When I Spoke Out Publicly and Regretted It
That’s a bit of a click-bait headline, and only partially true. Let me explain.
After 20+ years of guarding my anonymity as a rape survivor, I found myself compelled to go public in an op ed for a major magazine aimed at protecting Title IX from rollbacks under the Trump administration. It was as if I’d been keeping this raging, ferocious lion in a cage in my living room for half my life, and then suddenly on a whim unlocked the cage, and opened the front door for the lion to be free. It felt dangerous but exhilarating to see my name in print along with other courageous survivors who signed the letter – fighting for the rights of vulnerable students and campus sexual assault survivors felt GOOD.
I felt brave and unashamed and powerful. I knew I was speaking for so many others who are afraid to come forward, and it was a moment of vindication for the rape I experienced in college so long ago that I never reported. “I have nothing to be ashamed of” was my mantra as I watched the op ed go viral. In less than a day, it was picked up by major news outlets, retweeted by Senators, linked to in high-profile blogs and shared thousands of times on Facebook. The publicity was incredible, and I knew our voices had been heard. We had made a difference.
And then I cracked.
I read some comments of rape apologists, but there were far more comments of support. The day after the op ed went viral, the NY Times released an interview with the 2nd in command at the Department of Education falsely stating that “90% of reported rapes were drunken hookups.” I crumbled to pieces when I googled my name and saw the op ed appear on the first page of search results, before I even had to scroll down below the fold, and the headline made it clear that the piece was written by sexual assault survivors. Worst of all, my name appeared in bold (I had googled myself, after all) in the summary below the headline. I curled up in a ball in a state of panic, and pretty much stayed there for four days.
I had a horrifying regression and paralyzing experience of naked fear at the thought that I’d never know again if a boss, a friend, a colleague, a random high school acquaintance knew this deeply personal information about me. I’d never know what they thought about the op ed, or what they thought about the epidemic of rape on college campuses, or whether they’d pity me or think I was lying. I felt unbelievably exposed – like I was naked wearing a neon sign saying “she’s saying she was raped but you probably don’t believe her.” I called in sick to work for three days. I couldn’t eat or sleep well or think about anything else. I couldn’t shake the ominous feeling that no one would believe me, and these thoughts and feelings that brought me right back to how I felt as an 18 year old who had been raped her first semester away from home. My mind went on a loop: “WHAT HAVE I DONE?” and I felt regret about something that I’d initially felt very proud of myself for doing.
After these four long days of trying to figure out why I was having this kind of reaction (and seeing my therapist and gobbling anxiety meds), I realized the root of why I was so upset. The narrative that most college assaults are just drunken regrets and that girls are intent on ruining college guys’ lives with false accusations was truly getting to me. The new administration in Washington was and is still actively trying to reverse progress for girls and women under Title IX. And I was furious. The fury translated into shame and fear for me, but that reaction didn’t make complete sense because I actually don’t feel ashamed that I was raped. I know it wasn’t my fault.
It got under my skin so much that a courageous public act that I took to help bring awareness about the importance of protecting Title IX felt completely overshadowed by a false reporting myth being peddled by those with all the power. I realized that the bad guys had won, because that myth has become a dominant part of the narrative about campus assaults – the conversation has been effectively reframed and survivors are not at the center any more. You can no longer discuss college sexual assault without skepticism being included in the conversation, they go hand in hand now the way the “both viewpoints” of the climate change debate are given equal weight – the “epidemic” of false accusations are part of the basic dialogue now, instead of a side note. Protecting people accused of sexual assault is now seen by so many as an equally important cause as protecting actual rape victims. It made me feel like it was too late, that it didn’t matter that I spoke out now.
The “everyone will know this about me” panic I felt caught me off guard partially because it wasn’t actually due to people knowing I was raped. It was because I am more scared of someone lumping me in as a “not legitimate” rape case than I am proud of my efforts to come forward as a survivor. I don’t remember ever feeling that the law and people in charge weren’t truly on the side of sexual assault victims, but that is no longer the case. I thought our culture had evolved on this topic, but it is so clear that I was wrong. It is heartbreaking. And very scary.
It is legit harmful to real people to further these false myths. It hurts people like me who took two decades to speak out, and to all the victims who are scared to come forward. It’s infuriating that the ny Times gave a voice to the “90% stat” and I’m so angry that they did that. Women leading the Dept of Ed – WOMEN!! – are turning their back on victims, and that feels to a survivor like me that no one gives a shit about campus assaults.
What does this trigger in me? All my paranoia and fear that kept me quiet for so long. That my rape wasn’t that bad, comparatively. That it must have been a misunderstanding that happened because I was drunk. That if it isn’t prosecutable, it isn’t really assault. That if you’re been drinking, you can’t get raped. That it is better to not come forward than to speak out, because no one will fight for you anyway. That no one will believe me. That there are more important things to focus on. That my experience doesn’t matter, personally or politically.
I eventually calmed down and came back around. I absolutely do not regret speaking out. But I did for a little while. Nevertheless, I persisted.
That caged lion that was set free? She roared.