Padma said she feared victim blaming – what was she doing in her boyfriend’s apartment, or why she was dating someone so much older.

Sexually assaulted at 16 but kept quiet Indian American model-actor Padma LakshmiFacebook/Padma Lakshmi
news Sexual Assault Wednesday, September 26, 2018 - 16:16

After four women levelled allegations of sexual assault on US President Donald Trump’s nominee for Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh, last week, many people have been questioning – as they do in cases like these – why the women did not come forward earlier. On Monday, Indian American model, actor and author Padma Lakshmi, in a NY Times Op-ed, revealed how she too was raped when she was a teenager, and why she kept quiet.

Padma says that she was 16 when she met a guy at Puente Hills Mall in a Los Angeles suburb when she was working at an accessories counter in a store after school. The 23-year-old man, a college student, would flirt with her. He dressed in a grey silk suit and 16-year-old Padma thought he was charming.

She then highlights how everything in his behaviour suggested that he was a decent man – dropping her home on time on school nights, coming to her house, sitting on their couch and talking to her mother. He also knew that she was a virgin and that she had not yet decided if she was ready to have sex, though they were intimate to a point.

But just a few months after they started dating, on New Year’s Eve, Padma’s boyfriend raped her. The couple had gone to a few parties before coming to his apartment. Padma, quite tired after the night, fell asleep on the bed. “The next thing I remember is waking up to a very sharp stabbing pain like a knife blade between my legs. He was on top of me,” Padma wrote in the Op-ed. When she asked what he was doing, he replied, “It will only hurt for a while.” She screamed at him not to do this. “The pain was excruciating, and as he continued, my tears felt like fear,” she described.

The man justified his actions saying he thought it would hurt less if she was asleep.

In a poignant paragraph, Padma also mentioned she was not drunk and was dressed in a “long sleeved, black Betsey Johnson maxi dress” in which only her shoulders were visible. She was also not ambiguous about her desires – she clearly said that she did not want this, even as he was raping her. Padma’s ‘disclaimers’ are testament to the fact that even she, with her privilege and power, feels the need to defend herself against victim blaming.

Padma also mentions how, even before this incident, she was sexually assaulted by her stepfather’s relative when she was seven. He inappropriately touched her and put her hand on his erect penis. When she told her mother and stepfather, she was sent to India to live with her grandparents for a year. “The lesson was: If you speak up, you will be cast out,” Padma said.

Instances such as these, she explained, are reasons why victims of sexual violence take years to speak up.

Padma did not report the date rape when she was 16 to anyone, her mother and friends included. She feared the same victim blaming as present day victims – what was she doing in her boyfriend’s apartment, or why she was dating someone so much older in the first place.

It also took her time to process the trauma – she didn’t see what had happened as rape or even sex in her head. She had thought that losing her virginity would be a big deal or at least a choice she made – and in that way the loss of control was disorienting, she said. Padma continued to tell her future boyfriends that she was a virgin – because she was emotionally.

It was only later that she realised that what happened with her was rape, and how she had already absorbed lessons such as the one when she was sexually assaulted as a child. The experiences, she revealed, affected her ability to trust. “It took me decades to talk about this with intimate partners and a therapist,” he wrote.

Padma feels now that if she had called what happened rape and confided in others, her suffering may have been lesser. In retrospect, she thinks that she let her rapist off the hook and, in doing so, let down her 16-year-old self. And while some may say that a man should not be prosecuted for an act done in his teenage, a woman and those who love her are affected by such an act for the rest of her life.

Padma is trying to change things with her own daughter, who is now eight. “For years I’ve been telling her the simplest and most obvious words that it took me much of my life to understand,” Padma wrote. She tells her daughter that anyone touching her privates or makes her uncomfortable, she should scream out, get away and tell someone. Her body is her own and no one can put their hands on her.

Explaining why she is speaking about the rape 32 years after it happened, Padma said that while she did not have anything to gain, everyone had something to lose if a time limit is put on telling the truth about sexual assault. Everyone stands to lose if we “hold on to the codes of silence that for generations have allowed men to hurt women with impunity”. 

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