**Trigger Warning: This piece discusses sexual assault and street harassment.
While writing mostly about France, Japan, and travel on this blog, I have found opportunities and occasions to include posts regarding feminism and women’s rights. I’ve posted personal stories about experiencing street harassment and witnessing domestic violence, as well as critiquing various social issues. But I have never been ready or willing to fully come out publicly with my own story. However, with #WomenAgainstFeminism taking over the internet, I feel like I have finally found the courage to do so.
I was sexually assaulted while traveling in Japan with friends in 2011. The guy didn’t rape me, but he tried to. I sometimes still wonder what would have happened or where I would be if I hadn’t come to at the precise moment that I did, or if I hadn’t had the courage or the strength to fight back.
Like the vast majority of victims, I was sexually assaulted by someone I knew. He was American and we worked alongside each other for the majority of the summer–he was well-liked and was someone I enjoyed talking to. I blamed myself for that night; I thought it was my fault. I drank too much. I was wearing a dress. I put myself in this situation. I simply responded, No worries,” when he Facebook messaged me the next day with a derivative of, LOL sorry about last night btw I was sooo drunk I had no idea what I was doing.” I was more worried about getting into trouble for drinking or causing drama within the group than for reporting what happened and seeking advocacy.
I didn’t think I had the right to report it. Like most people, I pictured rape and sexual assault as something brutal, as something very violent, as something that happens to women or men who find themselves in a dark alleyway at the wrong place and time. I didn’t think it counted if you knew the person. I didn’t think I had the right to report it because it wasn’t rape. There are girls and boys and women and men who actually have been raped- who actually have had it much worse than me. I thought I was overreacting and that I just needed to “get over it” and move on. My feelings and my experience were inadequate.
Japan was the summer of a lifetime. I taught English alongside a diverse group of colleagues, and traveled through Tokyo, Nagasaki, Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Fukuoka. I lived with two host families, sang karaoke until dawn, and learned to eat with chopsticks. I love Japan! It’s a shame that whenever I think about that life-changing summer, that incident is one of the first things that comes to mind. It sucks, because my overall experience certainly trumps what happened to me during one night.
But I would be lying if I said that what happened didn’t affect me or I didn’t suffer from post-traumatic stress. I was afraid of most men for a long time afterwards. The thought of going on a date, even to a formal, with a guy, brought on anxiety (and sometimes still does). When dancing at clubs, I frequently set myself up in corners in order to avoid unwanted touching or dancing from men. I also notice myself avoiding eye contact or communication with strangers at bars or gyms. Getting catcalled and harassed in Turkey and Morocco was overwhelming. For years, I looked at myself every day in the mirror and simply talked down to myself in my head. I was terrified of intimacy– even intimacy that is consensual and wanted.
I didn’t feel like I had anywhere to go or anyone to turn to. We never learned about sexual assault or enthusiastic consent in school. Women and girls are frequently criticized or blamed for their own rapes or assaults. Sex was considered taboo at my house (or at least it always felt that way). I never felt comfortable enough talking about what happened with family, and when I finally did have the courage to tell someone I trusted, I was told, Well, that’s what boys do.” (Because that mentality isn’t sexist against boys and men at all). I finally sought therapy while I could still receive services on my college campus, but my therapist phrased her comments and questions in response to my assault in a way that made me feel unsafe– it felt like she was telling me that I was overreacting about what happened, and that I shouldn’t have the feelings I was having since it wasn’t rape. I couldn’t juggle both the emotions of counseling and student teaching, and I never went back to see her again, and didn’t find the courage to seek another counselor.
However, one thing did help me find the support I needed, and that thing was Feminism. The feminist community was where I was told, over and over again, for the first time in a year, “It’s not your fault.” I found support in my Women’s Studies class during undergrad. I found support in books, including Jessica Valenti‘s Full Frontal Feminism, and The Purity Myth. I found support in speakers that came to my university, including Jaclyn Friedman, Stephanie Coontz, and survivors from Take Back the Night and Walk a Mile in Her Shoes. I found support online via Twitter and WordPress, following influential feminists such as Soraya Chemaly, Zerlina Maxwell, Charles Clymer, Chelsea Clinton, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zoey DeChannel, Daniel Radcliffe, and Emma Watson. I became connected with new friends who shared my views such as Belle, creator and author of Finding My Virginity. I found the amazing Laci Green, who teaches Comprehensive Sex Education on YouTube, and the equally amazing Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who gave the infamous TedTalk, We Should All Be Feminists, and was featured in Beyonce’s song, **Flawless. From there, began to heal.
As #WomenAgainstFeminism continues to trend on Twitter, I see this as a result of both poor advertising about feminism actually is as well as ignorance about feminism. Per definition, a feminist is someone who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes. On the contrary, a Humanist believes that humans should work together to solve their problems instead of turning towards higher powers, or Gods– it is different from feminism. Furthermore, the movement is called Feminism (as opposed to “Equalism” as so many argue) because, women are much more likely to be the victims of inequality than men. However, the feminist movement DOES focus on men’s issues, and I do not know any true feminist who would dismiss them! Quoting Laci Green, “Feminism in action doesn’t explicitly call itself feminism.” Third wave feminism focuses on a variety of issues, including rape culture and objectification of women and men in the media, marriage equality, equal pay, body-positive images and messages, comprehensive sex education, parental leave, reproductive healthcare access, spousal abusive and domestic violence shelters, representation of women, people of color, LGBT, people with disabilities, etc., sexual assault/harassment policies, and women in STEM fields.
Because of my travels, expat experiences, and knowledge about feminism, I see the world in a very unique way. It’s partially because of the support I found from feminism that I had the courage and strength to pick myself back up and get back on another plane, onward to another adventure. Reality is, sexual assault happens everywhere. It can happen at home, it can happen at a friend’s house, and it can happen on foreign land.
I choose not to limit the infinite choices I have in life just because could get hurt or have to travel alone. I do not choose to stop traveling just because one person believed he was entitled to my body, or because the dozens of men I have encountered on the street have felt the need to validate my appearance in their presence. Travel is not always care-free and glamorous–I’ve exemplified that in my posts. I didn’t share my story to discourage women from traveling (because this was one moment out of a four years of travels), but because after years of not being able to talk about my experience, I am finally at peace.
I don’t want other women or men to feel taboo or ashamed about their story. You are not alone. As many as one in four women will be sexually assaulted In her lifetime, and as many as one in three women of color. One out of seven men will also be the victim of sexual violence in his lifetime.
Everyone– parents, teachers, coaches, friends, mentors, guidance counselors, sex-ed instructors, need to get better at discussing the very real issue of sexual assault and enthusiastic consent. Feminism and traveling helped get me there, and it makes me sad that there are many women and men supporting #WomenAgainstFeminism. Hopefully with time and a little rebranding, that will change too.
PS- If someone you know is a survivor of sexual assault, remember to lend a helping hand and listening ear. Believe them, don’t minimize their experience, remind them that it is not their fault, and keep in mind that every person’s experience is different– healing takes time. For fast, professional support, call 1.800.656.HOPE. (Thanks to Wandering Orange for the tips and inspiring story of her own.)