Being Sexually Assaulted While Abroad and How Feminism Saved Me

**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.

Bisous,

Dana

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.)

18 thoughts on “Being Sexually Assaulted While Abroad and How Feminism Saved Me

  1. This was a wonderful piece to stumble upon. The more people speak out about these experiences, the more we, as women and men, can figure out how to openly combat the sexism that’s prevalent all over the world. From Milwaukee to Marrakech, I’ve experienced horrible treatment from men. While it was worse in Marrakech, people have this misconstrued idea that we ONLY see sexism and sexual harassment occurring in “foreign” places. Sadly, it’s everywhere, and as you said, with people we know. Thanks for sharing, Dana! I really think it makes a difference when people are brave enough to speak out.

    1. Thank you so much for your wonderful comment! Are you also from the Milwaukee area?
      I agree, so many people think that it’s worse everywhere else, but not here. So not true at all! Eliminating the stigma is one of the first steps in combating this awfully accepted part of “culture.”

      1. Yep, I’m from Milwaukee! You are as well? I’m back in the area for now but I’d like to move abroad again. Much to my parents’ dismay, I just can’t seem to stay still for long. I agree with you though, it’s abhorrent and so many people, men and women, don’t even realize that certain actions are considered abuse. Sometimes I wish I were invisible, not because I’m ashamed or unconfident, but because I get tired of not being able to walk down the street in peace.

      2. Yeah! I was born near West Allis but completed the majority of my schooling in Waukesha. Did you just do TAPIF? Small, small world!

  2. Dana, you are a wonderfully brave woman for sharing your story and talented for presenting this issue so clearly. This is so well written, especially for such an often misunderstood topic. Keep on inspiring!

  3. In Spain, it was very common to walk down the street and to have an old man call out “Hola guapa!” However, guapa isn’t just restricted to men catcalling. Shopkeepers (including women) would use it when helping me with whatever I needed in a store. It’s a term of endearment and also used as harassment, though Spanish people (including women) kind of brush off the men who do this. They don’t follow you and they know you will mostly ignore them. Sometimes friends use “Hola guapa” as a way to greet each other. It’s a very gray line, so it’s hard to automatically assume you are being harassed if someone lets out an “Hola guapa.” I ended up thinking it was harmless and I never felt unsafe when I got an hola guapa.

    That being said, I’m glad you shared your story. What happened to you was definitely sexual assault, no two ways about it. I have a few friends who have been nearly assaulted in the same way and it was always by someone they knew. Being drunk is not an excuse and I don’t understand how wasted you have to be to think, “Oh this girl is passed out, I think I will have sex with her because that is clearly a good idea.” Obviously you use common sense while traveling, but even when you take the best precautions these kinds of things can happen. I’m sorry this happened to you and I’m glad it didn’t go further than it did and that you were still able to enjoy Japan. I hope that this never happens to you again.

    1. Thanks for reading and thanks for your kind words and insight! It means a lot!

      This incident had no affect on my impressions of Japan or the program I completed, as it happened outside of our program base and working hours. I still had a wonderful, life changing experience. The directors and leaders are very much advocates, although I didn’t know it at the time 🙂

  4. Dana,

    Thank you for sharing your story. It was very brave of you. I have always considered you a strong woman, and nothing has changed that. My heart goes out to you, and I want you to know you’re never alone.

    Love always,
    Freya

  5. Dana,

    You are one of the most brave & inspiring women I know. Thank you for sharing.

    I’m glad you are at peace now & that you didn’t let one awful experience stop you from traveling the world as you want.

    Looking forward to hearing more about your next journey!

    Kristie

    1. Thanks Kristie ❤ you've always been an inspiration to me as well. I look forward to following your journey in Denver! Thanks for reading xoxo

  6. This takes a lot of courage to share. Thanks for choosing to share your story with us. I’m glad you found the support you need with feminism.

    When I visited Tunisia, and even here in France, the catcalls really got/get to me. I hate feeling uncomfortable walking around in my own neighborhood. Luckily now with the dog, many people leave me alone (besides staring at me in a really creepy way) because he’ll growl at them. I feel like guys are worse here when it comes to public harassment/catcalls/making you feel uncomfortable than back home. What do you think? I always wonder if it’s just because I’m from a suburb so I rarely walked around places where people are just hanging around on the street/outside of bars/etc.

    1. Thanks for reading, Shannon. I appreciate it and thanks for your kind words.

      I know exactly how you were feeling in Tunisia– I experienced similar catcalling and harassment in Morocco and Turkey. It’s overwhelming, it’s stressful, and it’s triggering. Although I loved traveling to both those places, it made even walking around quite overwhelming.

      I definitely agree that street harassment is worse in France. For me, I found the south of France to be worse than the north (although I was catcalled on occasion in Normandy), in Toulon it felt daily (though felt minimized upon returning from the Middle East). When I wrote and talked about those issues, most men responded by saying that that was normal here, and I should take it as a compliment, and since they didn’t touch me, it wasn’t considered harassment. You can imagine my frustrations and I must admit it makes a lot more sense as to why catcalling is worse over here, with mentalities like that.

      When dealing with DV, I found people around me find it better to ignore it– it’s not their problem and people don’t want to get involved- which is truly sad and heartbreaking.

      Bisous et à bientôt!

      1. I hate the fact that it’s often considered normal here. How can making women feel like they have a price on their head be good? I’ve ranted numerous times to my husband on this, and he agrees it’s wrong but I don’t think he quite understood it. Then we watched some report on some French station where an average looking female journalist walked around various neighborhoods in Paris and would get catcall after catcall and requests for her number or to go talk. J turned to me and was like “Is that what it’s really like?”. For the first time, I think he understood how it makes us feel. If only people who do this to women could get a sense of that.

      2. I know. It’s really hard. And in a way I get it because it’s hard to understand something you’ve never done (ie: the fact that most men don’t catcall) nor have witnessed/experienced (ie: racism when you’re white and the ever constant benefits of white privilege.) but I think the best thing men can do is just listen
        and really believe and trust us as women. That documentary sounds really interested- I’d love to watch it! Have you seen “Majorité Oprimée?!” You should check it out on YouTube. It sums up my experience in the south (most women’s experiences maybe)

      3. I totally saw the same report about the female journalist walking around Paris recording her encounters with men undercover! While eye-opening, I hate to say it’s sort of to be expected. I see this happen nearly every day on the streets of NYC. Dana if you haven’t watched it, you definitely should! It’s available on Youtube.

      4. The only thing is, it shouldn’t be expected, you know? We should expect better from men. They should expect better from themselves. We need to change our culture and our expectations. I guess it starts little by little with everyday actions 🙂

        If you find the link, would you mind posting it? xx

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