Silence is for victims: why sexual assault survivors need to speak up

Hansook Oh

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One of the earliest childhood memories I can recall is my experience being sexually assaulted.

I was 4 years old. My mom sometimes dropped me off at a neighbor’s house because their teenage son and daughter would babysit me. They were one of the few Korean families in our neighborhood and for that, my parents trusted them automatically.

The incident is still fuzzy in my mind. The teenage boy locked me in a room and made me do things that I didn’t understand. His sister pounded on the door yelling something like “stop doing that to her!” Somehow, I knew all of it was so, so wrong.

I don’t remember what followed. According to my parents, I came home looking confused and disturbed. I told them what the neighbor did to me and they were livid. They didn’t call the police, maybe because such a thing is taboo in Korean culture. We never spoke to them again, and after a few years we moved away.

Despite my parents’ attempt to ignore the problem, what happened to me echoed far and wide into my adult years in a very complicated way. Often when young children are molested or raped, the incident can be so traumatizing that the memory is repressed out of the conscious and into the subconscious mind. From the age of six I went through regular bouts of depression and stress, but I didn’t understand why I felt so wrong.

If my parents understood how to respond to what happened, perhaps I could have avoided a lot of psychological pain. Dr. Mark Stevens, director of the University Counseling Services, said that the number one variable in how sexual assault can impact a person’s life is whether or not the person keeps silent about it. If the survivor decides to talk about their experience, the listener’s reaction is very important.

“Did they believe them, did they shame them, did they give them support?” said Stevens.

Regardless of whether or not the assault survivor talks about the experience with others, assault can impact relationships with others.

“There is a sense of betrayal and issues of trust later as adults,” said Stevens. “Sometimes there is shame.”

That shame haunted me throughout my adolescence. When I started middle school, I began having repeated nightmares of the 15 or so seconds I could recall of the incident. Each time I had the dream, the memory began to become more accessible to my recollection. I did not want to ask my parents if what I was dreaming really happened, in fear that they would think that I was a sexual pervert. But after a few months, I was certain that I was remembering something real.

I carried that secret with me for a while before I first told my close friends. They didn’t know what to say or how to help. I told a few people whom I trusted at my church, but all they could offer me was to remind me that Jesus loved me no matter what happened to me. It made it seem as though I was a prostitute that Jesus had mercy on.

The experience impacted every facet of my life including my ability to recall early childhood memories, ability to trust people, my adult sexual behavior and my general self-esteem. I was haunted by those dreams several times a year and had panic attacks for no understandable reason. It didn’t matter how much I prayed to god or cried to the adults around me–no one seemed to understand that I needed much more than any god could give me.

I thought that by the time I entered college, I had come to terms with what happened. This sense of healing was not real, but rather a silent acceptance of my victimhood and denial of the emotional trauma I still carried. It was as if that 15 second memory cemented a sense of powerlessness and self-hatred in my psyche, because I did not care about my safety, emotional state or physical health.

While some victims of sexual trauma cope by avoiding sexual experiences, I did the opposite and put myself in very comprising, dangerous situations. I was foolish and reckless with my self; it is by pure luck that I did not get assaulted again.

I did not recover fully from my childhood assault until I was able to access free therapy from this campus as a college student. With the help of my therapist, I traced my lack of self-care and terrible self-esteem to the incident. I had spent my life blaming myself for what happened and hating myself for not being able to stop it; I stopped punishing the 4-year-old who was taken advantage of.

At any age, sexual assault can create problems too complicated to understand without professional help. Left untreated, the trauma from sexual assault can lead to drug addiction, sex addiction, eating disorders, and in the worst case, it can turn a trauma victim into a sexual abuser. I wonder why my teenage neighbor did what he did to me. I wonder if he was abused as a child. I wonder if he continued to abuse others in his life. I hope I was his only victim.

I have been told many times, not to talk about this incident because it makes people feel “uncomfortable.” I’ve been told that it is an inappropriate topic because it concerns sex. And from what I’ve learned from some Republican party members’ asinine views on rape, maybe I will be asked if I was “legitimately assaulted.”

Despite the attention or criticism I am most likely going to receive by telling my story in such a public manner, I know that someone, somewhere might read this and feel less alone. Women, men and children who have been sexually assaulted, molested or raped need to tell their stories. To live in silence about something so utterly life-destroying will only feed our society’s culture of denial on this topic and further marginalize sexual assault survivors.

The shame, trauma and fear that one carries after being assaulted is too heavy to bear alone. As the great writer Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”

I’ve told my story as many times as I have needed to do so, and I no longer live with that agony.

 

— Hansook Oh is the Opinion Editor at the Daily Sundial and a senior double-majoring in Journalism and Asian American Studies.