I am one of the fortunate who was never sexually harassed at any of my fulltime workplaces, yet I still must say #MeToo. The first time, I was accosted by my boss in the stockroom at my summer job at Cain-Sloan department store. I don’t know what all I said to him, but it made an impression, because I was able to slip out of his embrace and leave the stockroom. Fortunately, he never approached me that way again, so it ended right where it began.
I was not so lucky one Saturday in the spring of my junior year when I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew, and whom, up to that point, I thought of as a friend. I thought we liked each other. We are contemporaries and were in the same class at Fisk University. I’ll call him “B.”
“B” raped me on a beautiful spring afternoon toward the end of our junior year. The assault was a crime of opportunity – his; I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It didn’t happen in a dark alley but in a well-lit dorm room, yet I was just as surprised and it was just as frightening as if I had been accosted on a poorly-lit street by an unknown assailant.
Being raped was bad enough, but suddenly, another man whom I also knew strode, naked but for a towel around his waist, into the room. Fortunately for us all, he balked at joining in. Instead, he said, “Man, this is Pam! Are you crazy?” He told me to get dressed and leave. He then hustled “B” and himself from the room. I have always felt that he saved my life.
In a daze, I got dressed, grabbed what I had come there for, went back to my dorm room, and took all the painkillers I could find.
I swore my close friend Glenda to secrecy before telling her that I had taken a bottle of Excedrin. She convinced me to go to Student Health where they pumped my stomach and tried to get me to tell why I had tried to harm myself. They threatened to call my parents but I refused to give them the number. They never did call, and I did not tell them what had prompted my suicide attempt. It was all too horrible, embarrassing, and shameful. I wasn’t sharing it with some doctor in Student Health, and I certainly wasn’t telling my parents.
I had been raped. Nothing like this was supposed to happened to nice, college girls like me. So, I did not call the police; I told no one. I literally felt I would die before telling one single soul.
I don’t know if there were rape kits way back then, but it did not matter. Because of my shame and anxiety, the medical professionals did not know I had been raped, so I was not examined with that in mind.
I was assaulted on a Saturday afternoon, so I was able to “recover” and push everything to the back of my mind where I could pretend none of it had occurred. Monday, I got up and went to classes as if nothing monstrous had happened to me. The rest of that semester and my whole senior year, I felt fear in “B”’s presence. Fisk is small; I was never alone with him, but I couldn’t completely avoid him either.
I kept the events of that spring afternoon at bay for many years. But it all came rushing back at me when I looked at pictures from our tenth college reunion, and there I was in one of the photos grinning like a fool with “B”’s arm draped over my shoulder. I couldn’t believe or understand it: what was I thinking? What was he thinking? I had thought he liked me, but this man had raped me. What was I thinking? It was all so confusing.
Still, I did not seek help for another eight or ten years.
Why was I so reticent to seek help or to tell anyone what happened? There was (and still is) a stigma attached to rape and rape survivors. Even though a woman is attacked through no fault of her own, everything about the rape is shrouded in secrecy and shame. Someone told Bridget Kelly’s father that, as a result of being raped, she was “damaged goods.” His message was clear: women who have been raped are in a category apart, a negative one. Another implication is that nice girls, good girls don’t get raped. A woman must have done something to bring it on herself. Her name must be kept secret to protect her. From what? She has already been injured.
With shame and secrecy is how women have been taught to respond to sexual assault: somehow it was always our fault. And rape was something women – not their assailants – needed to be ashamed of. Society made this plain by the way it shrouded rape in secrecy and insinuation, by hiding survivors’ names and investigating the survivors’ sexual histories. For years, I bought into these faulty premises.
I was embarrassed and ashamed of being raped. I also was fearful and felt guilty, because the man who raped me was walking around campus, and I thought the rape was somehow my fault. But the fact of the matter is that I did nothing wrong, nothing for which I needed to feel embarrassment, shame, or guilt.
“B,” the man who raped me, should be ashamed, even today. After all, he is the one who did something wrong; he is the one who is at fault; he is the one who is guilty. However, because I did not report it, he walked away from a heinous crime, graduated, went to law school, and is now an officer of the court.
It has taken me decades to admit my membership in Bridget Kelly’s “secret club.” That is not to say I never told anyone. Over the years, I have told maybe three people. I never did tell my parents (who are now deceased), my sisters, or my college roommate.
I am acknowledging the rape now because Bridget Kelly’s story, logic, and bravery along with the #MeToo phenomenon helped me realize that it is my duty to speak up, 1) so I can be free of the burden of this huge secret, and 2) so I can help other survivors – recent and longstanding – realize that they are innocent and have nothing to be ashamed of. The only way to remove the stigma of surviving rape is by reporting it when it happens and putting the onus where it belongs: on the rapist.