“As a survivor, I struggled for years to tell my own story,” writes Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), “and I know how it feels to be a survivor in a country where believing and supporting survivors has become a partisan issue, where survivors are made to feel marginalized and ostracized. I tell my story both because it is part of my own ongoing healing and because I know that sharing my story can provide others with agency, too.”
Pressley’s words were excerpted for Marie Claire from the new essay anthology Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World, edited by Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman and released today, Jan. 28. The congresswoman has long been open about her history as a survivor of both childhood sexual abuse and sexual assault on her college campus, subsequently becoming a mentor and advocate for other survivors. In Believe Me, the essay she shares was penned mere weeks into her first term, soon after speaking to the House on a sex trafficking bill.
“Days after my remarks on the House floor, my chief of staff would tell me, ‘I just realized you were the only survivor who spoke on the floor about this bill. Or maybe just the only person to disclose,’” Pressley recalls, later recognizing the moment as further proof of the power of representation in policy-making roles.
“Our movement builds when we elect survivors. Each time our government takes a step toward representing and valuing the diverse lived experiences of the American people, our policy-making becomes sharper, crisper, and more responsive,” she writes. “We belong at every table where decisions are made about our lives, our livelihood, and our justice. Our lives, our stories, and our struggles matter.”
As the congresswoman notes, less than 1 percent of perpetrators of sexual violence are brought to justice in a court of law—and as RAINN reports, three out of four sexual assaults go unreported altogether. With those facts in mind, Pressley has her own ideas of what justice can look like for survivors:
[W]hen I speak of justice, the future I dream of is not actually defined by the confines of a courtroom or even trauma-informed judges on the bench (though, yes, that would be a victory). The justice I seek is bolder. I want a world where survivors are believed and validated and supported. I also want a world where within a generation the number of those impacted by sexual violence plummets. I reject any narrative that says we as a society have to tolerate this behavior.
Pressley further urges us to stay focused on creating both the justice and cultural shift we seek for survivors and potential victims of sexual violence. Because in this, as in all issues of justice, there is power in not only collective but consistent action.
“It was not as if Rosa sat on a bus, Martin gave a speech, and we were granted civil rights. Behind every breakthrough, every movement that caught fire and captivated the nation, there are hours of quiet sweat equity invested in the struggle for justice,” she writes. “Real and lasting change takes hold as we claim our seats at the tables of power. And we’re just getting started.”
You can read more of Pressley’s essay in Marie Claire. Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World is available online and in stores now.