Dedication to a Cause: Acknowledging the work of those combating Gender Based-Violence during Sexual Assault Awareness Month

He showed up in my life without warning in 1998. We were never friends.  We never dated.  I never consented to his presence in my life.

The hospital documented my injuries, and the campus police took my statement. Eventually, the man accused of rape proposed a plea deal through his defense attorney.  He agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor assault to avoid the possibility of a felony rape conviction.  He agreed to serve 21 days in jail.  I was told that I was lucky to have a conviction (rare in rape cases).

His private defense attorney stated to me during the sentencing process that, “you will get over being raped, but a felony on his record would ruin his life.” His wellbeing was a consideration for the school and the courts, the damage I suffered was not.  It became clear that the consequences caused by his actions were unacceptable to the privileged mindset of the defendant.

He attempted to contact me by phone and in person following his arrest. These attempted contacts included voicemails at my parent’s phone number (he didn’t have mine, and their address was used on the protection order) with bizarre apologies for “hurting” me.  I hoped by not seeking protection from the court for the continued attempts to force contact with me, I would be allowed to move on.

Almost two decades after the assault, he continues to attempt to force interactions with me. He will leave me alone for months, even years at a time.  Then he will pop up again like a horror movie villain.  He is a shadow, a ghost from the past that haunts my present and limits my ability to imagine a future.

The person who harmed me has made explicit his intention to “get closure” for the “injustice” he believes I have done to him. The communications vacillate between denying the violence that took place, and taunting me about the harm it caused –  but the messages are consistent in their cruelty.  I consider the stalking to be rape without physical contact.

It appears that my continued existence is an attack on how he wants to see himself. I live with the fact that this abuse may never cease.  Every day I wake up knowing he may decide that he has the right to end my life, and that he would feel justified in doing so.

I have never experienced life as an adult without having to be concerned about my safety plan. I don’t know who I could have been if I had been allowed to live a life free of abuse, in a world where I was protected from harm.  My life has been dominated by a feeling of powerlessness, a loss of agency over my body and my mind.

The time required to prepare for court dates, or to address safety issues has made pursuing anything in my life very difficult. I lost a job when the perpetrator was released from jail and the stalking started.  My employer felt that missing even a day of work, regardless of the reason, made me unreliable.  At the time providing reasonable accommodation to victims of violence was not required.

As a business owner, I have been unable to promote myself or my business in the way others might out of fear that it will result in harassment and possibly put my life in danger. I have been asked how I can run a business while simultaneously trying to be invisible.  It is more difficult than I could possibly explain.

The fact that I am one of many survivors of gender based violence is something I think about often. Sexual assault disproportionately impacts specific groups in our community.  This type of violence impacts economic opportunity by limiting equal access to education, and creating employment gaps and reasonable accommodation requests that are difficult to explain without compromising privacy.  I do not think there is any question this is a factor in gender equity, and should be included in our discussions locally.

The most recent protection order court proceedings in November of 2016 convinced me that my silence will not keep me safe from harm. Victims of violence should not have to hide, and I refuse to do so any longer.  I will not have everything I care about overwhelmed by a shadow.  After all these years feeling alone in the dark, I am stepping into the light.

-About the Author: Wendy Gillihan is the Co-Chair of the Labor Standards Advisory Commission and former Chair of the Seattle Women’s Commission, where she focused on issues related to gender based violence. Wendy is a strong advocate for the rights and support of sexual assault survivors.