Content warning: Sexual violence
My heartbeat grew faster as I watched a man accused of rape and a history of sexual misconduct be appointed to the Supreme Court. I was supposed to be studying for my classes, but I felt my heart sinking, and I couldn’t focus on my work. I felt disempowered to see Brett Kavanaugh gain power over laws that would be applicable to me and the nation’s women.
The morning of his nomination hearing, I teared up while listening to journalist Michael Barbaro interview a sexual assault survivor on “The Daily” podcast. The story made me feel distraught when I had already been feeling helpless. The issue was constantly on my mind because I was constantly hearing about it in the news.
Over the past few years, I was swarmed by #MeToo stories. The constant media attention to sexual misconduct was overwhelming. Stories such as R. Kelly, Larry Nassar and Harvey Weinstein’s accusers’ allegations all outraged me.
I was consistently hearing about severe cases of sexual assault in podcasts, news apps and social media. These stories often included physical violence, date rape drugs, explicit abuse and abuse of power, characteristics that defined my idea of assault and harassment. I internalized this and invalidated my own experiences that didn’t fit these criteria. I brushed off the times when men verbally harassed me or made nonconsensual physical advances, telling myself it “could have been worse.”
The intensity of these individual events and the collective impact of these stories made me heartbroken for sexual assault survivors. I felt an immense amount of empathy thinking about those who have faced violence, sought justice and are facing repercussions because of it. At the same time, however, I found myself in a problematic mentality in which I assumed there would be a right way to handle such situations of assault.
I asked myself what I would do if I was ever in one of those situations. I told myself that obviously I would immediately respond by reporting the incident. I would actively fight until the day my perpetrator faced adequate consequences for his actions.
I’ve recently realized I was wrong — there is no correct way to respond to assault and harassment.
I didn’t actively fight back when men nonconsensually touched me. I didn’t report verbal harassment to the police. I promised myself that I would know how to react appropriately if I was ever violated. And worst of all, I convinced myself that these experiences were invalid. I wrote them off because they “could have been worse.”
I told myself it “could have been worse” when a boy tried forcing me into drinking alcohol so he could take advantage of me. It “could have been worse” when a grown man catcalled me for my curves while I was at a shopping center at only 17. It “could have been worse” when a grown man persistently catcalled me and stalked me until mall security took him away. It “could have been worse” when a man placed me in a nonconsensual embrace, trying to lead me off UC Berkeley’s campus.
I kept dismissing my harassment as just uncomfortable situations. I rationalized the men’s actions to my best friend, my RA and myself. Sure, it happened — but it “could have been worse.”
Looking back, I realized how much I invalidated my experiences when I was violated. I justified my discomfort and didn’t seek justice for myself.
I recognize now that I am not in any position to say what “could have been worse.” Every instance in which a person is made to feel violated or uncomfortable is valid. I am not trying to identify when a situation crosses the line into sexual misconduct. But what I have come to realize is that because I didn’t think my experiences crossed this line, I didn’t allow myself to fully address the times I was violated. I didn’t realize that I was gaslighting myself. I never felt worthy of my own, and definitely not others’, sympathy. In an effort to not “overreact” and “alarm” loved ones, I said, “It could have been worse.” I constantly told myself this without questioning where it came from.
There is no singular thing to blame for the problematic mantra of “it could have been worse.” But it has persisted and has negatively influenced conversations of sexual assault and harassment. That’s the problem — this toxic mantra has become so normalized into our culture that it’s often left unchecked. Our culture should believe and support survivors instead of invalidating their experiences of sexual misconduct. Instead of telling women “it could have been worse,” we should be saying “it should be better.”