I was eighteen. I was with a friend, walking around at some ungodly hour of the night, the way you do when you’re in college. She was all giggles, a ball of energy and passion. As we walked, we would pass through a pocket of light cast by a street light, then some darkness, then another pocket of light, then more darkness.
At one point, she stopped. She stopped walking, she stopped laughing, she stopped smiling. Like the happiness dropped out from underneath us. Her face half covered in shadow, she asked, “Why do you think God lets bad things happen to good people?"
Not the topic I thought we’d talk about.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Why do you ask?"
I could see she was trembling. She looked up at me, pale green eyes in a sheen of tears and told me that a male family member of hers had done something very bad to her when she was a little girl. My chest tightened.
“Why would God let him do that?” she asked once more.
I was eighteen, and I wasn’t prepared for the gravity of the news she shared with me. I had heard of darkness like this, but it was more mythological to me, like vampires or werewolves. That night, my friend, through tears and shaking hands, shined a little light on the shadows she kept from most people.
She was just the first.
Since then, I’ve seen light after light after light reveal what the shadows have kept secret for so many people I love.
It’s staggering the number of times my stomach has turned, my hands have balled into fists, my eyes have closed tight to try to wish it away when one more friend tells me about being assaulted. In most cases, not even assaulted by a stranger. No. Even worse.
By her boyfriend.
By her “friend."
By her boss.
By her coworker.
By her date.
By her nanny.
By her cousin.
By his aunt.
By her uncle.
By his teacher.
By her sibling.
People they knew. People they should have been able to trust.
When someone says that “when you’re a star, they let you do it,” that “you can do anything,” you can do “whatever you want,” you can “grab them by the p---y,” you “can do anything,” and people are willing to downplay it and explain it away, we have a problem.
It’s just locker room talk, right?
It’s boys being boys. It’s just the way it is. It’s not a big deal. Those women were asking for it.
They "let him do it,” after all.
They let him. They put themselves in that scenario. They chose to be around him. And they let him do it.
Friends, if our definition of sexual assault stops at “she let him,” we’re in big trouble.
I’ve not only had friends tell me their own sexual assault stories. I’ve had friends tell me the stories of their children being sexually assaulted. I’ve sat in meetings and listened to the stories of some of my students who have been sexually assaulted.
The first time someone told me their young daughter had “allowed” someone she trusted to sexually assault her, I forevermore dropped the dangerous, disgusting excuse that a victim didn’t fight back enough, that he or she “let it happen."
Most (not all) of the personal stories of sexual assault I know do not involve an intense, physical struggle or fight. Yet, the devastation from that assault is real. Try telling that person, try telling their mother or father that what happened wasn’t sexual assault because there wasn’t a fight.
But how can a person just “let” something happen, you may ask. How is that possible?
Explaining away sexual assault because the victim “let it happen” fails to understand one of the primary forces at play in scenarios of sexual assault: authority, power, and manipulation. It’s that cocktail of authority, power, and manipulation that even makes consent fall short in the conversation about sexual assault.
Most of us have stories of allowing ourselves to do something we did not want to do because someone with leverage over us used their power to coerce or manipulate us into going along for the ride. It happens all of the time, not just with sexual assault.
This has happened to me, outside of the realm of sexual assault, so many times.
Consider this story, for example: a little while ago, someone took a lot of money from me. It’s not like this person stole this money from me, robbery-style—they didn’t hold me at gunpoint or hack into my accounts.
This person used a lie to leverage power over me. This person used what they knew about me—my compulsion to do the right thing—to manipulate me to comply. I was angry, I was furious, I knew something was off, but I felt like I had no choice but to play along.
I gave this person thousands of dollars. It took two months of being confused and upset and, finally, an actual lawyer who sat me down and said, “This is nuts. Why are you doing this?” Two months until I could build up the clarity of mind and the courage to stand up for myself.
The key element in that scenario of mine? The person knew me. They knew the strings to pull, they knew the tricks that have worked in the past, and they used it to their advantage.
Three out of four perpetrators of sexual assault are someone the victim knows. Three out of four. The majority of sexual assault isn’t committed by strangers; they’re committed by friends, dates, spouses, boyfriends, acquaintances. This is what lies hidden in the shadows of so many people’s lives—the stories of being assaulted by a familiar face.
Those familiar faces have something a stranger doesn’t: knowledge of the victim.
Most sexual assault doesn’t simply rely on physical power; it relies on emotional power, relational power, circumstantial power. It relies on status or authority. It preys on and takes advantage of whatever vulnerability allows for the most manipulation.
This is the dynamic at play when someone says, “They let me do it. I can do whatever I want.” It’s someone who keenly understands how to use his power and authority to get what he wants for himself at the expense of someone else.
It’s crucial for us to recognize this and then call it out because people like this will also do everything they can to normalize and downplay their actions. They’re good at it. They’re great at it, actually. It’s how they keep getting to do what they do.
Author Elizabeth Gilbert, in an interview, told a story of a boy who was assaulted by his teacher. Years later, in therapy, the boy was still trying to explain away the behavior of his teacher. That the teacher was a good guy, that he hadn't done anything wrong.
The therapist told him that it's a kid's job to fall in love in with his or her teachers (we all know this—as kids, we develop crushes on people older than us). But it's a teacher's job to protect the kid. The teacher didn't do his job.
We have to have higher standards of accountability, not for victims, but for perpetrators. It's their job to not assault someone. The more we excuse their behavior, the more backwards this whole mess becomes.
It’s because of the loved ones in my life who have been on the receiving end of that destructive manipulation who have shared their stories, who have shined a light on what the shadows have tried to keep locked in darkness, that I’ve been able to see manipulators and power-abusers for what they are.
I can’t side with them. I can’t excuse them. When the opportunity presents itself, I have to stand with the people who have been brave enough to push back against the darkness.
It’s not just the job of someone who has gone through abuse to shine a light on the shadows of sexual assault. We have to turn those lights on and shine them on the darkness, too.
I'm not the perfect spokesman for this, I know. I can't fully speak for someone who's experienced the depth of pain of sexual assault, nor for the strength required to survive and thrive afterward. I might even be bungling my words in the process, and for that, I ask for your forgiveness.
But when people are saying "she let him," I'm sorry. I can't let that happen. I can't let that be an excuse. I can't let the pattern of manipulation continue.
Sexual assault is sexual assault.
Let’s call it what it is.
If you're someone who has gone through sexual assault, I'd love to hear from you.
If you'd like to tell your story, I'd love for you to tell it.
If you'd like me to tell you story, I'd love to tell it.
If you just need a single person to hear it, I'm all ears.
If you have any feedback for me, positie or negative, I welcome it. I've still got a lot to learn.
Thank you for those of you who have already allowed me into that part of your lives.