This was a speech I wrote for Take Back the Night 2015 at Loyola University New Orleans. It was my fourth year attending the event which is comprised of a few speakers, a march, and then an open mic that normally has a few performances as well. This year Take Back the Night had contributions from Loyola University, Tulane University, Dillard University , Xavier University, and the University of New Orleans. The speech was edited by Erin Shapiro.
The first time I remember learning to fear strangers, men in particular, I was 2 years old. It’s one of my first memories. It was a Saturday morning in my house on Waveland Avenue in Chicago. My four siblings were watching Saturday morning cartoons and my mom told me we were going to Dunkin Donuts to get a treat. She put on a trench coat that’s the kind of grey that it looks tan in some lights and green in others. The drive through line at Dunkin Donuts was too long so we went inside. I remember a man staring at me inside the donut shop. I remember grabbing my mother’s hand tighter and realizing that this man was still staring at me. I thought he wanted to hurt me. And as only a child can, I climbed under my mother’s coat and hid. I can no longer hide underneath my mother’s trench coat. I experienced a sexual assault at 6, at 8, and entered an abusive relationship at 14. I was raped again at 16 and assaulted once more at 17. I left for college and escaped my attackers but found no trench coat to hide behind in New Orleans either. I was kidnapped and assaulted by four men during Mardi Gras my freshmen year at Loyola.
The trauma of sexual assault affects everyone differently. It can turn your life upside down. It affects your mental health, sleep patterns, self-esteem, confidence, academic and work performance, sex life, relationships, friendships, and behavior. The attack sent me into a downward spiral of depression and I got non-passing grades for the first time in my life. I didn’t want to wake up for class or go to work or be around other people. I felt trapped in a freshmen dormitory filled with hundreds of people. The bad grades affected my academic scholarship and I couldn’t return to school the following semester.
Do not do what I did; do not hold things inside, do not carry it with you. Write about it, speak to a counselor about it, and see a psychiatrist about medications if you need them. Do not throw yourself into distractions, take care of yourself. If you feel comfortable, report it but most of all, talk about it. I first talked about it last year as part of a UNO grad student’s dissertation on sexual assault and college students. This July, I spoke to a friend for the very first time about what happened to me as a child. I recently started to write letters and share them with my sister when I was too ashamed to speak about my experiences. I also wrote letters to the friends whose family members assaulted me.
I have attended this event for the past four years. I’ve cried during the open mics and shouted during the march. I’ve bought raffle tickets and been to planning meetings and worn the t shirts but this is the first time I’ve spoken at this event or at any event. Even when my closest friend got on stage and shared her story, I sat quietly in the audience. Later, when she asked me why I didn’t speak, I said that my list was too long. But now it’s my turn to speak out.
It has been 15 years since I was abused as a child, 7 years since I entered an abusive relationship, four years since I was drugged and raped by someone I trusted, and 2.5 since I was kidnapped and assaulted by multiple men. I have made it to work enough mornings to keep three jobs for the past two years. I have been alive long enough to see my son be born and turn one. I have reenrolled in school. I have formed new friendships and ended others.
But every day, I know it could happen again because of the world we live in. I deal with sexual harassment at work from customers and fellow employees. If I go out after work, I have to bring a change of clothes with me to work so when I encounter a man sexually harassing me he won’t show up to my work the next day. I have learned that when I report a coworker groping me at work, he will not be fired, I will just get less hours. When a customer grabs or gropes one of my coworkers, I know the management will not take it seriously. I still fear footsteps and noises of cars when I walk outside at night. I can’t sit at a bus stop or ride a bus without being sexually harassed or seeing someone else being harassed. I fear being assaulted again every time I step outside and worry that if it happens again no one will respond or my voice will not be heard. I live in a world where 9 years ago 14 women came forward saying that Bill Cosby had drugged and sexually assaulted them. I live in a world where a male comedian had to bring that up for the world to pay attention and even after more than 41 women spoke out about Bill Cosby assaulting them; they were blamed and accused of being after his money. I live in a world where even after documents were released where Cosby admitted to drugging women with intentions of raping them, people still didn’t believe his victims. We live in a world that laughs at rape jokes but can’t stomach a survivor talking about their sexual assault experience.
I encourage you all as women and men, whether you’re a survivor or an ally to stand together and take back the night. And take back the day. Make it safe for women to walk at night and call for an end to sexual assault. Call for your police departments, places of work, and universities to take sexual assault seriously and to punish the perpetrators of sexual violence and agencies who fail to investigate. I refuse to live in a world that tells me that I wanted it, that I shouldn’t have been out so late, that I shouldn’t have been wearing that, I shouldn’t have been alone, or I shouldn’t have been under the influence. No one deserves to be sexually assaulted and I refuse to stop fighting back.