Why I'll talk to my sons about sexual assault

For The Baltimore Sun

Last week, Facebook reminded me that I wrote my inaugural parenting column for this newspaper four years ago this month.

My first essay, with the headline “Ray Rice, my sons — and my daughter,” came pouring out of my mother-of-three heart after the shocking video of domestic abuse at the hands of a famous football player made viral news.

I worried then about how to teach my daughter that “love shouldn’t equal pain … and that she’s worthy of being truly, fiercely — but gently — loved.” That task, I hypothesized, was much more difficult than teaching our two sons to keep their hands to themselves.

Now I’m not so sure. Maybe I was fooling myself.

Fast-forward to today’s headline news: Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh has been accused by Dr. Christine Blasey Ford of sexually assaulting her at a house party in 1982. The accusations have sparked backlash from those who doubt her recollections and motives, and a groundswell of support from women telling their own stories of tucked-away pain.

A hashtag has been born of the controversy, #WhyIDidn’tReport, and it’s gut-wrenching to read the posted memories paired with those four words. Woman after woman, violation after violation, silence upon silence.

If it was as bad as they say, why wouldn’t these women — just girls, many of them — say something when it happened?

I know why. I didn’t say anything when it happened to me, either.

It was my first year at Howard University. I had never had so much as a taste of alcohol, but I was thoroughly intoxicated with my newfound independence. I can still feel the tingle of freedom when I left my dorm those first few weeks of school to go out — at night! — without asking for permission, without a soul knowing where I was going, without a curfew to make. It was heaven.

And when a senior with a way with words expressed interest in me, his attention felt electric. I was beguiled, smitten, head over heels. But I was no shrinking violet, even then, so I surprised myself at how I handled the late-night assault, frozen in place, stunned at how forcefully yet easily he held my hands at the wrists over my head.

When it was over, he offered to walk me back to my dorm. I accepted, afraid to walk the night streets of Washington D.C. alone. Back in my room, I shook and sobbed. How could this have happened? I’d said no. I’d pushed his hands away. I… was there. Alone. At night. It was my fault.

I told two high school friends, the only people at Howard I knew and trusted. They encouraged me to tell — campus police, an adviser, my parents, anyone. I couldn’t do it. Even when he called the hallway payphone over and over to “apologize” and ask for another chance to “do things the right way” I didn’t report the harassment. Assault? I was there. Alone. At night. It was my fault.

Years passed, and he became semi-famous. When people would bring his name up casually, I would feel sick to my stomach. I saw him once at a journalism convention, and he followed me through the maze of booths. I panicked and left the convention center, short of breath.

That was the last I saw him, but not the last time I’ve thought of those moments. Not even close.

Would reporting what happened to me in 1991 have changed anything? I hope it’s not a betrayal to my fellow women when I say I doubt it. I’d still have the weight of his hands around mine etched into my brain.

But I do think now that I should tell someone — two someones, actually: My sons.

Maybe not today, when they’re 8 years old. But soon after my husband and I have “the talk” with them about sex and love and respect. They should know what it does to a person when sex is devoid of the latter two. They should know that it happened to their mother and that it never goes away.

They should know so that they don’t do the same to anyone else.

Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who works in communications at Constellation. She and her husband have twin 8-year-old sons, a 6-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at tanikawhite@gmail.com. Her column appears monthly.

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