When you become the survivor of sexual abuse or assault, there is very little in the world that will give you comfort.
The funny thing is, you never think it can happen to you. You’re not naive about the evils of the world. You’ve seen, in movies and the six o’clock news, how women are conned into getting raped or assaulted in seedy street corners. That’ll never be you, you think. You would know, with your middle-class privileges and college education, if the person offering you a drink at the club were planning to drug and assault you in his car. You tell yourself that you can recognize the face of a rapist, of an abuser. So you’ll be fine. You’ll be safe.
That’s why you used to shake your head at women who refused to speak up about their sexual abuse. It’s not your fault, you want to tell them. Don’t be a measly statistic. But these sanitized numbers are just as grim: the National Statistics Office says one in 10 women between ages 15 and 49 have experienced sexual violence in the Philippines. In 2013 alone, the Philippine National Police reported over 23,000 cases of violence against women, a list that includes rape and sexual harassment. This number is sadly inaccurate: because of the perceived stigma against rape victims, there are many more out there, suffering in silence. It happens to millions of women out there.
So when it happens, you remember that you are not alone. But sometimes, you’d much rather be.
Sexual assault can happen to any of us: young or old, rich or poor. It has happened to celebrities, like Lady Gaga. She penned and performed the Oscar-nominated song Til It Happens to You, inspired by the survivors of rape on college campuses in the United States and her own assault as a teenager. Singer Kesha is currently fighting to free herself from a horrific contract that forces her to work with a music producer who abused her for years. Sexual assault is a crime that does not choose victims. No one is too fat, too dumb, too ugly to get raped.
To speak up against your abuser is unequivocally brave, because it seems easier to sweep this crime under a rug and pretend it never happened. You are surprised at how normal you can act in front of other people, at how adept you are at wearing a mask to hide your fears and anxieties. You pretend that you’re not gripped with fear by the possibility that your assailant will also be hanging at the same bar you go to on a Saturday night. You’ve gotten so good that, even to yourself, you’ve managed to revise your own history. It didn’t happen, it never happened. You stay quiet, because you worry that saying something will brand you in a certain way. They don’t have to say it, but their eyes will label you as a victim. So you ignore it, and pretend to be fine.
This is the problem with hiding: someday, you will be found. When a trigger goes off and you are forced to deal with what happened, it gets ugly. You begin to question why it even happened in the first place. At one point, you will ask yourself why you were stupid enough to allow it. You, above all, have become responsible for putting yourself in that situation. You trusted someone who should not have been trusted. You put your guard down when there were signs that told you to run. You were abused because you wore a short skirt. You flirted, you smiled, you trusted the nice man who spoke proper English and read the same books. You have mutual friends on Facebook, surely you can’t get hurt by a guy who comments with emojis on your friend’s status updates? Your abuse happened because some logical order in the universe allowed you to exist.
You are your own abuser.
You will hear people echo your own words. “It’s not your fault,” they will say kindly. Deep down, you know that it isn’t, but there is always some doubt in the back of your mind. You take yourself back to that fateful moment, when you struggled to say no, or decided not to out of fear. Your head is full of maybes and what ifs, punishing yourself with a terrible kind of Choose Your Own Adventure. “Maybe if I hadn’t…” you start. And you find yourself unable to finish.
The old you would have fought back, so you’re ashamed to be reminded that when it happened, you tried to act okay. You didn’t want your assailant to feel like he had gotten the best of you, so you pretended that you got the best of him, too. That doesn’t erase the creeping humiliation, the one that makes you feel less than who you are. That is what an abuser does. The attack on your person isn’t limited to physical or sexual violence. That is not the only thing that he will use to break you.
What really hurts is the aftermath, a soupy mess of confusion where you are still reeling from what happened. In some cases, they will treat you with glibness. No big deal. They might even be gentle with you, chat with you like you just finished a game of Monopoly, and somehow blame you for designing your own personal hell. Maybe, he will suggest, you should’ve just complied in the first place. Look at what you made me do. Your abuser might even cuddle with you or hold you close. You find an inability not to fight. And when that happens, you will feel guilty, because aren’t you the one letting yourself be held by a monster?
There is little comfort in the world for the kind of horrors you have been through. It will be hard to tell yourself that you are not to blame. But do so, every morning, especially when the sun hits your face a little harshly. Be kind to yourself and get rid of that misplaced guilt. It’s not your fault that people have chosen to be evil. Sometimes, you have to say it out loud, because no one else will. It doesn’t always work, but it helps to be reminded. At least, that’s what I tell myself every day.