Culture

Women Share Stories Of Staying Silent & Speaking Out After Being Sexually Harassed Or Assaulted

We’re in the midst of a profound cultural moment. Each day, new revelations of sexual assault and harassment are dragged to the surface as brave individuals step forward to say, #MeToo. “Your secret,” they seem to say, “that shame, that pain that you’ve carried? I share it.”

As the conversation has expanded and evolved, the issue of the passage of time has come up often — especially where it concerns accusations leveled against powerful men in media and politics. In most of these cases, significant time has passed between the incidents of harassment or abuse and the moment the victims decided to speak out. “Why come forward now?” the Roy Moores and Geraldo Riveras of the world ask.

For many, that line of thinking holds water. It spawns questions about whether women are exaggerating or, at the very least, remembering things incorrectly. As if trauma has an expiration date. As if there’s a limited window of time in which telling your story is valid. As if pain has no memory.

With celebrity-adjacent stories drawing most of the cultural spotlight, we asked 14 women — among the millions who can honestly say “Me too” — about when and why they choose to report their harassment, abuse, or assault. We hope that their stories add context to why women might wait to speak out and help other women understand that they are not alone.

Janice, Museum Employee

Janice was raped when walking home from class. She did not file a police report. She told her parents and school officials after several months had passed.

Why she waited to tell:

“Part of why I didn’t want to come forward was denial, if I didn’t say out loud what had happened, then it wouldn’t have happened. But… the bigger fear was that people wouldn’t believe me, in part because I’m fat and not the most beautiful creature.”

Why she finally spoke out:

“I stopped being able to go to classes, and failed. My grades were bad for three terms in a row and they were going to put me on academic suspension. My family was also very disappointed and kept pushing me to tell them why I was doing so poorly.”

Sam, Pharmacy Tech

Sam was molested by the son of a close family friend from ages 12-14. He touched her inappropriately and would lock her in rooms and force her to touch him.

Why she waited to tell:

“He said things like ‘do this or I’ll tell on you,’ I thought I would be in trouble if I didn’t do as he said. He was quite a lot bigger and stronger than I was and prone to violent outbursts in general, so it was safer and easier to just do as he said and/or pretend it wasn’t happening.”

What happened when she told:

“I told my mom what happened, and she said that she would talk to his mom about it, which she did. We then had a meeting (my mom, his mom and me) in which his mom informed me that she had spoken to him and he had denied that the abuse ever took place. It was then suggested that perhaps I had misunderstood something, or even that this was a cry for help/that I needed attention. They basically told me that no one was angry at me, but that I should stop making accusations against him because it upset him, and I was going to cause him a lot of problems in the long run if I told anyone else about it. That conversation effectively shut me up for another three years, during which he did it again to someone else.”

Now:

“My parents now believe me, although they continue to spend time with him and his family.”

KC, Event Coordinator

K.C. was repeatedly cornered and asked sexually graphic questions by a supervisor when she worked at a non-profit, at the age of 18. Once, he pulled out his pants pockets, unzipped his pants, put his finger in his fly, and asked her to “kiss the elephant between the ears.”

Why she spoke out:

“A lot of people knew what was going on, but I was hesitant to come forward. In the end, it was not I who reported it. My best friend at the time performed a skit (during an organization-wide training day) where she recreated the “elephant kiss” incident. Everything else is really a blur of closed office doors and conference calls.”

What happened when the abuse came to light:

“Looking back, I can’t believe that I was able to shoulder what was happening at 18 years old, with no parents or real support system to lean on. My work phone was confiscated, my work email locked, I was forbidden to go to the school I worked for days at a time, and on days that I was permitted to attend, had to arrange for my own transportation there as my supervisor would drive the rest of my team. I was largely ostracized from my co-workers, with a select few telling me they believed me and supported me.”

How she felt at the time:

“I’d like to underline the intense guilt I felt for months after he resigned. I would ‘fantasize’ – that word seems so foul in this context – of running into him on the street and apologizing. Blaming my friend who forced the situation to come to light. I wanted HIM to forgive ME, when I had been victimized by him for months. That’s how deep-seeded the grooming process is.”

Amanda, Administration and Theatrical Production/Performance

Amanda was violently raped by an acquaintance after a friend’s birthday party.

Why she waited to tell:

“The next morning, our mutual friends, whose house we were at, understandably, reacted exceptionally poorly, thinking the act was consensual, as he is married with a toddler. Our mutual friend called incessantly demanding information I couldn’t give her. She blamed everything from the alcohol to the clothing, and didn’t miss a chance to tell me what I should have done differently.”

The extent to which she remained silent:

“I spent a great deal of time covering the hand shaped bruises on my neck, fingerprints on my arms and legs, and bite marks on my chest. I spent more time making up stories for what happened to my leg — my favorite was that I had fallen off a loading dock during a load-in I didn’t have. That is the story used at the doctor office when I went in for my leg a week after it happened. I had nearly graduated to a blood infection.

Three months later, I went back to the doctor. I spent two days having scalpels cut into my rectum to repair built up damage from the first point of entry. This was the first time I considered telling anyone I was assaulted, but I didn’t, because I had already lied and why would anyone believe me now?”

Clarice, College Instructor

Clarice was involved in a long-term relationship in high school that involved non-consensual sex.

Why she didn’t tell:

“In retrospect, my parents would have beat the shit out of him, and maybe I knew that at the time and it scared me. Ultimately, I kept quiet because although I knew he was wrong to have intitated sex with me when I wasn’t able to give consent, I thought it was my duty to be sexually available, even when I didn’t want to be. I hated myself for not fighting back and asserting my boundaries, so I took the blame.”

How it impacted her life:

“I got pregnant with this boyfriend, and I decided that sex was a punishing, painful activity, so I committed to celibacy for the next decade. When I started having sex again in my late 20s, I couldn’t negotiate having it with men I cared about, so I slept with awful people. In my entire adult life, I have looked my partner in the eyes during sex a single time. Once. And, I can’t share a bed with anyone. At this point, I have chosen to be celibate for the last five years. Chances are I will never trust anyone enough to ever have sex again. And, I will die alone.”

Getty / Uproxx

Maggie, Client Services

Maggie was groped several times by a coworker at an office Christmas party

Who she told:

“I did not report it, but I did tell coworkers. I needed them to know why all of a sudden I was really withdrawn from this man who I had worked closely with for five years. A year after it happened, I told one coworker because she did the seating arrangements for the party, and I did not want to be at the same table with him.”

Why she didn’t “officially” report it:

“I didn’t report it to HR, a manager or anyone who could do anything about it because I felt that they would value him more as an employee.”

What happened after:

“His inappropriate attention didn’t stop after that, even though he apologized because his wife told him what he did was wrong. I assume he was drunk. The attention continued even when I moved across the country. He would IM me after hours. I wish I had done something just to stop it for myself.”

Lisa, Nanny

Lisa was molested by a cousin from the ages of three to six.

Why she waited to tell:

“I was little and he always said they wouldn’t believe me if I said anything and that it was okay because we were cousins”

Why she told:

“The reason I finally told was we went to his house (when I was 12), and I said I don’t want to be alone with Jaime. They asked why. At first, I wouldn’t say. Then I finally said, ‘He made me touch him down there and he touched me down there.’”

What happened when she told:

“My step uncle went out looking for him and made him stay elsewhere. However, nothing ever was said again about it. I never got therapy, and my parents never brought it up again.”

Cailin, Actor

Cailin was sexually harassed and physically assaulted by two different men at two different investment banks while working on Wall Street. She immediately reported both situations to her supervisors.

Why she told:

“I actually felt by making an immediate report of the physical assaults, the sexual harassment I had previously reported to my supervisors would finally stop. When I reported the sexual harassment, I was always met with ‘Well, it’s your word against his’ and ‘We need physical proof.’”

What happened when she told:

“My immediate supervisors told me I needed to ‘be more of a team-player;’ I lost each job less than six months after the physical assaults.”

Amelia, Process Engineer

Amelia was molested by her grandfather, who put his hand down her pants, during a visit when she was eight years old.

Why she didn’t tell:

“I was afraid to tell my parents. I thought they might think I was exaggerating, if not outright lying. I was concerned that they would force me to spend time with him to ‘prove me wrong.’ When he died, I felt relieved.”

Maggie, Attorney

Maggie was repeatedly sexually harassed by her boss while working at a small law firm fresh out of college. In one instance, speaking about her during a phone call she could plainly hear, he commented “Yeah, but I tell ya, if I had two good knees, I would get down on my knees and lick her dry.”

Why she didn’t report it:

“I couldn’t report it. There was no HR or hiring manager. It was only two attorneys and me. Even more importantly, I couldn’t quit. This was 2008, when entire law firms were closing their doors, experienced professionals were losing their jobs, and people and companies were declaring bankruptcy. I was only looking for a job for a year to help pay for law school; who on earth would hire me if I left?”

Kate, Theatrical Production Design

Kate was roofied and raped by a colleague from the small circle of professionals working in theater in her city. She went to the hospital, filed a police report, and did a rape kit. She did not tell others in her community.

Why she didn’t tell:

“I was going through a divorce. My husband and partner of 11 years cheated on me. I moved and was making other big life changes. I felt so mentally exhausted and couldn’t process the divorce and the rape. I wanted him to go to jail, but I didn’t want everyone in my community to know what happened to me. I worked so hard in my field and was finally starting to get noteworthy jobs. I didn’t want people to associate me with this, and I was already so overwhelmed by the divorce and the embarrassment of being cheated on. Ultimately, I think that vulnerability made me a target.”

Rose, Digital Marketing

Rose was sexually harassed by her superior on a construction site where she worked while pursuing an undergraduate degree in architecture. She emailed her supervisor immediately.

What happened professionally:

“By 11 am, my on-site boss said that the main office wanted to see me before the end of the day, and I should head over there at lunch. I showed up at the main office, and my boss sat me down, saying that they were sorry to hear about my rough day at work. As a result, they were pulling me off the project, effective immediately.”

What happened personally:

“When I went home that night and explained the situation to my live-in boyfriend, I was told ‘You have to be really careful about accusations like that. You could have lost that man his job, or even his career.’”

Ashlyn, Business Owner

When Ashlyn was 16, she was preyed upon by a man in his 30’s who told her mother that he would be able to mentor her in a modeling/entertainment career. During this time he molested her and forced her into unwanted sexual activity on a regular basis.

Why she waited to tell anyone:

“I did not fully understand or comprehend everything that happened to me until I was required to start keeping a journal for an acting class in 2012. I had just moved across the country to LA. One day, while writing in the journal, I got off on a tangent about my feelings about my mother and I thought of the events with him. It had always bothered me so much even though I did not fully understand why. I had always tried to block out all of these memories and not think about them because they were very painful and confusing. When I saw what I had written, everything came crashing down when I realized how wrong it all was. After reading the parts I could bare to write down, I heard it out loud for the first time. I remember holding my knees in the shower as I cried and tried to understand it all. It continued to haunt me, but I didn’t think that I could do anything about it.”

What happened when she told her parents:

“My dad immediately reported the story to Alabama officials when I told him the smallest piece of it. He and my mom got into a big fight that night. My mom and I have not spoken about it very much because it’s a very touchy subject. She was my primary care giver at the time that everything happened, and from what I remember, she introduced me to him after meeting him or his mom at a grocery store. I am not totally sure because that part is fuzzy. I think she really believed he would help mentor me in my career even though he ended up being a total fraud and taking advantage of me. He is very skilled at grooming and finding the right parents to believe that he is a good Christian man. Unfortunately, there are no laws that prevent or deter a 31-year-old man from dating a 16 or 17-year-old girl in Alabama. The sexual trauma that took place during our ‘relationship’ deeply scarred me, and there were no laws to protect me from this much older man’s manipulation.”

Leigh, Sales Executive

Leigh had a long-term relationship with a man ten years her senior, who was a leader in the church her family attended, that began when she was 12. They began a sexual relationship when she was 13 and it continued off-and-on for five years.

What he told her would happen if she revealed the relationship:

“He had his roommate, who worked as a bouncer and was a huge scary dude, call our house and threaten to kill me. I was so ashamed to the point I’d vomit thinking too much about it, yet I was so in love with him. He made it very clear to me that it was ‘my idea’ and that I needed to keep my mouth shut or it would ‘end what we have,’ while also getting really emphatic that what we had was ‘doomed’ and could never work because I was so young and people would never understand. I wanted his love and affection more than anything else in the whole world, and my silence was the condition on which that continued.”

* * *

We asked the women we spoke to how not telling their stories had gone on to affect them. Many of them expressed guilt over knowing that their abusers were still out in the world. Maybe if they had come forward and detailed their experiences, some told us, that person would have been stopped. Ultimately, these women also shared the realization that they are not responsible for their abuser’s actions. The narrative that holds a woman accountable for someone else’s negative behavior is just another way to strip them of their agency.

We hope that our society evolves to a place where every woman feels believed when she tells her story. If such a utopia were to exist, we would still defend a woman’s right to share her story in her own time.

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