We tell our stories, whisper the names of our attackers and call ourselves “survivors.”
Several months after I reported my sexual assault to the police in 1996, the detective working my case called to tell me it was over. "Unfortunately, there's nothing more I can do," he said, as I gripped the phone and felt my body deflate. "Too much time has passed. For your own sake, I hope you are able to find closure . . . some other way."
It had taken years for me to tell my story — of a gropey teacher who showed me pornography — to the police. And the well-meaning officer inadvertently confirmed what so many us who experience sexual assault have learned: We need to look elsewhere for resolution. We are on our own.
I was a naive teenager when my teacher abused me in 1990, and the impact lingers decades later. Every day, I read stories in the news about sexual abuse — on college campuses, within families, among famous athletes, in government, in Hollywood. One tragic common denominator in so many of these stories is how little happens to the perpetrators. Most sexual abusers never face jail time or punishment. Assaults go unreported for fear of retaliation or discount; only 33 percent of rapes and sexual assaults are reported to police, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Even when police apprehend abusers, the system is not designed to support victims. We are left to relive the horror, battle humiliation, face blame and endure loss of privacy in a way that victims of other crimes simply do not. The powerful find defenders, judges hand down lenient sentences, authorities decide not to pursue action, school administrators promise to look into allegations and never do. Just 38 percent of rapes that are reported result in an arrest and prosecution, compared with 62 percent of murders. Most of us never get justice, and in its absence, the broken system forces us to find our own resolution.
I can still remember how the skin on the back of my neck prickled as my teacher recited the poem, his face so close I could feel his hot breath on my cheek. After the last word, his tongue lingered on his lips long enough to make me cringe. He smiled and raised one eyebrow. "Now you."
I whispered the first verse. "Si yo fuera hombre . . . "
"No, no." He put his arm around my shoulder. "You must feel the longing here." He slid his hand down and lifted my hand to my left breast. "You must feel the desire in your heart."
My body frozen, his kept slithering around me. "She is in love with the idea of being a man. She is excited about it. She is flirting with it." He raised my hand to his mouth and kissed it. "Like she would a lover."
"I'll practice at home. See if I can do better next time." My words and my feet tripped out of his office.
When I showed up the next week to practice for an upcoming poetry competition, the teacher greeted me with wide eyes and an illicit smile. "I have something to show you." He slid a photograph across the desk. He put his right index finger over his mouth to indicate a secret and used his other to tap on the picture. It was a photograph of a woman standing in front of a flagstone fireplace wearing nothing except an open fur coat.
"I took the picture myself." He grinned.
I scrambled out of the room. He shouldn't have shown that photo to me, right? I thought to myself. Should I tell the administration? Will they even believe me? All I knew was I didn't want to get in trouble or have my grades affected because I reported him.
I buried my secret for a couple of years until my classmate Jane (not her real name) confessed to me in a flood of whispers that this same man had sexually assaulted her. When she told the administration, they scared her into taking back the story.
It galvanized me. No longer attending the school, I wrote a letter to the new administration, detailing my experiences with the teacher. My hope for justice bloomed when the principal replied and asked for my permission to discuss the accusations with him. But after I gave my consent, that hope slowly withered over the next two years, as I heard nothing further and the teacher remained at the school.
My fury smoldered. Not knowing if the administration had ever confronted him, I filed a police report. Maybe there would be justice for me or Jane, and perhaps I could help future victims by giving credence to their stories.
Over the phone, the police sergeant calmed me with his supportive words and kind voice. He took my statement and asked for Jane's contact information. He wanted to talk to her in order to file more serious charges against the teacher — ones still within the statute of limitations. The officer wanted justice, too.
Jane, however, didn't want to speak with him. She had moved on and wanted to erase those memories. I couldn't fault her, given the hell she'd been through: assaulted by the teacher and then intimidated by the very people who should have supported her. Yet without her story, the officer said, the case was dead. And I was left once again to find my own way to heal.
Finding peace means something different for every victim. It took Oprah Winfrey decades to understand that she was not at fault for the sexual abuse she endured as a child. Winfrey once interviewed child molesters — hearing how they selected their victims helped her understand she was not to blame, which allowed her to finally heal.
In lieu of justice, many of us try to protect others from our attackers and harassers. We create formal and informal ways of warning one another about certain men. We develop signals to alert other women of danger and circulate lists of men whose behavior crossed a line. After being sexually assaulted in college, Jess Ladd founded Callisto , a nonprofit organization that created a platform for students to document and report their sexual assaults in a supportive environment, in hopes of increasing the number of reports and identifying repeat offenders.
We share our stories to heal and feel less alone. We post experiences on social media with #MeToo (and several years ago, #YesAllWomen) by the thousands to demonstrate how pervasive the epidemic is. After years of keeping her rape to herself, Lady Gaga now speaks candidly about it and channeled her experience into "Til It Happens to You ," a song she co-wrote for "The Hunting Ground," a documentary about sexual assaults on college campuses. "I'm here because when I look out onto the sea of beautiful young faces that I get to sing and dance for, I see a lot of people who have secrets that are killing them," Gaga has said. "We don't want you to keep your pain inside and let it rot like an old apple on your counter, you know?"
We call ourselves "survivors" instead of "victims" to try to regain a little power over our narratives. Perhaps if our abusers were held accountable and punished, and if we weren't questioned and blamed for our abuse, we might not feel the need to relabel ourselves.
I couldn't let go of what had happened to me and Jane. I returned to the school administration, several years after I first sent my letter. In her office, the principal questioned me about the incidents and told me it was a serious accusation against the "Teacher of the Year." Though I felt small and powerless, I provided the name of a witness, another student who had seen the illicit photograph. The principal told me she would contact the other student and warned me to be careful with my public words so as not to face a lawsuit. Though I followed up several times, I never heard whether she contacted the witness or confronted the teacher. Eventually, I lost hope for justice.
The passing years, however, did not bring me peace. Two decades later, I still found myself thinking about the abuse. The scenes in the teacher's office played on an endless loop, and I felt dirty, used, helpless. The images plagued me. The what-ifs haunted me. The injustice infuriated me. And the hashtags and the stories and the survivor language couldn't change that.
My abuser recently died; his body succumbed to cancer. My skin prickled again upon hearing the news, but this time, as I breathed out, I felt a calm sweep over me. I would no longer need to carry this load. While mourners celebrated his life, I celebrated his death. Knowing he'd never hurt anyone again was a gift, allowing me — finally — to find closure.
By Kathryn Leehane
Kathryn Leehane is a writer and humorist living in the San Francisco Bay area. October 20, 2017