Peng Shuai’s story of sexual assault and her subsequent forced invisibility shows the world how victims are often treated.
The three-time Olympian and star tennis player hasn’t been seen in public for almost a month. Three weeks and counting. It’s too many days, too many moons ago.
Not long after she accused a former vice-premier of China of sexual assault, she disappeared from the public eye.
While Chinese officials claim that she is safe, Shuai has seemingly been silenced and her fans are not allowed to speak freely about her. It is almost forbidden for them to say her name.
Just don’t talk about it and it will go away. But that’s not how this works.
According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), 1 in 5 women and 1 in 71 men have been sexually assaulted.
It is likely that you know someone who has had this unfortunate experience, though they are not likely to talk about it.
Why? Because we seldom believe the victim.
We don’t want to think that someone we know, love or elected to public office is a predator, so we ask the victim not to tell.
We also tend to focus more on the accused perpetrator and our feelings about them, rather than supporting the possible victims of abuse as they share their experience.
We would rather change the subject than challenge the narrative and our assumptions about the kinds of women that are sexually assaulted. No one “has it coming” and it should not be expected no matter a woman’s profession or physical appearance.
Clearly, as is the case with Shuai, it does not matter where you are in life.
Whether you have Olympic medals, multiple degrees, are working towards either or not, you can be sexually assaulted. If you report it, then the consequences can be deadly; and even if you survive, chances are people don’t want to hear about it.
We need to talk about the silencing of victims because it is so sad. We need to stop centering ourselves in their experiences.
Stop giving survivors of sexual assault timelines for their healing as if the pain ever goes away. Because the body remembers.
According to Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, “The body keeps the score.”
It’s the title of his book on healing and trauma where he writes, “As long as you keep secrets and suppress information, you are fundamentally at war with yourself. … The critical issue is allowing yourself to know what you know. That takes an enormous amount of courage.”
Yes, it takes courage to make peace with the truth and to accept that this has happened to you.
So why are we talking about what she was wearing? No, let’s talk about the meanings we give clothing. Because nothing that she wears says, “Rape me,” and his attire does not suggest that he would not.
Let’s talk about all the advice we give her, believing that it would prevent an attack: “Park near a lighted area.” “Don’t walk alone.” “Leave early.” She is expected to change her entire way of being in the world to prevent an attack.
But what are we going to do about the predator that stalks, that follows her to her car, that breaks into her home?
We would also have to talk about power since sexual assault is not a crime of passion. It is rarely, if ever, about sex. It is about taking the victim’s power away, about not respecting her boundaries, about violating her sacred space. She said, “No.”
So, it’s about taking her voice, making a choice that only belongs to her. Because you are stronger. Because you have a government sponsor who can craft a narrative that says, “Peng Shuai is safe.”
Why am I talking about it? Because it keeps happening, and the victims are not to blame.
Shuai cannot even show her face in public. She has committed no crimes, but her freedoms have been taken away. While it can be argued that she is in China and things are different in America, I would ask, “Are they really?”
Don’t we shame victims of sexual assault, blame them for the abuse they have suffered? Don’t we elect accused predators to the highest offices in the land? Don’t we call their accusers names and say that they are after money and fame? Don’t we wish these women would just go away?
Some argue that they are ruining these men’s lives and destroying their families. “She is overreacting.” “He was drunk and didn’t know what he was doing.”
We have every poor excuse and interpretation of his behavior to explain why she should not be believed. It is almost as if we don’t want to see victims of sexual assault because that would take courage.
I want to see Peng Shuai now.