Some sexual assault stories almost always start with something like this: when I was seven, a friend who was five years older than me asked me to reach into his pants and feel how he turned hard at the slightest touch; when I was sixteen, a stranger grazed my arm in the jeepney as if it were unintentional until he started reaching for my breast; when I was twenty-one my boyfriend forced me to have sex with him.
My own story is but one of many, but it is just as difficult to tell.
When I was twenty-six, I went to Zambales for the yearend holidays.
Zambales was once home to me. I would frequent the mountains and beaches there to camp out and surf with my friends. On December 2014 a surf instructor had drinks with me and my friend, all fun and talk throughout the night until he brought me inside his tent. I woke up to him on top of me, his mouth on my neck and his hand between my legs. I drifted in and out of sleep, with hardly half the mind and strength to do anything other than to cry and say no.
I kept waking up wishing that it was over, only to find him still on top of me.
And then, I woke up and it was finally over. Quietly, I wrapped myself in a blanket and walked over to the tent I shared with my friend, still unable to process what had just happened. That was until my friend woke up to say, “You were so drunk last night; if we were with strangers somebody could’ve raped you.”
That hit me hard. I was raped, there was no question about it. Years of feminist advocacy and human rights work taught me this: If a guy has sex with you without your consent, that is rape.
My friend went on to surf that morning while I watched her from the shore. I pretended that nothing happened the night before, because it couldn’t have happened to me. I’m a proud feminist, I took pride in my independence, I’m an empowered woman by any standard. I shared music recommendations with the other surf instructors, made comments about how glassy the waves were, and promised to come back as soon as I had a free weekend.
It’s been two years, and I still haven’t gone back.
For months, I never told anyone about what happened. The first time I acknowledged it, it had already been more than a year. That night, I was having dinner with an activist friend and casually blurted out, “I was raped in December 2014, but I think I would’ve still been a feminist either way.”
It was such a relief to finally say it out loud, but I know I was only able to do so because I was with a trusted friend.
Her reaction was far from relief, though. She was worried, asking me how I was even though it had already been months after I was raped. I insisted that I was fine because I felt fine; what happened to me didn’t really feel life-changing or anything. But that is how denial works.
Before I told anyone about what happened and before I decided on the word rape, I used to tell myself I was “sexually assaulted,” as if there was more dignity in that. I second-guessed myself, thinking that maybe it was partly my fault because I drank too much the night I was raped.
Everything I learned as a woman raised to be confident in her own person got thrown out the window the moment I started blaming myself for what happened to me.
For months, I chose to face it alone because I was ashamed. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I wasn’t the one who should be ashamed. I wasn’t the one who brought a drunk person to my tent and raped her as she cried and said no. The shame isn’t in being raped, but in taking advantage of other people just because one feels he can.
I sometimes still struggle with telling people my story. Once, I decided to post about my experience on Facebook in the hopes of making the point that rape should never be the subject of a joke. That decision led to the painful realization that I wasn’t alone, as friends reached out to me not only to express support but to tell me their own story of abuse and rape.
I’ve always known that rape can happen to anyone, but having some of my strongest and most brilliant friends tell me how they felt weak and helpless in the hands of a friend or stranger transformed what I already knew in theory into something that I actually carry with me everyday.
I’ve always taken pride in being a survivor and I no longer feel shame in saying I am a victim, but knowing that rape has also happened to the people in my life makes the fight against rape and the culture that perpetuates it all the more important, though no less difficult than ever.
I’m planning to go back to Zambales next month with a couple of friends—both women. Zambales has always been home to me and I’m determined to claim it again as my own.
If there’s anything I’ve learned through the years, it’s that I’m not the one who should be running away and I’m not the one who should be ashamed.
I have allies who know my pain; I have sisters in this fight. Someday I hope there would be no more need for us to struggle, but until then we stand together.