Viola Davis is an amazingly strong woman.
The How to Get Away With Murder actress and advocate for The Rape Foundation gave a moving speech at the organization's annual brunch over the weekend. It's best read in its entirety, so grab a cup of coffee and a box of tissues.
"Myself, my mother, my sisters, my friend Rebecca, my friend from childhood, we all have one thing in common: We are all survivors of sexual assault in some way, shape or form," she began.
"Listen, when I was young, there were so many men in the neighborhood who gave you money if they could touch you. Going over to a friend's house for a birthday party at the age of 7, there was always someone there who touched you.
"My sister Danielle was 8 years old when she was on roller-skates and went down to the corner store at 1 o'clock in the afternoon and was sexually assaulted in the aisles. She told my mom right away — my mom ran down to the store. The store owner's response was: 'He does that to all the little girls.'
"My mom flagged down the police, and the perpetrator did pay. He paid. He was fined $10 a month. It's over for him, but I'd like to redefine survivor.
"My sister is now a heroin addict; she's a prostitute. The friend of mine who's a survivor, I call her a survivor because her 7-year-old daughter was taken from the backyard of her grandma's house while playing in the middle of the day. They couldn't find her for an entire day, and they finally found her sexually assaulted, strangled dead. So her mom, she's surviving. It's just that when she's surviving, when she's alive just having a meal, she has flashbacks — post-traumatic stress disorder."
"I asked her how she gets through. She says: 'I don't know; it's a nightmare. I pray to God.'
"Memories demand attention because memories have teeth. That sexual assault perpetrator can move on. The only person who rapes is the rapist. The person who is left behind has to pay over and over and over again."
Davis listed her three wishes for the audience hearing her speech that day.
"No. 1: If you have not visited The Rape Treatment Center or the Stuart House, you must. That's all I'll say, then I'll let your heart do the rest. No. 2: It's like the famous Shakespeare quote, 'To whom should I complain?' If you have anyone in your life that you know, or if you don't know, is a rape survivor, then listen because truly whatever you say, if you feel ashamed in any way of your story — shame cannot exist if you tell it to people who have empathy. And No. 3: That in your mind today, listen. I'm with Émile Zola. I want to 'live out loud.' I do."
She continued, "Living out loud is not playing Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder. It's not being Amanda Waller in Suicide Squad. It's not getting an Oscar. Living out loud is living a life that's bigger than yourself. Living out loud is long after you're gone — and trust me, everyone in this room, you're going to be dead a lot longer than you're alive even if you live to be 100 years old — you leave something on this Earth that's bigger than yourself. And that's a big message in this town."
According to Davis, half of the people helped by The Rape Foundation are children. One in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys are sexually assaulted before they turn 18.
"They don't want to just survive. They want to be warriors. They want to know that at the time that they were held down, and strangled, that wasn't their death," she said. "And you giving to the Rape Treatment Center, the Stuart House, anything to make sure there's models just like that in this world, in this country, is you living out loud.
"So those are my three wishes, my three prayers. And I continue to pray for my sister, that she understands that she's not dirty. That she understands that her perpetrator is not afraid of his anger, that he's afraid of her anger. And it's OK to feel angry because something has been done to you."
There's really nothing I can add that compares to the power of Davis' words. But her speech is an important reminder that whether you've been directly impacted by sexual assault or not, we all have a shared responsibility to do what it takes to end it.
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