From the age of five and throughout most of my childhood, my fragile little girl body endured molestation by a close male family member. The abuse finally ended seven years later, when one of my cousins spoke out, bravely, against the perpetrator. There were three of us, and she was the first and only, after all those years, to say anything.
After the fact, instead of relief, I felt guilt and shame. I should have said something sooner; I didn’t. Did that mean I liked it? Well, then it was my fault, right?
Fast forward to years of therapy, and I still wasn’t asking the right questions.
There were other instances too, as a young woman. But these were more of the quieter, gray area variety; because now I was menstruating, making my own choices in regards to my sexuality, and I was suddenly held more responsible for my body.
There was the man I was casually dating in Thailand who, I joked with friends, had pinned me against the bed one night and laughed while I repeated, firmly at first and then more pleadingly, No. NO. Please, no.
Maybe it was cultural, I reasoned out loud. Or maybe, it was the language barrier. I had said yes before, so that meant yes always, right?
“That actually sounds like rape,” my friend told me, not laughing. “That’s really fucked up.”
There was also the first party I attended in Madagascar, near the village where I was volunteering for two years; one of my only Malagasy friends, a girl around my age, invited me as her guest.
Where I was told, once we arrived into the city, a lengthly two-hour bus ride from my village, that I would have to share the bed with one of her boyfriend’s friends, a man I had just met.
Where at the end of the night, another man at the party, a stranger, reached up the modest, knee-length dress I had bought for the occasion and between my legs, and I was too afraid to offend anyone in this foreign country, my new home, to say anything.
But when I told my friend, voice shaking in broken Malagasy, she laughed it off, and told me “Mamo be izy.” He’s just drunk.
There’s more, of course. There’s various instances of nonconsensual ass grabbing and chest fondling on public transit, verbal assaults on days that I decided to wear a shorter skirt or tighter pants or higher heels than usual. Or on days that I just felt like walking down the street, like a free woman.
Most of those close to me don’t even know about some of these things; in large part because I normalized the assaults, let them fade into the background of the Woman Experience, the deception that “it happens to us all.”
On November 8th, a greater part of the divided country we live in elected a president who has glorified the act of “pussy grabbing” and throughout his campaign, consistently employed (and encouraged) sexist rhetoric — not just against his opponent, but against all women.
Like most victims of sexual abuse, there’s no way to communicate my experiences with everyone I meet. You wouldn’t be able to tell from the color of my skin, or the shape of my eyes, or the type of designer bag I have, just how much emotional baggage I’m actually carrying. I can’t just wear a shirt that says “Sexual Abuse Survivor #notwithhim” (well, I guess maybe I can, but I wouldn’t want to).
Most importantly though, I have my voice. It took me nearly thirty years and this unprecedented election for me to find it, but now that I have, believe me: I will no longer hold my tongue at the expense of another’s comfort.
Like so many Americans, and American women especially, I spent the greater part of November 8th crying — not in weakness, but in rage.
Today, I’m asking the only question I know is the right one: America, how could you let this happen?
I cry for Five Year-Old Me, who was misled for many years to believe that her abuse was her fault. I cry for my future daughter, whose name I’ve had written on my heart for decades, who I’m afraid to conceive now given the inevitable challenges that she will face in a country like ours. I cry for the fraction of the country who are mothers, and who are teaching their daughters by example that Trump’s behavior is acceptable, perpetuating the falsity that abuse “happens to us all.”
But it doesn’t need to happen any longer.
The candidate I hoped would win didn’t — and while I’m saddened, disappointed, and angered, I’m also more passionate than I have been in a long time. And for that reason, I am grateful for the outcome of Tuesday night.
I don’t share these deeply personal experiences to invoke sympathy, or even to spur more rage; God knows, we’ve had enough of that this election. Instead, I’m asking that we as women, as a country, start asking the right questions.
I am not defined by my abuse, but now I’m sure as fuck fueled by it.