“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~Martin Luther King Jr.
It was Saturday, August 29th, 2020, when I admitted to myself, for the very first time, that I was a victim of sexual assault as a child.
Twenty-five years of complete denial that this ever happened, and suddenly all I could think of was the fact that my innocence was taken at the age of five. “Why now?” I wondered. “Why does it suddenly matter? Was I so resentful of my trauma that I denied its existence altogether?”
Between the ages of five and eight, I was repeatedly molested by a family member. Although I wasn’t sure what was happening, I knew two things: This felt pleasurable, and therefore, there was something inherently wrong with me.
I carried this shameful image of myself into adulthood, unaware of how it impacted my self-esteem, my sexuality, and my overall perception of myself as a woman.
As the sexual abuse eventually ended, so did any thoughts about it. No one knew that it had ever happened, and I planned for it to stay that way.
From the time I became sexually active, I struggled. I never felt safe while being intimate, even when I was with my ex-husband. I always carried this feeling of shame, and the more pleasure I felt from having intercourse, the more shame I experienced.
When I finally stopped denying that I was a victim of sexual assault, I knew there was no coming back. Once I became brave enough to admit the truth and accept the discomfort of it, I remembered all those times when the assault took place. It was terrifying and intimidating.
I felt disgusted, shameful, and angry. I was upset that this event was suddenly present in my life. My plans were to build my online business, make money, and have fun with friends, while making sure I consistently whitened my teeth and maintained my Florida tan.
Instead, I was forced to face my demons and address the truth I’d buried so well. All I could think of was “What’s wrong with me?”
For many victims of sexual assault, especially young children who can’t comprehend what’s happening, it’s easy to develop a belief that we are sick, dirty, undeserving, and not enough. We develop a strong survival mechanism where we pretend, guard up, in some cases become promiscuous while self-sabotaging any real connection with anyone else.
Our trauma supports the belief that we can’t trust anyone, everyone is out to get us, and that feeling any pleasure for ourselves is bad and sinful.
What I couldn’t wrap my head around, and what also brought unbearable shame, was the pleasure I felt when the assault happened. Logically, it didn’t make sense to me.
These were my thoughts: “I didn’t do anything about it, and there wasn’t any force or rebuttal present. I let it happen over and over, and in a sense, I enjoyed it. How can I ever say that I am a victim of sexual assault? If it was wrong, I would do something. Instead, I did nothing. There must be something wrong with me.”
What you just read is a common thought process for many victims of sexual assault. It is why we stay silent; why we let the shame grow each day and exercise self-hate full force. Many of us truly believe that there is something inherently wrong with us, and this is where speaking your truth and seeking help comes into play.
Shame was probably the most intense emotion I observed, but I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. So, as a master in denial, I let it go, again. Or so I thought.
A year went by, and nothing happened. I kept the truth hidden and didn’t talk about it too much while convincing myself that I’d already addressed it and all this messiness was behind me.
Then a few months ago one of my friends mentioned the nonprofit RAINN—the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization that helps survivors and victims of sexual assault heal and recover.
I knew this information showed up in my life for a reason. My shame was still present, and my sense of unworthiness wasn’t subsiding. It was time to call their hotline and get help.
I dialed and hung up four times before I was brave enough to stay on the phone. The process was easy, and I was able to get a counselor within a few days, at no cost.
It was time for my first session. I was nervous and guarded, but I clicked with my counselor, so it eventually became easier to open up and start sharing.
At first, we started addressing the elephant in the room: How could I feel pleasure while being sexually assaulted, and would my shame ever go away?
I learned in my recovery that arousal during a sexual assault is common. It is one of the best-kept secrets that prevent us from speaking up, sharing our trauma, and breaking the shame once and for all.
We are terrified that no one will understand us and will judge us instead. Considering the amount of judgment and shame we already exercise daily, the idea of criticism and more shame is just too much to bear. Therefore, we stay silent and often let the shame get out of control.
Although I am not a doctor and can’t impress you with some Ph.D. explanation, here is what I now understand:
Being aroused during any form of sexual assault doesn’t mean we want it, it doesn’t mean we consent, and it certainly doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with us. Physical pleasure is a natural bodily reaction, even during sexual assault.
As I progressed with my sessions, I was able to open up about things I never said out loud. Things like excessive masturbation during childhood or using self-pleasure and intercourse in my adult life to punish myself and feel disgusted. Without seeking help and getting a counselor, I might have never been able to overcome my self-destructive beliefs.
This is the best part about therapy: it provides a safe space to say the things you’ve kept inside. And that, in and of itself, provides healing.
During my therapy, I learned some powerful coping skills. Things like recognizing my triggers, soothing myself with compassion while drowning in self-hate, pausing, taking a step back, and reevaluating the situation before it gets out of control. These skills were especially useful when I spiraled into one of my shame attacks, wanted to punish myself, or felt overwhelmed by self-judgment.
I learned the importance of self-love in this process; how to approach myself when feeling defeated, sad, upset, or shameful. Mostly, I understood the universal truth every victim of sexual assault needs to understand and focus on: Recovery requires us to stop questioning what’s wrong with us and instead face what happened to us.
At the time of this writing, my therapy sessions are coming to an end. If I were asked what’s been the most impactful part of my recovery, I would say it’s the ability to speak up and share my story while exercising empathy and compassion for myself.
As Brené Brown said, the best way to break the shame is to speak about it with those who deserve to hear our story—people we trust, people who have been through the same or similar situations, and people who are educated enough to understand our trauma. People who aren’t afraid to offer empathy and hold space while withstanding the discomfort of the conversation.
Although my therapy is ending and the time to run solo is approaching, I know that to heal, I must commit and stay committed to my recovery. I understand now that healing is available to all of us, and all it takes sometimes is five minutes of courage to make a phone call and say, “I need help.”
As my recovery progresses, my hope for living a happier life grows each day. I am beginning to understand that no matter what I go through or how deep my trauma is, I can make different choices and live my life from the most empowering place that’s available to me—from within.