In high school I heard stories – then more frequently in college. Graphic accounts from guys about their sexual behavior. Usually fact, with a little fiction added for effect.
Then the rumors – lots of them – about female classmates. Alcohol was often the common denominator. Sexual assault an unknown factor.
Although uncomfortable with conversations that objectified girls and women, I didn’t speak up. Often I simply left the room.
In other words, I passively condoned the behavior.
During my junior year in college, several assertive sorority friends pushed me out of my comfort zone – challenging me to challenge my peers. No longer would I stand silent. And most of the time I didn’t.
On the surface the male response was mostly positive. After all we had mothers, sisters and female friends. We each seemed to value respect.
Twenty years later that limited perspective would be forever changed.
Because of my daughter Ashley.
In sharing her personal experiences with the opposite sex, she exposed me to a different breed of male – and the accompanying behavior. Highly inappropriate. Dominating. Secret. More pervasive than I realized.
No longer was sexual assault someone else’s issue. It became mine.
Molestation in Foster Care
Ashley entered my life through adoption at the age of 10, after a rough start. Over a three-year period – perhaps four or five, her foster father repeatedly molested her. Whenever the two found themselves alone. He then used his power to keep her silent.
A child and an adult. Sexual assault of the worst kind. Pure evil.
And not a rare occurrence from the dozens of survivors who’ve confided in my daughter.
At school and in the community, she routinely walked with her head down – just like at home to avoid his penetrating eyes. Her sexual comments in the classroom – and sexualized interactions with boys on the playground – were not normal third grade behavior.
An obvious red flag.
Yet no one said a word.
A code of silence reinforced through her foster father’s manipulation. Easier for adults to say nothing than risk alienation. Still common in social circles today.
No doubt, perpetrators understand this societal dynamic – along with their powerful ability to silence victims. Then they are overly-attentive and doting in public to avoid suspicion.
After confiding in a friend, Ashley found the courage to tell her long-held, dark secret. Then family members insisted that she was lying – emotionally abusing her for the next 18 months. Pure hell with no means of escape.
Trauma on top of trauma for an innocent girl.
The county prosecutor thought otherwise. Ashley’s accurate description of a mark on her foster father’s penis became the smoking gun. Highly specific details truly matter. Someone just needs to connect the dots.
Off to prison he went.
Upon being abandoned, she came to my house to live with her three younger brothers. Safe at last, I assumed. Yet she couldn’t accept hugs from me – much less other adult men.
Fifteen years later my daughter finally released a huge layer of shame.
I thought you might be worse than him.
Yes, she assumed all grown men could act like her foster father. Keeping her distance became a way to survive.
I had no idea.
Looking back, my “education” was just beginning.
Two years into a new school district, she began to feel comfortable among peers. One spring day after school, she joined two “cute” boys on a walk through the woods behind the building. Tutoring could wait for another day.
The calm quickly changed to chaos as one boy pulled down his pants. Forcing my daughter’s face into his crotch. Demanding oral sex. The other boy stood guard.
Refusing to comply, she shoved him away and ran screaming to the late bus. She said nothing to anyone – even though her emotional state said otherwise. And in spite of gentle offers to listen – first from an assistant principal and then me, she remained silent.
The next day in the hallway, the words of the boy became permanently etched in her memory.
I’ll cut you if you tell anyone.
Fearing that no one would believe her story, my daughter took matters into her own hands. The following morning she boarded the bus with a dull paring knife and immediately told several girls. Desperately needing to be heard – and protected.
When confronted at school moments later, she quietly surrendered the knife but couldn’t speak. Then expelled for having a weapon. Upon arriving, I asked for privacy and held my daughter in my arms. After an hour the flood of tears began. That’s when I learned the ugly truth.
Upon relying her story, the expulsion was overturned with a mutual agreement. Ashley would complete the final six days of school at home – with no expectation to complete any homework.
Which she willingly did. Because she felt safe.
Although we filed a police report, nothing ever happened to the two boys – not even at school. A classic case of “he said, she said” with my daughter repeatedly shamed once the vicious rumors spread.
Yet “she” had spoken the truth.
Sadly, the lack of response most likely empowered two teenage boys to assault again.
The handwriting appeared on the wall. But I couldn’t see it.
The Ignorant Male Teacher
A year later outside the school cafeteria, a male teacher – in a case of mistaken identity – grabbed my daughter’s arm. Her pleas to be released did just the opposite. He tightened his grip. Emotionally triggered by the man’s show of force, she defended herself – beating the man before leaving the school in handcuffs.
Victim shaming reached an all-time low.
For the next six months, my family endured another period of silence – until a female administrator privately came clean.
No male teacher should ever touch a female student.
Better cautious than sorry.
Unfortunately, my daughter never felt safe in the school again.
The Family Concert
Two-and-a-half years later, my children and I attended a free concert in downtown Indianapolis. After the opening act – but before the crowd mushroomed, my daughter and two of her brothers went to the restroom.
But she didn’t return.
After a frantic – and unsuccessful – search, my sons and I returned home. Worried. Pacing the kitchen floor. Then a call from the ER.
My daughter had been pushed into one of the many portable toilets. Brutally raped while several accomplices provided cover. The perpetrator holding his hand over her mouth.
This time when she tried to scream, her voice produced no sound.
When my daughter stumbled onto the sidewalk and appeared confused, several police assumed she was intoxicated. Belligerent.
Handcuffed before someone took time to listen.
I will never forget her first words to me.
It wasn’t my fault.
Still convinced that no one would believe her.
Amazingly, the rape kit – which required my daughter to submit to an invasive examination and surrender her clothes – was never opened.
Like hundreds of others in central Indiana.
No sense of justice.
Allowing the perpetrators to walk away. Ready to act again.
By high school my daughter was wise beyond her years. She could smell a pervert a mile away. Far too many boys – from years of watching other men – assumed they had to right to sexually assault although few, if any, called it that.
Even the school principal crossed the line in my opinion. Three or four times he summoned her to his office, shut the door, called her special names and openly complimented her cuteness. Once he even personally presented her school pictures – because they were the best in the class.
Weird. Uncomfortable for my daughter. And completely unacceptable, especially since he knew my daughter’s background.
I also learned that initial impressions can be deceiving. The clean-cut, handsome young man, whom I found polite and respectful, was just the opposite – as my daughter shared the next morning.
He fooled you. Not me. It’s all an act. He’s knows exactly what he’s doing.
Entitled to assault a woman – because he can.
From Survivor to Advocate
At the age of 28, my daughter continues to heal. Several therapists, who claimed to be experts in sexual trauma, didn’t have a clue. They ended up shaming – which eroded her trust in nearly all adults.
As symptoms became worse in young adulthood, a psychiatrist diagnosed her with Borderline Personality Disorder – which is often seen in cases of sexual abuse and trauma.
Finally a highly trained clinician – who’s an empathetic survivor too – facilitated a weekly, six-month class using the Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) curriculum. Through structure, repetition and intense reflection, Ashley learned ways to respond in the present – without reacting to triggers from her past.
She continues to use the skills to this day.
She cautiously approaches relationships with men – clearly setting boundaries which many men refuse to accept. Swiftly gone from her life.
And she finds comfort in being an advocate – giving voice to those girls and women who believe they have none.
In the coming months, The Indianapolis Star will publish a series about Ashley’s extensive trauma experience – as researched and written by Marisa Kwiatkowski, one of the reporters who uncovered the sexual abuse scandal in USA Gymnastics.
May we continue to learn from my daughter’s long journey. A brave women with a timely mission.
Silent no more. DCP
Craig Peterson publishes EACH Child every Tuesday. To subscribe, open this link and “Like” the page. EACH Child is Special: Working Smarter Not Harder to Raise Every ONE
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To watch Andrew’s amazing ESPN 14-minute documentary, click here. Andrew Peterson ESPN “Respect” Documentary