Spotlight on Women's Health
An Interview About Sexual Assault: Neesha Arter
March 31, 2015
It's your body. You have the right to decide what you do and don't do sexually. When someone takes that power away from you, it is a crime. And no matter the circumstances, it is not your fault.
It took Neesha Arter years to finally accept that what happened to her on New Year's Eve when she was 14 was not her fault. That night, she was sexually assaulted by two boys she knew and trusted. Now, at 23, she's speaking out about her experience. She talks about helping other young women realize they're not alone and that what happened to them isn't their fault.
Neesha Arter is a journalist and author in New York City. Her memoir, Controlled, which recounts her sexual assault at 14, will be published in August 2015. Her work has appeared in The Daily Beast, the New York Observer, and New York Magazine.
Q: Will you tell us a little bit about what happened the night you were sexually assaulted?
A: When I was 14, I was at a New Year's Eve party and was sexually assaulted by two of my cousin's friends. I was visiting family in Houston, Texas.
Q: What were some of the emotional effects you experienced?
A: The post-traumatic stress was something that definitely affected me, but I never realized what was going on because I was so young. I spent all of my days going through the motions. I didn't want to think about what happened, but because my parents pressed charges against the two boys, I was dealing with a legal case. I wanted nothing to do with it. I felt very ashamed of what happened, and I wanted to pretend like everything was fine. Dealing with the case was the most difficult part, because it wouldn't let me pretend nothing had happened. It was a daily reminder, and my need to regain some control in my life led to my eating disorder.
Q: How did you deal with these feelings?
A: I ended up coping with the trauma by not eating and trying to pretend like nothing happened. Anorexia consumed me. It was the only thing I thought about besides the legal case. I put a great deal of energy into trying not to deal with these feelings. I didn't deal with them until I wrote my book, Controlled, four years later.
Q: How did being a survivor of sexual assault affect the rest of your high school experience?
A: My friends stuck with me. They were unbelievably supportive. I was able to get through it because my parents and friends believed me after other people didn't. They're all heroic to me.
Q: How did you eventually cope with this traumatic event in your past?
A: Writing Controlled during my first year of college helped me reach closure on this part of my life. When I read my story during my book edits, I didn't even really see my character in the book as me anymore. I think I have made peace with my past because of my book. However, therapy was just as crucial in my healing as the writing. I think the ability to work through the past in any way is very important.
Q: Will you tell us how you found the courage to speak up about your attack?
A: At the time, I had someone in my life who was very inspiring to me. That person made me believe I could do anything at any age, so I wrote the first draft of my book over winter break. I was 18.
No matter how scary it was to write and relive my experience, I knew it was ultimately worth it. I knew I was helping myself.
Q: What do you want other sexual assault survivors to know?
A: You're not alone, and it's not your fault. I would also suggest going to therapy when you are ready. I solved problems in therapy that I had held onto for years. The most important thing I learned was how critical it is to forgive. For me, it was especially important to stop blaming myself.
Q: What's your advice for other women who may feel too scared or ashamed to get help?
A: Tell someone you trust. I think everyone responds to trauma differently, and each case is very different. Not everyone who files charges wins their case. I didn't, and that was very difficult. You are the most important person in your life, so try to figure out what you need to do to take care of yourself, especially when you're in such a fragile state.
Q: What advice do you have for women who have a friend who has been assaulted?
A: Compassion is the most important human emotion. If a friend has been sexually assaulted, try to be there for them. Learn more about coping and available resources so you can give them knowledgeable support. Hearing from a friend that this was not my fault helped me in ways I couldn't see until much more time passed.
Q: What can people do to help put an end to sexual assault?
A: There is great power in discussing something that is so hard to talk about. Helping women learn to protect themselves is important, but what we need to do a lot more of is telling men not to rape. This is not a women's issue. It is a human issue. I want people to know that.
Q: Is there anything else you'd like to share?
A: I've always thought that if I could have read about a story like mine when I was assaulted, I wouldn't have felt so alone. That's why I'm speaking out. I don't want other victims of sexual assault to feel alone.
The statements and opinions in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.