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I’ve been sexually assaulted twice and I’m 17. I’ve been gestured at and catcalled dozens of times, too many to keep track of. I’m hungrily stared at every day.
Sexual assault feels like a big word and last week I let the idea of it simmer and settle down in my head before I decided to tell somebody. Because all I knew of sexual violence was rape and gang-rape and molestation, up until last week I thought that’s all that qualified. I felt like if I told someone that I had been sexually assaulted, because a stranger who was doing work on the house had entered my bedroom, flirted, gave me his number and kissed me on the cheek, I would be victimising myself, making a hyperbole of the whole affair and the assault version of the mother that always asks to speak to the manager.
Truth is, it doesn’t have to be something to the extent of rape. It doesn’t have to be being pulled into an alleyway and grabbed. It doesn’t have to be being attacked in a parking lot or on the street at night. It can be quieter than that, subtler and more coercive. In fact, sexual assault is very quiet.
I read that 83 percent of people who have been assaulted do not report it and if you have had an experience and never spoke out, I don’t blame you. The justice system can be unfair and depending on which country you live in, the process can take forever. And we don’t have forever. Not when we’re trying to move on from our experiences and let them go.
But as a young girl in a batshit crazy unfair world, I thought I should speak out. The movement of victims speaking out encouraged me and made me feel like I should. I was so used to brushing things under the rug, but I didn’t want to brush this under, and after deliberation with my friends who vowed to support me in informing company, that’s exactly what I did.
Ultimately, the guy got fired, and I must give credit to the company who listened to what I said and took my assault seriously. I would not have a trusted a bigger company to do the same. A bigger company would’ve smelt the fear and hesitation on me and walked all over what happened, dismissing and silencing me—making me think I didn’t have a case.
The situation I was in, while it being extremely frightening, did not result in something more extensive and violent as it easily could have, yet it did still have a powerful impact on me. For a few days I was a bit quiet, I tried to focus myself on school and being in my final year this seemed appropriate. But I was fixated on the idea of sexual assault, and what the first person I had told about my assault said, after urging me to take action. “People can’t keep thinking that they can get away with things like this.” My friend was right. I needed to hold that man accountable. Predators are never caught the first time around, and I could make sure this was his last time offending, before he tried to start an inappropriate relationship with another minor, perhaps more easily influenced than I was, who might’ve felt his advances were flattery instead of flat out inappropriate and contacted him after receiving his number.
When I had set the legal wheels in motion, I decided I should tell my mother what happened. She was home at the time he was making his advances, but in another room, and didn’t see that the stranger she had hired walked into her daughter’s bedroom, closed the door, and tried to start an inappropriate relationship with her 17-year-old girl. When I had the discussion with my mother and informed her of the steps I had already taken, she was taken aback. One of the first things she told me was a correction to the assumption I had made that he was in his late 20s. It turns out that he’s about mid-30s. And is married and has two children. A five-year-old and a seven-year-old. And this was what led to the next way the sexual assault affected me. I spent the entire weekend crying hysterically, alone in my bedroom in boarding school. Coming from a broken household myself, I struggled —and still am struggling—with the idea that after having taken action, he and his wife may divorce. But I don’t know their relationship. As he tried to charm me, he may just as easily have recounted what happened completely differently to her. He might have said to his wife, “She came onto me first” or he may have apologised and pretended to be better for the experience. I isolated myself in my room, appalled at the fact that my life could have ripples and effects that I never expected and that I cannot control. That I may be the reason that two children grow up in a broken household, and how this would affect their development. I know what being young and having divorcing parents is like, and I felt guilty.
I was also plagued by the idea that this man’s wife did not marry him thinking that this was who he was. That he was the type of person to knowingly hit on underage girls, and make them feel extremely afraid, disturbed and vulnerable. How am I supposed to trust my future partner now, knowing this can happen? I have already grown up with a distorted perception on relationships due to my unhappy, unhealthy, and now split up parents, and have worked so hard to get over that. Now, this has just been another experience to keep under my arm and at the back of my head when I meet someone I think I’m falling for.
If that wasn’t enough, I found out that the age of consent in the UK is 16. That shocked me. I had always thought the age of consent was only 16 if the person you were sleeping with was between the ages of 16 and 18. Apparently that’s only the case in the US. I was under the impression I was being protected under whatever child protection laws there were, which I would later discern through research to be the Sexual Offenses Act of 2003. It’s been difficult being confronted with the reality of how unsafe the world is, and how incredibly unfair it can be, especially for women. I know it can seem exclusionary, but I think everyone, primarily due to their race and gender, has a fundamentally different experience of the world. I have been forced to reassess my views on life, relationships and the intrinsic sexism present in all facets of society—and figure out how I fit in relation all of this.
So, I took a social media break for while, the world got too much for me to handle. I was suddenly seeing how sexist language can be, how swear words are gendered, how funny jokes can have gender deprecating connotations which we just no longer see because it is everywhere. When I told one of my friends I was going offline he said to me, “What? All of this because of that thing with the builder?” With that, he single-handedly trivialised what had happened, how it had impacted me and how I feel about it. He reaffirmed my fear that I was over-exaggerating, although I know I am not, and it reaffirmed my idea that everybody has a different experience and some people will just never fully understand others.
My few days offline went a lot easier than I expected and I welcomed the break. I couldn’t understand why everyone on social media pretended like everything was fine. No one is fine. Everyone has shit going on. Can we drop the façade and be real?
I’ve now had time to process everything, though my experience has stuck with me in many ways I didn’t expect. I still feel unsafe knowing I am not protected as a child under the law when it comes to sexual offenses. I feel unsafe even though I am sitting, typing this in my bedroom in boarding school, far away from any real danger. And this is just going to have to be something else that I get used to. That I am a child the government doesn’t trust to buy glue from corner stores, to share a beer with friends, to reserve hotel rooms or to vote, but does believe that I am old enough to make my own sexual decisions and fend for myself when older men make passes at me.
It’s batshit, I tell you.