When a Weapon of Defense becomes a Source of Power: My Personal Journey into Self-hood
Sexuality is a driving force in human behavior; it is a source of identity, security and dignity. It can also become the ultimate weapon.
My college graduation present from my parents was a trip to visit my brother, a Peace Corps Volunteer in Tonga. They had hoped it would help me have time to heal after the loss of my other brother the previous November. The quest soon became a healing journey into womanhood... but, there were some growing pains, things I could have never imagined I would have to face. Things that NO woman should ever have to face. It became a fight to claim my fledgling adult identity.
When I was first approached to talk about sexuality; I’ll be honest, I was embarrassed. There is still so much I feel too uneducated or too inexperienced with which to really have a valid opinion. But, when posted Vaun’s question, “When did you first recognize yourself as a sexual being?” For that, I have a date and a lesson to share...
After a month, I had gotten used to being a spectacle on the island. All the Ha’apai villagers’ eyes were on the Palagis (Tongan for white people). In a population of about 400, everyone knew and respected my brother. I was known as Kalani’s sister, again Grant’s baby sister... just like I had been in Colorado. What were we wearing, what would we do next? I grew to love the relaxed lifestyle: no need to rush, no reason for stress. In a world filled with traffic jams and post graduation expectation and the looming thought of finally spreading my brother’s ashes, I was removed and given time to breathe. I felt privileged, liberated.
The Tongan culture was different, far more conservative than one would assume for a tropical climate. The women walked around in ankle length skirts and covered shoulders. In an effort to compromise, I forwent my swim suite in favor of a tank top and water shots. Although far more risque than the native dress, I felt adequately covered-up without the dreaded risk of a “farmers tan.”
One afternoon, while my brother went for a run. I went for a stroll on the beach. I walked along the water-saturated sand, into which I left almost no footprints. As I walked, I searched for perfect seashells, gifts for all of my loved ones at home.
I brought my i-pod with me, unlike the locals, I had no desire to swim fully-clothed. It was a perfect moment, I picked up speed and hummed to The Fray as it played in my ear buds. A few yards ahead, I saw an old Tongan man tying up his boat. He waved and smiled, and then was on his way. I figured I would make it to the edge of the windward side and then turn back to watch the sunset on my return.
I had made it halfway around the island and bit outside of town near the bush, where Tongans grow their crops. As I continued to walk along the shore, I saw a tall wiry man emerge from the bush. He called after me and I stopped and turned. His eyes were yellow, his eyebrows bushy. His English was very broken, and he wasn’t making sense. He mumbled something about the navy and grabbed my hand. He was abrasive, so I pulled back and started to walk away.
He followed and continued to ramble, all I heard was “love... need... boyfriend... promise,” I walked faster and he continued to per sue. I finally turned around to tell him to go, when the next thing I knew I was laying in the sand. He was much stronger than I had anticipated. As I tried to push him off, he grabbed me by the throat. I could smell the Tongan Hooch on his breath. He held me there until I stopped squirming, again I heard the words “love and promise.”
As soon as he loosened his grip, I yelled and fought like hell. I hoped someone would hear and chase him away, after all, it was a tiny Island, but, no one came. The pattern continued, I would squirm and yell, his grip tighten and then loosen once a lied still. Soon his words changed to threats, now I heard “kill you.... gun...and want to f**** you.”
I lost vision twice but counted the seconds until his grip loosened, making sure I stayed awake. After what seemed like hours, I had convinced him that I would obey, he let go, grabbed my arm and proceeded to guide me towards his house.
As soon as I stood, I yelled with all of the strength I could muster. I tried running but felt the blood rush back into my brain and collapsed. I started to crawl and continued to yell. I saw him approach and then turn away in fear, someone was bound to have heard all of the commotion. I continued to yell and slowly made my way back to my brother’s house I didn’t stop yelling until he was at my side.
I reported the attack to the Tongan Police, as well as the American Embassy in Samoa and the Peace Corps leaders. I was gravely disappointed by the lack of support from my government, as well as the lack of retribution in Tonga for violent crimes. While some of the native women respected or were at least surprised by my ability to stand up in court, most stared and kept their distance. Despite sentencing jail time, no real punishment was assigned to my attacker he continued to walk free around town.
I wondered if his lack of punishment had anything to do with my attire. During the trial I dressed as the Tongan’s did, but it was well known that I had not always adhered to their dress code. I later learned that the Peace Corps has a reputation of ignoring attacks on its volunteers, and because I was not volunteer but a guest of a volunteer, I should not have been surprised.
I was fortunate, I fought for my safety, but moreover, my dignity. Sexuality is a source of great power and vulnerability. I fought so hard to avoid sexual contact, that I nearly lost consciousness, and my life. While I will never know what would have happened had I not fought back so, I have come to accept my decision. I wonder if I could have recovered from such an attack, had it turned sexual.
Recovering from such atrocity, requires resilience and bravery. After that day, I developed a new sense of self and independence. I was able to fend for my self in dire straights. After a periond of healing, I gained a better understanding of my own emotional, mental, and physical strength. I am more than just the baby sister I am a powerful woman.