Anonymous submission from Malaysia.
Yesterday, Brett Kavanaugh was sworn in as a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Embattled by allegations of sexual assault, Kavanaugh’s confirmation was particularly controversial.
His accuser, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, presented a compelling and sincere statement at his hearing, moving thousands of people across the world. Yet she was criticized for not speaking up earlier – and demeaned for attempting to “obstruct” Kavanaugh’s pathway to the highest court in the nation.
I think these accusations stem from a lack of empathy. Because after all, there are many reasons why victims of sexual assault choose not to speak up immediately – believe it or not, none of them have anything to do with obstructing the promotions of powerful men. Dr. Ford, obviously, had hers – this is mine.
It began when I was 7 or 8. In the holidays, my family used to go back to our hometown so my parents could meet up with old friends and to spend time with our relatives. My cousins, my brother and I – the four or five of us – would often go to one of the empty rooms in my grandmother’s house to play House or Chef or one of those games that children used to play.
"Although I was young, I wasn't ignorant."
One afternoon, my brother had been led away for a nap. My eldest cousin was asleep, my youngest cousin playing on the floor. Their brother – my age, though a month younger – pulled the blankets over my legs and straddled me. He started groping me over my shorts, stroking between my legs.
I think it’s important to note that although I was young, I wasn’t ignorant. My parents had told me enough times what was alright for others to do to me and what was not, and I knew what was happening was wrong. But I lay there, almost paralyzed, as he pulled my shorts down, and then my underwear. I didn’t protest when I felt his skin on mine.
Even now, I can’t articulate why I didn’t move, or get up, or scream, or even speak, because surely my youngest cousin would have heard, surely that would have made him stop. All I felt was a deep, deep sense of helplessness.
And so I stopped playing with my cousins in that room, insisted on being within sight of an adult at all times, because I didn’t like being helpless and I didn’t like how it felt when he touched me. And I thought everything was okay, and I tried to forget that it had ever happened, because if it had never happened, then I was still clean, and I had never lost my agency, even if it were only for those few minutes that felt like forever.
"...I had been pretending for so long, it was easier to continue than to stop."
For quite a while, it felt like everything was alright.
When I was twelve, my mother abruptly asked me: “Did your cousin ever do anything to you?”
And I said no, because I had been pretending for so long, it was easier to continue than to stop.
And then she told me what had happened. My cousin, now fourteen like me, had been touching my younger sister like he used to touch me. My sister was eight.
I didn’t know I could choke on thin air until then.
The guilt ate me alive. I felt like an accomplice in the perpetration of my sister’s suffering – if, six years earlier, I had told on my cousin, she wouldn’t have had to go through what I had.
And still I could not bring myself to tell my mother what I had been through. There are countless articles listing reasons why victims of sexual assault choose not to speak up. I’ve read many, and I still haven’t found my why. I do know, though, that it’s still as difficult to speak up now as it was back then, when I was a child.
It could be the shame, or the fear, or the need to keep the peace. Later, I came to think that it could also be the guilt. Sometimes it feels like all of those things together and more, which is as close as I have come to being able to explain my why.
Even now, understanding that I was never at fault, I cannot bring myself to tell my family about what were arguably the darkest days in my entire life. It’s sad that the only space I feel safe sharing my experience in is on the Internet, behind a veil of anonymity. But it’s also the truth, and I suppose I have come to terms with it.
If you or someone you know is a victim of sexual assault, please seek help. Ultimately, speaking up is a personal choice. Nevertheless, please know that it is never too late to share your experiences or your fears – if you cannot find anyone else, we are here for you.
This page features a collection of personal anecdotes and reflections by authors based on their individual stories.