Elizabeth Aker doesn't remember much.
She remembers doing her hair and her makeup and slipping on the red dress. It was almost Christmas, and she wanted to look festive.
She was 18 then, a college freshman. A close friend invited her to a grownup work party.
She remembers having some drinks and getting sick. She vomited as the friend took her back to her apartment.
"That's when I stopped remembering," Aker said. "I woke up and there was a condom wrapper on the desk next to my bed. There wasn't a condom in my trash can.
"I've never spoken to him about it."
Aker said she never talked to anyone about it — and never reported it.
That was 11 years ago. She is silent no more.
Now 29, the St. Petersburg woman joined scores of people across the country — and the Tampa Bay area — taking to social media to tell stories of the sexual abuse they never reported using the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport.
#WhyIDidntReport I was 18 and he was 25. I thought because I had drank, I had made the mistake...I thought because I wore a pretty dress and looked really nice, it was my fault. #MeTOO— Elizabeth Aker (@lizzietizzy) September 24, 2018
Like the #MeToo movement, #WhyIDidntReport was inspired by national news: Allegations of sexual misconduct made against U.S. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. He is scheduled to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday along with one of his accusers.
Survivors of sexual abuse say they're taking to social media to support each other and to combat the stigma that silences so many.
"It takes you from being that one girl or that one person who was raped," Aker said, "and puts you in a group of others who have been sexually assaulted."
• • •
Scott Shepherd is 59. He lives in Lakeland and is missing his left arm from a drunken motorcycle accident. He said he's a recovering alcoholic.
It was an alcoholic, he said, who molested him when he was 5. It was one of his father's drinking buddies.
Shepherd says that incident robbed him of his self-esteem and his future. He was 18, Shepherd said, when he finally told his father about the abuse. Later that year came the motorcycle crash that cost him his arm, the night before he was to report to Navy boot camp. He said he was drunk.
"The sexual abuse and being 5-years-old was the catalyst that started to destroy me as a person," Shepherd said.
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#WhyIDidntReport 13 years before I told my dad of my sexual molestation that happened on my 5th birthday by one of his drinking buddies.
He felt guilt and shame. He learned things about the human body that he shouldn't have known at that age.
He told his sons, now 31 and 34, to not be afraid to speak up if someone ever touches them inappropriately. But it was only recently, Shepherd said, that he started to speak publicly about what happened to him.
"I'm a man and most people assume that this probably only happens to females," he said. "When everyone comes out and takes the mysterious aspect away from it, the topic is no longer taboo and people can heal."
• • •
Sarah McDugal said she was never told that reporting her assault was an option.
Even if she had, she thought, could anything have been done? She was assaulted on an airplane — on an overseas flight. Who even had jurisdiction?
McDugal was 12, on a mission trip. She said a man assaulted her on the plane. He knew her family.
"I knew it wasn't okay and I knew it was wrong, but I didn't know it was abuse or molestation," she said.
The 38-year-old McDugal is now an author, development coach and public speaker who works in Tampa. She said she has dedicated her life to helping those in the faith community who have suffered a sexual assault to regain their voice.
Survivors of sexual assault need to speak out, she said, because their pain can fester in the dark. McDugal said if they pull back the curtains and shine light on what happened to themselves and others, they can change rape culture — which encourages sexual violence and shames its victims.
Hashtags like #MeToo and #WhyIDidntReport can help change that.
"I see these hashtags as driving a tsunami wave across the nation and outside of America," McDugal said. "Bringing this freedom and this sense of power saying that we don't have to accept silence."
• • •
Why did Aker stay silent? She said there were all kinds of rationalizations. She was underage. She was drunk. She looked pretty.
Maybe, she thought to herself then, she was somehow asking for it?
She no longer thinks that way. Over the years, Aker said she realized that she was not to blame. What she was wearing or what she drank that night did not justify or excuse what happened to her.
That mind-set has become easier and easier to adopt as the stigma of sexual assault eases.
"The times are changing," Aker said. "Do you want to be on the side of history of not letting anyone learn from this horrible experience? Or are you going to share with people and let them know they're not alone?"
Contact McKenna Oxenden at firstname.lastname@example.org or (410) 258-2324. Follow @mack_oxenden