Part One: The Secret

*Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault*

We all have secrets. Some don’t hurt anyone and are small enough to never hurt anyone. Others beg for dramatic reveals that can shift lives and relationships. 

But is a secret still a secret if no one ever knew there was something to tell?

There is a moment in time that I have never written about and hardly ever spoke about until recently.  It has lived in my thoughts for 37 years. As I finally put this experience down on paper, I know that writing it will stir something inside of me that I have long wished to keep hidden. I also hope for kindness from those who are reading it. I have never spoken about this in therapy or properly processed it, so it is still quite raw.

In grade eight, I was just like every other kid. I needed braces (which eventually came in grade nine). My teeth were large and while pairing those with full lips and high cheekbones might sound ideal, on this fourteen year old, it was just plain awkward. Making things worse was a short, slightly unfortunate haircut, I believe because my mom did not want the fuss of a third daughter’s long hair. 

While I now appreciate my mom as someone ahead of her time, her insistence that long hair only confirmed we live in a man’s world and her belief that only sheep wear designer clothes (instead choosing to relegate us to the “fashion” of Byway), fourteen-year-old me wanted to look pretty for boys and wear Polo tops and Guess jeans.

I had already had my period a few years earlier and remember being so proud I had reached “womanhood”. As we each reached this milestone, me and my friends were eager to share the news with one another. None of us wanted to be the “late bloomer”. (Late bloomers were left out of important talks, such as “How many pubic hairs do you have,” or “Are you brave enough to wear a tampon?”.)

The summer between grade eight and nine was meant to be so exciting. I could hardly wait. I desperately wanted the high school experience I believed my sisters lived. Both were beautiful, popular and always seemed to have boys gushing and falling all over them. Neither sister understood how envious I was of them, with their perfect teeth, hair and figures. They even both got good grades. They had it made, and I was going to follow in their footsteps as the third Stephens Girl. High school, watch out! I was coming!

At my grade eight graduation, I wore three-inch white heels I could not walk in and a dress I got at Fairweather. My hair was short, but I flipped it back like Jill from Charlie’s Angels.

After the ceremony, my best friend Deb and I walked back to my house, got pizza and pop and watched An Officer and a Gentleman for the tenth time. We dreamed about grade nine and meeting the perfect boy. We then created a summer checklist:

  • Try drinking alcohol 
  • Meet a boy 
  • Kiss a boy 
  • Get a boyfriend 
  • Get a summer job to buy cool clothes for high school 
  • Come back cooler and trendier then when I left 

As usual, my family spent most of the summer at our cottage in Lake of the Woods. A few days later, Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” blared over my Sony cassette tape as all six Stephenses packed into the car. I felt on top of the world! 

It was a perfect summer weather wise and we were in the water swimming more than out of it. For most of that summer, I felt free and don’t even remember being concerned about my body, other than worrying my breasts were never going to grow and I would be a zero cup forever. 

My girlfriends and I would often hang out in our boats in a bay we nicknamed “Bubblegum Bay”, as we would go there and chew bubble gum, seeing who could make the biggest bubbles, as we talked about our winters. Most of the lake kids lived in Winnipeg. Just a few of us lived in Toronto, Vancouver or in the USA. 

One evening, we got invited to hang out with a few other lake kids. They were not in our immediate group but were our age. At the lake, our group was mostly girls, so we welcomed boys from anywhere. 

That was the day I first saw him: tanned and swimming with his friends. He jumped on a windsurf board and paddled over to us. It seemed like a movie reel had started and I was finally the teen girl that attracted the popular boy. 

That evening, I called my oldest friend, who I think of as a sister. “Marla, he is so cute and likes me. I just know it. He even talked to me a few times and asked about where I live and what grade I am in. I am in love. Do you think we will get married?”

“Of course,” said Marla. “I know tons of people who married their first love. I wonder what your babies will look like. I am excited for you!”

“He even said he sometimes goes to Toronto. OMG, I am going to have a boyfriend who is already in high school!”

I was beyond excited. Me? Plain old me was noticed by someone cuter than Sean Cassidy and Parker Stephenson combined. 

I had a job that summer and was busy with shift work working as a dishwasher at a local restaurant. The times I got to see my new crush were on my days off and we would meet as a group of kids and swim, jump off the diving board and waterski.

It was not until the middle of summer, when we got to be alone at the beach and talked about life, school and our friends, that he leaned over and kissed me. I felt instant anxiety, but in a good way – butterflies, but millions of them. I could not believe he liked ME and wanted me as his girlfriend. 

I went home that night and called Marla. “We kissed and I think that means I am his girlfriend, right?” She agreed and said, “Yes, a kiss is what you do with your girlfriend. He must loveee you.” We giggled and she told me about her summer and her crush. We both agreed it was the best summer ever. I couldn’t imagine leaving my boyfriend behind at the end of summer.

One week before I had to leave to go back to Toronto, we decided we wanted to have burgers one night at the lake. It was just his friend, him and I. His friend was closer to my age. He was a lot of fun and had a beautiful girlfriend back home. She was one of the most beautiful girls I had ever seen, like a model.

We cooked up burgers while they had beer. They offered beer to me and it was on my checklist, so I readily accepted. After the first gulp I spit it out, as it tasted horrible. I asked for a Coke.

His friend went off to grab me a Coke. Growing up, we were not allowed soda – it was expensive and bad for our teeth – so this was a nice treat in my favourite place in the world with my guy. I felt it could not get better. I was right.

When the Coke came in a glass, I was impressed with how fancy it was and when I took a sip it tasted different, but they said it was Diet Pepsi. (My dad was 100% a Coke drinker, so I didn’t question it.) My Pepsi kept getting refilled and as it got later, I remember wondering why I was feeling so nauseous and dizzy. When I asked, they just laughed. Then I would laugh. I was not sure what was so funny, but I wanted to keep laughing.

I had a long day working and did not eat very much and I was so tired. I just wanted to sleep, so they led me to their bunkie to take a nap.

Where am I? What time is it? What is happening? Get off of me! Why are you doing this? Why is your friend here? I don’t understand… I fell asleep again.

Awake, unsure what happened, not sure why my panties are off. What happened? Did we go swimming and I got changed and dozed off?

Where are the boys? I have to get home. What happened? OMG I am so embarrassed. Is this how boyfriends act with their girlfriend? No, cannot be? Boyfriends do not include their friend. What was in that glass? Did I drink too much alcohol and get drunk? Did I ask for this? I must have. I must have wanted it, begged for it? How do I get home? My parents will be worried.

After that summer, I was no longer the same person. I became an angry, sour teenager that hated my family, especially my mother. I wanted to always be left alone and had no interest in flirting or wearing sexy clothes. I liked dressing differently, probably a super lite version of goth. My parents never really asked me what was wrong, as they were super busy raising four kids and providing a beautiful home, cottage and chalet for us. My parents are very loving and caring people, but we are WASPs in nature. We push emotion down so far we think it has gone away. 

Fast forward 37 years and my secret was still a secret. 

But, no matter how much you try to, a moment like that never truly leaves your mind (though I thankfully never had to interact with either of them again). It changes you and rears its ugly head when you least expect it. Even when you feel most safe. You can’t hold a secret like that in forever. 

Part Two: How It Came Out and the Start of Moving On

I kept the secret of my assault for the majority of my life. I had told only a few people by time I was 40 – my parents, my sister, and a handful of others who had experienced sexual assault. I didn’t tell anyone the summer it happened or for 24 summers after. 

Did this experience affect my life? Yes, it did. I had to struggle with intimacy. I had to overcome nightmares. I get triggered and my husband has had to deal with it. We never talked about it, but we know why I behave the way I do.

I never drank alcohol until my mid 40s and seldom had an odd glass of wine. I completely stopped since my cancer diagnosis. I never wanted to lose control. I threw myself into my career and rarely partied past midnight. I dated super sweet, nice guys that did not expect intimacy from me and I truly loved them for that more than they will ever know. They allowed me to feel normal and fit in.

I met my husband when I was 25 and it was love at first sight. I believe we are soul mates because it felt like my anger and anxiety left the day we met. I knew he would be my life partner. It took me years to confide in him and we never talked about again until the Metoo Movement began.

I started hearing similar stories to mine and eventually shut down. I told my husband I did not watch it on CNN. What was I supposed to do? Come out? Tell people my story? Why? For what reason? I had kept it a secret for so long it sometimes felt imaginary. I could store it in the back of my brain and I convinced myself it was better back there, safer back there.

What prompted it this summer? I was on my tenth radiation treatment and it was close to my brain. It affected my brain in ways no one expected, especially me. All of my previous radiation treatments were easy for me – a little nausea and that was it. So, when this affected my mental state, it was very unexpected.

I went from not thinking about my experience to dreaming about it almost every night and it did not hold back! It was saying: 

Let me out! Deal with me! What have you got to lose? You are already dying. Be courageous. Stop pretending you are strong. Be strong! Show others it is okay to share their story. It will help others. You can be open about your life decisions of choosing less fun and more work. No drinking or drugs so that you were always in control. Give back to lots of places, so no one suspects it is sexual assault you want to really give back too. You want men to be Men, not rapists. You want women to step up when raising their sons to be gentlemen, not misogynistic. You want every person on the planet to watch the movie Promising Young Woman with Carey Mulligan. 

For the first time in my life, I wanted my rage to be seen and to release the anger I had held inside of me.

I thought about what would happen if rapists experienced rape themselves. If they understood what it does to a person. Or maybe we should just cut off their penis or just plain murder them. All of these thoughts were going through my head.

Men who visit sex workers and love the ones who look 14? I still dream of putting their names all over social media and ruining their lives, like they do to those women. 

Over the years, I have done my research. I think most of us think human trafficking is a rare occurance and that if it does happen in Canada, it involves people much different than us. But 93 percent of identified sex trafficking victims are Canadian citizens, not foreign citizens. The majority of sex trafficking victims are reportedly Canadian-born teenage girls, some as young as 13, who are recruited in various ways, including at school, through social media, and at shopping malls. Techniques used by traffickers include building dependence by buying gifts and posing as boyfriends. Even 6% of those accused of human trafficking in Canada are between the ages of 12 and 17. (source)

Why is it normal to joke with your son about strippers and hookers and that girl he met who was “slutty”. Why has it become normal for males to need magazines and videos of sexualized or exploited women to masturbate? What about using your imagination? 

Kids, on average, start watching porn at age 10. How the fuck did that happen? Where are these so-called helicopter parents? Where are these parents who never learn how to talk their children about sexual abuse and human trafficking? There are lots of resources available for free.

Think it’s not happening in your backyard? That it couldn’t happen to your child? The busiest days for assault centres are university holidays, when students come home after being assaulted, when rapists use the excuse of alcohol as consent.  Sons, who got into university, might play sports and get good grades, are the assailants.

I, myself, was not who I think a lot of people imagine this could happen to. I came from a loving home in a good neighborhood. But, that didn’t stop it from happening. Where you come from doesn’t protect you.

I told my son after we watched the movie Promising Young Woman. I could not stop crying in a few scenes and he asked, “Is there something you want to share with me?” I didn’t tell him all the details, but that I had been raped while drunk. He hugged me and said he was so sorry I had to go through that. He was here if I ever wanted to talk about it. 

He said he was glad I shared, as it made a lot of sense in how he was raised. How, from a young age, we talked about pornography: who it effects, how it is made, and what is fake. I had explained that amateur porn was usually a couple who consented and videotaped lovemaking, if he was curious. Theirs is women produced and directed pornography. 

Human trafficking was introduced as a concept to him in his early teens. He was shown where it exists in our area and where everyone shops and no one notices. How it happens right beneath most people’s noses. I wanted him to understand that sex is meant to be empowering and pleasurable and not physically or emotionally painful. 

I can not tell you the number of customers, family and friends who have said to me: “Those No Consent designs are so strange.” “Why design a pillow that says “No, Thanks” for teens at university?” “Or a print about consent?” I tried to give statistics about assault in teens and universities hoping those would be enough. These pieces are conversation starters and anything that starts that conversation could save a life.

If most of my family and friends never even suspected I was raped, you might have no idea what you own loved ones and children have been through or how at risk they are. I thought I was keeping a secret because I had something to be ashamed of. Even when I learned that was wrong, the emotion still felt shameful. 

How many other women did they take advantage of? How did they learn this type of behaviour? 

So am I fixed? No. Do I want to figure this out and bring it all to the surface? Also no. But I have too. I need to heal myself before I can heal my cancer. I really believe that. Secrets make you weaker, not stronger.

-Karla xo

I was inspired to tell my story after reading about the International Women’s Week #ChooseaChallenge Campaign. I hoped telling this story would help spread awareness of how this can happen to anyone.

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