to a group of girls. I thought our conversation was private, not that it would be revealed to the world. But the hard truth is that sexual assault and abuse should never be kept private.
“We need to recover from our shock and our depression,” Michelle Obama said Thursday of the appropriate reaction to Trump’s derogatory comments about women. She’s right.
For sexual abuse survivors, the road to recovery is long, and often we have little or no support in our journey. As I did to my best friend, the world frequently turns its back on survivors. It brands, blames or attempts to discredit us, because confronting the truth that sexual abuse is widespread and must be addressed is far harder to do than hiding behind the excuses that “boys will be boys,” “men will be men” or “she wanted it.”
Today, I finally take a stand, not only for my best friend, but for myself and all of the girls and women who cannot because they are still recovering from shock, guilt and shame.
I hope America will stand with us as well. A man who is so cavalier about the abuse of women is not fit to be our president. Survivors on their road to recovery need to be assured of at least that much.
Tiffanie Drayton, a graduate of New School University, is a freelance writer focused on social justice issues.