In the wake of weeks of passionate discussions prompted by allegations by multiple women that they were victims of sexual assault at the hands of Judge Brett Kavanaugh, 19-year-old actress and singer Amandla Stenberg penned an op-ed for Teen Vogue in which she recounts her own sexual assault experiences. She describes what it was like as a survivor to watch Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee by saying, “Watching Dr. Ford’s testimony pushed me and so many others to move through discomfort that we’d buried.” She describes the emotional experience of the aftermath of her own assault and what she’s learned since then.
Stenberg doesn’t name her attackers nor does she state her age or any other specifics about the actual assaults. Instead, she describes how she felt and what she thought following the attacks and the insights she has developed in the years following. She says that her first experience was at a time when she was “sexually inexperienced, at that juncture between girl and woman, where I was beginning to understand power through sex and craved the approval from cisgender straight men I was being taught to seek.” Sternberg describes an overwhelming experience she didn’t grasp at first, adding that she eventually decided that she could either speak up, which she believed would result in “further force and/or male disapproval,” or make herself believe that she had been a willing participant, that she had gotten what she wanted. She opted for the second alternative.
"The moment you speak out about assault, you’ve entered a battle where you’ve been appointed defender of your own legitimacy."https://t.co/i0FXOAtyXa
— Teen Vogue (@TeenVogue) October 6, 2018
Stenberg says that she convinced herself that because she had neither consented nor expressed her objection, what happened was acceptable, and the experience was not assault. She explains that her mother had taught her to use breathing exercises to ground herself when she was in difficult situations, and she relied on it both while watching Dr. Ford’s testimony and in the aftermath of her assaults.
Stenberg goes on to explain that like many women, she didn’t report either of her assaults. She didn’t even tell her mother.
“When people come forward with stories of their assaults, they are often met with ‘Why didn’t you speak out sooner? If this really happened, why did no one know?’ As if, amid trauma, we would want to reaffirm these events and make them even more tangible, real, and dangerous; give them shape and power by affording them words and uttering our feelings out loud. As if speaking out isn’t a feat akin to David facing Goliath, but David is the vulnerable person your assault has turned you into and Goliath is the entire heteropatriarchy.”
She explains that everyone she knows who is not a straight cisgender male has suffered some form of sexual assault and that they largely keep it a secret due to embarrassment, guilt, the demands of society that victims bounce back instead of experiencing their pain, and “the glorification of cis male violence towards femme bodies” that make many feel it’s normal.
Stenberg’s goal with her op-ed seems to be to communicate to readers who have experienced sexual assault that they are not alone or lesser because of their experience. At the end of her letter, she tells survivors that the assault doesn’t make them dirty or weak or in any way not as good as anyone else. She advises them to do what they need to work through the trauma, that doing so doesn’t mean they are not strong.
If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, you can seek help by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673). For more resources on sexual assault, visit SafeBae, RAINN, End Rape on Campus, Know Your IX, and the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.