Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault
I was an 11-year-old girl when I first realized that feelings are quite a ride. I had a crush on a boy, much older than me, who was the "dreamy" boy that everyone warns you about.
He was 15 and charming, the quintessential funny guy but he had an edge to him. Everyone knew he had quite the "fangirl" following and that he used that to his benefit. I remember my parents telling me "Don't get involved with that boy, he's trouble."
But I took that as a "take it or leave it" bit of advice and became friendly with him anyway. He lived in my apartment complex and went to the same school, so it was easy to talk to him.
He was a part of my friend group - aged from 10 to 20 years of age - so I always looked at him in that context. But my crush on him is what prompted the longest feelings of shame, guilt, and pain for me.
One evening, we were all sitting by the pool bench and to my excitement, he was seated right next to me. My hand was resting by his when he intertwined our fingers in secret. I followed suit in his subtle gesture by maintaining my calm, he then leaned in and whispered: "Want to go for a walk?" I simply agreed.
We excused ourselves and started walking around the building compound. A few rounds around the building, hand in hand, we were walking and he was being his funny self - me, laughing my ass off. It was exactly what I had imagined for a long time.
Another round later, I somehow found him lagging behind me, and I made some joke to which I heard no response. He approached me from the back, arm around my neck. I thought it was an endearing gesture, it was light and warm.
I froze in place, this was the most proximity I had shared with anyone before. He didn't say a word and nor did I. But soon, I felt his hand grab mine and he pulled it behind my back. I was getting uncomfortable, but I was frozen in place. He then proceeded to unwrap the arm around my neck and pushed it down my shirt.
I immediately welled up, but I still couldn't move. He grazed his hands over my chest and then fiddled around for a while. And then I heard my mum laughing. We were standing very close to the balcony of my house, and that laugh is what pulled me out of the trance. I ran. I ran home and I couldn't stop crying.
For days after the incident, lying in the bed of my shame and guilt - I never left the house. It was the summer break so school was not a problem. I didn't tell my parents because I thought it was my fault. I didn't tell anyone.
After a few days, I left my house - my friends kept coming home to call me out, so I went. I saw him the same day and I couldn't even look at him. He was smiling, trying to speak to me, cracking his annoying jokes. He didn't think he did anything wrong.
His sister was one of my good friends. She called me for a game of monopoly to her house, and I obliged hoping that way I wouldn't have to stay down there looking at her brother.
But he followed in a queue, behind us. Four of my friends, and him. At his house, I realized he knew I blamed myself. And he used that to his advantage. "Get me a glass of water or I'll tell everyone what you did," I remember him saying when I was in the kitchen alone.
This went on for a year, where he blackmailed me and I listened. He groped me twice after the incident, and I kept thinking - "this is my fault." After that year, luckily my family and I moved out of the building.
The thing is, the guilt never left me. In 8th grade, I told my "best friend" what happened for the first time ever, because she had a crush on him. I felt obligated to tell her what happened.
And after I finished, she just asked: "Did you like it?" I was stumped. I expected so many other questions but that one, it was just out of the blue. I almost yelled "No." She then said "Dude, boys are sexual, it's not a big deal. Plus, he's so hot and he liked you - that's so cool."
All the guilt, shame and pain came back to me. It was like someone had just ripped the skin off my body. I wanted to bury myself into the ground. The thought of what she had said made me feel dirty.
After the incident, I never looked at anyone with a romantic interest, I was too scared and hearing my best friend say that just made it worse. Another 3 years passed, and I didn't say a word.
But then one day, I was scrolling through Facebook and I saw his post. A post that spoke up against the gang rape that happened in Bengaluru. It is possible that people change and people learn, but I was angry. I was furious. The same man who blackmailed me using my guilt for something he did, speaking up about sexual assault.
I messaged him. It was something along the lines of "that's rich coming from you" in response to his post. And not a minute later he replied - "dude we were young, both of us didn't know what we were doing." I was probably red as a cola can.
"It wasn't my fault. Don't drag me into this. Just accept what you did." I replied.
"I didn't do anything wrong, I was young and I was exploring." I think that's where I absolutely lost it.
"You touched me without my consent. You blackmailed me for a year after it. You can't even take accountability for it. You're a coward." I typed back.
"I have a girlfriend, and we have been dating for 5 years. I have never done anything to her. There is nothing to take responsibility for, we were both young." he typed back.
I think I blocked him after that, I couldn't deal with the comments or the unaccountability he came with. I realized he knew. He knew exactly what he did, he knew he was ashamed of it deep down, but he didn't have the nerve to accept it because that would mean he was just a bad person.
I still carry the guilt with me, it occasionally resurfaces, but it has been toned down a great deal with the help of all I have learned through the years, and the wonderful people I have met.
When I look back, I always wondered if it would be easier for me to deal with what happened if I had the resources to understand sexual assault, to understand that "boys will be boys" is just an excuse, to realize that none of it was my fault.
Last year, the #MeToo movement took off to a roaring start. It pained me to see so many women had been through what I had, some even worse. But in the strangest of ways it comforted me - I am not alone, I am not at fault, I am not wrong.
The movement was the first time I spoke publically about what happened. I told myself that the reactions may be rude and ignorant but it's okay. The response though was overwhelming. It was so many women reaching out, so many men telling me that I'm brave and they wish me the best.
It was the exact opposite of what I expected. People were so kind, so forthcoming, so welcoming, it warmed me to my core to see that this sort of empathy still existed. I don't think I have still come to terms with what happened, because for the most of it, I have repressed the incident to no end - but, meeting the new wonderful people that I have and the great friends I have made have helped me retrospect more fairly.
If only I had the same resources as a young child, to differentiate between my fault and assault. The MeToo movement has helped me through the transition of letting it go and holding Him accountable, and in the same way, it has helped so many more women to come to terms with what happened.
If you have ever had to go through a similar or worse incident, reach out - the time is now. Hold the perpetrators accountable, I never had the chance but you do. And it's okay if it takes time, it isn't an easy battle.