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My name is Kiratpreet Kaur Sandhu, and I am a survivor of sexual violence. I won’t mince words today because frankly, we unfortunately see enough of that in the media every day.
I was sexually abused between the ages of 5-7 by two of my older cousins. I didn’t start talking about it until I was 14. Like so many others, I thought what happened to me was normal, that it probably wasn’t as big of a deal as it sometimes felt when I remembered it. The terminology always threw me off, but I eventually realized that we as a society call it sexual abuse because there were multiple incidents over an extended period of time, and because I was a child. Had some of the same incidents taken place now when I am 21 years old, we would call it rape.
In eighth grade, when I started talking about my abuse, I stood in front of my class for a speech project and the first lines out of my mouth, much like today, were “I was molested as a child.” I saw my classmates’ mouths drop open in pity and confusion, but I continued with that speech and never before had I felt so liberated, angry, sad, and proud of myself. As I left class that day, I had fellow students come up and confide in me that they too had similar experiences – some were afraid they were remembering it wrong, others were afraid what their families would say, and others still were afraid they might have made the whole thing up in their heads.
I began losing interest in classes the spring of senior year of high school, but I attributed this to senioritis and thought things would go back to normal when I started at IU Bloomington in the fall of 2013. But I was miserable when I got there. I barely ever left my room, skipped classes, refused to socialize, forgot to shower, and found myself spiraling down further and further. Eventually, I started going to counseling at CAPS and seeing a psychiatrist. He diagnosed me with clinical depression. I went home for winter break and shortly after I returned for the spring 2014 semester, I found out that Vicky – the older of my two cousins – was getting married, in an arranged marriage. The downward spiral I was on got worse. I was furious with my family for letting this happen – I felt betrayed by my extended family members who knew about the abuse by this time but still chose to attend the wedding, I felt a deep sense of injustice at the thought that they were destroying the life of the woman he would be wed to, someone who had no idea of his past.
Suicidal thoughts entered my mind, and on Valentine’s Day weekend when I was home from school, I was admitted to the psychiatric ward at a hospital in downtown Indianapolis. I stayed there for a week, proceeded to drop out from IU Bloomington, got switched to a stronger medication, attended weeks of a daily group therapy program, followed by weekly one-on-one meetings with a therapist. Unfortunately, my suicidal thoughts got worse with the new medication, and I eventually tried to kill myself in May of 2014. I won’t talk about that time and the summer following that day because those were honestly the darkest moments of my entire life, and quite frankly, I just don’t have the words to describe the deep pain I felt at that time.
While it may seem easy to disregard the stories of survivors of sexual violence as fictitious, stop and think for a second what incentive anyone would have to speak out and identify as a survivor. It’s not glamorous to have people pity you and doubt you, to have people trivialize and stigmatize your lived reality. To those who doubt the prevalence of sexual violence, let me share some statistics.
Statistics tell us that 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men in the United States have experienced sexual violence, and that 1 in 3 Americans KNOW a victim of sexual assault. In Indiana, 17% of girls between 9th and 12th grades have reported being raped or sexually assaulted. That statistic is higher than the national average and puts Indiana as having the second highest rate of forced sexual intercourse.
So if you ask me why I share my story, it’s because I cannot sleep at night knowing that millions of other people across the globe have had and will have similar experiences. This is a future I refuse to accept.
Sexual violence is not inevitable, it’s not something that must remain an unfortunate but expected reality, it’s not “boys will be boys” and “she was asking for it.” Sexual violence is so complex and affects so many different types of people. My hope for our generation is that we stop waiting for the horrific statistics to come in and start taking action sooner – the time for exclusively reactive approaches is coming to an end, and the time for proactive change – change that uncovers the deepest, most patriarchal parts of our culture – is here.
A little over a month ago, I had the opportunity of a lifetime to stand on stage with Lady Gaga and 50 other survivor-activists at the Oscars 88th Academy Awards. Lady Gaga performed her nominated song “Til It Happens to You,” and I stood on that stage with her in solidarity and in defiance. Defiance against that voice in my head that always told me it was my fault, defiance against my depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder that I deal with every day, defiance against my abusers who thought they had a right to my body, and defiance against every single person that ever said either explicitly or through their silence that my story didn’t matter.
But at the end of the day, it’s not about the glitz and glamour of the Oscars because if I could give back that whole experience if it meant not being a survivor of sexual violence, I would give it back in a heartbeat. It’s not about the celebrities and the outfits, it’s about the work. This is work that I see taking place in colleges and communities across Indiana and the nation each and every day.
No child dreams of growing up to be a familiar face and a familiar voice because of horrific sexual violence instigated against them. But if by sharing my story, I can make others feel welcomed enough to share theirs, if I can make people feel uncomfortable when they make rape jokes and slut jokes, if I can make people understand the deep pain that far too many survivors live with daily, if I can do any of these things, that in and of itself is all the reason in the world for me to keep sharing my story, even if it means constantly being identified as a “survivor.” But there’s more to me than that, there’s more to all of us.
So don’t pity us, don’t tell us you can’t imagine what it must be like, instead, take what voice you have and use it. Use that voice because I want a world where I don’t have to explain to people why sexual assault awareness month is important. I want a world where survivors don’t have to ask themselves what they did wrong because the fact of the matter is we did absolutely nothing wrong. I want a world where gender-based violence is not considered an inevitable part of life, disproportionately for women.
I write today for all the young women of color who have been taught to bear the weight of our stories silently, as if we have no value. I write to say that every voice matters in this fight.