It happened to my sister. It happened to my friend. It happened to me.
In the seven months since the WNBA’s Breanna Stewart publicly revealed in an essay that she was sexually abused as a child, she has heard these private confessions again and again. Complete strangers thank her and hug her and share their stories. Sometimes they contact her through social media, seeking help or advice.
“A lot of people reached out to me and said they had a similar situation,” Stewart said in a phone interview last week. “It’s why I released the article, sharing it with everyone else in the hopes of helping other people get through it and prevent it from happening to anyone else.”
The feedback from the article, which ran in The Players’ Tribune, has been so overwhelming that the Seattle Storm star has decided to take her activism a step further.
She has partnered with RAINN (Rape Abuse Incest National Network), the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. Stewart refers those who need help to the organization. She also has helped raise awareness and funds, including wearing sneakers with RAINN’s hotline number on it, which she auctioned off after a game to raise money for the group.
“I wanted to make sure people had a place to go,” Stewart said about partnering with the organization. “I think that’s really important. The one thing with going through this or [after] the experience of sexual abuse is that you need someone in your corner. You need people to talk to and lean on.”
This is something Stewart knows firsthand. In her essay titled “Me Too” published in October, Stewart described how she was first molested at a relative’s house when she was 9 years old by a man who continued to abuse her for two years. When she was 11, she told her parents, who called the police. The man was arrested and confessed what had happened.
Unfortunately, what happened to Stewart is not uncommon. Statistics on the RAINN website, which are taken from multiple sources, including a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services survey, state that 60,000 children a year are victims of “substantiated or indicated” sexual abuse. The website also states that one in nine girls and one in 53 boys under the age of 18 have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of an adult.
Until recently, however, this was rarely talked about, which is understandable given the painful nature of the crime.
Stewart, a three-time college player of the year at UConn, has been in the public eye since she was a teenager. She had long thought about going public with her story. Her father, she wrote, had gently encouraged her.
“It’s not a dirty little secret,” he told her. “When you’re comfortable with it, and when you’re comfortable being open about it, you could save someone’s life.”
This fall, after reading gymnast McKayla Maroney’s account of how she was sexually abused by Larry Nassar, Stewart suddenly felt “less alone.” And she knew it was time to tell her story.
“I thought if she is strong enough to do this, I can do it,” Stewart said.
This was still relatively early in the #MeToo movement, and Stewart’s story had instant impact. As one of the league’s biggest stars — Stewart is the WNBA’s No. 2 scorer behind the Liberty’s Tina Charles — she put a celebrity face to the type of story that is faceless all too often because of the nature of the crime.
“I’ll never forgive him. But I’m not ashamed,” she wrote. “Every time I tell someone, I feel a little more unburdened.”
The story was published while Stewart was playing in China, and she has since given limited interviews on the subject. It’s not so much because she wants to distance herself from what happened; she knows it will always be a part of her life. It’s just that the whole process of talking about it, reliving what happened, remains incredibly painful.
So painful that Stewart said she chose not to watch the testimony of woman after woman at the Nassar trial, though she did read articles about it.
“It’s just a super-tough subject for me to have to go through with my own experience,” she said. “Even when I worked on my article, I had to retrace steps I didn’t want to retrace in order to make it smooth. It would have been too hard to watch.”
Stewart is proud to be part of the #MeToo movement and a part of an era in which athletes are using their platforms to try to effect change. She hopes that by seeing her story, people will see that if you go through something like this, if you suffer from sexual abuse, you don’t have to have a bad life. She hopes it will help others reach out for help.
“I think it’s extremely important for us as athletes to use our platforms,” Stewart said. ‘We are in a unique situation where we are able to reach a broad group of people and relate to them things that have happened to us and to so many other people.
“We’re using our voice for the people who can’t, for people who need extra comfort.”
National Sexual Assault Hotline 1-800-656-HOPE