In recent days, media outlets of every description have been engaged in a long-overdue conversation about rape and sexual assault. The explosion of allegations against Bill Cosby, as more and more women have come forward to speak out against the long-beloved entertainer, has spawned thousands and thousands of words of commentary. And all the while, other stories of rape and sexual assault have come to light -- including Sabrina Rubin Eardley's searing account of unprosecuted gang rapes on UVA's campus.
There has been no shortage of backlash, too, against Cosby's alleged victims -- and not just the infuriatingly predictable skepticism of conservative commentators. In that weird, ubiquitous and often vitriolic public square of the Internet, the anonymous comments board, the same questions are repeated over and over: Why now? Why did these women wait so long to publicly accuse Bill Cosby (instead of attacking him at the height of his prestige, fame and power)? (Never mind that the allegations have been public knowledge for a decade; never mind that, until now, they went unheard.)
And in the same breath, commenters comfortably couched in digital anonymity engage in conspiracy theories: They are lying; they are doing this for the money (there is no money to be had); they are greedy for fame or jealous of his; where's the proof? where are the fingerprints, the semen (though 20 years or 30 years or more have elapsed by now)? Don Lemon asked: Why didn't you bite him? and Whoopi Goldberg asked: Where is the rape kit?
This all-too-familiar combination -- recrimination for delays in coming forward, coupled with doubt and vitriol -- comes along with the same tired scrutiny of their every action (why did she go to his hotel room? Why did she take a drink, and pills, that he offered her?). The statistics that have surfaced again and again -- that only 26% of sexual assaults are ever reported to authorities, that only 3 out of every 100 rapes will result in a conviction -- are as disheartening and familiar as ever. And as I, like millions of other Americans, watched the evidence against a beloved public figure accumulate, I remembered -- a jolt from a past self -- that I was part of that statistic. That I, too, had never reported my sexual assault when it happened to me.
I was not sexually assaulted by a famous man. I had no sterling international reputation to fight against. But when it happened five years ago, I never spoke up. And until today, in a lifetime of compulsive writing, I have never written a word about what happened to me that night in college.
Here is what it feels like to write about a sexual assault -- the way I felt when preparing to write this post: I felt guilt. I felt shame. I remembered other things said to me, other things done to me over the years. I relived the pain and humiliation of the experience, and steeled myself to open it up for scrutiny. I also realized I felt -- feel -- lucky: I have never been raped. I have been very lucky to have only had a few of my boundaries ignored. This is what luck feels like.
Here is the short version of what happened to me: Throughout my time at Harvard, I was part of a small, tight-knit stand up comedy club. It was wonderful and strange, thrillingly creative; I got to get onstage and pretend to be, say, a Russian clairvoyant who only gave depressing predictions, or a carnival barker; I got to read long lists of horrible puns without getting booed offstage. The club was mostly male, but I never worried about that; from high school debate onwards, I was used to being outnumbered. And then one night in my sophomore year, after a show, most of the club and a few hangers-on gathered to party.
We drank heavily; the party wound up in my room. My boyfriend of two years wasn't there, and I wanted to quit partying after awhile. I was far from sober, stumble-drunk and giggly, but in my own room, with a group mostly consisting of friends I trusted. One guy, let's call him Chris, whom I knew vaguely from the wider campus comedy scene, had made a few suggestive remarks to me that night, largely based around the short red dress I'd chosen to wear for the show. Everyone else left (one guy making a few snide remarks about how we "probably wanted to be alone" because Chris was "totally into me"), but Chris stayed.
He tried to kiss me, right away. I said no.
He tried again. I said no.
He pulled me down next to him on my futon. I wriggled away. I said no.
I left my room. He followed me and pinned me to the wall of a landing in the stairwell. He was a foot taller than me. He held me by the shoulders. I turned my face away and said no, no, no.
He left only when a male friend of his came to pick him up. When I confronted him about it the next day, he said he didn't remember any of what happened.
But I did. I still do. I only wound up telling one person in my beloved campus comedy club -- the only other female member -- and I asked her to make the parties feel safer. "Can we just look out for each other, and make sure we're not alone with drunk guys?" I asked her.
Looking back over those Gchats years later, I can see the resistance even I felt to acknowledging that this had happened: "Of course I trust everyone in the club," I said, reassuring her, and myself, that my chosen community was still safe for me. But I asked for precautions anyway, I asked to feel safer, because that day in April 2010, I remember the feeling of learning to trust people less.
Saying no and having it ignored is a terrible feeling. Ta-Nehisi Coates, in a powerful piece for The Atlantic, describes "the humiliation of being unable to protect my body, which is all I am, from predators" -- he calls it "the loss of your body," though he was describing being assaulted physically, not sexually.
That night in 2010 was not the first time I had experienced the loss of my body. But it was the first time I lost my voice. What I said that night did not matter; it did not matter what I wanted to have happen to my body, or what I expressed about that desire, because it could be ignored completely. At 20, and thoroughly naïve, I had never even imagined encountering that situation. I thought: the world is not supposed to be this way. I could not believe it was happening; I could not believe it had happened.
Besides my boyfriend and two female friends, I did not tell anyone about it, even my family. I did not go to any school authority. Because I was too busy leveling all the questions that get asked to people who come forward about sexual assault at myself.
Why didn't I walk away? Why didn't I leave faster?
Why was I drunk that night at all?
Why did I wear that dress? (I never wore it again.)
Why did I think I could get intoxicated in public, even around a group of people I had adored and trusted completely?
When I was sexually assaulted again years later -- by a rural election commissioner, while observing the 2012 parliamentary elections in Ukraine -- I finally told my mother. She told me to be more careful. Told me that I shouldn't get myself into those situations.
What we are really asking when we ask sexual assault victims why they stayed, why they drank, why they took the pills, is Why did you allow yourself to become prey?
It feels terrible to admit that you have been preyed upon. That something frightening has been done to you, because you did not have any say that counted in the matter. You have lost your voice, and your body, and your sovereignty over your self, which is all you are.
There is a way to regain some of that sovereignty over your own voice: to speak out, and to be believed. It has taken decades too long, but the court of popular opinion has finally -- mostly -- turned against Bill Cosby. With each woman who comes forward, and opens herself to public scrutiny and criticism in the process, another toll is taken on Cosby's legacy.
Here is what Janice Dickinson said: I believe the other women.
Here is what Barbara Bowman said about her decision to testify against Bill Cosby in 2004, in support of Andrea Constand: I believed her. I knew she was telling the truth.
"I believe you" is a tremendously powerful statement. To tell your hidden story -- and I believe that most of us have these hidden stories, these secret shames -- and to hear someone say: I believe you, and maybe: That must have been terrible, feels like regaining sovereignty over yourself. What was taken from you is incrementally returned. Even if you could not defend your own body then -- even if your "no" did not change what happened to you -- your voice matters. You can define what happened to your body, even if you could not control it when it happened.
Even now, I cannot unlearn that there have been times when my "no" has no worth, no impact. I cannot stop fearing that it will happen again. But I chose to write this to answer, from my own experience, the reasons -- so filled with fear, and shame, and self-recrimination -- why sexual assaults go unreported.
Andrea Constand, Tamara Green, Barbara Bowman, Janice Dickinson, Therese Serignese, Carla Ferrigno, Angela Leslie: I believe you. Like you, I believe all the other women, too.
I believe you because you are owed the power of your own voice. Because you are owed sovereignty over your body. Because with every added voice in the chorus of belief, a piece of what was taken is restored.