In Silsbee High School in Texas, USA, a cheerleader was kicked off the squad because she refused to cheer for her rapist during a basketball game. H.S., sixteen years old, was sexually assaulted by her fellow students, star athletes Rakheem Bolton, Christian Rountree, and another juvenile male. Bolton pled guilty to a lesser assault charge, and was given what basically amounts to a slap on the wrist: two years probation, a $2,500 fine, community service and an anger management course instead of an actual prison sentence. To add insult to injury, Silsbee school officials urged H.S. to avoid going to the cafeteria and joining the homecoming activities, presumably to preserve smooth relations within the school. Believing she had nothing to be ashamed of, H.S. refused. During that basketball game, she cheered for the entire team, but stayed silent during Bolton’s free throws, while the others were shouting his name. For this, she was dismissed from the squad, a decision that the court upheld, basically saying that it was her job, as a cheerleader, to cheer for her attacker because he happened to play for the school.
In this wrong-on-so-many-levels travesty, there is at least one bright spot: H.S.’s courage. She spoke out, stood her ground, and refused to cower. The tragedy is that instead of celebrating the girl’s spirit and supporting her healing process, the authorities refused to acknowledge her trauma. Unbelievable.
In the Philippines, where we place so much importance on saving face and keeping the peace, how many victims are ignored and hushed up, so that they won’t cause trouble? I know at least one of them.
Last year, I made an unexpected friend, whom I’ll call Maria. She was one of those vendors selling peanuts and sliced mangoes to the people strolling on Rizal Boulevard in Dumaguete. I bought something from her, then sat down to chat. Newly arrived here, she was among those devastated by Typhoon Ondoy in Manila and had found her way here hoping for a new life, despite not being able to speak Bisaya. We developed a friendship, and I came back to see her again and again. She told me her story.
Ten years ago, Maria lived in the slums of Tondo. She was only nine years old when her stepfather raped her. Her mother, despite believing Maria’s story, urged the child to just “let it go” and not tell anyone else, for the sake of keeping the family together. Fearing more abuse, she fled to her grandfather, seeking his protection. However, he turned out to be a child molester, too. Maria ran away again and lived for years on the streets of Manila. Nothing changed much when she moved to Dumaguete. When we met, her meager belongings were in a plastic bag and she slept beneath the acacia trees shading the Boulevard. She was only 19 years old, with a young daughter, and without a home.
As I listened to Maria, I found it odd that none of her anger (that she was aware of, at least) was directed towards her mother, who had failed to protect her vulnerable child. Maria fully believed that her mother had done only what she thought was best. After all, she told me, the family relied on her stepfather’s income for their needs. So she ran away, not only to save herself, but also to keep from disrupting the family dynamics. Her grandfather’s abuse was just another blow, another reason why she always sleeps with a knife close by. She can no longer afford to feel safe.
This chilled me, and it made me wonder how many victims of sexual assault are made to believe that their pain is not important, that they are on their own. How many women (or men, for that matter) are secretly bearing the shame, humiliation, and guilt that rightfully belong on their attacker’s shoulders? How many abusers are enabled and protected by the silence of those who should have spoken out? Anyone who has ever urged a victim of sexual violence to hold his or her peace is an accomplice in the abuse. It is a terrible betrayal of trust.
If one of you who are reading this is a victim of sexual assault, I hope you know that you have a right to speak out. It is not your fault. It is not your shame. And despite what you may have been told, you deserve to be heard. More importantly, you deserve to be healed. Find someone who will listen now.