One sunny day, when I was 5 or 6 years old, I was playing with a friend of mine at the grass field just across my grandmother’s house in my hometown in Bulgaria. We had our toys spread out on a blanket and I was cooking something for our dolls when an old man stopped by. He started asking us what we were doing and it didn’t take long before he asked us if we had ever seen a naked man. His next question was whether we wanted to see one. I remember how confused, dirty, ashamed and uncomfortable that made me feel and although I didn’t like what he was saying, I was too afraid to walk away. At that moment he must have seen our grandmothers walking towards us because he hurriedly walked away without saying anything else. We explained what had happened and they tried to comfort us and assure us that everything was OK. The other thing I vividly remember from that day apart from my emotions were the words of my friend’s grandmother to me “If you weren’t sitting this way (with your legs spread wide apart), he wouldn’t have come to talk to you at all”.
If you're looking for a way to make a 6-year-old girl who’s confused and afraid feel ashamed and guilty for a pedophile’s sick desires, you should use exactly those words. I have no doubt that my friend’s grandmother’s intention was good but her words left me feeling guilty for the years to come. Although I never talked to my friend about this, I wouldn’t be surprised if she also picked the same message - that if you behave a certain way, you won’t provoke men sexually.
When I saw again the same man a few years later while playing in the nearby playground and he was sitting with his penis hanging out his pants, I didn’t tell anyone. Why would I? I already knew it was my fault he was there. I didn’t need to hear it again.
When I was sexually abused at the age of 19 I didn’t talk about it either. The day after, I decided it was better to be strong, “put myself together” and live as it never happened. I didn’t go to the police, I didn’t talk to anyone about it and I honestly believed I could just put the experience in a box and move on. And that’s what I did for nearly 15.
By the time, I was 25 I had at least 6 encounters of strangers who would simply show me their penises while I was walking on the street. Once the guy was on one of the floors of a nearby building under construction, which although disturbing didn’t feel that threatening. But the other times, the guys would be just a few meters away, sometimes in the evening, whispering things you don't want to hear from a naked stranger in front of you.
Why am I sharing all this?
I never talked about any of those encounters, nor about my sexual abuse, because I believed that I had somehow attracted these men, that if I had done things differently, none of it would have happened, that if I had worn some old, baggy clothes, probably they wouldn’t have noticed me, etc, etc but most of all because I believed that it was my fault.
Although I never forgot that old man and how terrible he made me feel, I had “forgotten” the words of my friend’s grandmother. It was only recently when I started therapy to heal from my sexual abuse that I remembered those words and most of all the belief they planted in me that I had provoked the man. It is also during therapy I realized all the other myths around rape I had unconsciously picked up while growing up.
I’m sharing these very personal stories because I believe that we need to talk more about sexual abuse. It’s a very uncomfortable subject but we cannot pretend it doesn’t exist. As parents, it’s our responsibility to educate our children, both boys and girls, what is sexually OK and what not.
I’m sharing all this because I believe there are too many beliefs around sexual abuse which need to be addressed. We need to create a culture which is supportive of all men and women who have shared their stories and are healing, and for the ones who are carrying their pain in silence. We need to show them that it’s OK to share and most of all that it wasn’t his/her fault.
A few weeks ago, a famous Dutch blogger was confronted by a stranger in the forest, asking her if she wanted to see his “nice big cock?”. She said No and hurriedly walked away. Fortunately, the man didn’t do anything else. When she was far enough, she called the police and they found the guy. Because “he only asked a question” all they could do was warn him.
When she started talking about what happened, several Dutch news sites picked up the story and wrote about it, also on their Facebook pages. And then the reactions from the readers started pouring in. She was called “aandachtshoer” (a whore for attention) and “asociale blogger” (vulgar blogger). There were remarks that she was doing this only to get attention, that she was exaggerating because there has been no physical contact, that she could have simply said No, hadn’t she ever seen a penis before? and so on, and so on. 111 people “liked” the comment that she is a whore for attention and 451 – “Nowadays you can’t walk normally on the street without coming across one of these vulgar bloggers”! 451 people “liked” this sentence under the story of a woman who was sexually intimidated!
I’m sharing all this because 1 in every 3 women has been sexually abused. If this sounds like just numbers to you, look around if you’re in a café or a restaurant and count the women you see. One third of those women could have been sexually abused. If you’re alone, think of 9 women in your life and the chances are that 3 of them, have been sexually abused but never said a word about it because of responses like those above which although not directly addressing them, have planted the seed of shame and guilt long before the act of sexual abuse took place.
Sexual abuse doesn’t discriminate either. 1 in 6 men have experienced abusive sexual experiences before the age of 18.
If you believe that no one in your life has been sexually abused, I’m sorry to rain on your parade but it’s most likely you simply don’t know it rather than that it didn’t happen. I too thought no one around me had such experience and although until this article I’ve talked about my sexual abuse to very few people, it turned out I wasn’t the only one.
Finally, I’m sharing because I want to encourage all men and women who have experienced sexual abuse but never talked about it to open up so they can heal from the trauma. You’re not alone. Talk to a friend or look for professional help. I know it’s tough, I know it’s scary but it’s worth it. And trust me you would be amazed by all the love you will be surrounded with once you share.
Below is more information on what sexual abuse is and the myths surrounding it, as well as a useful video showing the parody of how society usually reacts to stories of sexual abuse, all courtesy of Red My Lips, an international nonprofit organization designed to raise visibility and awareness about the realities and prevalence of sexual violence, while combating rape myths and victim-blaming.
Please don’t leave without taking action.
Sexual Violence is a term that describes a wide range of behaviors including: