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Years cannot erase the scars of sexual assault

Women face their pain in different ways, no matter how long ago it happened

On the back of my right hand, if I lay it flat, you can see a small, thin, jagged line. It’s the only sexual assault scar I have that you can see.

These days, the headlines are dominated either by analysis of the Republican presidential candidate’s boasts of sexual assault or another allegation that Donald Trump has sexually assaulted a woman. He’s dismissed the boasts as locker room talk and has denied the accusations. These days, I find myself running my finger over my scar and remembering.

It was in 1984 or 1985, during a junior high gym class. We were outside, in a sports field next to the school. A solar eclipse was predicted and we’d been warned not to look at the sun.

Some of the boys saw this as an opportunity to get handsy. (Even now, my instinct is to describe it as child’s play instead of what it was – assault.) The boys would look skyward and pretend to go blind. Then they raced around with their eyes squinted but not shut and their arms outstretched, trying to grab the girls’ behinds and breasts, which at 12 and 13 were just beginning to grow.

We ran to escape the unwanted attention. Sometimes the boys’ hands found their target and squeezed. We ran faster, in loops around the field, doing our best to dodge the boys. As I ran, my right hand brushed against a boy’s wrist. Imagine a poorly executed baton pass in a relay race – except instead of trying to connect, I was trying to keep us apart. The metal clasp of his watch snagged the back of my hand. My skin tore and my hand bled. I don’t remember a teacher intervening while girls ran from boys trying to grope them. I don’t remember telling my parents.

I remember thinking that this is what happens to girls. Everyone knows it and nobody much cares. A few years later in high school, when the creepy male band director chose skimpy leotards as the flag girls’ new uniform, it never crossed my mind to ask if we could wear something else. When we wore our uniforms, the band director would ask us to come into his office and sit in his lap. I didn’t, but some girls did. I never told my parents or other teachers.

This week, I asked some of my female classmates if they remembered the band director like I did. They did. He’d commented on the size of their breasts and asked them to twirl for him. They remember that some girls would go into his office and he’d shut the door behind them. “Predatory” and “groomer” were among the words I heard, along with this: “It was so rampant that I always figured that the adults/administration had to have known.”

Years later, the band director left the school following allegations that he’d been inappropriate with a female student. In the past week, at least four women have reported that Trump made unwanted physical advances toward them. One of the accusations is more than 30 years old. Some of Trump’s supporters say that proves the woman’s mendacity.

I say it proves how normalized sexual assault has become and how powerful rape culture is. It’s #NotOkay, as author Kelly Oxford said after she asked women to tweet her the story of their first sexual assault. I was among the millions of women to respond. Days later, Goldie Taylor, an editor at The Daily Beast, asked via Twitter: “How long did it take you to speak publicly about your sexual abuse and name the perpetrator? It took me 30 years …”

For me, it’ll be longer than that. I’m still not comfortable naming the boy who left me with a scar, or the band director or any of the other men who have forced themselves on me. I’m not scared of them or even angry at them. But I am furious when people explain away sexual assault as typical boy behavior and talk of such as locker room banter. My body tenses and my heart pounds, just as if I were running away from a boy who wanted to molest me.

You’d think that in 30-plus years, my body would have absorbed the trauma completely, but it hasn’t.

But when I make a fist, the scar almost disappears.

Wendi C. Thomas is a 2016 Harvard Nieman fellow, a senior writing fellow for the Center for Community Change and a freelance journalist. In April, she launched MLK50, an online storytelling project about economic inequality in Memphis. She hopes Dr. King would be proud. On Twitter: @wendi_c_thomas