I Will Listen, Grace Jean-PierreA couple weeks ago, writer, Kelly Oxford posted, “Women: tweet me your first assaults,” and she began with her own story. Over a million more stories flooded Twitter.

In high school, my friend used, the novel, “The Color of Purple” to tell me what happened. She sent me a note before lunchtime giving me specific instructions to “read the 3rd paragraph on the 1st page.” During lunch, I pulled the book off the shelf and read as the young narrator described her rape: “…Then he put his thing inside my pussy. When that hurt I cry.” After school, I sat with my friend, held her hands and cried. It was her step-father. She told me not to tell anyone. I felt powerless. I was 2 years older than her, laughed with her and loved her like a little sister, yet in that moment I had nothing to offer her. She told me for how long, how often and how it made her feel. We cried together.

I was a senior in college, when the emotional memory of my own repressed sexual trauma emerged. I was overwhelmed. I was relieved. I grieved. I finally understood. It began a spiritual and emotional journey of healing, where I learned to let God’s love permeate the depths of me. Through prayer, counseling and support of loved ones, I unpacked shame and the feeling that I was inherently broken. There was a little girl in me who had been silenced for years; I learned to listen to her and to love her.

In my current work as a sexual assault victim advocate, I have sat with countless victims. I have seen kids, teens, adults and the elderly display anger, self-blame, numbness, shock, denial, suicidal thoughts. I saw them cry, stare blankly at the wall behind me, tremble uncontrollably, wince in pain, curse loudly, giggle nervously. I have listened as they told me their stories. Some were adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Others were assaulted as adults by strangers while drunk or unconscious or by romantic partners violently or by family members who were supposed to love them and keep them safe.

Sexual trauma has no age limit, race, gender, socio-economic status, or political affiliation.

When I read those tweets, I thought of my friend. I remembered sitting in court holding hands with a victim while her restraining order against her assailant got denied.  I thought of the victim of the Stanford rape case and other victims, who demanded justice, yet got shortchanged by a system that favored assailants. I was reminded of the ones who came to me but didn’t report to the police, who just needed to be believed and needed to know that there is hope for recovery.  And the ones that do report and get told that they are lying, and that their story is nothing more than “he said, she said.” I thought of the hard-working detectives I’ve met who are overwhelmed by how many sexual assault cases they have and by a criminal justice system that severely restricts their ability to get justice for victims. I thought of the backlog of thousands of untested rape kits nationwide that collected over the years and the victims and loved ones connected to those cases.

I do not presume to be a speaker for all sexual assault victims. But, I will humbly be a listener.

To the women who sat next to Donald Trump during his press conference and spoke out against Bill and Hillary Clinton. I will not shame them. Even though I believed that the microphone was sullied by political agenda and their stories were used as props to deflect the sexual violence spewed by Donald Trump, I will listen. Because, I don’t know how long they have felt ashamed, angry, resentful and silenced. I cannot begin to understand what it took for them to speak against two powerful people. I do not judge the way they used that platform to give a voice to their pain. To the women who have come forward with stories of sexual assault from Donald Trump, who were intimidated by his power and wealth. I don’t know how it must have been like to watch their assailant on television and to hear his name nearly every day for during this election period. I will listen.

In the midst of a political atmosphere of mudslinging and extremism, I know that sexual assault is being perpetuated in the media as a weapon against each major presidential candidate. Meanwhile, I will celebrate victories like Sexual Assault Survivor’s Bill of Rights Law, which was recently signed early October of this year, and received bi-partisan support. 

My hope is that somewhere along the way, more people will join me, Kelly Oxford, and other veteran sexual assault activists to listen to the voices of survivors who are tired of being told that they are lying; who are sick of the victim blaming, the abusive language, the minimization, the intimidation, the shame and the internalized self-loathing.  I hope as others listen they will recognize that sexual assault is not just a hot topic or a political ploy. It is a pervasive disease, with psychological, emotional and physical effects that need to be healed legislatively, culturally, and socially.

So, when survivors make the choice to share their pain, regardless of whether or not I approve of their platform or share their beliefs, I will listen with the same deep rooted love that I held my friend’s hand years ago, and the same compassion I give my clients daily.

I invite you, to come and listen with me. And even after this election year, please, keep listening.

Image “listen” by Celine Nadeau used under Creative Commons License (BY-SA-2.0)