In a moving op-ed for the New York Times, Padma Lakshmi opened up about her own sexual assaults and her reasons for not reporting them.
Lakshmi’s raw and searingly honest piece recounted the abuse she experienced when as a seven-year-old a relative of her stepfather molested her. When she revealed what happened to her mother and stepfather, they sent her to India to live with her grandparents.
“The lesson was: If you speak up, you will be cast out.” Lakshmi writes in her op-ed. “These experiences have affected me and my ability to trust. It took me decades to talk about this with intimate partners and a therapist.”
Lakshmi, like many others who face sexual abuse, was taught that expressing themselves when the feelings are not positive or “happy thoughts” is unacceptable. This, she explained, sets the foundation for how a young child views the universe. They learn to internalize instead of voicing their feelings.
Lakshmi also revealed that she was raped as a teenager by a boyfriend, who was 23-years-old at the time. She was a virgin and only 16-years-old. She wrote that the rape occurred one night after a party when she took a nap, only to wake up to her boyfriend trying to rape her. Lakshmi details her confusion, shock, and self-blame. In a time where date rape wasn’t discussed, Lakshmi wasn’t even sure if it was rape or not, does it count if it was your boyfriend?
“I don’t think I classified it as rape — or even sex — in my head,” Lakshmi writes in the NY Times. “I’d always thought that when I lost my virginity, it would be a big deal — or at least a conscious decision. The loss of control was disorienting. In my mind, when I one day had intercourse, it would be to express love, to share pleasure or to have a baby. This was clearly none of those things.”
Via Twitter, Lakshmi went on to explain that there was a third incident at the age of 23 but she again, didn’t report it because no one would step forward to support her. At the time, Anita Hill, an American lawyer, accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during the 2 years she worked as his assistant at the United States Department of Education and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Watching Hill’s case be thrown out and her credibility undermined, even though she had four other women supporting her, convinced Lakshmi to stay quiet. If a strong, intelligent woman like Hill can’t get justice, how can we?
To people saying “Why didn’t he/she report it?” When something so evil happens to you it takes a long time to process it. In our victim-blaming culture it takes incredible courage to come forward. The victim is treated like the perpetrator.
— Padma Lakshmi (@PadmaLakshmi) September 22, 2020
Millions of women are telling their story like Lakshmi with the #WhyIDidntReport trend. It was triggered after Christine Blasey Ford and Deborah Ramirez came forward about sexual assault back in college from Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. President Trump tweeted that if their accusations were true they would have come forward years ago.
We are prevented from expressing ourselves as children, punished even for telling a truth adults don’t want to hear. As teens and young adults, we’re discredited as “experimenting” or not having a reality-based perception of the events that transpire. Then as adults, we’re expected to be able to magically report when our whole lives we’re taught we shouldn’t?
We’ve been programmed not to tell the truth and when we do, we are discredited, so why come forward? It is tragically debilitating to see how many women and men have come forward through the #WhyIDidntReport hashtag to tell their story.
“Now, 32 years after my rape, I am stating publicly what happened,” Lakshmi writes as she closes out her piece. “I have nothing to gain by talking about this. But we all have a lot to lose if we put a time limit on telling the truth about sexual assault and if we hold on to the codes of silence that for generations have allowed men to hurt women with impunity. One in four girls and one in six boys today will be sexually abused before the age of 18. I am speaking now because I want us all to fight so that our daughters never know this fear and shame and our sons know that girls’ bodies do not exist for their pleasure and that abuse has grave consequences.”
Lakshmi explains how she has always spoken to her daughter about how to react if anyone touches her inappropriately, how to express herself and protect herself. Lakshmi, like the rest of us, is hoping that with more awareness, the next generation can change the narrative.