It's been more than a week since I and 49 other survivors took the stage with Lady Gaga at the 88th Annual Academy Awards. Since those few minutes on stage, my face has been on hundreds of websites, in dozens of magazines, and on several television programs. But it's largely just been that -- my face, beaming, frozen in one moment, one single photograph, as part of a community of survivors literally leaning on each other for strength and support.
That encapsulates what I feel like as a survivor more often than not. I feel as if my life doesn't exist outside of that single incident, that one moment, frozen forever in time. Everything else about me -- who I am, what I like to do, my passions, hopes, and fears -- are erased. And more importantly, I have no voice. I'm just another face in a crowd of faces, faces that begin to blend together once you look at them too long.
"I feel as if my life doesn't exist outside of that single incident, that one moment, frozen forever in time."
What starts at as talking about "you" the individual evolves into talking about "you" the collective, The Survivor, The Experience, The Assault. All of these terms are phrased like independent, definitive things. What was once a unique, indefinable experience becomes a collective phenomenon with clearly defined limits. Suddenly, there are restrictions, qualifications and clauses.
The effect of those restrictions on my experience caused me years of pain. When I was assaulted in high school, I didn't know what had happened to me. I knew that I didn't consent -- although I didn't even know what consent meant -- but I chalked it up to a bad hook-up. I was 14 years old. I had never even kissed a boy before the day of my assault. Now all of a sudden, I was left feeling shattered, embarrassed and alone.
Was I assaulted? I remember thinking to myself. A part of me felt like maybe I had been. But then I turned on the television and saw portrayals of rape victims as women who had been drugged or who had been dragged down an alley by a stranger and fought tooth and nail without success. I knew my perpetrator. I didn't fight him. I told him I wanted to go home, and when he made it clear that wasn't going to happen, I just shut down, willing everything in me to just get this over with. It's what I've heard called "SVU Syndrome" -- the idea that because your assault didn't resemble what happens on TV, and "wasn't that bad," it wasn't really assault.
Lady Gaga (center) with sexual assault survivors backstage at the 88th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on February 28, 2016. Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images.
It wasn't until several years later that I connected the pieces. What had happened to me was assault. I had told him no, and he ignored me. And what had happened to me wasn't my fault. Even after I knew what had happened to me, I heard the stories of other survivors and thought to myself, What am I complaining for? Nothing that I've been through comes close to their stories. Am I a real survivor?
All of those questions could have been avoided if I had the resources and the examples to help me see that sexual assault happens to all kinds of people in all kinds of ways. It frustrates me to hear people talk about our group as The Sexual Assault Survivors, as if we are some sort of homogenous unit with one shared identity.
Each one of us has a unique story, each of which deserves attention, sympathy and action. Just as we are all our own people, our experiences of survivorship are all different. My story does not look like anyone else's up there, and I and only I have the right to tell my own. Nobody else should have the right to speak for me, to take my experiences and generalize them for the sake of simplicity.
"Each one of us has a unique story, each of which deserves attention, sympathy and action."
The truth is, sexual assault isn't a tidy phenomenon. It's wide-ranging, pervasive and multi-faceted. It would be nice to look at our group of 50 and think that our experiences are representative of the whole. But they're not. For each one of us, there are 50 more people suffering in silence, unsure of how to label their suffering and their hurt. And there are 50 million more who have been victimized in every possible place, by every possible perpetrator, and who hold every possible identity.
Survivors include women, men and those who don't identify on the binary. They're African-American, Caucasian, Hispanic, Asian, mixed race, and every race in between. They're rich. They're poor. They're straight, bisexual, gay, lesbian, and every sexuality under the sun. They were victimized in schools, in their homes, in churches, and on college campuses. They were assaulted by doctors and lawyers, classmates and relatives. Their stories are unique, and they are theirs to tell.
The only thing I have in this world that is purely my own is my voice.
I was gifted with the ability to speak and share my own truth. And having spent so much of my life being convinced that I did not have any reason to share my own truth, I will never take that away from anyone else.
When we speak about The Survivors, understand that there are so many people behind that word. Their lives hover behind that snapshot you see on your computer screen. Take the time to listen to them, and lift them up. Their voices are powerful, and raw, and they deserve to be heard. I deserve to be heard. We deserve for you to listen.
Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.