Authored By Sara Grossman, Communications Manager, The Matthew Shepard Foundation (https://www.matthewshepard.org)
Before joining the team at the Matthew Shepard Foundation, I was working for a start-up that had created a device to help victims of sexual assault feel safer. It’s a simple product: a button that connects to an app on your phone via Bluetooth. When pressed, the button triggers your phone to send a text alert to your emergency contacts, telling them your exact GPS location.
It wasn’t until I was working for this start-up that I realized I had been sexually assaulted. I will get to why I am coming out about this later, but the most difficult part about sexual assault is that every instance is unique, and we don’t hear about the different ways it can happen. There is generally one story circulated.
You know the narrative: Don’t walk alone at night. A man is going to jump out at you from behind a dumpster, pummel you to the ground, take your cell phone, and assault you.
In the case of the woman victimized by Brock Turner at Stanford University, that’s actually what happened.
The narrative is misleading
However, the media’s narrative is far from containing the entire spectrum of the truth. And the truth is that one in five college-aged women will be sexually assaulted. And most sexual assaults happen at the hands of someone you know.
But there are different narratives. My sexual assault story is different because it was perpetrated by another woman.
There weren’t many times I said no. Half were because I actually enjoyed having sex with her. But the other half were because she was so emotionally abusive that sex was one of the few ways I felt we could really connect. That’s what she had convinced me of.
But one night she told me to “just stop crying” as she climbed on top of me. That night will be forever ingrained in my brain.
I didn’t have a name for it at the time. I just thought she was being sexually aggressive, as usual. She was a person who liked the word “aggressive” and thought it was a positive personality trait. I’d always been the opposite – wanting to catch my flies with honey, – so I didn’t understand.
I soon learned that I was never going to understand.
My ah-ha moment
Following the Oscars when Lady Gaga performed on stage with survivors of sexual assault, it was my job to find the survivors online. My task was to ask them about their stories and offer to send them a free device from the start-up. While searching for contact information, I came across a photo project. It showed survivors of sexual assault, holding signs and posters that said things like, “It’s not consent if you make me afraid to say no.” That was the one that struck a chord. That was the one that made me realize I had, indeed, been sexually assaulted.
“Are you sure it was sexual assault?”
“But she was smaller than you.”
“You could have just said no.”
These are all things I heard when I slowly began talking to friends about it. Because they, too, believed the narrative. She wasn’t a man jumping out from behind a dumpster or dropping a pill into my Solo Cup at a frat party. She was a person I thought I loved. She was a person I shared an apartment and a dog with. She was also a person who had learned that being physical (and sometimes physically aggressive) was a way to deal with issues instead of talking about them. She perpetuated this learned behavior from her ex-boyfriend. She perpetuated this learned behavior from growing up in an abusive family.
And then I read the statistics: 46.4% of lesbians, 74.9% of bisexual women and 43.3% of heterosexual women “reported sexual violence other than rape during their lifetimes.” (The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey by the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, January 2013)
Then why don’t we read about this more? Why isn’t this part of the overarching sexual assault narrative? How did I not know until I worked for the foundation created in his name that Matthew Shepard was a sexual assault victim?
I think it’s because of embarrassment the “How could this have happened to me?” thing and because of not having a name for anything that doesn’t match the known narrative.
So here is my suggestion: Tell your story. Knowing that you aren’t alone helps. How can we get away from that narrative if we aren’t telling our own story and spinning it away from the narrative everyone knows so well? Your experience is valid. Your story is valid. Tell it.
I’m glad I did.