Growing up in a strict Ethiopian Christian household, the topic of sex was never up for discussion. Once I left Ethiopia - at the age of 12 - the cultural paradigm in my family shifted due to our exposure to new and less conservative communities. Because of my father's work, we moved from one country, to the next, for many years. This meant that I became more and more exposed to discussions around sex from school but it wasn't really enough and I lacked a real understanding of it. I lacked the clarification which my parents should have provided. But, being aware of my parents’ backgrounds, I knew better than to ask questions of that nature.
So you can imagine how surprised I was the day I went to college, when my mother said that she wanted to have “the talk” with me. I ended up telling her that I already knew everything I needed to know and so I was fine with the fact that I hadn't gained any knowledge from the conversation, but I had at least expected to gain a higher level of comfort when discussing sex and my own sexuality because my mother had finally been open to discuss it. And not only was she open to discuss it, but she initiated the conversation! So you'd think that I would have become more ok with sex discussions. However, the fact that, that was the first and last time my mom attempted to speak to me about it made even less willing to open up.
To be fair: to her, there was nothing to discuss, at least not before marriage. However, that's not to say that some parental support - in a university where 95% of the student body was involved in sexual intercourse - wouldn't have been appreciated, because it most definitely would have.
Then came the first semester of my freshman year: It is a common knowledge that college is an experimental phase and we try several things enjoying the freedom it offers. Night outs are a big part of that. On one of such occasions, I was out with some friends for a couple of drinks, and the night went on in a way that I had not expected and concluded in a manner that made me refuse to recognize the events of it. I rather chose to be in denial.
The night started out great: I was having a blast dancing with my friends. But I remember that out of the corner of my eye, there was an attractive guy, sitting with his friend, watching me dance. At the time, I was somewhat of a social butterfly and I wanted to make sure everyone was having a good time so I pulled everyone sitting down - including him - on to the dance floor. Some people took some convincing to get on the dance floor, but not him. Not only did he come to the dance floor, but he stayed around me until I gave him my full attention. To me, he was just an attractive college student - probably a few years older than I was - and once we started to dance, I began to enjoy his company.
So, we sat down and introduced ourselves. After confabulating with him for a while, I began to feel very drunk - which was very confusing to me, given that I hadn't drank that much. After seeing my state, he wanted to take me to another bar and my friends came along upon my request. Throughout the night, I remained confused as to why I was feeling increasingly drunk, and began to question whether it was solely my fault. The night escalated after we got to the other bar and my friends were too distracted to realize that he had taken me home. Little did they know, little did I know my night was taking a turn for the worst and I would wake up next to a stranger on a location I don’t recognize. Even with my limited memory of the night beyond that point, I can recall fragments of what had happened to me. I vaguely remember struggling to push him away and the series of unfortunate events that followed.
I woke up the next morning, confused and disheveled. I had a blinding headache and I was feeling generally unwell. I looked around, I did not recognize the place I was in nor the man that was lying next to me. The fact that we were both naked and our clothes tossed up all over the floor gave me a clear deduction of what had happened the night before. I panicked, I did not expect the night before to end the way it did and I certainly did not expect to wake up next to a strange man in a location I don’t recognize. In my futile attempt to understand what had transpired I tried to collect myself and I asked him “what happened last night?”. “You wanted to have sex, so we did.”, he responded. At that point my brain was in override, thinking of a million different things and I thought there isn’t much I can do about it. So, I repressed any and all of the memories plus the questions I had of the night in an attempt to believe his “truth” while I ignored mine.
A year later, the university hosted a sex education forum where: doctors, psychologist and professionals spoke about consent and its importance. And suddenly, all of the awful memories came back and the reality of what had happened to me dawned on me. But I was too ashamed to seek professional help and embarrassed to speak to anyone about this matter. It boiled in me for so long, the consequences started to become evident in my academic performance and at work. I was not satisfied with myself; my confidence dropped and I began to face insecurities.
The idea of shame had been planted by my culture and by not speaking to anyone, by building up walls, I protected the seed so that it grew and began to consume me. I thought about telling someone but I didn't know if they would believe me even if I tell them my story in full. Because in Ethiopian culture, the idea of “casual sex” or any kind of promiscuity is demonized and I knew it would have been blamed on me. I was targeted because I was innocent and vulnerable and the lack of sex education had led to that.
A large part of Ethiopian culture is built on religion, and is very conservative. Thus, there are very prevalent ideas that any woman who has been assaulted was “asking for it.” The misunderstood conservative concepts that are embedded in our major two religions: viewing women as “temptress” has always been a get out of jail card for rapists and a prison sentence for the victims; a lifetime trapped in: shame, guilt and pain. There is also an idea that women are meant to be “pure and innocent” and that sex robs them of that purity and innocence. Having this cultural understanding, women would rather keep their silence than to be talked about as “damaged”, “broken” or “impure.”
Our culture is not built in a way that encourages women to open up or consult family members, because the idea of having a “broken” woman is shameful, especially in the case of marriage. The culture does not have any solutions to help individuals recover from the trauma. Our culture’s misguided views on “purity and innocence” has led many victims to suffer in silence, rather than to raise their voice, get heard, get the professional help they need and prosecute their assailants. If we don’t ban together to change the course of our culture regarding Shame and Silencing Victims, we will only embolden the underlying problem and the victims will only suffer much more than they already did.
Story by Anonymous
Edited by Amen Assefa (IG: @adonaayyy)
Art by Betremariam Tebebe (IG: @bitutebebe)