Why I Stayed Silent

“You’re not seeing anyone?” my work-study supervisor asked. “You should go out with my son. He’s a nice guy. The two of you would like each other.” A blind date was a new experience, and I was hesitant. But a big college fraternity party was coming up, and I thought it might be fun to have a date. “Okay,” I said. She called her son, and we chatted for a bit. He seemed nice, polite. He agreed to be my date.

I was excited about meeting someone new. Maybe he would turn out to be special. On the night of the party, I wore a new dress—a halter style print with red hibiscus blossoms, consistent with the frat party’s tropical theme. It wasn’t low cut or revealing, and I felt pretty in it. When my date arrived, I opened the door, and let him come inside my dorm room while I fetched my purse. My room’s self-closing door clicked shut.

Within seconds, he was all over me. Forcibly kissing me, hands going everywhere, telling me how nice I looked. I was caught off guard—I had just met this man! I didn’t know what to do, or how to make him stop. I tried to make a joke that it might be good to go to the party first, but he laughed. “The party’s good right here,” he said. He pushed me onto my bed and held me down as he raped me for the first time. It was quick. He zipped himself up, and said, “Let’s go.” I was in shock. Did that really happen?

I made myself presentable, and we walked to the party. I had a beer, hoping it would make me feel better. I was glad to be around other people. But he didn’t go to my college and didn’t know anyone. He soon got restless. “Let’s get something to eat and talk,” he said. “I’d like to get to know you better.” I agreed to go with him. I rationalized perhaps the pre-party incident was just a fluke.

I don’t remember what we ate or what we talked about, just that I wanted the evening to be over. As we finished dinner, I asked him to take me home. We got in his car, but he didn’t drive back to campus. Instead, he drove me to a house in an unfamiliar neighborhood, unlocked the door, and took me inside. The house was completely empty. No furniture. No pictures on the wall. Nothing but bare carpet on the floor. No light except what the streetlight provided through the window. He pushed me down on the carpet, and raped me a second time.

While it was happening, I suppressed my emotions and tried to think logically about what to do. I didn’t know where I was. I had no phone. I needed a way to get back to the dorm. I feared what he might do if I fought back. I didn’t resist. Afterwards he drove me back to campus. There was no goodnight kiss.

At work his mother asked me how the date went. “Fine,” I lied. How could I tell her the truth—that her son was a rapist? I needed the job to help pay for college. My friends asked where we went after leaving the party and I told them we had gone to get food. I didn’t tell them about the house or what had happened in my room before the party. I was embarrassed I had let some stupid blind date have his way with me. I hadn’t tried hard enough to stop him. I hadn’t firmly resisted. I hadn’t screamed or fought back. What would people think of me? And who would believe me? My limited resistance could easily be interpreted as consent. It would be my word against his.

So, I told no one. I stayed silent.

I stayed silent for almost 40 years, hiding the truth from my husband, family and friends. I stayed silent until long-buried memories, stirred by a chorus of social media hashtags, forced me to acknowledge my experience for what it truly was. I don’t remember the name of my rapist or his mother. I am perceived to be a strong woman, but until recently, I didn’t understand why I felt my only option was to submit; to comply with the sexual assault, as if rape was an acceptable price to pay for a date. (Note: Healing therapy has helped teach me that such compliant “freezing” is one of the human body’s natural ways of protecting itself, in addition to fighting or fleeing.)

My silence saved my rapist’s reputation and protected my own. But silence comes with a cost. For example, it cost me years of negative self-image, despite my personal and professional success. It cost me the ability to be vulnerable with other people, something that was well rewarded in my male-dominated career but has left me with mostly shallow relationships. I rarely experience feelings fully—good or bad—because I am so adept at suppressing them. And then there’s the unthinkable, what my silence may have cost the other women this “nice guy” probably assaulted after me.

The complex factors causing women to stay silent about their harassers and attackers are the same today as they were 40 years ago. The common theme is powerlessness. From an early age we are socialized to believe “boys will be boys,” and we should accept their bad behavior as something normal. We learn from media reports and courtroom trials that speaking our truth is more likely to result in re-victimization than justice. We endure judgement based solely on what we wear. (Let’s be real. The mere mention of a halter-style dress is enough for some to conclude my rape was entirely my fault.) For decades we have watched powerful men in business, entertainment, government, churches and other institutions receive mostly impunity for their trespasses. We experience relatively few men willing to take up our cause, either because they are oblivious to the power their gender automatically provides, don’t view the behavior as being inappropriate, or fear the potential cost such advocacy might extract.

Today, as it was then, the initial reaction when women like me end their silence is most likely to be (a) she’s lying, (b) she must secretly have wanted it, or (c) she deserved it. Or this one: “It must not have been so bad, otherwise she would have said something sooner.” Perhaps the greatest gift of the #MeToo reckoning is its creation of a safer environment for us to end our silence. The great tragedy is how normalized violence against women has become, and that society continues to expect women like me to “suck it up” or “chalk it up to experience” and get over it. It is still too easy to place the burden of accountability on victimized women, instead of placing it where it belongs—on our perpetrators.

We want to believe increased public awareness about pervasive sexual harassment and violence against women will shift attitudes and ultimately lead to respect, healing and true gender equality. That is my hope. But I’m old enough to know disappointment is the more likely outcome. Although powerful men have started to be held accountable for their bad behavior, they represent the tip of a societal iceberg that is painfully slow to change. The backlash has already begun, as it typically does when women collectively take a step forward. Concerns that a man’s career “should not be shattered by allegations,” or that “#MeToo allows conniving women to manipulate things” are thinly disguised ways of saying the woman is not to be believed. We cannot reconcile what is not being reckoned with. Attitudes will shift only after the power does. A clarion cry has replaced my silence: #ElectWomen.

Cathy and her husband visiting New Zealand

Cathy Standiford is a former city manager and local government consultant. Now retired, she spends most of her time volunteering for Soroptimist, the international nonprofit that powers LiveYourDream.org; and WriteGirl, a Los-Angeles based creative writing and mentoring organization that promotes creativity, critical thinking and leadership skills to empower teen girls. Cathy has been happily married for almost 29 years and lives in Orange County, California.

LiveYourDream.org strives to amplify voices of women and survivors. Have a story to share?

15 thoughts on “Why I Stayed Silent

  1. Cathy, thanks for bring brave and sharing your story. Women who speak up are so inspiring! The way you write about your experience is so relatable. I’m glad LiveYourDream.org could be a space for you to share your story – I appreciate that it has been that space for me too. Women who learn to rise after life brings them to their knees are unstoppable! You’re such an important part of this community and we’re lucky to have you.

  2. Thank you for your courage and brilliant way with words. You inspire me to speak my truth and let go of what no longer serves me. You are a gift, and your story is a gift <3 and I'm SO ready to #ElectWomen.

  3. Cathy…I am so thankful that you have finally been able to speak and share your experience. My heart aches for all the time you were unable to speak your truth. This is a brave piece and I pray it provides courage to others to speak and work for continued systemic change #ElectWomen

  4. Dear Cathy, thank you for sharing your sad but powerful story and thank you for helping the world understand what hashtag me too is really about. #electwomen

  5. Oh so sorry you had to go through this experience Cathy. The way you wrote it seems very real, how the shock of the events and the way the culture was kept you quiet. It’s so outrageous! I wish you healing from telling your story. thank you for sharing it.

  6. Cathy, thank you so much for telling your story. I too experienced an assault in college. It took me thirteen years and a therapist before I could tell my story to my fiance and my parents. I have told no one else still. I can identify with your feelings of shock and self loathing and I know the toll it has taken on my confidence and career. Thank you for telling your story and it is inspiring me to be closer to sharing mine.

  7. Cathy, thanks for having the courage to share this. I too have concerns that even with all the public discussion, we could walk away with nothing changing. And, I think you are right…let’s elect women to change the world! Hugs and support!

  8. My Dear Friend — You are so brave and proven once again why you are one of my Sheroes. And you are absolutely RIGHT that we need to ensure we get more progressive women elected at all levels of government, as well as support more women in top leadership positions in the private sector. Until we reach a level of equality, I am afraid we will continue to experience the abuse of power toward women.

  9. Cathy, you are an inspiration to all of us. With love and respect, your friend Darlene

  10. Cathy: Thank you for sharing your story. You have always been a leader, a role model, and someone I greatly admire. What courage you have in making your story public. Thank you dear friend. Regards, Diana Needham, former 3-term Cerritos Mayor (the first woman Mayor of the City) and former President of Soroptimist International of Artesia-Cerritos.

  11. If I were smart and politically correct, I would leave this alone. But your story has bothered me since I read it. You have the love and support of your colleagues and that is as it should be. I love Soroptimist and I love the women I work with and that we help, but your concluding statement sounded wrong to me and I have some points I would like to make.

    First, I hope you have found healing from telling this story. It perplexes me that you did not fight back, and I have shared your story with my daughters so that they know that even in “polite” society, women must make their stand and fight back. It’s hard work and it is emotionally devastating, but I firmly believe that women should report immediately, as you would likely agree.

    I don’t agree with your statement at the end that “Concerns that a man’s career “should not be shattered by allegations,” or that “#MeToo allows conniving women to manipulate things” are thinly disguised ways of saying the woman is not to be believed.”

    We are not yet living in a society where you can easily separate a man from his involvement with the women in his life. We are mothers, sisters, daughters, aunts, and co-workers of the men in our lives, and when one of the men close to us is accused without evidence, it is NOT a thinly disguised way of saying that the accuser should not be believed. It is a devastating blow to a family and women are an important part of that family. This statement sounds good, and strong, and supportive of women, but when you step into the real world, it falls apart. It is not a statement about whether or not a woman is to be believed, it is a statement that in our society based on the rule of law, we require evidence in order to believe her. Without evidence, people’s lives would be destroyed, both men and women, and that is not acceptable.

    Women have a huge burden in a society based on the rule of law, but I would not trade our rule of law for a place where you can be accused and convicted in the same sentence. When women are raped, they must report, collect rape kits, photographs, and it is as if they are being raped all over again having to bring their attackers to justice. I support women in our society because we share this “extra burden,” not to mention the burden of testifying, in court, with their attacker present. It’s unbelievably hard work to bring an attacker to justice, but women who do this hard work are saving lives, mainly the lives of those who come next. Most abusive men will continue abusing women, and I’m guessing the man who attacked you attacked others.

    Dr. Ford’s testimony likely encouraged you to bring your story forward, but I believe that coming forward years later with no corroborating evidence and making claims in a politically charged atmosphere does a disservice to those who do the hard work of putting together cases against their attackers. I support those women with every bone in my body. And I am grateful that you brought your story forward; it made me talk about the many faces of rape with my daughters. I would be devastated if they did not fight back or escape at the first available chance and I’ve asked both of them to take self-defense classes.

    I hope you don’t take offense at this commentary, I do not mean to offend. Instead, I want to bring women together in understanding. We should vote for women, but not because they are women, but because they are strong, qualified individuals who understand the additional burdens that women in our society share.

    Respectfully Yours

    1. Dear Linlee,
      Thank you for sharing your perspective. In these divisive times we must find ways to have conversations about difficult topics with civility and mutual respect, and you demonstrated both in your comments.

      I went public with my story on April 25, 2018 (the date below the headline), well before Justice Kennedy announced his retirement and more than five months before Dr. Ford testified. Neither her testimony nor the current “politically charged environment” had anything to do with my decision to come forward.

      I decided to share my story out of a sincere desire to let other silent survivors know they are not alone. I wanted to point out factors inherent in our society that make it difficult for women to come forward, whether it’s in the days immediately following their attack or decades later. I personally believe the number of people who have been sexually assaulted and have never told anyone is quite high. I believe this because research has documented that one in five women (and one in 71 men) will be raped at some point in their lives. In other words, if we ask five of our girlfriends or five of our female co-workers if they have ever been sexually assaulted, at least one of them will likely say, “yes.” Research also shows between 20 and 25 percent of college women and 15 percent of college men are victims of forced sex during college. These statistical trends are not new; taken together, that’s a significant number of victims in the U.S. alone. But we typically don’t go around asking our friends and family members if they’ve ever been sexually assaulted. We just assume they haven’t been—unless or until they tell us otherwise. This gives us a false belief that rape and sexual assault only happen to “other people,” not those we know.

      Like you, I believe in the rule of law. Unfortunately, the rule of law treats victims of sex crimes differently than any other type of victim. If I am stabbed, the police don’t want to probe my wound. If I am robbed, the police don’t ask me about what I was wearing or the number of drinks I had. Sexual assault is the only crime where the victim’s character is automatically questioned, where her motives for coming forward are automatically distrusted, where what she does before and after the assault is scrutinized for any evidence of her potential culpability. The gathering of evidence is physically invasive. And even if a rape kit is gathered, a high probability exists it will never be processed. I highly recommend the HBO documentary “I Am Evidence,” which not only describes how rape kits are prepared, but also documents the thousands that have never been tested across our country, either because the police disbelieve the victim or because processing them is considered a low priority.

      There is a reason why rape continues to be the single, most under-reported crime, why 63% of sexual assaults are never reported to police. It’s easy to say women should report immediately, and intellectually I agree with you. But based on my own experience, it’s not that simple. Context always matters. Forty years ago, the term “rape” was not part of the common vernacular. No one talked about it, and when they did, the victim was usually stigmatized. Reporting sexual assaults to the police was not a commonly known or accepted option. Rape crisis centers and hotlines were just beginning to emerge. Rape kits hadn’t even been invented, so police relied mostly on anecdotal evidence (i.e., “he said, she said”). It was standard procedure for police to ask victims if they had experienced orgasm, because it was considered “evidence” for whether it was actually rape. There also were no female police officers, no special rooms for interviewing – most of the investigative elements we now take for granted thanks to Law and Order SVU. Even today, with all these advancements, most perpetrators never do jail time. RAINN reports that for every 1,000 rapes prosecuted, 994 perpetrators walk free. This does not inspire confidence that justice will be served when we report.

      Yes, it’s devastating for men to be wrongly accused, as it is devastating for the women in their lives. It’s always hard to believe that someone we know and/or love could possibly be an assaulter. But the lack of corroborating evidence doesn’t mean the rape didn’t happen. Research shows the prevalence of false reporting is low—between 2% and 10%. This means that between 90 and 98% of the time, women are telling the truth about what happened to them. Why isn’t our law and order society equally concerned about their devastation?

      I’m glad my story prompted you to have conversations with your daughters about rape and how to be safe. But perhaps it is even more important to have candid conversations with our sons, nephews, brothers—all the men in our lives—about how to treat women with respect, what consent is (and isn’t), and what they should do if they see someone sexually assaulting someone else. We can’t possibly solve this problem without including men and boys in the dialogue.

      Thank you again for your comments and the care you took in sharing them.

      [Note: All of the statistics cited above are publicly available from either the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (www.nsvrc.org) or RAINN (www.rainn.org).]

      1. Thank you for your gentle reminder that this was not a story published during the Kavanaugh hearing. I received it in an email from a friend during the hearing and made that assumption. For that I apologize.

        I especially appreciate your comments about how we communicate with our male progeny; it is vital, and I think we are improving in how we communicate with them, that they understand the heart-wrenching and often life-altering process that women must endure to prosecute their attackers. It seems that we have also improved the process of discovery in the prosecution of rape, it really had no other way to go but up.

        The statistics you site on false accusations I have seen before. I have seen others as well, but I am not here to battle statistics; false accusations are devastating to both the man and the women in his life, period. I don’t find much use in equivocating these crimes, they are very different on their face. Instead, we should all recognize that the United States is a special place where the rule of law protects both men and women in vital ways and when we depart from due process, giving special status to women, I believe, and this is my personal opinion, that we do a disservice to our fight for equality. We will never truly be equal, because women are so amazing, but we should stand equally in our system of laws.

        I believe, absolutely, in civil discussion, and I must say, that your reply was thoughtful. There is a reason you are well-loved by your Soroptimist sisters and that the lovely lady who sent your column to me is inspired by you.


  12. When I was in college, a woman who lived downstairs from me was raped. My roommates and I heard her screams and called the police. We went to the police department to give our statements. We were treated like criminals. Did we have boyfriends. Who were they. Could it have been one of them. Etc. The victim, who had been a virgin, was treated horribly. It was horrifying. As it turned out, her rapist was eventually caught and prosecuted after raping and robbing another woman. Some things have changed since then, but others haven’t. There are myriad reasons women don’t report their sexual assaults, and I would never question a survivor’s actions, or lack thereof. #isupportsurvivors

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *