“The #MeToo movement hasn’t flowed through our Pacific communities as publicly as it has elsewhere. I think a big part of that is that the ones who’ve hurt us are our family. So outing our assaulter hurts us in new ways, and brings back the old pain.”
The author of this piece is a young Sāmoan woman who wants to stay anonymous because she isn’t ready to tell her parents about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. But she’s been comforted by reading the stories of those brave enough to speak up — and wants to add her voice, to help break the extreme silence about sex among many Pacific people.
I don’t know how old I was exactly. It was before my family moved to New Zealand from Sāmoa, so I would have been eight or younger. Like the majority of sexual violence cases, it was by someone I trusted.
I don’t like to use the word rape. It feels sour in my mouth, it makes my skin crawl.
But even worse than that, for so many years, I didn’t consider what happened to me was rape. I was on my back, my skirt pulled up, and he was on top of me. I don’t remember him being mean, or rough.
Rape was something that happened in an alley, by a violent stranger, right?
I don’t trust my memory. I’ve read about and seen how unreliable the human memory is, and how trauma distorts that memory.
So instead of certainty, I have this ghost etched into my memory. Haunting me.
I look at photos of me as a kid and wonder if it had happened by that point. Whether the smiling girl is a safe and ignorant kid, or someone whose body has learned dangers that her mind still hadn’t caught up to.
My coping mechanism (if you can call it that) had always been to push it aside. Forget about it. Never talk about it. I heard time heals all wounds, so I just needed to wait till the pain was years, then decades, away from me.
But, of course, that’s not how trauma works.
Entering into adolescence, conversations started turning into talking about boys and kissing and then the more daring person would ask: “Have you kissed a boy?”
Years later, the daring question turned into: “Are you a virgin?”
“… Yes, of course.”
And then: “What age did you lose your virginity?”
The first time I answered that was when I was talking to a guy I was interested in. I think he was interested in me. I don’t know why I wanted to trust him with the truth.
“… It depends.”
“Oh. … What the hell does that mean?”
“I was young. Too young.”
He changed the subject.
I’ve trusted a few of my friends with my story. That I was a kid. That I knew the guy. That I haven’t told my family about it. That I’m scared of not being believed. That I’m scared of being believed and the family goes after him. That, whatever the outcome would be, I would be forced to talk about what he did to me.
Why I don’t tell them is the self-doubt, self-hate, and shame I’ve carried ever since.
Why did I “let” him in me? Why didn’t I yell and kick and scream? Why do I still smile and talk to him whenever I see him? Why am I talking about it now? Why, even now, do I not want to name and shame him?
I’m slowly moving past the first step of denial.
It’s only after reading the hundreds of #MeToo stories online that I’m able to sit at my computer and type these words out. It’s a big part of why I’m making myself think about it.
Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement is an African-American activist and social worker who works with survivors of sexual abuse. She has talked about meeting a young girl in Alabama, early in her career, who told her that she’d been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend. Burke says she didn’t know what to say at the time, and wished afterwards that she had said “me too”.
In an interview not long ago, she said:
Our goal was really to work with black and brown girls in the south, who are survivors of sexual violence, to speak healing into their lives. To know that healing was possible, to let them know that they weren’t alone, and it just grew from there … It was focused on what survivors need to start a healing process.
This year, Time magazine named Tarana Burke, among a group of other prominent activists it dubbed “the silence breakers”, as the Time Person of the Year.
Reading survivors’ stories online felt like a hug. It felt like there was a we in this isolating pain. Then I felt guilty for finding comfort in knowing other people also suffered. Healing is a complicated process. I’m still in the early stages.
Lani Wendt Young, a Sāmoan writer, wrote in 2013 about her childhood sexual abuse from an uncle. She wrote about her silence and guilt and shame. She wrote about the unwavering love and support from her husband and children. She wrote about the backlash she received from wider family members, and those seeking to delegitimise her story.
The part that stuck with me the most, though, was the insight that motherhood had given her:
I could not forgive myself for “allowing myself” to be assaulted at age seven — until I had a seven-year-old daughter and truly comprehended her innocence. If anyone hurt her, I would never blame her or hate her for not fighting back. So how could I possibly keep hating my seven-year-old self for that?
My story is tragically common. All those years I spent feeling disgusting and alone and ashamed, were years when many other people felt the same. It only seems rare and shocking because most of us stay silent in order to cloak ourselves in any form of protection we can find.
Not long ago, I was catching up with an old friend who I’d known since primary school. We talked about the five years since we’d left high school and then, eventually, the conversation turned to sex. I said, unprompted: I wonder if my view of sex will always be affected by my childhood assault. Will I ever be free of it?
He said he didn’t know, but in his experience, “it doesn’t leave you”.
He’d never talked to me about it before. He said he hadn’t really told anyone. He was a child, and it was a family member staying at his house for a few weeks.
He sighed a bittersweet sigh of relief that he was able to say it out loud.
He talked about how he questioned his own memory. And how there was no way he’d be able to talk about it to his guy friends.
But he didn’t want to linger on the subject, so we moved on, still with our unresolved traumas, but at least this time with a feeling of solidarity.
Not everyone has survived this trauma. I didn’t know if I could. There are still days where I don’t think I can.
We need to do better. Because I believe our community’s extreme silence on anything sex-related is hurting all of us.
If we don’t talk about sex at all, it creates an environment where abuse thrives.
In 2006, UNICEF recommended that Pacific people “promote open discussion and community dialogue on child sexual abuse and exploitation to combat the silence around these issues”.
Young Sāmoans like me inhabit two extremes. At one end — in our homes, our families, our communities — is the no-sex zone, where there’s no mention of anything related to sex. Consent, contraception, STD testing, AIDS, assault, sexuality. None of that is ever talked about.
But, at the other end, the #MeToo end, where the rest of New Zealand lives, the dam has burst. People are breaking free from this oppressive silence and yelling from the rooftops.
Yet this only drives the conservatives in our communities into a deeper, more oppressive silence. Which means the cycle of silence continues.
We aren’t taught early on about consent. So, many men respond with surprise (and indignation) that their behaviour and the “small” actions they saw as normal and okay are labelled as harassment.
My childhood trauma isn’t the only time someone has taken liberties with me.
At university, in an empty room in broad daylight, a guy, a “friend”, comes up behind me, grabs my breasts, hard, and grinds behind me.
“Stop it,” I say softly.
He interprets the softness as pleasure.
“You know you like this,” he growls.
I laugh and push him away gently.
I laugh again, laugh it off, laugh away the awkwardness, laugh away from discomfort, laugh away the fact that someone has already beat him into doing whatever he wanted with my body.
I don’t know if he’s done this to other women. I suspect so. I feel guilty for not speaking up against him.
. . .
A few weeks ago, Reverend Apelu Tielu wrote about the transformative moment in his life when his daughter told him she wasn’t straight. It was the day before he and his wife intended voting at their church against allowing openly gay people to become candidates for ordained ministers.
Of course, I’m not equating sexual violence with being queer. But what I saw in Apelu’s article was a parental response I fantasise about when I imagine telling my parents about what happened to me. I want that kind of love, where the kids are hugged first and interrogated later. I want that unquestioning acceptance. I want to feel like the prodigal son whose father runs to him and embraces him, even though the son feels undeserving of love.
I know our parents love us, in the ways they know how. For some parents, this manifests as rules, like never being allowed to sleep over at people’s houses, even if they’re family. Not being allowed to have a boyfriend. Shaming young people who get pregnant so you know never to be like them. And so on.
They want us safe. They want us protected.
But silence isn’t protecting us.
It shames victims into never outing their assaulter.
It shames young people to get secret abortions or abandon newborn children.
It lets perpetrators know that there’s a certain level of assault that they can get away with without being called out.
It traumatises children — a trauma they carry into adulthood in ways they may not be aware of.
It makes people ashamed of their bodies.
It makes our suicide rates tragic, but unsurprising.
The #MeToo movement hasn’t flowed through our Pacific communities as publicly as it has elsewhere in New Zealand. I think a big part of that is that the ones who’ve hurt us are our family. So outing our assaulter hurts us in new ways, and brings back the old pain.
We’re told that talking about sexual assault by family disturbs the peace.
But what peace are we living under? What peace are our people — from our children to our elderly — really experiencing, when this is such an ingrained part of our culture?
I have a suspicion — though no real evidence — that many of the adults who shut these conversations down have experienced sexual assault. So, while I am helluva frustrated with our adults for being silent, I also grieve for them. For the generations of the silent. For the suffering of those before us. For those who’ve never had the space or the words to express their pain.
I know talking about our pain may bring up theirs — and I don’t want to ignore their trauma. I want us to understand one another.
There’s a lot of work to be done, and I hope this small piece of writing helps the cause.
Thank you for reading E-Tangata. If you like our focus on Māori and Pasifika stories, interviews, and commentary, we need your help. Our content takes skill, long hours and hard work. But we're a small team and non-profit, so we need the support of our readers to keep going. If you support our kaupapa and want to see us continue, please consider contributing $5 or $10 a month.