real life

"Why I told my two children, aged 6 and 8, about my sexual assault."

Content warning: This piece details experiences of sexual assault and may be distressing for some readers.

With the recent media attention on the issue of sexual harassment and assault, it would be fair to say that for many people light has been cast on some pretty deep and dark corners of their experience, or that of the people close to them.

This was brought home to me by the steady stream of women posting #METOO in my Facebook feed, many of them close friends and even family. I could not help but ask myself, how had I not known? This lead me to think about my own #METOO experience.

Something I have realised since having kids (and a lot of therapy) is that being ‘open-minded’ is different to being ‘open’. I have always regarded myself as a fairly open-minded person, but I keep a lot of my thoughts, feelings and experiences to myself for myriad reasons.

Some are to do with being hurt or judged and some are out of habits that are, at least in part, socially constructed. One such example is a sexual assault that I experienced when I was about eleven or twelve years old and a warning – I am going to briefly but not explicitly detail it here.

Listen: The Mamamia OutLoud team discuss #MeToo, and debate whether the act of doing something publicly does make a difference.

I attended a holiday program in late primary school. It was held in a very large church building, with many musty rooms over a number of levels. I did not know anyone at this holiday program and I snuck away up creaky stairs to explore. I found a small room with a comfortable couch and some old Readers Digest Annuals. Thinking that I had found a refuge from the chaos and the noise, I settled down to read.

After a period of time, one of the holiday program supervisors came upstairs and found me. My sense is that he was youngish and not very senior, but I do not remember much about him. He sat next to me on the couch and started talking to me, although I have no recollection of what we spoke about. Soon he asked me if I would like a massage.

I can’t remember if I remained silent or assented out of politeness, but I retain a strong impression of my discomfort and the oddness of the request. At first he rubbed my shoulders, but then his hands moved lower and his fingers began to circle my breasts that were just beginning to form. This is where my memory ceases, which is probably not surprising given what we know about the brain’s reaction to disturbing or traumatic events. I don’t think that he went much further and we may have been interrupted by people nearby – I simply have no memory beyond his hands on me.

I completely buried the incident in my mind, telling no-one and have no other recollection of that holiday program at all. It was not until high school that I thought about it again and began to understand it as a sexual assault. I think it is insulting and futile to rank incidents of this nature, as so much depends on subjective experience, but I certainly consider myself lucky that this assault went no further and I don’t consider myself to have suffered significant consequences as a result.

Image: Supplied.

Yet I must still ask myself why I have never spoken about it. Is it shame? Stigma? A sense that it is too significant or not significant enough to be worthy of mention? And is it in this silence that this behaviour can flourish and cause such dreadful harm and torment to young, developing minds?

So I decided to tell my children about it. They are six and eight years old. I have talked to them in broad and simple terms about privacy, inappropriate touching and their right to bodily integrity. They have books with titles such as, ‘No Means No!’ and ‘Some Secrets Should Never Be Kept’, but I realised that I had been keeping my own secret all this time.

And it led me to wonder: Is there an implied message of shame in society’s attitude to these sorts of crimes? Does that message permeate the victims’ understanding of themselves and what happened, compounding their trauma?

And most of all I wondered if in telling my story to my children, could I be offering them a modicum of protection in the event that the unthinkable happens to them? That they may have access to a narrative that refuses to be cloaked in shame, but that puts the blame squarely where it belongs – with the perpetrator.

Greta Rae is a Melbourne writer.

If this has brought up any issues for you, you can call 1800 RESPECT or find a number of support services here