At 14, my assault defined me as a feminist.
Ten years later I’m writing openly about what happened for the first time.
In middle school, I suffered from horribly low self-esteem. I did a pretty good job projecting a loud, confident persona to those around me, but internally I was fixating on how I could become skinny and get boys to like me the way they liked my friends.
I resorted to really dumb and, frankly, illegal behaviors in order to get attention from boys. Including one who eventually asked me to be his girlfriend — “William”.
This was in 8th grade. It was the first time I had experienced someone showing interest in other people knowing I was “theirs”.
Middle school sucks.
Despite what I told him, I was very inexperienced sexually. He would text me, asking if I would do certain things and I would respond ‘yes’ because it felt like the only way I could maintain his attention; Attention that I had obsessed over since the sixth grade, when my girlfriends were starting to get asked out by boys.
In hindsight, I’d say middle school relationships are meaningless, but try telling that to a preteen.
At the time, William and I threw shot put for track. During practice we’d spend some time in a makeshift weight room, pretending we knew enough about lifting to do it unsupervised. Really it was just a hallway behind the gym blocked off by a few machines and rack of free weights.
One afternoon during practice, we were alone in the weight room. Typically, there were a few other kids around, but for some reason, that wasn’t the case on this particular day. I remember it was a Tuesday, but I’m not sure on the month.
Suddenly while I was sitting at one of the machines, he walked over and stuck his hand up my shorts. Then down my shirt.
Then he sat down across from me and pulled out his erect penis.
I was still frozen.
That’s when the details become somewhat hazy. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve repressed them or because it’s been 10 years. Maybe both? I get so pissed about not remembering the details.
What I do remember is him then cornering me and asking that I kiss him. I didn’t say anything, but let him shove his tongue into my mouth. It’s like I can still taste his disgusting saliva in my stationary mouth.
Suddenly I heard a voice yell “Hey!” from behind me. A gym teacher was walking by and saw us. I took the opportunity to run out, grab my backpack and then wait outside for my dad to pick me up at the end of practice.
To this day I’m still angry that I stayed in the situation for so long. I couldn’t muster up a “no” or “stop”. Nothing. It’s taken me years to accept that despite my previous behavior and what I told him I would do, this wasn’t a consensual encounter. This was a teen taking advantage of another teen’s low self-esteem whether he realized that or not at the time. I certainly didn’t.
Three days later, on Friday, I mustered up the courage to tell one of my teachers what happened.
Assault survivors (I really hate the word victim) don’t owe anyone their story. But for me, going through the hallways like nothing happened became unbearable. I felt like I was drowning in my own thoughts and honestly, guilt, about what happened to me. I needed someone to tell me it wasn’t my fault.
Unfortunately, seeking comfort from my teacher during lunch then led to retelling it to a school counselor, then to the principal and then sitting in the same room as William while the principal asked for his side of what happened.
Literally. I was in a chair at a roundtable, he was directly next to me. It felt like torture. To this day I’m not sure if they were just following policy or had no idea how to handle an assault inside the school. I’m thinking it was the latter.
He was suspended for a few days, and word quickly got out that I “told on him”. The gym teacher who walked by us approached me shortly after that day in the hall and apologized for yelling. She didn’t realize what was going on. So the entire staff found out too, it seemed.
My assault — and the gossip that followed — split the grade into two sides. Those who believed me and those who thought I was a “whore” who regretted “hooking up in the weight room”.
Thankfully track was in the spring, so we were close to the end of the school year. I gave a speech at our graduation and worried I’d be booed because so many people hated what I did to “their friend”. I forced myself to do it anyways. Thankfully no boos, only snickering in the audience.
That summer was filled with uncomfortable encounters at bonfires where he was also invited and frustrating conversations with friends who questioned why I didn’t want to be around him. For a while, I even convinced myself I had overreacted about the entire thing.
Looking back, my decision to speak up and continue on with my head (mostly) held high was a defining moment that would shape the rest of my life. I don’t take shit from people and I don’t care if people don’t like me because of it. I’m a proud feminist.
I want to be clear, though. Being a feminist and reporting an assault are not directly correlated. Countless variables go into deciding to report, and not doing so does not make someone less of a feminist.
Every person who is assaulted deals with it in different ways. When someone forces themselves on you without your permission, you feel powerless. At times, deciding how to cope is the only way to feel like you’re taking that power back. Sometimes that means deciding not to report.
In my case, reporting the assault was what I needed to do to feel like I was going to be ok. The 14-year-old me is grateful I spoke up.