“That was my choice, just get through it.”
That statement comes from Kim Wells, domestic violence and workplace safety crusader who for decades kept the secret that she too was sexually assaulted and of at all places, where she worked.
Wells is the executive director of the Corporate Alliance to End Partner Violence, a national nonprofit organization in the U.S. founded by the business community to address domestic violence, including sexual assault, as a workplace issue.
She has helped Fortune 500 companies including Verizon and most notably the NFL develop policies and procedures to address domestic violence as an issue that affects the workplace and to partner with community organizations to address the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault.
So when GLT reached out to Wells for an interview in light of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, we expected her perspective as someone who, since the early 1990s, worked on related issues with employers. We did not expect Wells, who has given speeches on more than one national stage, to reveal that as a young graduate student in her 20s, she was sexually assaulted by a co-worker at her part-time job as a telemarketer.
Wells was leaving work from her job at a Downers Grove telemarketing company after working an evening shift. A man, whom she knew but didn’t work with regularly because he wasn’t on her team, followed her into the parking lot and before she knew it, the assault began.
“He attacked me, got me in my car, locked me in my car, and sexually assaulted me,” she said.
Wells was hoping to be able to get through the interview without crying. She doesn’t provide much detail because she said she has blocked it out. In fact, she hasn’t even tried to remember her attacker’s name.
Wells describes deliberately disassociating herself from what was happening to her.
“I just sort of left myself. I think you’ve heard people say before, ‘You feel like you’re above the situation,’” she said while then quickly launching into what she remembers most about the experience.
Wells shares what she thinks is the most terrible reality about what happened.
“I don’t think the guy thought he did anything wrong.” She points to a phrase often repeated on the popular "Law and Order: SVU" TV show: “It’s sounds very SVU-like but I think he didn’t know that that wasn’t OK. But I never talked to him again.”
Wells then went home to her parents' house where she was living at the time and said nothing and told no one. She eventually shared her experience only with her husband of more than 25 years, Mike, who is also a licensed therapist.
Wells points out she did what many Hollywood actresses did with Weinstein; she warned her co-workers to stay away from her attacker without being specific.
“I said, ‘Stay away from that guy. He’s bad.’ That seemed to be enough for people.”
But as a sexual assault survivor, Wells has been plagued by the fact she didn’t say more.
“I didn’t tell anybody so I don’t know how many other people he might have done this to? If I had said something at work, it might have stopped that from happening to someone else.”
She said it was a different time and she was young.
“I didn’t even realize that what happened to me was a) a crime and b) something I should report to my employer,” according to Wells.
Saying no to a man in a position of power is not the same as saying no to a man with no power over you. Both hard, not the same.#MeToo
— Najwa Zebian (@najwazebian) October 21, 2017
With millions of courageous women and men coming forward, using #MeToo to share their story and make their voices heard, Wells was ready to join them.
“Maybe it’s the point I am in my life that I feel more comfortable because I didn’t do anything wrong so I’m not ashamed or you feel like there was this sea change of people out there saying ‘Me too, me too’ and all these people saying ‘I believe you’ that I just felt like it’s time to say what happened to me.”
Wells thinks that until now she compartmentalized what happened because she didn’t want her life defined by the experience and for years, “I didn’t even have it in my consciousness.”
Guys, it's our turn.
— Benjamin Law (@mrbenjaminlaw) October 16, 2017
Men are using the hashtag too, and Wells points out that one in six men by the time they are 18 have experienced some sort of unwanted sexual advance. She said "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" actor Terry Crews, a former NFL star who shared his story, can be a game changer in helping men understand how easy it can be for victims to stay silent when abuse happens at the hands of people in powerful positions.
“It’s an everybody issue, just like domestic violence is. We all need to stand up against it and we all need to do something about it, said Wells. There was a watershed moment in the movement against domestic violence awareness and Wells thinks the Weinstein story and the #MeToo hashtag could have a similar effect.
“I liken it to the terrible video of Ray Rice assaulting his now wife and that making a sea change in the conversation about domestic violence and sexual assault and rather than people saying like when I first started my job, ‘Well that’s a terrible thing that happened but it’s none of my business because it’s a private affair,’ people would not stand for it and it created a national conversation like I had never seen before.”
— Global Citizen (@GlblCtzn) October 21, 2017
When we reference a blog post by a friend who wrote that her male friend was shocked by the sheer volume and number of women he knew posting with the #MeToo hashtag, Wells responds there can be some good coming out of the horrific Weinstein story. In addition to the #MeToo, another hashtag has popped up. #HowWillIChange was created to promote a positive response by men to be allies in the fight.
“It shouldn’t be part of a woman’s life. It shouldn’t be something to just get through and I feel like if anything happens as a result of the terrible things that have happened with Harvey Weinstein and the stories that people have shared is that people will stopped being shocked and people will start changing the culture.”
If you have experienced sexual assault and would like to get support, please consider using these resources:
— YWCA McLean County (@YWCAMcLean) October 16, 2017
WGLT depends on financial support from users to bring you stories and interviews like this one. As someone who values experienced, knowledgeable, and award-winning journalists covering meaningful stories in central Illinois, please consider making a contribution.