I am currently reading Believe Me by Jessica Valentini and Jaclyn Friedman, which features a number of essays from activists who all strive to revolutionize our systems of justice. Each essay, so far, highlights issues regarding sexual assault, domestic violence and ways to refine justice for sexual assault victims/survivors and their assailants. I am a little over halfway through this book and, being a survivor of both sexual assault and domestic violence, I am inspired to share my thoughts on justice and what it means to me.
I was introduced to sexual abuse at the age of eight when punishments from my mother's significant other (at the time) started requiring me to remove all of my clothes before being whipped by a leather belt. After being whipped, he would tell me to sit and watch television with him. It was during these moments that he would hold me close and tell me that he loved me while running his hands across my flat chest and/or massaging my vagina with his fingers. Sometimes, he would ask me to sit on his lap and I would feel his erection.
I was both confused and afraid. I said nothing about this reoccurrence to anyone for years. I wanted to speak up. I remember almost doing so during their wedding ceremony. I was ten and my baby brother was born just the month before. I had thought that having another body in the house while my mother was away would put an end to the molestations. It didn't change anything other than my responsibilities of now being a big sister. When asked if anyone objected to the marriage, a huge lump formed in my throat, but I couldn't seem to open my mouth, let alone move my lips. It was a dreadful day and I was frozen in fear.
I was twelve when I finally built up enough courage to say something to my mother. In my assailant's defense, he called me a liar. It was my word against his and I felt less credible as everyone (those who knew) seemed to sweep my voicing a reoccurring traumatic experience under the rug as if none of it ever happened. No further action was taken and just like that, it was done and over. My mother remained married to my assailant and even more horrifying, she still entrusted him to continue to be at home with me when she was away. Despite the awkwardness of being alone with a man who molested me for years, it was at least a relief that he no longer touched me. Overall, I was disappointed in the result of no one bothering to press charges against my assailant, let alone making a report. The state of my physical or emotional well-being was not addressed. There was no justice and I felt powerless.
I did my best to suppress this memory until one day, when I was 27, I woke up in a dark room with a man's penis inside of me. The man who was raping me must have sensed my awareness because he told me not to move and even tried to convince me that I was enjoying what was happening. It was a familiar voice, but not the voice I had expected.
This evening, I had met up with a guy that I was dating at the time, his cousin-in-law (the assailant), and a woman that the assailant was cheating on his wife with. I was not fond of this man as he would always insist that I was attracted to him. I told the guy I was dating to never bring him around me but, on this particular night, I had let my guard down since another female was present. We were at a marina on a pretty nice boat drinking and getting high. Suddenly, I felt tired and I went to lay down. With all of my clothes on, I shut the door and went to sleep.
I was awakened by the other woman banging on the door. I'm not sure how long she had been out there, but my pants and underwear were removed and the penis of the man she was yelling at was inside of me. My ears began to ring, the moment I heard his voice. I panicked and somehow managed to get away to unlock the door. I ran out of the room screaming out the name of the man I had agreed to meet that night as the other woman went after my assailant.
How could he let something like this happen to me? Why would he leave me alone with a man he knew I did not want to be around? These were the thoughts rushing through my mind when he appeared and in my confused rage, I went charging after him with a glass bottle. He had dodged the glass bottle and in one blow he punched me in the face, sending me to the floor. I fought to get up but he forced me back on the ground as he yelled at the other two, "We need to fucking go, RIGHT NOW!" Whatever commotion that was going on between my assailant and his "date" ceased and before I knew it, everyone was gone and I was left there on the floor, alone.
I was beaten up pretty bad, but once I got the strength to get up off of the floor I searched for my clothes. I couldn't find my underwear so I put my pants on and did what I thought was just. I called the police. When they arrived I felt like I was on trial facing interrogation and that wasn't the worst of it. One of the police officers recovered my underwear and confiscated them as evidence, a rape kit was conducted at Detroit Receiving Hospital and during the following year, I was subpoenaed to court to testify against my assailant.
More than once, I stood in the same room as my assailant who was somehow still a free man living his life as though he had done nothing wrong. During the initial hearing, he had denied the accusation and stated that he had never had sex with me. Again, I felt powerless. No evidence had been submitted at the time and it took a while for the prosecutor to obtain the results of the rape kit which, sure enough, had traces of my assailants DNA.
After the evidence (proving my assailant guilty) was presented during the last hearing, the prosecutor told me that my assailant had been offered a plea bargain and that if I agreed, it would all be over. It didn't seem fair to me at all, but I was tired of seeing his face. The worst part of the entire process was having to relive the trauma over and over in that courtroom. At that point, I had already attempted to take my own life and was coping by self-medicating on illegally obtained Norco and Xanax. Once the verdict was made, my assailant's wife snared at me with disgust as though all of this was my fault. Aside from the shame felt after accepting the plea bargain for my assailant in exchange for freedom from the hearings, I also felt sorry for his wife who seemed to think that her husband was a saint.
I used to think of justice as something that would serve the highest and greatest good of all humanity within a court of law. I was wrong. What I learned is that there is little to no justice in expecting someone or something else to impart virtue, honor, and integrity upon matters of wrongdoing. In matters of sexual assault and domestic violence, our country is still being lead by a man who allegedly raped a New York writer and encourages men in power to "Grab 'em by the pussy."
For me, justice turned out to be learning how to let go, heal, forgive, and to uphold compassion for both my mother's (now) ex-husband and the man who raped me when I was 27. Justice is acknowledging the cycle of trauma and creating ways to break through it. Justice is served in taking action to heal and helping others to do the same. Justice is served by raising awareness. Justice is served by providing more education on consent to the youth and mental/emotional support for both victims/survivors and assailants.
Despite my unfortunate encounters with sexual and domestic violence, I do not consider myself a victim. I am a survivor. I did not only survive the assaults, but I also survived the post-traumatic period of the assaults. I survived the attempt to take my own life as a result of the trauma I experienced. I survived the abuse of illegal substances as a coping method. In sharing this story, I experience justice in knowing that I survived and in sharing my healing journey to help others experience the justice that they too seek. Justice, for me, was created through healing and empowerment.