On Thursday, Brett Kavanaugh and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford testified at a Senate hearing after Ford accused the Supreme Court nominee of sexual assaulting her 36 years ago, when both were teenagers. After the timeframe between the assault and Ford’s decision to come forward was questioned by critics who sought to discredit her on the grounds that she didn’t speak out sooner, many sexual assault survivors used the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport in advance of and throughout the trial to outline the many reasons why people who have been sexually assaulted may choose not to report the attacks against them.
Ford’s visibly shaken state as she recounted her trauma was a sad reminder that survivors are often not only denied, but shamed for coming forward. Still, like many other people who have been following the Kavanaugh news cycle, her bravery, and that of survivors who are part of the movement of those contributing memories of their sexual assault and rape stories on social media, has resonated with my own experience and given me courage.
In the United States, rape is the most under-reported crime, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. One in five women are raped at some point in their lives, and 63 percent of sexual assaults are not reported to police. More than 90 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses go unreported as well, according to the report. As Ford referenced during the Thursday hearing, many women face life-altering shame and backlash for coming forward, and for me, there were deeply personal reasons behind my reasoning that affected my recovery and career.
One day, when I was 26, I was the most distressed I had ever been. I paced back and forth in my apartment, trying to hold back tears. I took a deep breath and trembled as I reached for the little white wand. Two stripes. I took another test. Two stripes. There was no mistake. I was pregnant with my rapist’s child.
The next day, I was accepted into Columbia University—my dream school—in the master’s of journalism program. On what should’ve been the happiest day of my life, I feigned excitement as congratulatory messages poured in. The perfect image of everything I had worked so hard to accomplish was gone—I had completely lost control of my body in the most invasive way. Behind my empty gaze was the looming burden of not knowing whether I was capable of committing to any decision about my pregnancy.
My assaulter was someone I was in a casual relationship with––a disturbingly perfect humanitarian, on paper. A former Peace Corps volunteer, he graduated with a master’s from USC; held leadership positions with philanthropic campus organizations; worked as an urban community developer for an inner-city school district. His social media posts overflowed with allyship on International Women’s Day and prolifically supported social justice causes related to marginalized ethnic minorities. He was the perfect faux feminist, and any idea I had about prototypical rapists did not have any semblance to this highly educated person and his feminist ideals.
In addition to who he convinced me he was, I felt compassion for him, and it subconsciously became my justification for his bad behavior: The way I saw it, he was a fearless trailblazer—but also a bit of a loner who was trying to escape an abusive relationship with his estranged father and alcoholic mother.
The assault happened immediately after we started dating. It happened twice, in fact. Each time, I woke to find him fondling and penetrating me as I tried to rise from my sleepy stupor. The first time, I firmly told him to stop, but after being startled in the middle of the night again, I had to kick him off the bed to get him to stop thrusting into me.
Each time, I went home and replayed the events of the night of the assault and asked myself if I had done anything to provoke this. And if I told someone about it, would I be condemned for having a drink during the date; for what I was or wasn’t wearing; for falling asleep in his bed? I felt sick to my stomach every time I thought about someone doubting me at the most vulnerable point in my life, and it felt easier to avoid the possibility altogether. I couldn’t distinguish what was my fault, or if I should’ve felt guilty at all. It was unfamiliar territory. If we had already had sex and I was sleeping naked in his bed, was I putting myself in a situation to allow this to happen? I wasn’t able to think clearly, and kept feeling like my testimony would never hold up—legally, or to anyone I knew. Like many survivors who choose to not report, I was facing guilt and self-blame. Looking back, I understand the situation for what it was, but in the moment, all I could really think about was how I should’ve known better.
After the second assault, I decided not to see him again—until I found myself pregnant and was told that my company-issued HMO health insurance wouldn’t cover medical exams or an abortion. In a moment of desperation, I met with him and asked if he would help me pay for half of the procedure––completely leaving out any mention of how much time and money I had already spent for doctors’ exams, days off from work, ultrasounds, and morning sickness. His response to me was: “You wouldn’t have gotten into this situation if you hadn’t opened your legs.”
The shame sent me into a spiral of depression. In the midst of processing the physical pain I experienced in pregnancy and my emotional trauma, I kept remembering that life wasn’t going to yield to my circumstances. I hid my pregnancy from everyone in my life. Although no decision felt right, I ultimately chose to continue carving out the path I had been paving—to move to New York City, get my master’s degree, and to not be a mother. With my cross-country move just months away, I still had an endless list of to-dos to grapple with—resigning from my job, class registration, apartment hunting, farewells, packing, doctors appointments, and now an abortion that I was paying for myself.
I can’t adequately describe how difficult it was to make the decision to have the abortion. But I saw this pregnancy to be the antithesis to everything I had worked so hard for, to what I wanted motherhood to be, and most of all, I wanted nothing more to connect me to him beyond what I had already endured.
For similar reasons, I chose not to report my rapist in the months following the assault. I wanted my move to New York City to be my new beginning, and the idea of recounting the experience through the reporting process didn’t seem liberating or cathartic, like it might be for others—rather, it felt like it would serve as a shackle to him that I was desperately trying to free myself of. In doing so, I was choosing to give myself a clean slate instead of repeatedly reliving my trauma and convincing authorities that I had been victimized. I didn’t want to be stigmatized, or labeled a victim—I wanted to be seen as a woman who was following her dreams.
It’s been three years since my rape, and ever since, there have been countless hearings of women coming forward, emboldened by the rise of the #MeToo movement. Each time stories centered around sexual assault arise in public discourse—Weinstein, Cosby, Nassar—it’s difficult not to think about my own experience and relive the trauma that came with it—particularly in thinking about how my accounts could have sounded to authorities in writing. When assault becomes a politicized media spectacle, every detail of a person’s life, background, and the attack itself is used in their favor or against them. As survivors, we’ve been conditioned to build cases for ourselves over and over again—analyzing inconsequential details to sort us into buckets of “victim” and “someone who was asking for it.”
In the months that followed my move, I began seeing a trauma therapist who helped me set boundaries for myself, walked me through consent, and asked me questions about what factors led me to feel shame. My sense of self-blame was replaced with healing compassion as I was finally able to talk to my friends and family about what I had been through. I shared beautiful moments with classmates from around the globe, sipping tea, comparing cultures, and bantering over whose political climates were worse. The collage of these small collective moments allowed me to experience life and build my career in a way I had only dreamed of.
The assault I went through leading up to where I am now was a major disruption to my plans and my hopes for my life, but I was fortunate in that I didn’t let it throw me off course. Regardless of whether it was the “right” decision from a legal standpoint, choosing not to report my rapist allowed me to neatly sever ties and prevented me from feeling caged into narratives of being a victim while also avoiding the common shame and stigmatization that so many face when coming forward. It was the smallest piece of reclaiming any power that I had, but in that choice, it was my assertion that he would never take more time from me again.
My story of not reporting is one of countless others that have surfaced because of Ford’s selfless courage, and it’s helped me understand how common it is to for survivors to try to put their past behind them. As Ford has shown us, just because an assault goes unreported doesn’t make it less real. In an ideal world, survivors would be able to feel unconditionally supported, believed, and have some sense of justice for reporting their assault. But in the US, only six in 1,000 reported cases lead to a criminal conviction, and with today’s advancement of Kavanaugh’s nomination, it’s clear that much more progress has to be made before all survivors can feel safe about coming forward. Until we get there, we need to take it upon ourselves to serve as allies to survivors, regardless of if they choose to report or not.