You Should Read This One, Too

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.

4 thoughts on “You Should Read This One, Too

  1. Pingback: 2012: A Very Wesleying Year In Review – Wesleying

  2. Alanna Badgley

    Ever since the night that it happened, the individual who raped me has done everything in his power to make it up to me, with every notion that there’s no way to remove that experience from my life. He decided to take responsibility for his actions: he recognized that what he did was categorically wrong and made no excuses for himself. He reported himself to the university. He is a genuinely good person: an intelligent, funny, respectable person who made a very big mistake. I don’t blame him for raping me. I see the act as a product of the society and culture that is upheld by our community and not a product of the individual himself. I don’t excuse the action, but I recognize it as a part of something much larger than one individual’s mistake.

    I started this response with an anecdote to try to express how problematic the tone of this article is. And I would gander to say that it might even be counterproductive to the issue of sexual assault on this campus, in our community, and in society in general. The author seems to be making the assumption that the issue is that we need to recognize that sexual assaults are bad. Fucking duh they are. I don’t think anyone would ever argue otherwise. (The very fact that we are incapable of talking about rape is a silent acceptance of the horror of the act). It’s somewhat sad that BZOD (I’m going to make a blind judgment and assume that BZOD is a male based on the tone, if I’m wrong in using a male pronoun from now on, please correct me) thinks that this is a fact even worth hammering home. We must try to read between the lines here.

    The point of Angie Epifano’s article, as well as those of other survivors at other colleges who have come forward to tell their stories recently, is less about individuals’ and institutions’ *dismissals* of rapes, and more about the fact that our communities are *excusing* (perhaps even encouraging) rapes through their inaction: through their fear of public attention of a taboo subject, their fear of losing an endowment or prestige. Further, we are individually unequipped socially to respond effectively to stories of violence (something touched upon in Pyrotechnic’s follow up). This is a cultural issue. And one that is far more complex than just helping “show these people that there are reasons to trust others, and that they as individuals have value and should be able to trust themselves.” (By the way, thanks so much for dichotomizing our community into “us an them” and making me feel like an other and categorizing me as one of “those people,” whatever that means).

    “It’s only when they build their trust up again that they can begin to come to terms with the event and start recovering.” I must admit, these statements are so patronizing that it actually offends me. I’d like to ask you to please stop referring to us as victims who desperately need help. We’re survivors of violence in the process of rediscovering our voices and our strength. We are not weak because we were raped and have trust issues. We are weak because our communities silence us. Our experiences become taboo and we are not always given the social and institutional resources to have a voice. Instead, we are encouraged to be ashamed. I was silent for two years because I feared ostracization and being labeled as a victim. I didn’t feel like a victim. But others seemed to view me as one when they heard about my past: I didn’t want to live with an identity of victim that others would inevitably bestow upon me. Their pity did not give me a voice, it did not empower me again. It made me feel ashamed, it made me lose my strength. The tone of this article is alienating and victimizing. BZOD, you indicate that something needs to change, that something needs to be done, but this article also serves to distance yourself from the issue: from the culture that excuses and encourages this type of violence. I’m sorry, but you (or anyone else) don’t get that out. Your pity does not set you free.

    Don’t get me wrong, I understand that BZOD’s intentions are sweet and that the sentiment is genuine, but I think he’s spending too much time thinking about the fact that he could be a rape victim. Perhaps instead he could spend some time thinking about how he could be a rapist. We aren’t willing, as a community, to accept the reality of this situation: that our mentality about sex and hook-ups leads us to situations in which we feel capable of skipping all the basic steps of consent. The person who raped me never thought that he could be a rapist. Likewise, the next person who assaulted me last year did not think that he was capable of such an act either. They both acted as they were taught to behave within the context of “hooking-up,” and their high blood alcohol contents turned off the inhibitors that would have stopped them before the damage was already done. Their mentalities were not unique. They are not evil people. They are college students. Rape is not only an evil act done by evil people. It’s something that could happen to anyone, and potentially, in the right context, be perpetuated *by* anyone. We encourage and excuse it in our society (both on the individual and institutional level).

    My response is not an excuse for these men’s actions, and it is certainly not an excuse for the deplorable inaction of colleges and universities around the country. It is simply to say that we cannot fool ourselves into believing that the problem resides merely in our interaction with and support of survivors. It’s an issue deeply engrained in the mentality and culture of college life. It’s something beyond pity and demeaning attempts at empathy. It requires a recognition of the source of the problem and a willingness to recognize the capability of anyone (not just horrible monsters) to commit the heinous act, as well as the fact that it’s clear to those individuals (from the lack of repercussions) that it’s an *acceptable* act too.

    That being said, Pyrotechnics: thank you for your last post as well as your conclusion and suggestions at the end of this article. You’re stimulation of conversation in our community has long been necessary. BZOD: thank you for voicing your concern and your opinion. I hope that you will take my long, long response constructively, and not as an attack. I’m simply asking you 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.

    1. '13

      I agree with almost all of this, except for the part about not blaming your rapist for raping you. Obviously, this is your decision, and I do not mean to pretend to comprehend what it is like to be raped because I have not been, but being a part of a society or culture that excuses or ignores rapes does not make you irresponsible for your actions. If you rape someone, you should absolutely be blamed for it. The culture is definitely a big problem, but individuals must also take responsibility for their actions. I realize that he did report himself to the administration, but I am not convinced that he has changed in any meaningful way or has really suffered any significant consequences for committing one of the worst crimes known to man.

    2. BZOD

      Hi Alanna,

      I would like to apologize for the way I came across in my post above. I did not mean to be patronizing or alienating and did not mean to paint survivors of sexual assault as weak. I am sorry that I offended you and other survivors who may have read the post. I am editing it to remove the more obvious issues with this (the use of the word “victim”, for example) and include a bit of reflection on the problems in my initial line of discussion. I hope that the rest of this reply will serve to clarify the message behind my words.

      1) The point I was trying to make was less “rape is bad” and more that there are problems with rape that go beyond the physical act. As you mention, there is very little public discourse on rape (the “silent acceptance of the horror of the act”). However, from what I can tell (and I could be wrong on this), a good percentage of the minimal public discourse that exists focuses on the consequences of the act of sex by saying things like “Well, do we let them get abortions?” and “Oh, ze got an STD – how horrible!” People rightly decried Todd Atkin for his comment on the body shutting out “legitimate rape”, but the discussion around the comment made it clear to me that there are lots of people who still think that a sexual assault isn’t a sexual assault if there is no penetration.

      This point may seem like a no-brainer, but I don’t think I really understood until last fall when I found myself talking to a friend about why she didn’t return to Wesleyan for sophomore year. She told me that her roommate (an acquaintance of mine) was raped the previous fall. Her roommate had a horrible time after the fact and my friend became her sole support network. In the end, both girls left Wesleyan: the roommate because she didn’t feel safe and didn’t feel like she was able to talk about the rape, and my friend because being the sole support for her roommate was incredibly hard on her, and she wanted a fresh start. I always knew that sexual assault could be emotionally traumatizing, but it was only after hearing this story from someone I actually knew that I was able to conceptualize what those words mean in terms of real lives. Maybe I was unnaturally naive before coming to college, but I felt like something needed to be said to this effect in case there are others like me who just didn’t quite get it.

      2) Regarding the difference between the “dismissal” of the sexual assault and the “excusing” of the sexual assault, I agree with you. The real problem, as you say, is that we excuse rape through inaction. That said, I don’t really think that the individuals’ and institutions’ dismissals of the act is a different issue but a part of the greater “excusing” that you discuss. The “forgive and forget” idea puts the burden on the survivor to move forward and come to terms with what happened while completely ignoring the community problems that help sustain the environment in which the act was able to take place. In the end, the rape culture remains unchanged, in part because individual rapes are discounted. I agree that the community’s excusing of sexual assault through inaction is the problem, but also think that changing this inaction begins at the individual and institutional level where you stop dismissing individual sexual assault survivors. Once the individuals and institutions take it seriously, society can begin to take action to stop “excusing” these sexual assaults, actually discussing them in the context of the community problem and ultimately make the subject less taboo.

      3) Based on what you said, I’d like to rephrase the statements I made about trust. When I discuss trust, I am talking less about the individual “you need to trust me, I’m your friend” level (though I feel that, to some degree can be helpful depending on the person) and more the individual’s trust that the community will listen to hir story. I was not trying to say that sexual assault survivors are weak, I was not trying to say that they are seeking pity, and I was not trying to say that society should force pity upon them. What I was trying to get at is that, as a society, we tend to shut off the conversation and shy away from issues that make us uncomfortable. As you mention, sexual assault is taboo. I agree that the issue is cultural, but I also think that cultural changes have to start somewhere – and one place they can start is at the individual level, by listening and making it easier to open a constructive dialogue around the subject. If a sexual assault survivor can trust that others will listen to hir seriously and non-judgmentally, the process of finding one’s voice and building up strength, as you identified in your response, would be much easier.

      “It’s only when they build their trust up again that they can begin to come to terms with the event and start recovering.” I think a better way to say what I want to say here is to replace “build their trust up again” with “rediscover their voice”. My initial sentence puts the survivor in a position in which ze is waiting for the goodwill of society to help hir overcome the sexual assault. I would like to say that when survivors feel that they have the ability to talk about their experiences – which comes both from survivors rediscovering their own strength and from society’s listening to them in a serious and non-judgmental manner – healing becomes easier.

      4) Also of note: my focus on healing in my post is not to say that sexual assault is to be excused or somehow treated as an “inevitability” in which society says “Oh well – people are going to get sexually assaulted, so let’s just focus on how to help them recover instead of dealing with it as a wider problem.” I agree wholeheartedly that we should change society to prevent the sexual assaults from occurring in the first place, but also think that a change in society is necessary to make it a less oppressive environment for survivors rediscovering themselves.

      5) Regarding thinking about myself as the possible rapist: I admit that I have never thought about it from that perspective. Given my personal decision to neither seek hook-ups nor consume alcohol, it has been easy to imagine that I exist in a plane removed from sexual assault. I will be sure to think of it from that perspective as well in the future because, as you point out, the othering of rapists is a serious problem too. It’s hard to deal with the problem when you imagine that only the basest possible individuals commit sexual assault.

      6) Linked with the previous point: when I said that “The rapist becomes a larger-than-life villain, even if he/she didn’t ever intend to be the villain, at all, and the victim feels trapped” I was saying in a much less clear way than you that the rapist did not necessarily intend to commit the crime. I agree with you that this is very important, as society can’t deal with sexual assault if rapists are thought of as an “other” because no one wants to think of themselves as a rapist.

      In short, I agree with you: our problem is more with society than how we as individuals react with survivors. That said, I also think though that improving the channels by which we perceive and respond to the accounts of survivors at an individual level is very important, because society is not going to change unless the individuals that compose it start thinking differently about these issues. Likewise, institutions and individuals must stop dismissing sexual assault, making it taboo, or trivializing it if we are going to create a society that does not “excuse” sexual assault as ours does now.

      Also, thank you for pointing out my errors with regards to my language. As a gay man who grew up hurt by homophobic slurs dropped regularly by acquaintances who did not necessarily even mean any harm, I understand how much the wrong words can hurt even in the absence of bad intentions. I did not realize that my brief essay could, through its inexpert use of language, be misconstrued in a way that makes survivors feel victimized and weak. In the future, I will make sure that I am more conscious of my words and phrasing. And please know that your response was not taken personally.

      BZOD

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