At the age of 14, a few weeks shy of my 15th birthday, I went to a party to try to meet a boy I had a crush on. I told my parents I was sleeping over a friend’s house. They dropped me off at her place, and then she and I went to the house where the party was happening. There was alcohol, and I drank vodka and orange juice.
Hours after the boy I wanted to meet left, a female friend and I were sitting outside with two men who were in their early twenties. We talked about the things only the young talk about: what I wanted to be when I grew up and what I dreamed my life would be like.
One of the men tried to wear me down to have sex with him. I told him that I didn’t want to until I was married. He became more insistent. I repeated my message. I stood up to go inside and realized that the alcohol I had drunk earlier in the night left me still intoxicated. I wasn’t able to walk. I sat back down. I passed out.
When I woke up, I was on the back seat of a car with the man having sex with me, telling me: “See. I told you it would feel good.” He had my hands pinned and all of his body weight upon me. I told him again that I wanted to wait until I was married. He said, “Well, now you don’t have to.”
He held his hand over my nose and mouth until I passed back out. When I came to a second time, his friend was on top of me, having sex with me. They dragged me back up to the house and pushed me into the kitchen through the screen door. I collapsed on the white linoleum floor. My friends inside the house asked me where I had been, and then handed me a paper plate full of chicken nuggets and a big glob of ketchup. They had no idea what had just taken place, and I had no words to even say what had just happened to me.
It’s been 30 years since the rape and there has not been one single day of my life which has not been affected by it
My 14-year-old brain was utterly unequipped to process the reality that I was just raped by two men. Human brains do really strange and intense things in an attempt to protect us from the trauma we face.
When I woke up the next morning, I went to the bathroom and noticed blood in my underwear. I hyper-pragmatically thought to myself, “Okay, I guess that really happened last night. At least the next time I have sex, it won’t hurt, because I lost my virginity.”
I never told a soul. I knew my parents would be more upset with me that I had lied about where I was going and that I had been drinking than they would be appalled that I had just been sexually assaulted by two men. I knew people would blame me. I had no adults in my life who I felt like I could tell. I had no idea about any hotlines to call.
Rephrasing the Story
I felt utterly ashamed, and like I had nothing to value and protect anymore in regards to my sexuality. My 14-year-old brain powerfully protected me from that compounding trauma by rephrasing the story of that night in my brain as simply, “I lost my virginity to two men at a party when I was 14.” It would take another decade for me to understand and utter the words about the truth of that night, “I was raped.”
I am 44 years old now. It’s been 30 years since that rape occurred. There has not been one single day of my life which has not been affected by that sexual assault. Within the first six months after that night, I was so consumed with the rage of self-loathing and hatred that I entered into the world of violent, white supremacy to find somewhere to belong, to find some twisted sense of purpose and meaning in my life where my anger was accepted.
I chose to take the hurt I felt, and project it outwards towards others. Eventually, I would disengage from that life. Though I no longer believed or perpetuated hateful and violent beliefs, I still hadn’t processed any of the trauma that occurred that night, and now had the added baggage to carry that I had done immense harm to others during the nearly five years I spent as a neo-Nazi skinhead.
In my early twenties, my interpersonal relationships were disastrous. I was often very promiscuous. I would have bouts of intense anger. I would sometimes be suicidal. I desperately wanted to be a good person who loved and cared for other people. I had two babies I gave up for adoption during that time because I didn’t want to poison them with my worthlessness.
Eventually, at age 23, I would have a baby who became the first child I kept. His birth ripped open the veil of my memory. Within the months following his birth, I had the profound realization that I was raped when I was 14 years old. I didn’t just “lose my virginity to two men at a party.” I was raped. In addition to coming to that clarity, I was also being challenged in my ideas of my body as worthless: my body grew and was nurturing this little baby, who was love incarnate, so I couldn’t treat my body as trash. That child became the impetus for my all-out commitment to healing.
This healing journey, however, has not been idyllic. It does not end with the lovely fade out of a feel-good movie. It has been fraught with setbacks, struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder, and the constant give and take of learning and implementing new ways to raise my seven children.
My journey has been complicated by postpartum depression, poverty, and a lack of time for self-care. In addition to healing from being raped, I have also had to do the work of living my life to make meaningful amends for my own choices of inflicting hurt on others during my time as a neo-Nazi. I continue to practice and to learn the language of meaningful apologies for my piles of flaws and shortcomings which can still cause hurt.
I tell my story simply to offer a glimpse into the complicated reasons women might not report sexual assault right away or even get to the point where they talk about it openly.
The power of collective shaming to keep a woman silent is intense. In fact, it is so powerful that many women, just like me, take years or decades to even understand what has happened to them as sexual assault.
It is harder still to speak of your sexual assault when your life is full of destruction, violence, and depression, all of which are very normal responses and reactions to trauma. However, they compound to increase the likelihood of a woman not believing that anyone will listen or value her traumatic experience.
Burden of Proof
I am still often blamed for my rape, because I was at a party, drinking, and alone with a man. My memory is questioned. How could I remember what happened ten years later on a night I was drinking? Yet, I have extraordinarily specific memories such as what I was wearing, what I ate, and particular smells. Often, that is the way a brain deals with trauma.
Very, very few women falsely report crimes of sexual violence. Yet, our system is set up to disbelieve women when they report sexual assault. It is one of the only crimes where the burden of proof falls on the victim.
As victims, we spend our entire lives dealing with the after-effects of being violated
Reporting sexual assault requires the survivor to relive their assault, as well as to endure the additional trauma of being blamed or not taken seriously for an offense committed against them. Again and again, women hear just what we hear now when they DO report sexual assault: either that men can’t go back and change the past, or that young men have their whole lives ahead of them and it would be a shame to ruin their lives.
Yet, these men have no burden put on them of making meaningful reparations or even accepting responsibility for their actions. These men have no burden put on them to demonstrate in any way that they understand that their actions have not only altered the life of the woman they have assaulted but also that of every human being that woman will encounter for the rest of her life.
What do you think happens to the women those men have violated? We spend our entire lives dealing with the after-effects of being violated. We never can just say that we have our whole lives ahead of us so the consequences of being assaulted should just be minimal. We can never just say that we should just be done paying the consequences of being assaulted because a decade or two or three has elapsed.
We have got to do better. We must stop normalizing sexual violence as some sort of rite of passage. We must stop protecting men who have sexually assaulted women. We must stop minimizing the generations of harm one sexual assault sets into motion.
I have committed my life to do all I can to break the chains of generational violence and dominance and make a lifetime of amends for my wrongdoing. I still have a long way to go and much work to do, but I will keep working tirelessly to try to send my children into adulthood and out into the wider world committed to building a culture of consent and co-empowerment. It is the only way to build a better tomorrow, and we need a better tomorrow.
Shannon Martinez, a former neo-Nazi skinhead, has two decades of experience in developing community resource platforms aimed at inoculating individuals against violence-based lifestyles and ideologies.
She has worked in at-risk communities teaching and developing dynamic resiliency skills. She has worked for school systems, nonprofits, and community organizations.
Martinez now works as the Program Manager for Free Radicals Project www.freeradicals.org, as well as being the US Regional Coordinator for the Against Violence and Extremism Network, the largest network of former violence-based extremists and survivors of extremist violence in the world.
She has participated in programs with organizations such as the UN Office of Counter Terrorism, Hedayah, The Center for the Prevention of Radicalization Leading to Violence, the National Counterterrorism Center, and UN Women.
Martinez has also assisted in training law enforcement officers, building programs for educators, and collaborating with policymakers. As the mother of seven children aged 21 down to 2, she feels passionate about building empowered families and communities.