Find a safe place.
Do not take a shower/bath.
Do not wash and/or take off the clothes you were wearing when the assault happened before you get a forensic examination.
Call the sexual assault hotline (they will refer you to an appropriate facility for sexual assault services, as well as counseling services).
Contact the police. Report your assault.
Begin your journey of healing.
Always report your assault.
In my first two years as an advocate for sexual assault victims, I had repeated these instructions many times during workshops and panel discussions. The NGO that I worked for and co-founded was initially devoted to creating safer public spaces for women and individuals falling under the LGBTIQA+ spectrum. But during one of the first panel discussions we hosted on street harassment, the conversation veered into more sexualized aggressions as well as rapes, and several survivors came forward with testimonies. Overwhelmed by the high incidence of sexual assault against young adults, we decided to add sexual assault advocacy to our mandate.
I begged these women to make their perpetrators face the full might of the law. To me, it was an integral step towards recovery.
And so for two years, I repeated these instructions to every sexual assault survivor I came across, as well as many others. I became a friend and a support system for many women I met. I heard horror stories about the side effects of the prophylactic treatments administered to survivors after a rape; day-by-day accounts of how your life changes after an assault; I even talked one survivor out of committing suicide. And through it all, I always encouraged them to report their assault. Against protests like “He’s a colleague/friend of the family/boyfriend,” “He has a family,” and “He could come after me,” I begged these women to make their perpetrators face the full might of the law. To me, it was an integral step towards recovery — reporting you assaulter also meant significantly reducing the chances of them ever assaulting anybody else. I often wondered, with some exasperation, how anyone could decide against going to the police to report their assault in light of this fact.
I repeated these instructions for two years, until a night in April 2015. I was in the middle of a break from school and work. Free to enjoy a night out without the possibility of dealing with a hangover while I had stuff to get done the next day, I asked a close girlfriend to join me for sundowners at one of the more popular spots in town. Around three or four cocktails in, I got a call from one of my closest childhood friends. He wanted to know whether I was free to watch a movie, and I decided I would be, after my fifth cocktail. He came to pick me up about an hour later, and we snuck vodka slushies into a 10pm screening . By the end of the movie I was barely able to speak, everything around me appeared to be at a slant, and walking was a task. Embarrassed by how drunk I was in public, I asked my friend to take me home.
As he walked me to his car, I remember feeling overcome with gratitude. We’d known each other since we were children; we grew up in the same neighborhood, ate grilled cheese sandwiches and sat too close to a television blaring Nickelodeon on Saturday mornings. His mother used to tell us we’d go blind from the television glare. He was the little brother I never had, and he had never let me down.
I lived half an hour outside of town, and when I got into his car, I reclined the seat in order to take a nap during the drive home. I remember first thinking the hand struggling to unbutton my blouse was part of a terrible dream. Then, as he began to fondle my left breast, I opened my eyes and turned towards him: a blurry memory, but one hand was on the steering wheel, the other was on me. He was careful not to take his eyes off the road for too long.
I wanted to feel clean of him. More than that, I wanted my whole body, and what had been done to it, to disappear.
Whenever he turned to me, I shut my eyes, pretending I was still asleep. I spared him the humiliation of looking me in the eye as he assaulted me. I don’t know why. When he started to move his hand down to my skirt, I panicked. I opened my eyes and asked him what he was doing. He took his hands from between my thighs, and said nothing. Neither of us said anything on the way home. In fact, I never spoke to him again.
Find a safe place. When I got home, I ran straight up to my bedroom and locked the door behind me, for fear of my family seeing me drunk and hysterical.
Do not take a shower/bath. I took off all my clothes and got into the bathtub. I scrubbed my left breast and thighs raw. I wanted to feel clean of him. More than that, I wanted my whole body, and what had been done to it, to disappear. I understood at that moment why so many victims, against professional advice, feel the desperate need to take a shower after an assault.
Call the sexual assault hotline. I did not tell anyone about my assault that night. I turned off my phone, got into bed, and started crying. I barely left my bed for the rest of the week.
Report your assault. I did not contact the police or open a case against the man who assaulted me. My perpetrator, like those of many women before and after me, was someone I knew. He was someone whose mother had raised me, someone whose friends I shared. In reporting him, I would have to face more than just a hostile justice system which often blames women for their own assaults — I would have to face the family we grew up sharing. In reporting him, I knew that even though I was the one who deserved total support and encouragement, I likely wouldn’t get it.
Begin your journey of healing. A week after my assault, I began seeing a therapist who later recommended me to a psychiatrist. I was diagnosed with PTSD and began intensive treatment. I see my doctor once a week. I began to diarize my recovery. I wrote several letters to my perpetrator (none of which I ever gave to him). It was important to give the miasma of grief I felt stuck in some sort of form and articulation. I continued to work with victims of sexual assault. I became better at my job when I became one of them.
Recently, I have started opening up to other victims about my own assault. With every recollection of that night, I feel more in control of my life than before. I get to control my narrative in a room full of people who believe me unequivocally, who tell me again and again that it wasn’t my fault. Sometimes, it feels like more justice than I might have gotten from a court of law.
I plan on confronting my perpetrator one day.
But I don’t think I’ll ever report my assault.
And I won’t ever again pass judgment against anyone who doesn’t report theirs.