Today, we are proud to share the powerful testimony of a strong survivor who was sexually assaulted at a place meant to facilitate relaxation and peace, not trauma and agony. To protect her identity, she self-refers as “Riley” in her story below, although that is not her real name. Because of her abuser’s actions, her family relationships, her sense of self, the ability to sleep and eat, and much more suffered. For years, she fought the real-life battle his actions caused her both internally and externally. She courageously advocated for over 809 days for her rape kit to be processed and for criminal justice for herself and for every one of his past and future victims. She was finally victorious and is finding her peace! As you read her story, we hope Riley imparts her courage and inspires you on your own healing journey.
I’ve had 809 days to think about what I’d want to say to you in this moment. This has been tougher than anything I’ve ever faced. It has left me feeling like my thoughts are being held hostage. It has challenged my strength. It has challenged my determination. It has rattled my faith. It’s really hard to summarize all the ways your actions have hurt me. It’s all encompassing. There is not a tiny corner of my life that hasn’t been affected. Not a day that I haven’t thought about it. That’s 809 days that your actions have infiltrated my thoughts.
You didn’t know much about me that day. Did you know I’m a mother? A wife? A sister? A daughter? A friend? Your actions didn’t just hurt me that day. They hurt everyone I love, and everyone who loves me. They’ve had to watch me go through the darkest, saddest two years of my life. In many ways they have suffered right there with me.
I remember wishing that I had been robbed instead of assaulted. I wouldn’t have been so afraid to report it. No one would wonder what I was wearing. No one would question if I tried to stop you. I wouldn’t feel shame or question myself. It wouldn’t be so personal. So painful. It wouldn’t be so hard to share with others.
But you did rob me. You robbed me of my dignity. You robbed me of peace of mind. You robbed me of my sense of safety and security. You robbed me of my sense of self-worth. You robbed me of intimacy with my husband. You robbed my children of their mom. You robbed my friends. You robbed me of sleep. You robbed me of so much time. You robbed me of the life I knew before the assault.
The night of the assault, while you were at the police station, I was at MUSC. They took me to this little room. It was fluorescent lit and had cabinets and drawers filled with clothing in all colors and sizes. It soon became obvious to me that this small room had a very specific purpose. I had to get undressed while standing over a piece of paper. I had to answer so many questions and be subjected to a very personal and intrusive exam. I remember the nurse placed a bin of underwear on my lap. I stared into the bin through my tears thinking how impossible the task of choosing a pair of underwear seemed. I was in disbelief that I was actually living this. The nurse who did the rape kit exam told me that room was used every single day. That fact devastated me. Any time in the last two years when I’ve felt frustrated by this long process and tempted to just give up, I would remember experiencing that room and remind myself why I’m doing this. If my actions keep even one person from going through that, then it will have all been worth it.
I want you to know that when you assaulted me, you left a permanent scar on my life, one that can never fully be erased. Sure, not everyone can see it from the outside. I’ve gotten pretty good at hiding it…But hiding out just below the surface is pain that floods my emotions with little warning. I am not the same woman who walked into Massage Envy that day. With God’s help and the help of my family and friends, I am fighting every single day to get her back. Sexual assault is about power. You took that from me. I started to take that power back when I went to the police, when I chose to have the rape kit done, when I fought for 13 months to get the rape kit processed, when I waited over two years for justice, all while fighting insurmountable statistics. And today…in this moment, as I stand here in front of you, refusing to be silent…I’m taking every last bit of power back from you.
One of the biggest things I struggled with after my assault was the victim-blaming. Because my story was in the news, it opened up a dialogue where people were able to comment and give their opinions. I made the mistake of reading all those comments. People were saying some of the nastiest, most insensitive things. Some were making jokes about it. I think the hardest part was reading responses from women. Many women who were blaming me for not fighting back. “Why didn’t I kick him, or hit him, or scream?” They gave their opinions on how they would’ve reacted had they been in that situation. As a victim, I was already blaming myself. When others would question my story or question my response to the assault, it only fed my own shame and guilt.
I was fortunate that the police and detectives who interviewed me were kind and understanding but there were still so many questions that made me feel like they were questioning whether I might have somehow been to blame. What was I wearing? What did I say to him? Why did I leave a tip? Why did I leave without telling management? Why did it take me several hours before I contacted the police?
I had never experienced sexual assault before. I didn’t know that besides “fight” or “flight,” there is also “freeze.” I was frozen in that moment. I could not even move my face to speak. I remember thinking why can’t I move. It’s like I was screaming on the inside but couldn’t make any sound. I may not have been able to fight with my voice in that moment, but I fought with my voice for the next two years for justice.
It took me a very long time to drown out all the voices and victim-blaming to be able to say, without question, that I was in NO WAY responsible for my assaulter’s actions. I think all along in my head I knew I was not to blame, but my heart took a little longer to catch up.
Recently, I went back and read some of the old comments on the news stories and I didn’t feel shame anymore. I didn’t feel guilt. I was able to read them confidently knowing what really happened that day. I read them and recognized that these people spoke from a place of ignorance and I refuse to let their voices be part of my story.
If you are a sexual abuse survivor like Riley, we urge you to find help. Tell a trusted friend or family member. Seek out a therapist or tell your doctor. There is a path that will move you forward where you can find peace and healing.
Help Riley bring hope to other survivors by sharing her story with anyone you know who needs strength to fight for justice for themselves. Let this be a message of hope for someone they know who has been assaulted. By sharing or partnering with M3ND through your financial contributions, you join us in educating and preventing sexual assault, Double Abuse®, and other forms of abuse. Together, we must lift up all victims and remember that the responsibility of the assault is properly placed on the perpetrator, not the victim.
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