Sexual assault has been in the headlines these past two weeks (because it involved a celebrity of sorts). And with the news attention it received, came questions about who the victims are (he claimed it was him), who is likely to be believed, kink and the meaning of consent, and why women do not choose to come forward or press charges against the offenders. What I write here came about because of these conversations, though it is not a direct statement about any of the individuals involved or harmed in these recent crimes.
In writing about this, speaking from a place not just of awareness and research but also personal experience, I am clear that I am identifying myself as having been a victim of sexual assault. I do not do so lightly, or valiantly. The reality is, what I am writing about is the many true and real reasons women, myself included, do not come forward, do not speak, do not report, do not press chargers, do not want to go to trial, do not give their own name, do not name the one who assaulted. This is me being willing to speak about my silence.
I do so because at this crossroads in time and life, I have things to say about voice and the choice to not speak, which is sometimes your only way toward survival and life. I do so because I am tired with the assumptions. I do so because, as a woman, I hear so much more about how I can stay safe and avoid being raped than I do about how we might stop men from assaulting in the first place and so something is fundamentally wrong with the focus. We need to stop blaming women for the violence done against them and stop blaming them for not preventing or ending it. It does not originate in the victim, and as such, the solution cannot primarily be found in modifying their behavior or their responses to the crime. I do so because, when I did speak of being raped, I was told things that were damaging, and they were coming from the voices of my own allies and support system. Words that I truly believe were well-intentioned, but grossly misunderstanding of what are much larger systems and dynamics at work in an individual’s life and reality, and so the loneliness of it all was the thing that nearly destroyed me.
When I was almost nineteen, I was assaulted and raped. It was not the first or only time that sexual violence was a part of my life, forever shaping how I would experience myself in relation to the world and to my own interior, to matters of safety and consent and sovereignty over my own body and psyche. It was, however, the experience in which I received the most external support including the therapeutic and health care systems and well as the criminal and legal systems. It was also the time in which I was the most vocal about what had taken place, and the experience in which I received the most judgment, not toward the man who raped me, but toward me and my choices.
I spoke and chose many forms of keeping quiet, and in both of these, I had a backpack full of reasons and I carried them around with me like a weight I was required to hold as some kind of badge of proof and also a horrible branding of my refusal to come forward. Until I wasn’t anymore. I let go the weight and was free. That was the day when things changed, after the great change, which was the night I was raped when I was almost nineteen, and nothing was ever the same after that.
So here I am. Today, I’m giving voice to both, to the speaking and the silence, to the whole.
"silence and survival"
(a list of reasons why one does not or may not want or choose to speak (or come forward or press charges) after being sexually assaulted.)
- you won’t be believed. you won’t be believed. you won’t be believed.
- and by this, i mean in every way, for every reason.
- you will have to prove your validity as one who tells the truth. you will be told outright that you are lying. you will hear insulting questions such as, is it possible you misunderstood? or how can you be sure of what happened?
- your credibility will be so questioned, that it will start to mess with your brain. the way everything is asked again and again. how when you answer, they ask again, the same question again, as if you must have answered wrong, except you didn’t, you answered the question as honestly as you know how from your memory that is like a fence trying to protect you from re-living but it has all these gaping gaps in it, holes cut in the crisscrossed metal and so when you try to pull the memory through, it gets scraped on the sharp shards of broken recollection trying to remember and trying to forget all at the same time. and it is relentless, the questions, followed by the same questions, and so now you are confused or it feels like you are disappearing, like the room is getting bigger and bigger and your throat is smaller and smaller and you are disappearing.
- no one is truly listening.
- they will ask you what you were wearing that night.
- they will ask you if you had been drinking.
- they will ask you what, if any, drugs you had been taking.
- they will ask you why you waited so long to speak, to come forward, why you are only saying something now. (if it really happened, i mean, wouldn’t you have done something about it right away? they will ask. isn’t that what someone who has been hurt would do?)
- they will ask why you went to work every day, after it happened, knowing he would be there, putting on your uniform and showing up and trying to ignore him when he came up behind you and threatened you, and so you would just try to focus, to shut it out by pinching your own skin into pain, to call out the food order to the cook and then put on a smile and walk out and pour more coffee into the half empty cooling cups, and how could you possibly do that if what you said happened really happened?
- they will ask you where you were walking, and why were you there, at that time of day.
- they will ask you why no one seemed to see or stop what was happening.
- they will ask you why you went out with him, as if agreeing to go on a date with someone means what? you are asking for it? you made it up? you are lying or “confused” or false in your understanding of the line between consent and coercion and assault? as if, once you say yes to a date, or get in the car, you have given up all your rights to the word no? what exactly is even meant by this question, why did you go out with him?
- they will ask you what kind of car it was, and when you say you don’t know, that you only know the color, that it was black, and it smelled like Marlboro reds and grease and the tar from pine trees and that the beastie boys song “sabotage” was playing, they will ask you how it could have really happened the way you are saying, because wouldn’t you know what kind of car it was if you were really there?
- they will ask why you didn’t go to the police that night, but instead let the man who assaulted you drive you home, and then you crawled out of the car and went inside, and went about the business of covering up the tremors and stopping the bleeding and then sat there all night, numb and empty.
- they will ask. and by they, i mean your loved ones, your friends, the health care providers at the hospital, the police officer taking down your statement.
- you do not speak because there is this slick sweat of disgust that smothers you, and you would do anything in the world to just peel off all your own skin and forget everything, walk away with veins illuminated, clean. you want to forget. you want to forget. you want to forget. you think, at that point and place in time, that it is possible to forget, and so you will give the next seven years of your life to the task of not remembering.
- you don’t speak because if you know the person who raped you, and you had sex with them before, you are convinced you will not be believed. and you are not making this fear up or pulling this idea out of nothingness. the reality, the statistics, back you up here. because we have a strange belief that consent is somehow a one-time and permanent thing.
- because he is so well respected, and so no one will want to believe you because he has all these people who love him or worship him and so need to believe he would never do such a thing. because he is the pastor, the teacher, the counselor, the celebrity. and so seriously, who will believe you?
- because he is the police.
- because the chances of the one who raped you being prosecuted and found guilty and being removed from your own environment, where you might then feel safer, is statistically not very high. (out of every forty rapes reported, only ten will lead to an arrest, and from those ten only eight will get prosecuted, and of those eight only four will lead to a jury conviction, and of those four only three will spend even a day in prison.) and so you have to be willing to go through all of the trauma of remembering on repeat and the accusations hurled at your credibility while no one can actually tell you that there is any likelihood you will be safe.
- so yes, it is possible to be raped by someone who attends the same school as you, and to even report it, and still, nothing happens, and so if you remain in school he can take the same classes as you, and sit next to you, and every day you will be forced to remember how and when and where it happened, your own body and space invaded and violated.
- you are just so goddamn afraid.
- if you speak, others will treat you differently. they will treat you like you are broken. or like you are suspect. or like you need to be told what to do. or like your victimization is contagious.
- because you will be told what your experience was. there will be no space for complexity, for your own questions, piecing together these incoherent pieces all trying to seek a narrative that will make sense inside you. there will be labels and legalities and levels of crime. there will be lectures and terminology. there will be all this insistence that it wasn’t your fault. there will be a hospital and a rape kit and a question mark hanging over you, as to what you had been doing right before.
- because you want to keep your job. (and it’s not as easy as just taking some time off, or going and getting another job. because you make minimum wage. because there is no one else there to cover you for a while. because you are already behind on rent. because financial poverty is very real, and you learned a long time ago that being poor already means others treat you as less trustworthy, and really, truly, you want to keep your job.)
- because when you are young, you don’t always know its sexual assault. because you don’t even know the word. you don’t know what to do. you just know that no one can ever, ever know what happened.
- because the whole world now feels permeated with danger, and so silence comes to be equated with safety.
- because you are saving your life. so you will stay quiet, play dumb, play dead, to stay alive. you will shut down and block out and move forward, to stay alive. in the moment, when you realize what is happening and are trying to make flash second decisions, you will barter off parts of yourself, your own sense of integrity, your own no and protest and rage, to keep all of yourself from dying. you will, sometimes, wonder if this was a good idea, all those momentary agreements you made with yourself about what of yourself you were willing to sacrifice in order to make it through. and yet you are here. so yes, you were silent. you were saving your own life.
- because you didn’t fight back. and if you had, you’d be dead, is what others will not so subtly suggest. so being alive is like naming yourself as complicit.
- because you did fight back, and your body is now ripped open and there are bruises that protrude and you are standing in front of the mirror and placing pancake makeup on your skin to cover up all evidence. because your silence is, in that moment of hiding, your way of staying intact inside.
- because your sexuality will be put on trial. your previous sexual encounters will become public knowledge, up for public consumption and debate and critique. how many people, how many times, the specifics of your practices and curiosities and explorations. all of which will be presented as means of proving you liar.
- your memory will be put on trial. and the thing is, you do remember, and there are all these moments that you want to forget but cannot, and they will replay on a loop in your brain for years, interrupting you when you are trying to sleep or study for an exam or go to the post office and everything was fine but some small flash of stimuli sends a message to your brain that the situation is similar and now the body responds in the tripped loop of panic and they are circling around you now asking if you are ok and should we call 911 for an ambulance and you think, it’s too late for that. but these are not the memory of a timeline. memory doesn’t work that way, hardly ever. and the more traumatic the event, the more some details become seared into the synapses like they were branded and scarred into the soft curves and coils of your brain, but there will still be difficulty in the recall of this, then this, then this. because as it is happening, a good part of your survival may depend on not being all the way present to what it is being done to you.
- because the one who harmed you is your brother, your father, your uncle, your husband, and the family would be broken in a way it could never find a means to repair. because the one who assaulted you is the husband of your professor, and she is the best thing that has ever happened to you in the way she sees your mind and invites questions and makes you think that it is possible to have your own voice when entering a text, and you are too afraid of her hating you and losing what you need. and it is never acceptable for this violation to happen. but what i'm saying is, it is complicated, when you have so much to lose and the very ones you need most may be the ones to reject you and take his side, claiming it is a dispute or difference of opinion or unfortunate event and not a violent crime.
- because you are keeping yourself alive by burying everything that ever happened to you until a later date, when you have the space inside and psychological resiliency to dig it back up and let it be real and find a way to integrate it into the self and world you built in every step you took moving forward, refusing to look back.
- because their taglines may help change education or policy, but they are not particularly useful for healing or making sense of what happened, so you feel like they will lecture you instead of listen to you. they will say it to your face in the school assembly. “rape is not about sex. it is about power and violence.” and that may be true. except for the parts where it was your sexual body that was invaded and destroyed and now it is hard to have sex with someone you want to be with, without thinking about it, about the act of power. except for that. so the words meant to help can end up hurting, like you are failing at correctly understanding your own experience.
- you will be told that if you do not move forward and press charges, he will then hurt others, as if it is on you to prevent someone from harming (which ends up sounding an awful lot like the voice that says it’s not his fault because she provoked him, because now it would be your fault if he hurt someone else and so it’s all just bit blurry as to who is to blame for what.) and so not only was i sexually assaulted, it was now somehow my responsibility to stop it from ever happening again. except I never chose any of it, and none of it was my fault.
- because it was not so long ago that women were accused of being witches and sent to a trial by water. tie you up and toss you in, see if you will sink or float. if you drown, then you were innocent. if you do not, if the water rejects your body and prevents you from being submerged, then it is proof. you are wicked and a witch, and now we will burn you. either way, you do not make it through. and we want to believe we are so much further than this kind of barbaric reasoning. except we are not. and blaming women is a vicious cycle we seem hell bent on continuing.
- because you didn’t say the word “no” out loud and so now it is not entirely clear, when you try to piece together what happened that night, how to voice it to another in a way true and real. that you said no in every way you knew how even though your mouth stayed closed the whole time.
- because you are is so much pain, and the idea of reliving it again and again, as they say again and again, “why don't you walk us through what happened that night,” feels impossible for your psyche is to survive.
- because choosing to stay silent when it happened was your survival. because choosing to stay silent right after it happened, to go home and clean up and not tell a single person, was your survival. because choosing to stay silent the entire summer while you went to work and watched your bruises heal from deep blue to gray green to the slightest of pink, this was your survival. because not having to have your memory and credibility and integrity assaulted day in and day out was your survival. because when you told people three months later and began to see the response and so you shut up for another year, this was your survival. because when, years later you would begin speaking, something was altered in your way of being in the world and in relationship with yourself and you had enough space for it now, and this was your own survival. because you chose your own survival.
- because i am not broken. the system that blames me is.
For all those who have stayed silent for survival, for any reason and for all the reasons, may we come to recognize the sound of our voices, not as a thing required to speak or forced to stay quiet, but as belonging to ourselves. This is what I think I came to understand all those years later, once my jaw unhinged and I said the unspeakable things and watched the buildings of my beliefs crumble and leave me in a wide open wasteland of freedom. That my voice was my voice. It belongs to me.
Which means I can speak or not speak, stay silent for survival or scream for my own salvation of integration. I can decide it is not in my best interest to open my mouth and I can let a thing leave. I can write what I want to write. So many factors influence what I choose, in the end, to speak and say. But my voice belongs to me. Your voice belongs to you alone.
And what I have to speak now knows and says this. May we set aside assumption and make space for true listening to the speaking and to the silence. May we hold a space for a sexuality that can be ravaged by another’s violence and still want and seek and choose pleasure and wholeness. May we end the blaming of women for harm done against them. May we let our medicine be what it is, in the process of healing from what we should not be asked to prevent and did not cause. Which may be dark. Which may be honey. Let your medicine be what it is. It is yours. As is your voice, which I swear I can hear, or maybe it is that I feel it, its heartbeat, even in the most silent of spaces.