It’s every college student’s dream, right? A year abroad in Madrid. It sounds magical and exotic. Even today, people gasp in jealousy when I mention I lived in Spain for a year when I was a junior in college.
Rarely do I tear down their lofty imaginations of gorgeous scenery, culture, and wonderful memories. In fact, most of the time I nod and say “Yeah, it was great…” before changing the subject.
The truth is, it was an extremely troubling year for me, living my first few months with a family who was exceptionally cruel and unaccepting, struggling with homesickness quickly followed by depression. In many ways, I wish I could have that year back. I wish I could go back to my school campus in Boston where I had friends, family nearby, and could speak comfortably around people without feeling like I was being judged, degraded, or simply lost in translation.
But it was one night early in my year abroad that stands out. I was walking home from a friend’s birthday party. My host family lived in a rough neighborhood well outside the city, and walking in the dark was terrifying. I could hear something behind me like someone was running. I upped my pace and tried to glance back. In a flash, a young man in a jogging suit leaped at me. He grabbed my vagina and squeezed. I screamed.
I think I screamed. It all happened so fast. As quickly as he pounced, he was gone running down the dark road. Did that just happen? What… why… how???? I don’t understand. So many emotions flooded me.
Finally, survival instinct kicked in and I sprinted to my host house. I went inside and did what any self-respecting young woman would do: I began bawling and I called my mom back in the States.
My mom comforted me in the moment like only moms know how. But then she encouraged me to get some rest and file a police report the next day.
Waking up that morning, after only a few hours of stifled sleep, I rose to tell my host mother the story. My host mother looked at me like I was the little boy who cried wolf. “But did he hurt you? How much did you drink last night? What do you want the police to do?” Her questions pierced me like a knife. Am I overplaying this? Is this foolish? Maybe I should just let the whole thing go.
But my mom’s fierce insistence on going to the police hung on, and I demanded to talk to someone.
My host mom accompanied me to the police station. My host mom, who was perfectly fluent in English, decided this would be a good time for me to practice my Spanish. She made me describe the incident in Spanish to the police officer. I began crying. “I don’t know how to say vagina in Spanish!” I cried to her. She mumbled something in Spanish to the policeman and they both laughed.
And that’s how the entire visit went about. Me, only a month or two into my year in Spain trying to describe my assault with my host mom and the policeman exchanging looks and giggles. I felt so ashamed. Ridiculous, really. And I just wanted to leave. These people weren’t here to help. I was just a fun way to kill a few hours on a slow crime day. They didn’t believe me. They didn’t think I was assaulted.
Right now, women (and men) are voicing their experience with sexual assault and harassment on social media by posting #metoo as their status. This is my #metoo story. No one believed me. If I was to go through it all over again I don’t think would have gone to the police at all. And that asshole who assaulted me? How many other women has he degraded since then? Who else has he victimized? I will never know, but it hurts knowing that even when I tried to “do the right thing,” only I suffered the consequences.
I’ve had several other experiences with sexual assault and harassment, some more severe than this one. But I don’t tell those stories anymore. I learned a cold lesson that day in Madrid. Even when you do speak out, sometimes people just don’t care. Sometimes the victim gets punished. And my hearts not strong enough to go through that again.