By Ashley Manta
It was my turn. I could feel my hands shaking as I stepped up to the microphone. I looked out into a sea of hundreds of faces and opened my mouth to speak.
“I was raped when I was 13,” I began.
Oh my God I just said it out loud. The rest of it was a blur, I just remember the story pouring out of me, as if I had hit a pressure release valve. I was in a daze as I stepped off the podium and into the waiting arms of my sorority sisters. I did it. I said it out loud. I knew then that this was the beginning of something life changing.
It was April of 2005, the second semester of my freshmen year at St. Joseph’s University. The event was called “Take Back the Night” and it was held in the chapel, less than 100 yards from my dorm. The event was widely publicized on campus and all student groups were encouraged to attend, including the members of Alpha Omicron Pi, the sorority I’d recently helped colonize. I didn’t attend this event with the intention of speaking. I just wanted to support my sisters and support the survivors who stood up and spoke. I had no idea that I would be so moved by those speaking that I would find the inner strength to tell my own story.
“For over 35 years in the United States, Take Back The Night has focused on eliminating sexual violence, in all forms, and thousands of colleges, universities, women’s centers, and rape crisis centers have sponsored events all over the country”(Take Back the Night Foundation, History). April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, so Take Back the Night events are typically held in April. The symbolism of spring as a time of renewal and growth is not lost on the participants as they march through the crisp April air with their voices echoing into the sky. The typical format for a Take Back the Night event is a march followed by a speakout. The march allows survivors of sexual violence to come together and demonstrate their unity and commitment to break the silence. The speakout provides a safe space for survivors to tell their stories and reclaim their experiences. Counselors are present to ensure the mental and emotional safety of those attending, both speakers and supporters. By the end of the night, tears flow freely.
We live in a culture in which people are discouraged from talking about sexual violence. As a philosophy major, I frequently came across the “public sphere vs. private sphere” phenomenon. Nowhere is it more clearly illustrated than in looking at the issue of sexual violence. It’s an uncomfortable topic. We would like to believe that bad things don’t happen to good people. As a result, we create a culture in which victims are either blamed for “allowing themselves to be put in bad situations” or are shamed for being openly sexual beings who are “asking to be raped.” Society encourages silence because it’s easier than acknowledging the prevalence of sexual violence. Take Back the Night counters that paradigm by giving survivors an opportunity to tell their stories and break the silence. Only when survivors are given the opportunity to name their experience, either alone or in public, can the healing begin.
That night was the first time I had ever spoken the phrase “I was raped” out loud. I had alluded to it over the years, suggesting that my first foray into sexual experience was not actually my idea, but never came out and said those words. It was powerful. It was empowering. I felt like I had reclaimed a part of the person that was lost that day–March 2, 2000. I was in 8th grade. He was an acquaintance. We weren’t taught about acquaintance rape at my school. I didn’t have words to describe my experience at the time, so I simply said, “I had sex.” I was young and didn’t understand that what happened to me was not sex. It was an act of violence, an act of control. It doesn’t matter that there were no weapons. It doesn’t matter that my life wasn’t in danger. Someone I trusted took advantage of that trust and exerted his need for power and control over me. It has taken me a long time to come to terms with my rape, but that night in the chapel was the first step.
This year, I am proud to be on the planning committee for Philadelphia’s Take Back the Night event. In many ways I feel like I have completed my circle of healing, from the beginning that April night in 2005 when I first told my story to now, 7 years later, helping to organize and provide space for others to tell their stories. I encourage everyone to attend a Take Back the Night event if possible. By speaking out, by validating my experience and finding my voice, I gave myself permission to heal—and that has made all the difference.
For more information on Take Back The Night visit: http://takebackthenight.org/
Learn more about Ashley Manta at www.ashleymanta.com