I learned a lot about sexual assault when I was seven, because that’s when it happened to me. I found out about indecent exposure, masturbation and what a penis looked like. It wasn’t a very dramatic experience. At a small petting farm near where I lived, a nice man asked me about my favorite chicken before he pulled out his penis and masturbated in my face. Seven-year-old-me was embarrassed for the man because he had his privates out, so I walked away to give him privacy.
That night, while we were brushing our teeth, I told my brother what happened and he said I should tell our parents. They were very calm about it, and I only guessed it was serious because they canceled the play date I had with a girl down the street. Instead, they set up an appointment at the police station.
I essentially did the same things there as I would have at my friend’s house. The officer gave me some paper and a box of eight crayons from a bucket he had behind his desk. He asked me to draw a picture of what happened. I drew a chicken coop, a spotted chicken, and a gray-haired man in a brown shirt and blue jeans. When I showed him the picture, he asked my parents if they could please leave and let me talk to him alone because I might be embarrassed to say certain things in front of them.
When the door shut, he said, “That picture you drew, the man looks a lot like your dad.”
“It wasn’t my dad.”
He asked me again, and I said no again. The officer wanted to know why I was so sure, and I explained that my father had been in the car driving to the farm to meet us when it happened.
After that, the officer kept the picture, gave me a stuffed panda bear and a tour of the station at my request, my parents and I went to get ice cream and it was over.
When I was 11, I learned about guilt. I kept on thinking about how he had gotten away because I didn’t scream or couldn’t describe his face as well as his penis to the police. I decided I was to blame for everything he did and responsible for making it possible for him to get other victims after me.
My mother tried to tell me that what happened to me was not my fault, but that was not my issue. What happened to me was a chance encounter because I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, which I fully understood and fully accepted. The victims that came after me were my fault.
In high school I learned I was not alone, and I quickly began to see my world as a place where children getting molested was inevitable. Freshman year, my best friend was groped by her church leader on an airplane and a girl in my English class was removed from her foster home because her guardians were making her perform oral sex. Sophomore year, my friends were having sex with their boyfriends because they would threaten to break up otherwise. Junior year, I found the statistic that one in six women would be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. I counted the number of girls in each of my classes, and figured out how many of us would fill the statistic. Including me, it would be two girls in each class.
People either say I’m a survivor because I can talk about it, or I’m a victim because I still feel guilty. It’s more complicated than that. I can’t just wake up one day and feel better about everything. Even though it has almost been 12 years, I think about the reality of my sexual assault every day.
Sometimes there are good days that allow me to remember it and then get on with my life, and then there are bad days that have me counting the number of people I see on the sidewalk, making note of any distinguishing features.
Survival means something different to everyone. It can be an open and honest discussion, or it can be a refusal to acknowledge it ever again. I get to decide how I feel about my assault and what that means, nobody else.
I didn’t have control over what happened to me when I was 7, or what happened to my friends in high school, or what happened to anyone else, and as much as I hate that I can’t have enough control to stop it, I know that I can’t.
What I do have control over is me, and that’s OK for now.
Julie Christie can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.