by Erin Bagwell
Founder of Feminist Wednesday & Co-host of BeaverTalk
Edited by Diana Matthews
Over the past week, my family, like so many families across the country, was talking about Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh- specifically, why victims of sexual assault come forward and why they don’t. As a survivor of sexual assault I have strong and nuanced feelings about this topic.
One thing I feel deeply is that we should never shame or silence someone who wants to share their story of assault and we should never question how they came to a place where they feel they can speak their truth. In my experience of connecting and listening to women at Dream, Girl screenings around the world, and reflecting on my own story, I’ve learned two things.
1) Undergoing assault of any kind takes time to process and understand. There isn’t a formula for how fast you can emotionally heal and fully comprehend what has happened to you. There are grey areas and in many cases, personal relationships and jobs at stake. It can take days, months, or many years to be able to give yourself permission to name what happened to you.
2) Speaking up, being open, and talking about your experience when you feel ready is one of the most powerful things you can do for yourself as a survivor. Reclaiming your narrative and breaking the shame of silence isn’t just liberating, it’s transformative.
Women like Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford who come forward to speak in the face of a culture that doesn’t believe women will always be revolutionary.
In honor of those fighting for us every day, this is my story.
I was raped during my sophomore year in college. I was on a date with someone I knew and trusted. I remember every detail of the experience vividly. How I felt, what I wore, how fast I ran out of there when it was over.
I also remember seeing the bulletin board signs on our dorm room floor informing you about what to do if you were assaulted. But seeing it on a bulletin board and having to talk about what I had experienced were totally different. I didn’t have the courage to speak up and for many years, even had trouble admitting that what happened to me was rape.
All I can remember was the overwhelming feeling of shame. That I trusted him. That I went to his apartment. That it was my fault.
I carried this secret with me for almost a decade before I ever spoke about it. The first time I shared my story was on Feminist Wednesday but even then, I never named my abuser or pressed charges. I didn’t want my healing to be about anyone else and I knew in my heart that because it happened so long ago, no one would believe me anyway.
A few years after college, my boss started sexually harassing me at my 9 to 5. He would make inappropriate comments about how my co-workers and I looked every day. It shook my confidence to be so blatantly objectified that I stopped mentally showing up, speaking up in meetings, and stopped wearing dresses to work.
When I finally got the courage to quit my job, I didn’t talk to HR about what happened or make any waves when I left. Because I was a freelancer, I didn’t have the same rights as the other employees. But I also didn’t have the emotional capacity to get myself out of there and summon the strength to submit a formal complaint about my boss.
It took me a couple of years of processing what happened to even be able to name I was being sexually harassed. Similar to when I was raped, I had convinced myself it was my fault. I thought I was too young, too blonde, and too ambitious to work there. I took on all the emotional labor of the experience.
However, it’s always bothered me that I didn’t take action against the harassment I endured. And earlier this summer, I finally had the opportunity to do something about it.
I met Caitlin Pearce from the Freelancers Union at an event and she told me about how she was forming a group of women to testify in front of City Council about Bill 136. She asked if I would be interested in testifying and I jumped at the opportunity to share my story.
Bill 136 gives freelancers the same HR rights as permanent employees. Currently, if you are sexually harassed at your job as a freelancer or working at a coworking space, you don’t have any legal rights to take action. This bill would correct that.
On the day of my proceedings, I joined four other incredible women who shared their experiences of being sexually harassed in the workplace. I was last to testify, was a nervous wreck, and I cried through the whole thing.
Even though it was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve ever done it was also one of the things I’m most proud of.
After testifying, I was greeted warmly by the City Council members who each personally thanked me for sharing my story. I felt seen and supported by the process, and by my sisters who testified alongside me. Afterward, we gathered together at a local bakery for coffee to pass out our numbers and make sure we stayed connected.
It’s not easy, or sometimes safe to speak up. It’s taken me a long time to figure out the right words to say to be able to share openly about what happened to me- both in college and in the workplace.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying.
If I’ve learned anything about working on Dream, Girl or touring around the world with the film it’s that our stories are our gateway to community and the foundation for change.
Our stories are our salvation.
So when women like Anita Hill or Dr. Christine Blasey Ford have the courage to share their story, I know I’ll be listening with an open heart.
I hope you will too.
And for those of you who are ready to speak up, are already doing the work, or for those of you who don’t owe anyone your story, know I believe you. I see you. And I am with you.