Sunday, 1 May 2011

My path to recovery from sexual assault

Uhm, when a guy is inserting his penis into your vagina without your consent, he is taking away your worth as a person. 
Why do you think most victims of rape or molestation feel so fucking terrible about themselves after it happens? That is the most common reaction of a victim: not "I'm still totally awesome even though I was just used as a cum bucket!" That type of reaction can take months, years, therapy, or may never come...

This is the response of a self-identified feminist to my assertion in a recent online discussion that: "It's a vagina, it's not who you are, ffs. If you get raped, it will always be something bad that happened to you, but shit, it isn't who you are. It has nothing to do with your worth as a person. No one can take that unless you let them."

Later in the discussion, she dragged out that most useful and well-worn of feminist silencing devices:


Wait, have you been raped before?
Whether you have or you haven't, you should probably be quiet.
You can't tell anyone else how they should feel about being violated and that is the bottom line.


Let's set aside for now the glaring fact that she had only just finished telling me how women (including myself, I suppose) should feel about being violated--like a "cum-bucket"--but she had also just told me that a woman's worth (and MY worth, presumably) as a person is, in fact, taken away when a man rapes her. You can imagine how relieved I was that the attempted rape I experienced as a 14 year-old virgin didn't culminate in that whole "inserting his penis into [my] vagina without [my] consent" thing, since this is all it takes, according to some feminists, to erase every positive character trait a woman has.

My assault happened in a playground at about 10:30 on a Sunday night. I had just taken up smoking a few months before, and was craving a cigarette, but the corner store was closed. On the drive home from a visit with my grandparents, I'd spotted two boys, whom I knew smoked as well, hanging out near my neighborhood's Catholic school, and I decided to take my dog for a walk and see if I might be able to bum a cig off one of them.

I didn't know these boys other than by name. I knew their names, because they had a bad rep around school, but I hadn't seen any of the bad behavior (fights, stealing, etc) they were rumored to have engaged in, and like any young teenager, I had the typical overblown sense of my own immortality and invincibility--bad things happen to other people, not to me.

I found them in the playground sitting on the swings. It was very dark, and I didn't realize right away that they were passing a mickey of vodka back and forth between them, but they had cigarettes and gave me one. I stayed and chatted--only polite, right?--and tied my dog to one of the posts of the swingset. They offered me a sip of vodka, and I accepted--again, it seemed the courteous thing to do, and I was neither a teetotaler nor a teen drunk.

I'm not even sure at what point I began to feel uncomfortable. It was dark enough that I couldn't see their faces--any leers they might have worn went unseen by me. But the conversation became incrementally more stilted, and the space between us grew heavy with a sense of febrile expectation. I made my excuses, "It's a school night, and my folks are probably wondering where the hell I am," and started to leave.

Next thing I knew, I was on my back in the sand under the swings, my shirt over my face and my arms pinned over my head by boy 1, while boy 2 tried, unsuccessfully, to get my pants down. It amuses me to this day that in my case, a rape was prevented by an example of 80s fashion so absurd it paled in comparison to such staples as shoulder pads, or the mullet--that of the waist-to-hem, double side-zippered jean.

I was lying there, my face covered, while boy 2 pawed ineffectually at the top of my jeans, looking for a front-fly that wasn't there, pondering the farcical nature of the situation with a detached calm, even as I struggled and repeated the phrases my mom and the media had taught me to use: "No. I don't want this. I mean it, no." I wondered what kind of person would do what they were doing to someone so young she hardly even had breasts. Hell, I hadn't even started menstruating at that point, and though I wasn't scared of sex, I sure as hell wasn't ready for it.

I've always had a fair ability to remain calm in a crisis, and it has served me well over the years when dealing with my children's illnesses and injuries, or friends in trouble. The time to be upset and break down is when, for good or ill, the immediate crisis is over, right? But while it was all happening, all I could think was how ignoble it was that my virginity was about to be forcibly taken by two Neanderthal buffoons who were not only ugly but stupid, and I was going to get a butt-crack full of sand into the bargain. That their justification for what they were about to do was that they'd given me a cigarette and a sip of vodka, and I therefore "owed them" something. And that what would save me, if anything, were those ridiculous jeans.

What saved me, in fact, was not the jeans, the intricacies of which boy 2 finally managed to unravel. It was a passerby, walking along the other side of the park, whose attention was drawn by our voices and my barking dog just as boy 2 was working my panties down my legs.

Boy 1 let go of my arms and muttered, "Oh shit." I sat up, pulled my shirt down, and we all peered across the playground at the silhouette of a man now halted near a copse of trees, who was, in turn, peering back toward us. I seized on the boys' sudden unease and told them, "It's really late, I bet my dad's out driving around looking for me by now."

They helped me up and dressed, all apology now that the prospect of discovery was made real to them. Boy 1 told me they didn't want me to get in trouble with my dad. I almost laughed at the projection inherent in that statement. They didn't want me to get into trouble? They helped me straighten my clothes and pressed a few more cigarettes into my hand as if that made up for everything, before skulking off into the dark, in the opposite direction from where the passing man stood.

I stayed for a moment to collect myself and dusted as much of the sand out of my hair as I could, and waited for the man to continue on his way. As I untied my dog and started walking, reaction set in. My legs shook so hard they almost couldn't carry me. And the entire time, I kept asking myself "What the hell do I do now?"

My recovery was surprisingly short. It took about fifteen minutes, actually. Fifteen minutes where I played out the entirety of what my parents would have told me, were I to tell them what had happened.

First would come the hugs and reassurances that everything would be okay, that it wasn't the end of the world even if it might feel that way, that they'd do whatever they could to help me get past what had happened. That despite what had happened, I was still the same bright, beautiful, wonderful girl I was a few hours ago, because no one has the power to change something like that other than myself. That no one has any right to do what those boys had done to me, and that they wouldn't rest until those sons of bitches were put in juvie where they belonged--at which point my dad would have muttered under his breath, "if they live that long..." And then?

Well, then they'd make me own my part of it. Maybe not right away, but eventually.

"Oh, honey! How could you do something so stupid? And over cigarettes? What were you thinking? You knew those boys were bad news, yet you hung out with them alone in an unlit playground? Even after you realized they were drinking? Haven't you listened to anything we've told you? In a perfect world, you should be able to walk down the darkest alley, pissed-drunk and buck-naked, and be safe from rape, but we do not live in a perfect world. If we did, we wouldn't have to lock our doors at night, or have bouncers at bars or drunk driving laws. We do all those things because we can't dictate the behavior and decisions of other people. We can only dictate our own."

As feminists are so fond of saying, we don't exist in a vacuum. We are never the sole arbiters of our fate. Other people will sometimes have their way with us if they can, and we need to make our decisions with the understanding that not everyone lives by a code of ethics, not everyone will respect our right to decide what we wish to do with our property or our bodies. But I have by far a greater effect on the direction my life will take. I have the biggest say.

That night, my parents told me three things without even having to speak:

That I can't make decisions for other people, only for myself.

That my decisions can't completely dictate the course of my life, but I am an effectual human being.

That there is a difference between taking blame for something bad that happens to you, and taking responsibility for yourself and your decisions.

I was raised to believe that my self-worth is exactly that--mine. And though we all measure ourselves against others in order to determine just how worthy we are as people, the opinions of bullies, assholes, and fucktards don't count. As that feminist I quoted above had told me, rape is often about dehumanizing a victim, that someone who disregards your right to autonomy and ownership of your own body is indeed indeed telling you your personhood is worth nothing to him--but guess what? No one's personhood is worth anything to someone like that, and the opinion of a piece of shit, waste of skin rapist as to what I'm worth as a woman and a person doesn't count. He doesn't get to tell me how I will see myself.

And on my walk home, with my parents' voices echoing in my head, I internalized the other lessons they had taught me all my life. I owned my part in what had happened. I owned the fact that had I made any number of different decisions that night, I could have avoided the assault. I could have stayed home and gone without a cigarette rather than seek out two older boys I knew had a bad rep. I could have left as soon as they handed me a smoke. I could have not taken that sip of vodka and lingered to talk. I could have not tied my dog to the swings, but continued walking toward the street while chatting, so as not to seem rude while at the same time maneuvering us all into a more safe, public place.

I had a part in the sequence of decisions that had led to my assault. I was not to blame--those boys were to blame. No one deserves to be sexually assaulted. But I had to own some of it, too. And the more I thought about this, the stronger my legs got as they carried me home.

I can't control what other people do, but I can control what I do. I was not a passive victim of my assault, I was a participant in it. There were decisions I made and actions I took that affected the outcome of that night, and if I was smart enough, I could learn from the errors in judgment I had made and make it less likely that something like that would ever happen to me again. Owning my part in what had happened didn't make me feel like it was my fault. It made me feel strong. It made me feel effectual. It made me feel like a whole person, an active participant in what happens to me, good or bad. When you don't own your life--all of it, even the parts that suck--you walk around feeling powerless, as if everything that happens is simply happening to you, as if you have no say whatsoever. And though there have been times in my life that sucked ass and I felt a very human urge to blame anyone and everyone else for my troubles, the times I've succumbed to that urge have been the lowest of my life, and things never improved until I accepted appropriate responsibility for my circumstances.

By the time I got home, I decided I didn't need to tell anyone about what had happened. I didn't need to have that conversation with my parents--I had already had it with myself. Did I want those boys to pay for what they'd done? Certainly. But they were young and stupid and drunk, and by the time they'd left the playground, they'd been as scared as I'd been. And maybe, just maybe, they were having a similar conversation with themselves on their way home--"What were you thinking? Shit, no one's going to give you a slap on the wrist over rape, because rape is some fucking serious shit. You almost got caught, and it wouldn't be community service if you did, the way it was when you were caught throwing rocks through junior high school windows. Man, if she tells her dad, you are in for a world of hurt."

I slept peacefully that night, and woke the next morning feeling fine. I didn't wall myself inside or start dressing in sweatsuits or stop wearing make-up or stop talking to boys. I continued to explore my sexuality, had make-out sessions at parties, hung with my mostly male friends, continued my habit of walking my dog at night. I didn't avoid the Catholic schoolground, even when it was dark. But I did become more aware of everything around me. Fear is unhelpful, but acknowledging risk certainly is. I've since lived a life of calculated risk, and nothing like that has ever happened to me again.

Over the next few months, those two boys avoided me like the plague. But I didn't avoid them. Whenever our paths crossed, I made sure to catch their gazes, look at them long and hard, and then smile that kind of evil, unpleasant smile that tells someone you know something that has the potential to destroy them. By the end of the school year, they looked like they were going to shit their pants whenever they saw me. And you know what? That helped me feel stronger, too.

17 comments:

  1. If this isn't an example of owning your shit I don't know what is.

    I am a "survivor" of multiple instances of sexual abuse. Being male, it's something a bit more difficult to talk about, although I've noticed the few times I have, casual dismissal and even outright contempt have sometimes been the reaction.

    Still this isn't about that; the fact of the matter is you had the self-empowering reaction that many self-described feminists say women should take, but then get mad when they do. I would predict that many of them will be dismissive of your account; a penis didn't actually go into you and so therefore nothing happened to you that was all that serious right? They'd say that because they don't like the other parts of what you say here; another woman who was still expressing rage and fear and resentment of men decades later over all this would on the other hand get a whole lot of support. Or so would be my prediction.

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  2. I love this. I was having an online conversation with a woman and we were talking about abuse. It was very similar to the conversation you describe. The woman I was speaking to kept insisting that I was a victim of abuse, I said that I had been but no longer was. I am not a victim and if I were, I would refuse to stay one for very damn long.

    Thanks for writing this.

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  3. http://beyondjane.com/relationships/friendship/samantha-brick-the-modern-day-feminist/

    Read about a modern day feminist here! I guess its a bit different from, but she's quite funny :)

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  4. You are an unsung heroine!I am lost for words !
    I came here after being impressed by what you had to say in your videos @ you tube.The lucidity with which you put forth your arguments is remarkable,no wonder it scares the shit out of disingenuous feminists who are addicted to the role of playing perpetual victims to keep this ridiculous over-hyped 'gender war' going.Their ad hominems are predictable but hilarious.Keep up the good work.
    Hope young girls take a leaf out of your book and become enlightened.

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  5. "Fear is unhelpful, but acknowledging risk certainly is." Truer words were never spoken! That's one reason I took up martial arts and cultivated a zero sum attitude in certain situations after I survived a rape and home invasion that I was certain would end in my own murder. If you're anything like me, I'll bet everything was crystal clear during the attack. Bravo on putting it in its proper place!

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  6. This. is what every girl who lives in fear should read.
    I've heard so much feminist bullshit about how rape is as bad as murder, etc. it makes me want to puke, especially because of the additional damage that thinking has done to way too many victims already.

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  7. Just another thumbs up. I love your writing.
    Don’t agree with everything, but it is always well put and thought through. Rare qualities in a blogger.

    This post puts me in mind of an old jewish anecdote I read twentyodd years ago:
    'A man asked his rabbi: "We both survived the KZ and you speak as if you don’t hate the germans...?" - "No, I don’t. Why? Do you?" - "Yes, of course I do!" - "Oh my, you are still their prisoner, after all those years."

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  8. It's very refreshing to see someone accepting their agency in their own life, and accepting the responsibility of their decisions.

    Mid-way in the post at this point: "And maybe, just maybe, they were having a similar conversation with themselves on their way home--"What were you thinking? Shit, no one's going to give you a slap on the wrist over rape, because rape is some fucking serious shit."" - I was thinking if you had avoided those boys after the incident. I am glad to learn that you did not.

    Every decision we make in life is indeed a calculated risk. Very few people understand that.

    And while it is true that you could have made some different decisions that would have avoided the incident, I wouldn't say that you made any poor decisions. Of course, it depends on what exactly you believed about those boys and the reputation they had. But there is no strong reason to make the connection that a bunch of "bad boys" would turn out to be potential rapists. Many young boys are just obnoxious and troublemakers just because they have the misguided notion that it makes them cool or something. Very little reason to believe that they would attempt rape you.

    It is a ridiculous notion that you should take every possible precaution to avoid harms way. To give an extreme example, it is ridiculous to not drive a car as a precaution to not die in a car accident. You just have to accept that getting in an accident is a risk you are willing to take, because being overly cautious has a high cost.

    I, personally, would see the situation in the same terms as the car accident. It is important to realize the risk, but it should not paralyze you into taking extra-ordinary precautions.

    And I am glad that you saw that, and it didn't stop you from going out in the night by trying to avoid a similar situation at all costs.

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  10. I don't know which is worse, your stance on assault recovery or the slew of people that agree with you and think that someone needs to "own their shit" after an assault. Assault does not include the victim making a mistake that they have to own afterwards. It is in no way the victims fault and until you get that straight you are still blaming yourself and will not be able to fully regain your power. Sexual assault is a crime committed without the consent of the victim. Gender equality does not mean taking FULL responsibility away from attacker/s in order to "own your own shit". You are in effect telling all survivors of sexual assault that they are in some way responsible for their assault...which they are NOT. You are grossly confusing rebuilding self worth with self blame and putting very bad advice out into the world under the guise of a new feminism and equality. True freedom and gender equality comes when it is systemically, wholly understood by all people that it is an inherently wrong act and no one has the right to violate another's body, regardless of the circumstances leading up to it, cultural or political opinion. The type of "ownership" you describe may apply to other life situations, but in the case of assault you are just wrong to mistake personal responsibility and self blame with the recovery of self worth or a twisted version of radical empowerment. You should be really careful how you frame this idea to the world, many people looking for help will be inadvertently steered down the wrong path by your confusion of the two. No one is ever responsible for their attackers actions. We are responsible for educating all people in the fact that people are not responsible to prevent their own attack and that the responsibility lies solely with the attacker. Your post is not radical thought. It is in fact insidiously promoting ideas people have been fighting for centuries to rid the world of. There are other, more healthy ways to regain your identity and self worth. Thinking you had any role in another person's complete disregard for the sanctity of another's body or somehow give permission to the attacker by your actions leading up to an assault is wrong and harmful to the self, to our culture and sets a seriously misinformed and misguided standard of self care. This is not a heroic stance but a really dangerous one. It is frightening how many people posting here are able to treat this issue as a political or philosophical issue and with such blatant misogyny and callous disregard for just how serious the consequences of assault are.

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    1. I don't think she is taking responsibility away from the attackers. Obviously they were wrong. I don't think any sane person would argue against prosecuting those two boys or any rapist for that matter. She's just being honest (a thing lacking in this world). She went to a dark place with two boys that she barely knew and what she knew about them wasn't good. Something she didn't want to happen proceeded to happen. In what part of that scenario was she making good decisions? Gender equality is a good thing, but excusing people from any responsibility for their actions isn't gender equality.

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    2. You have no power at all if you aren't responsible for anything you do. You are, in fact, no more powerful than a coddled, immature, ignorant little child. Treating people as victims disempowers them. Asking society to solve their problems for them disempowers them. Blaming their choices on other people disempowers them. You cannot be pro-empowerment and then in the same breath disempower people.

      Sure, gender equality does not mean taking away full responsibility from attackers to give the victims any moral agency. Gender equality also does not mean applying full responsibility to an attacker in order to prevent the victim from having any moral agency. Gender equality has nothing to do with either of these things, because neither of those sentences mention gender AT ALL, and therefore could not possibly be describing a situation in which both genders aren't treated equally, and therefore have nothing to do with "gender equality".

      "Violations of another's body" is not a crime exclusively perpetrated on women, but rather by both genders on both genders. "It is wholly understood by all people that [...] no one has the right to violate anothers body" has absolutely nothing to do with "gender equality" because it does not mention gender at all. Violations of the body (of either gender) have also been protected legally and abhorred culturally for centuries, whether those "violations" be murder, assault, or rape. You aren't changing anything or fighting for gender equality a) by harping on an issue that was solved hundreds of years ago, and b) that has nothing to do with gender.

      I like how feminists can label anything they disagree with "blatant" misogyny and thus absolve themselves of any responsibility for actually demonstrating their case. In what way is anything she said "hateful, prejudiced, or discriminatory towards women"? In zero fucking ways, that's what. Women don't have a monopoly on the word "victim" and thus claiming that victims should, in short, "own their shit" does not place extra or undue burden or discriminate against the female gender in any way whatsoever. There is no misogyny in a gender-neutral statement, nor in fact is there any misogyny in a gendered statement by itself. The only time you can cry sexism is when different genders are treated differently. Which simply isn't the case here.

      You have the freedom to make any choice you want and take any actions you want, but you are responsible for every single one of the choices you make and the actions you take. And so is everyone else. To make exceptions to that is to make real equality impossible.

      You cannot control your attackers actions, you can only control your own. You are not responsible for what other people do, only what you do. Conversely, the attacker is not responsible for the actions that you take, under any circumstances. The attacker is only responsible for the actions they take and the choices they make, same as you. I'm fighting for real equality here, and equality accepts no arbitrary exceptions. Moral agency means responsibility. You don't get to make choices and then absolve yourself of any responsibility for them. I don't care that people have been "fighting for centuries" to absolve themselves of responsibility for their actions, that lends no legitimacy to the claim.

      The body (yes, even the female body) is not sacrosanct. Unless you're living in, as Karen says, "1850s Victorian England", where the most valuable thing a women was viewed as having was her unspoiled body. Sexual liberation means letting go of antiquated gender stereotypes. You cannot call yourself feminist and still hold a victorian-era view of the value of women (or humans) as rooted in their body.

      The value of a human life is rooted in what you do, not who you are. To have no responsibility for your actions is to say that you are worthless.

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  11. "waist-to-hem, double side-zippered jean"

    This sounds complicated, I can't wrap my mind around what these are. You mean like there is a zipper on the left and right instead of on the front? What does waist-to-hem mean?

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    1. It means the zippers went all the way from the top of the pants to the hem--you could literally unzip them into two pieces (front and back).

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  12. I am glad you have found personal strength in your process of recovery. I am curious how you would apply this "owning your shit" philosophy to people who had no power over the circumstances in which they ended up being victimized. A baby or six year old child molested by her father or uncle, a woman out jogging or sleeping in her own bed who is raped, for example? A woman in a war-torn country who is brutalized as a violent act of war? As a woman, do you have to take responsibility for every "bad" thing that happens to you because anything could potentially be a "risky" situation if you have a vagina? You may not have been a "passive victim of your assault" but please remember that millions of women all over the world ARE, and might be highly insulted to be told they are embracing their victimization status because they weren't lucky enough to avoid a bad situation.

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    1. "I am curious how you would apply this "owning your shit" philosophy to people who had no power over the circumstances in which they ended up being victimized."

      What makes you think that changes anything? If you had no power over anything at all, then what is there to "own"? She says to "own you shit", but if you have no shit to own then you have no shit to own.

      What more needs to be said?

      If your parents told you to clean up after yourself when you made a mess, would you ask them how they would apply this "clean up after yourself" philosophy when you didn't make a mess? No. What they said applies only when you do make a mess.

      " A baby or six year old child molested by her father or uncle, a woman out jogging or sleeping in her own bed who is raped, for example? A woman in a war-torn country who is brutalized as a violent act of war?"

      Why do you keep bringing up female victims as if this is a problem exclusive to having a vagina? Do you think boys don't get raped, or slapped by their moms, or targeted by predatory sociopaths, or mugged on the streets, or brutalized in war-torn countries, simply because they have dicks? Or do you think anyone here would change their mind when you replace females with males?

      You don't have to take responsibility for things you don't have any control over, whether you're a man or a woman. This is not a gendered issue. Males still have to take responsibility for their actions, just like females do.

      "As a woman, do you have to take responsibility for every "bad" thing that happens to you because anything could potentially be a "risky" situation if you have a vagina?"

      You're missing the point. The only thing you have to take responsibility for is your own actions. The situation or outcome is a product of many peoples actions. You don't "take responsibility for every bad thing that happens to you", you're missing the point of what responsibility entails. Responsibility does not apply to outcomes except to the extent that the actions you do have responsibility for contributed to those outcomes. The responsibility extends no further than your choices.

      But its a two-way street; the responsibility of others extends no further than their own choices. Acknowledging that the victim contributed to their own situation does not absolve the perpetrator of any responsibility for anything.

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Commenting policy:

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Have at you!