A few days ago, I wrote a lengthy post on the subject of sexual assault and its roots. Another of our writers, the venerable BZOD, wrote me a very lucid and compelling response which I wanted to share with you all. In addition, I’ve included some bits and pieces from our rather lengthy conversation that followed.
I’ve never experienced sexual assault, but I was sexually harassed in late August by a creepy middle-aged man in my neighborhood. There was no physical contact, he made no motions to pursue me as I excused myself from the conversation, and did not know anything about me except my first name, but nevertheless I found myself paranoid after the encounter. For the next few weeks, every time I passed an older, overweight guy in sunglasses on the way to the bus, I found myself wondering whether it was him, and whether he was following me. Given how uncomfortable I felt after only 10 minutes of conversation and how unreasonably paranoid the whole interaction made me for a time, I cannot even fathom what it must be like for someone who was actually sexually assaulted, who actually DOES see their attacker again, or even regularly.
I think that this is one of the biggest problems: as a society, we downplay the emotional impact of rape. We think of it as a purely sexual act, in which someone may be bruised, pushed around, and is forced to have sex. But in truth, while the physical rape hurts, it’s not the part that does the most harm; after all, a fight between couples could easily yield more damage if we look purely at the physical level. What destroys people is the emotional aspect. Rape is, in many ways, the most thorough form of violence. It forces a person into the most submissive state possible, in which they are forced to do something to which our society attaches great meaning with someone with whom they do not want to do it. It can leave survivors with a fear that, as they were violated in such a thorough way once, it could always happen again. The barrier between reality and horror stories has been broken and all of a sudden anything is possible. There are no longer “unthinkable acts” but only acts that haven’t happened yet.
Ultimately, rape destroys trust. It destroys trust in other individuals and it destroys the confidence a person has for himself/herself. They no longer trust others to act decently toward them, and they no longer trust their own ability to protect their own bodies. Both of these are horrible losses, but it’s the combination that ruins people. When you can’t trust others and you can’t trust yourself, what do you have left? You’re left alone within your own mind, and the main thing you find yourself thinking about is how you got to the horrible situation. And thus the rape, which as a physical act probably left few lasting bruises, takes on a far greater significance. The rapist becomes a larger-than-life villain, even if he/she didn’t ever intend to be the villain at all, and the survivor can feel trapped.
I think this was what disgusted me so much about the response discussed in the Amherst article. The response becomes “forgive and forget” or “you need to move past this.” But it’s not that easy. You can’t just tell someone “it’s not a big deal, you need to leave it behind.” It’s probably the biggest deal of this person’s life, and it’s on repeat in their head. The survivor should never be told that the act had no value, because it had a huge negative value. There is a perfectly rational reason why it’s hurting them, and telling them that it doesn’t matter and that they should just move on makes them think that they have somehow messed up, that it’s their fault that they’re reliving the rape day after day. As a society, we need to show sexual assault survivors that we are willing to listen to them without judgment and create a constructive dialogue as to how we can stop excusing sexual assault through our inaction. By not turning away from the conversation or treating survivors as weak or helpless, we can help them regain their voice and strength.
Rape is an event that easily and completely shatters a long-cherished, stable, and fundamental conception of reality. For events of such significance, the recovery process is long and extremely complicated. There is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution for either the survivor or for their friends. BZOD and I exchanged some terrifying tales which made this readily apparent. A few notes on that:
1. Being attuned to sudden, subtle (or not), indicative changes in your friends’ personalities/attitudes/habits/emotions is always a good thing. People should notice when their friends suddenly start spending 23 hours a day in their room. People should notice when their friends suddenly start flinching at hugs and other forms of physical contact. People should notice when their friends are suddenly subsumed by distrust and visibly afraid. Even if you don’t act on this awareness (which you generally should) the awareness itself counts for something.
2. Everyone has facades. I’m using one right now to write this post. We all play a grand, shadowy game, a game that is very much not a game at all. Honesty is rare, hard, and often bitter, but generally honesty is also invaluable and extremely necessary in these situations. Our society often glamorizes the unflappable hero who shrugs off wounds (physical or emotional) and declines all aid with one little “I’m fine.” Rarely is the hero actually ‘fine,’ and in any case real life isn’t like the movies.
3. Listening skills are really, really helpful. To quote BZOD:
The key, I think, is listening . . . one of the biggest problems for survivors is that most people are not willing to listen, either because it makes them uncomfortable or because they’re so set on giving advice that they don’t hear the problem.
4. For either survivors or their friends, trying to tackle the issue alone is extremely difficult. Friends or more friends can help. However, an excess of attention and making the situation into a ‘charity-case’ can sometimes be as dangerous as lack of support. Again, being attuned helps.
5. The most difficult part, in my experience, is actually acting. As mentioned, there is no textbook method. Caution in action is gravely important, but often so too is persistence. It is hard to demonstrate true trustworthiness (even under ordinary circumstances), and it ain’t gonna happen on the first try.
Try, try, and try again. Don’t lose hope. You are not alone.
I freely offer any assistance I can provide to survivors or those attempting to help a survivor. You can contact me privately at pyrotechnics[at]wesleying[dot]org.
BZOD EDIT [12:10 PM, 11/1/12]: Shortly after this post went up, Alanna Badgley ’13 responded in the comments section below. I won’t try to summarize her response; I would encourage that you read it in its entirety.
I quote here a few sentences from the the last paragraph:
I hope that you will take my long, long response constructively, and not as an attack. I’m simply asking you [BZOD] to reconsider the victimizing and alienating language that you used to describe survivors of sexual assault. I hope you will try to think more critically about the culture that produces such types of discourse and the silencing effect it could potentially have on those unlucky 25% of women who will be raped sometime in college and fear the labels of weak and victim.
I have since edited the original post. I made two main edits: Where I referred to “sexual assault victims”, I now refer to “sexual assault survivors.” I also changed the last two lines. Before, they were:
What we need to do is help show these people that there are reasons to trust others, and that they as individuals have value and should be able to trust themselves. It’s only when they build their trust up again that they can begin to come to terms with the event and start recovering.
As Alanna points out, this runs into two problems: one, it “others” the sexual assault survivors, making them into a group separate from society, which is counterproductive to the healing process; and two, it puts society in a role as a “benevolent force” helping the sexual assault survivors recover when they cannot help themselves. While the language can be read in this way, this is not what I intended to say. I have amended these two lines to express my point more clearly. They now read:
As a society, we need to show sexual assault survivors that we are willing to listen to them without judgment and create a constructive dialogue as to how we can stop excusing sexual assault through our inaction. By not turning away from the conversation or treating survivors as weak or helpless, we can help them regain their voice and strength.
I still think that trust is important on the individual level. It is important for survivors to have people in whom they can confide. That said, we should not, as Alanna points out, make the survivors feel weak. This is, in many ways, the same problem I identify when I mention the dismissal of sexual assault through “forgive and forget”. In both cases, you are making the survivor think that ze is somehow lesser as a result of the sexual assault and hir difficulty in adjusting after the fact. My response to Alanna clarifies the points I was trying to make when I wrote my initial essay. I encourage you to read it to fully understand what I was trying to say above.
This also brings me to the importance of language. This is a subject worthy of its own post at some point in the future. For now, I’d like to direct your attention to this Huffington Post blog post. The post deals with homophobic language in hip-hop music, but his points about the power of language and words are universally applicable:
I have rarely had a discussion on these terms where someone didn’t insist that words only have the power we give them. People act — or for that matter, don’t act — based on the ideas and priorities by which they live. Words are the X Box controllers of ideas and the F word [faggot], much like its elder cousin, the N word, continue to be bigot shorthand for “these people aren’t entirely human and I can target, degrade and even kill them without consequence.” These hot button terms aren’t “just words” any more than a burning Qur’an is “just a book” or a burning flag is “just cloth.”
As I mentioned in my response below, words can hurt, even when they are not backed up by bad intentions. It is for this reason that the word “gay” used to mean “lame” still hurts when used by an otherwise perfectly respectful person, or “victim” still makes a sexual assault survivor feel weak even if the context is an essay that’s trying to help.