THE BLOG

'Did You Tell Anyone What Happened!?'

04/22/2013 03:07 pm ET | Updated Jun 22, 2013
Ali Safran

It's October of your senior year in high school. College applications consume your thoughts and free time. On the night of the 13th, your guy friend invites you out with him and his friends. You protest: it's a Tuesday; you have so much work to get done. Guy friend persists; you oblige and drive to meet him. After spending some time with Guy Friend and his two male friends, Guy Friend tries to kiss you. You abruptly turn away and remind Guy Friend that he has a girlfriend and that you're sorry, but you're really not interested in him that way. Guy Friend tries repeatedly, to no avail; after an awkward pause, Guy Friend asks for ride home. You're ready for the night to end and are thankful he seems to have given up on kissing you. You and Guy Friend leave his friends and walk to your car, where he sexually assaults you for an hour. The next day, you receive a semi-frantic text from Guy, no longer a friend: "Did you tell anyone what happened!?" The text serves as a warning: Guy has already made it clear what he is physically capable of, and you want nothing more than to never see him again. You spend the rest of senior year traumatized, trying to forget what happened and to quell your newfound insomnia. Your predominantly sleepless nights are filled with flashbacks and, when you do sleep, nightmares about Guy. You feel ashamed, miserable, and silenced. You've told only a few friends and your brother about what happened, and try hard to focus on finishing the school year.

This was my senior year and is my story. Sexual assault robbed me of my sleep, my ability to trust people I thought were friends, and of my autonomy. The summer after my senior year, I turned 18: it was on this adult milestone I began pursuing the legal system. I still hadn't told my parents, and found pro-bono lawyers without them. Ultimately, I was still not talking about what had happened to me, and was deathly afraid of having to face Guy and Guy's family in court and name him for what he was: my assailant.

"You're saying 'no,' but you mean 'yes.'"

Rape and sexual assault don't happen in a vacuum: every two minutes in the United States, someone is sexually assaulted. Not every survivor of sexual assault is willing to speak about what happened to them or to pursue the legal system in any way. The crime, as illustrated in my own experience, is isolating: victim and perpetrator are often the only witnesses to what has happened, and most perpetrators are unlikely to freely call themselves rapists. I am now vocal about the violence committed against me, but I was once largely silent about my experience, out of fear of retaliation and further exposure to my feelings of shame about being assaulted.

"You shouldn't have talked, bitch. I was gonna leave you alone."

In my pursuit of justice, I received a voicemail from Guy after he was formally charged in the legal system. "You shouldn't have talked, bitch. I was gonna leave you alone," he said. These words haunted and frightened me, as was his intention in leaving the message. Perpetrators, often successfully, try to shame their victims into silence, and that's why so many victims suffer alone with what happened to them. This voicemail, however, did not intimidate me: I did pursue the legal process, much to Guy and Guy's family's dismay. It was only after having to face Guy and Guy's smirking, smug family repeatedly in court that I felt strong enough to no longer be silent. On October 13, 2012, the third anniversary of my assault, I put up a sign at the spot where I was assaulted. The sign included statistics: 1 in 6 women will be sexually victimized in her lifetime and a call to action. I urged my community and anyone who might see the sign to get active in ending sexual violence and in removing the veil of silence around the crime.

This sign was the impetus for my creation of "Surviving in Numbers," an awareness project I designed. Similar to other sexual assault awareness projects, my project involves survivors making posters about their experiences. However, my project deals exclusively with the numbers surrounding a survivor's experience: how many people they told their story to, how many friends they lost because of the assault, etc. Survivors' posters intimately and anonymously detail the healing process: one poster reads, "Showering for hours and hours did NOT wash away the fear and shame you shoved into me... you changed me for years, but I've taken back my life, my beauty, and my innocence." Originally, the project was designed to focus on college campus sexual assaults, but it has grown internationally and includes survivors ranging from age 17 to age 50. It's my hope that this project raises awareness of how prevalent sexual violence is and sends the message that there is no reason to be silent. Survivors must be believed and supported; a culture that silences survivors accomplishes neither of those.