Surviving sexual assault: Tara’s story

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Tara Shaffer was first sexually assaulted when she was 6 years old by a family friend who was only four years older when the abuse started.

“He was a child himself but very manipulative,” Tara said. “I learned, at age 7, to give blow jobs, while other kids were learning to do cartwheels. It was pretty extreme, the things he made me do at a young age.”

Tara said she remembers what his hands felt like and that his skin was thicker than hers, and she can vividly recount the first time he assaulted her. They were playing hide and seek, and he found Tara in her room.

“He forced me to the floor, and he kind of curled himself over me and slipped his hand down my pants. I remember freezing,” Tara described. “He said, ‘Don’t ever tell your parents what happened because they’ll hate what you did. They’ll be mad at you.’ He turned it on me, and at 6 years old, it stuck.”

The incidents of abuse, which occurred in Indiana, continued until Tara was 14. On that night, her abuser, now an adult, came into her room when her parents were gone. Tara said she’d locked the door, but he picked the flimsy lock with a hairpin.

“He came in and sat down on my bed and startled me,” Tara said. “He started to touch me, and I punched him in the face. He got up and left immediately.”

A year later, on the night of his high school graduation, he tried it again, but Tara pushed him away and said get out, and he did, leaving for college that summer.

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Tara also went off to college a few years later, and during her second week there, she was raped. She went to a party with a group of friends, and she believes the guy who raped her used a date rape drug.

She remembers having a beer and starting to feel sleepy. Her attacker was the one who served her the beer, and he offered to walk Tara back home. When they arrived at the door to her dorm room, Tara opened the door and turned to him to say “good night and thank you” when he pushed her backwards, and she fell onto her back.

“He jumped on top of me and worked my shorts down to my knees, so he could rape me,” Tara said. “I remember trying to fight and yelling, but everyone was gone. I also remember trying to fight with my arms, and they were completely limp.”

Tara never reported the rape. She said her attacker called her the next morning and told her if she ever told anyone it was rape, he would deny it and tell everyone, including her boyfriend at that time, that she was a slut and wanted it.

Tara, now 49 and living in Steamboat Springs, said she carried her shame for 40 years. She said she never felt comfortable in her own skin until she was introduced to Krav Maga, a form of self-defense that she learned when she was working for the Steamboat Springs Police Department and continues to practice as a Routt County Sheriff’s Office employee.

“It’s a healing and empowering practice — any self-defense practice is,” Tara said. “I always wondered why I didn’t fight when I was raped — why didn’t I fight when I was 6? I now know it’s because of adrenaline, and I was kicking myself for letting it happen. Krav Maga trains your mind and body to respond despite the adrenaline.”

Tara now teaches Krav Maga and uses the practice to help others, including those who have been sexually assaulted.

“I want to give back and help,” Tara said. “I do have an experience that’s worth sharing, and I can help people work through stuff. I am not a counselor or a psychologist. I just want to empower women, or anyone, who needs it.”

Part of Tara’s healing also came about when her mother was dying of glioblastoma two years ago. Tara said six months before her mother passed, she called Tara and asked her about the boy who had sexually assaulted her as a child.

“She was 73 and had finally figured it out,” Tara said. “She wanted me to tell her what went on, so I did. I feared my entire life they wouldn’t believe me, and she believed me immediately. There was no doubt.”

Tara’s mom eventually asked Tara and her brother to confront Tara’s abuser, and they did. They met the man in a park near his home, and sitting at a picnic table, he admitted what he’d done.

“Just having that validation right in front of my brother was huge,” Tara said. “We were all able to move forward from that. My mom said, ‘I don’t want you to carry this anymore.’”

Tara also credits the love and support of her husband of 23 years and her two grown children, who know her story and continue to support her as she shares her experience with others.

To reach Lisa Schlichtman, call 970-871-4221, email or follow her on Twitter @lschlichtman.

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