Saturday, April 08, 2006

I am She as You Are Me and She is Me and We Are All Together

I’m sure all of you have heard at least one news story about a woman who stepped forward years after the fact to accuse some well-known man of having sexually assaulted her. You’ve probably heard more than one such story.

I’m also sure that when those cases come up, you've often heard people ask, “If this really happened to her, why did it take her fifteen years to step forward? Why didn’t she report it right away?” If you’re really honest, maybe a few of you will even admit the thought has at least crossed your own minds from time to time.

This is not a statement of blame. Because I thought the same thing about those women.

It wasn’t that I didn’t necessarily believe their stories. I would defend these women publicly, insisting no one would go through the agony of exposing themselves to court proceedings, having her sexual history become public record, and facing public scorn and ridicule just for financial gain, or to "get some attention." But secretly, I wondered: Why had it taken her so long? And I often got frustrated about how much more of a liability these women were to the getting people to take “real” (read, immediate) sexual assault issues seriously.

Yes, I thought somewhere deep down that an immediate accusation of assault was more “real,” or deserved more merit, than an accusation decades after the fact.

So, again, this is not a statement of blame. It’s an explanation.

Because, I find now that I am one of those women.

I mentioned in this post a few days ago that I was sexually assaulted as a teenager. Would you believe me if I told you I had no idea this was so until almost 20 years later?

It’s true.

For years as an adult, I would go to “Take Back the Night” protests. I did it to support other women who had been raped. That’s what I thought. I would read or hear sexual assault statistics in the news. And I would think, with no sense of discomfort or irony, “I’m just so lucky that has never happened to me.”

You might think it was because I had blocked the memory. Not true. I hadn't forgotten or buried the events of what happened to me in my subconscious. I remembered the entire thing. I just didn’t give it a name. It was a small, gnawing, uneasy spot of memory with no label affixed.

And hence, I was completely, utterly clueless. Even long after I should have known better.

So, now I’m one of those women I wondered about. The one who’s only able to name what happened to her so far after the fact that everyone around her wonders why she's even bothering. And I now understand who that woman is, and why she waited, and why she's even bothering.

But this piece today, I’m writing just to tell you and everyone out there that the woman isn’t lying because she brought it up so late in the game. And she isn't bringing it up "at her convenience" for some kind of dramatic effect or gain.

Like me, she may simply not have realized what happened to her.

Sexual assault is almost never as cut-and-dry as people think. We have our friend Senator Napoli telling us in that now infamous news clip that assault means being "brutally raped, savaged...sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it." Though we'd prefer to vilify him and call his view an aberration, and though he was certainly disturbingly extreme in his description, in truth, his viewpoint is not so far off the mark from what many people unconsciously define "real" assault as. Because despite what we’re told over and over again, that’s what people usually think makes it "real," what counts as proof. If there are marks, if there are bruises and scratches. If there’s an alley, and a stranger, and a weapon, and a struggle, and a penis forced into an orifice, then, and only then, it counts as a "real" assault.

And so if you’re assaulted, and none of these things happen to you, often no one will believe you were really assaulted. And more to my point today, often you won’t even believe it yourself.

Of course, real truth is that that list of conditions above is RARELY the case in most sexual assaults. Only a tiny percentage of assault survivors sustain serious physical injuries. Weapons are rarely present. The assaulter is rarely a stranger in an alley. Far more frequently the assaulter is someone the person knows, making the victim less guarded, and more confused about how to respond when things suddenly turn ugly. The situation is rarely 100 percent spontaneous. It's often deliberately set up ahead of time, so the person who is assaulted is less likely to be believed.

But these details, while not completely unknown, still don't loom large in the public consciousness. In the end, it's only the victim who's been beaten mercilessly by a stranger and reports it immediately that gets our full, unquestioned belief.

And then there are those who are assaulted not only by people they know, but by people in roles that most others have difficulty believing could be capable of perpetrating such an act. A priest, for instance, or a parent, or a lover, husband, or wife. Or, in my case, a well-respected doctor.

If, for instance, a parent tells you what he or she is doing to you is a good thing, that he or she loves you for doing it—well, is it any wonder that the person who’s being assaulted may not be able to put a label on what has happened to her or him until many, many years later? Or let's use an example of a sexually active adult. Let's say you're getting physical with someone you actually like—someone you’ve chosen to be with, maybe even someone you’ve had sex with before--and suddenly a boundary is crossed before you had time to figure out what was going on. Might you not possibly convince yourself what happened to you wasn’t what it actually was? Might you not put a blank spot on the event, the way I did?

In all these cases, might it not take you years before you realized what had really happened? Might it not take even longer for you to get brave enough to stand up and tell it to the world, knowing you are going to face the same doubt, denial, confusion, and even anger that you've used against yourself for all this time?

Something to think about the next time those questions at the beginning of this post come up, in any context.

More another day.

(Photo credit: day goes by by Simon Pais)


Blogger AlwaysArousedGirl said...

I hear you, Miss Syl. Sometimes it takes a loooong time before you are ready to admit to what happened. There is a lot of comfort in denial.

Hugs to you.

4/08/2006 8:28 PM  
Anonymous Darkhawk said...

I was fourteen when I was assaulted.

He was my first boyfriend. I wasn't sure what I thought of him; I knew I was curious about the whole sexuality thing, but I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to explore and experiment with that particular guy.

He was seventeen. And he was fairly clear on what he wanted, I think. I spent the entire relationship just a little off balance, pushed a little too far, not having enough time to work out whether or not this was something I wanted before it seemed too late to object.

You can see, I'm sure, how that could have wound up in an assault situation: I never raised objections, he never checked to make sure I was okay with things.

I've written about the assault in as much detail as I remember elsewhere. I'm not ... feeling up to much detail right now, so bear with me when I just say: the assault fell short of rape (because he stopped pushing just at the point that my ability to resist crumbled); I was severely dissociative for the next two years and don't remember them much at all; I still, though these days very rarely, get flashbacks, triggered by the sight of naked, erect men, especially of his body type. (BTW, as flashback triggers go, that one really stinks for a more or less het woman.)

Even after I was no longer dissociating, I couldn't talk about it at all until I was eighteen or nineteen, and that was only to my boyfriend of the time (now my husband).

And I couldn't admit to it in public. Oh, no, I couldn't. I hadn't been raped; thus, I had no right to be as broken as I was. It wasn't permissable, wasn't allowed, I hadn't even hit the basics for trauma. The fact that I was damaged anyway was a sign that I was just too weak to be acceptable.

I only got able to talk about it with any capacity in public at the age of 22. I was talking with another woman who had been assaulted -- who had gone through something that damn well entitled her to be fucked up if she were inclined that way -- and told her my story. And she said, "Oh my gods, how horrible that must have been for you!"

I had to have permission from someone I considered qualified before I could admit to what happened to me. I couldn't claim my status as someone with legitimate damage without that person saying that my experience was awful, that person who knew from awful.

Fourteen years later, it's still effort to talk about it, still runs the risk of hitting flashbacks, still makes me twitch sometimes, still pulls at the flesh of the psyche around the scars.

Fourteen years later, I have a sexual relationship in which I faced the fears that he left me with ... for the first time. Rather than hiding from them, pushing around them, pushing them to the side until they were irrelevant.

Fourteen years later, I might actually be ready to talk to a shrink about it.

I can almost forgive the assault, because I know how it happened, know the two-stupid-kids factor was in play, know the way the communications failed. There were human mistakes involved, not the actions of monsters: human mistakes that should not have been made, but still human.

What I can't forgive is never having had an adult sexuality that was not shaped and corrupted by the fact that I was assaulted. I doubt that I will ever, ever be able to forgive that.

4/08/2006 9:45 PM  
Blogger Anastasia said...

Assault to me means no consent, and force used (any type) against a woman.

Now, in that regard, i've got three situations under my belt where I didn't give consent, and all of them way before 'date rape' became a valid term.

The 'perpetrators' are aware of what they did and I know what they did, and understood some time after, because culturally at the time I thought that was what men did (I was 19 years old, it was the Eighties), later down the track however it was coercion.

Now, it's happened, and that's it. I didn't do anything about it then, in the legal sense, but I accepted that it occured, I couldn't reverse time.

I've written about it, no one really desires to respond to it, and that's fine by me, but I don't see the sense in unearthing a legal case after so many years. For what? To be a masochist when I know that it happened and the other party knows that it happened?

If a woman has moved forward, in 95% of her mind, her life, her career, and has previously acknowledged, even to herself that she was assaulted, then why drag it up decades later? For what? latent thereapy?

I don't understand it, and I think our society more or less focuses on this 'woe is me' attitude where everyone has to fess up, hug eachother and have a good cry and this is reflective of the literature that's popular, like A Million Pieces of Me.

4/09/2006 5:13 AM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

AAG: Yes, and yet even while in denial, it's never *really* comforting, is it, even though you're telling yourself it is.

4/09/2006 11:03 AM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

Darkhawk: Thanks so much for sharing your story. As you might already know from my posts, I think this is the only way others will begin to be more comfortable dealing with (and ultimately, I hope, society proactively addressing) sexual assault.

I am so sorry that you had to experience that. And I'm so sorry it has affected your ability to have a full, fearless, relationship with your own sexuality. You don't deserve that--you should have all the pleasure you deserve.

The after affects of such an event can be so much more traumatic than people understand. Although the act itself is at the core, I often feel the things you go through after the fact are equally as traumatizing, and I'm sorry you had to spend even one day going through them. I'm glad you've gotten to a point where you can talk about it.

I think a lot of people (including myself) feel they need to qualify that their assault "fell just short of rape." But as one survivor to another, I want to tell you--that doesn't matter. It counts just as much, and the affects can be just as hard for the survivor, and it doesn't make it "less of an assault." Yours matters as much as anyone else's.

If you feel you're at the point where you're ready to talk to a therapist, I'd say go for it. I have been talking to a therapist about my experiences. I've found it to be incredibly important to my recovery process. In fact, I don't think I *could* have had a recovery process without it. It's not been easy, and it's not been pretty doing the work to get through it, but so far all of it has been more than worth it in the end.

The one thing I'd suggest, though, is to do some research before going in and find someone who has experience in working with assault survivors. I saw one therapist briefly before the one I'm working with now, and her response to my telling her about the assault (and some related issues I was having) was entirely inappropriate and unhelpful. The person I work with now has years of experience working with survivors. I made sure of this before I started with her. The difference is like night and day. She understands why I experience certain things in certain ways, and can point me toward reading materials and other things that can also help me understand.

I might also suggest going to a woman, since the person who assaulted you was male. It may keep certain associations at bay. But that's just a suggestion--if you find a male therapist you like, you should work with him. Just don't be afraid to leave any therapist who you feel just isn't working for you.

4/09/2006 11:03 AM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

Ana: First off, and I know you don't want any sappy sentiment, but I do want to say I'm sorry you had to go through that. You're lovely and you ought to have been--and should continue to be--treated like the total goddess you are at all times. (And don't you shrug that off, girl, because I know you just tried to.)

Now. I want to make sure I say that I think everyone needs to handle their assault memories and their healing from them differently. So while it's important to *me* to speak up, although much later, this in no way means it's the only valid method of approach. Everyone needs to do what works best for them. I have not tried to go the legal route, btw--I couldn't even if I wanted to. It's been too long to be considered in court, and I certainly no longer have any physical proof, if I ever did, that would allow me to prosecute.

I think I'll leave the question of why anyone would want to deal with it years after the fact for another post, but yes, for me personally, one of the reasons was to have therapy for it. I now realize the event had some long-lasting effects on me that at the time I was in complete denial about. And because I never had the opportunity to be believed, to express my feelings about it, or to call it what it was, I've been walking around with that for decades, which hasn't been useful.

I think one of the very reasons I stayed silent for so long is I didn't want to be part of that "woe is me" culture. I have been very critical of that before I dealt with my own assault, and even now bristle when people think I want to be comforted like a baby because of it. I'm a strong person. I don't need people's pity. But I now *do* want their acknowledgement, understanding, and acceptance.

I think there are ways of talking about our assaults that are not cries for pity, but are useful in keeping the issue at the forefront of people's minds. To make people realize that it is a reality, and needs to be acknowledged and dealt with on a societal level. To show them that the myths they believe in are not in fact true, and I'm living proof. And also because I think after all these years of silence, I deserve to be able to say it, straight out.

I don't want a pity party, and I hope my posts don't come off that way. I just want to testify out loud and say this happened, and I survived it.

I find when I do of late, other people come up to me and tell me their own stories, that they too, have been hiding for a long time. I personally think this is a good thing for them, because it felt good to me to have it come out and be acknowleged.

Last thing: Consent/Non-consent is a difficult issue. There are cases, such as my own, where I never said "no" because I was coerced into believing the things that were done were necessary parts of a medical examination. I can imagine a number of young people and children who are assaulted don't say no, and might even be construed as having agreed to the behavior, because they simply don't know what's going on is unacceptable behavior. So I think there are cases where consent is more hazy...

4/09/2006 11:31 AM  
Anonymous Darkhawk said...

I have a recommendation for a counsellor from a friend -- she thinks that this person can deal with the stuff I need to work through. Just need to work up the guts to call.

On 'woe is me culture' -- I didn't want to talk about it for a long time because I had seen what the surrounding culture did to women who admitted to having been raped or assaulted. Their personness was taken away: they were The Rape Victim, and nothing else, and there was no option for being someone else.

For all that it was hell being alone with that experience for as long as I was, being treated as The Thing That Happened To, dealing with the 'rape is the worst thing that could happen to you and now your life is ruined' rhetoric, and all that shit would have been worse. And I have no belief that I would have escaped it.

A while back a meme thing ran around Livejournal -- 'No Pity. No Shame. No Silence.' So I write about it sometimes, as part of being a complete person, not just the one that thing happened to.

4/09/2006 12:40 PM  
Blogger Anastasia said...

No your post doesn't come forth as a pity cry, definitely not, and I don't think that.

I was just tossing the idea of the down the track aspect and sometimes I seriously think that women need to take a professional route with this because there are many facets that a professional opens up that the average person may not, thereby leaving a woman walking the same treadmill over and over.

The question I would ask repeatedly was 'why did this occur to me?' over and over, and then I went to someone, whom I paid, and they turned to me (after I heaved it out again, for the millionth time).

'Okay, it occured, but what are you going to do with your life from the minute you walk out of this office'.

Definitely agree that consent is hazy many times, in professional settings, cultural settings, and even within established relationships where sometimes a spouse is coerced when they don't really want to (which can build resentment) and even though that's not assault in the violent aspect of using is what it is, in some places, if a woman so desired, she could transform it into a legal case even.

hazy definitely.

4/09/2006 12:55 PM  
Blogger Cherrie said...

I read this post last night, and found it disturbing enough not to want to comment on it right away, but to think about it for a while.

Now that I have reflected overnight, I find that you, darkhawk and Anastasia have covered most of the points I was thinking about making, which is that it is often difficult to determine the boundaries of consent.

Let me elaborate briefly:

In some cases, one cannot be considered to have given knowing consent to sexual advances, due to youth, incapacity, duress or breach of trust (e.g., a member of the clergy or a doctor). In those cases, the fact that the victim may have said "yes" is irrelevant. It's abuse.

Where the victim has capacity to consent, her/his consent to do one thing, or a series of things, may not be consent to go farther. In my opinion, it is the responsibility of the person giving consent to make that clear, and the responsibility of the other person to honor her/his wishes (which in a loving relationship he or she will do).

Finally, if the victim finds he/she has made a mistake in giving consent and doesn't want to go farther, a simple "no" or "don't do it" should be enough notice to get the other person to stop. Again, if the participants have feelings for each other, they should respect each other's desires.

I can certainly understand how someone can reflect on a sexual encounter and, years later, come to the conclusion that he/she was wronged, realizing that the boundaries of trust and/or consent were breached by the offending party. That may be worse than knowing it was wrong immediately after it happened.

Because this has not happened to me, I can only imagine the sort of personal hell that a woman who craves sexual attention, but who fears abuse from potential lovers, must occupy. My heart goes out to you, and I hope you find a way to overcome this. Good sexual relationships are too integral a part of life to be missed.

4/09/2006 1:45 PM  
Anonymous Hiromi said...

Without going into detail, mine involved alcohol, which made it nearly impossible to bring up.

4/10/2006 10:19 PM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

Darkhawk: "No pity. No shame. No silence." That's so perfect. That was exactly what I was trying to express. That's all I want.

About making the call: you'll get there. If you're thinking about it, it's only a matter of time. You'll know when you're ready. It was the same for me...the long approach to making the call. And when I knew it was time, I knew.

Ana: Yeah, I know what you mean. But if the professional is actually *good* at their job, they should be working to ensure you don't get into that treadmill, I think.

Cherrie: Thanks for all your insightful comments. Two things come to mind: my opinion, it is the responsibility of the person giving consent to make that clear...

I agree with this in theory, but I've since done a lot of reading about sexual assault, and in a good many cases, the victim experiences a "frozen flight" response (too scared or confused to object) or a "dissociative" reponse (they go "outside their body" and watch events unfold from the outside--it's "not happening to them") Both of these situatons, very common to survivors of trauma (happens in combat all the time), might prevent someone from articulating their nonconsent as effectively as they might. I'm not sure how to resolve that situation, because the person on the other end needs to be clear about what should not be happening. But I think if the person is respectful, they'd be able to tell if their partner has become unresponsive. If my partner did so, I would certainly stop and ask him if he was okay.

I can only imagine the sort of personal hell that a woman who craves sexual attention, but who fears abuse from potential lovers, must occupy. I've been fortunate in that my experience doesn't seem to have affected my sexuality itself much--I like sex a lot, and enjoy it--though I *am* extermely careful about who I choose for a partner. I don't experience fear of sexual abuse from potential lovers so much. For me I think it's more fear of betrayal and mistreatment; more on an emotional, rather than sexual, level.

4/10/2006 11:08 PM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

Hiromi: So many assaults involve alcohol or drugs. It's amazing that that myth continues to be put out there--that if the person was drinking, she somehow "deserved" it more, or at least doesn't have the right to claim what happened to her was abuse.

I mean, let's say two people are both drunk and person #1 gets out of control and shoots person #2. No one would say person #2 was asking to get shot because s/he was drinking, or that the fact person #2 was drunk and alone with person #1 made the shooting less "real," or that the shooter didn't deserve to be held accountable.

Drunkeness is never an excuse for hurting someone, in any way. That just burns me up. Whomever did that to you is the lowest of the low. It was assault, it is assault, and you did and do have the right to claim it, and you did and do deserve the right to talk about it (if and when you want to).

And I'm very sorry you had to go through that, and that people (whether societally or actually) made you feel you couldn't give voice to what had happened to you.

4/10/2006 11:20 PM  
Anonymous Darkhawk said...

I had both the 'frozen flight' and the 'dissociative', with lasting damage that duplicates both. Not to mention the fact that I am frequently nonverbal in intense situations, especially sexual ones, which means that it's hard to tell if I've broken ...

One of the fucking fantastic things about my relationship with my lover is that he's extremely careful about consent boundaries. We do a lot of pre-discussion (a lot of which gets extremely hot, possibly because I'm kinked that way) and if he has any doubt about my consent he pulls me back up to verbal and asks. (Sometimes really damn frustrating, but highly conducive to a profound feeling of trust.)

4/11/2006 2:11 AM  
Anonymous Hiromi said...

Yeah, let's just say people were very, very unsympathetic. Except for one girl, a close friend who had a similar experience.

Your analogy is a good one. It really sucks that in the case of sexual assault, even women have a hard time sympathizing unless they've been there, particularly since in many of the assaults, there are gray areas.

There shouldn't be such a high price to pay for naivete, you know?

4/11/2006 11:47 AM  
Blogger Miss Syl said...

Darkhawk: I'm glad you have someone who knows how to treat you the way you need to be treated. After your experience, there can be nothing better.

There shouldn't be such a high price to pay for naivete, you know?

I do know. I feel like that all the time since starting to talk about it. One of the hardest things I've had to break through is to stop being angry at myself for what I thought of as being "so stupid" that I couldn't figure out what was going on and I "let myself be taken advantage of." Though, I read it's quite common for the survivor to be even harder on themselves than they even are on the assaulter--probably due to both the kinds of inappropriate responses you got (there's a term for that, by the way--"secondary victimization"), which make you feel like everything is your fault, and/or the inability to really lash out at the person who deserves it (or a fear of doing so), so you just turn it on yourself.

I think my disgust at how nice and trusting I was then, walking into that incident, has had a major impact on my life since then. I've spent a great many years since then attempting to make myself appear strong, unassailable, and completely self-sufficient in any way. To feel or to let anyone know I *needed* them meant I was weak. And I've been extrodinarily wary walking into relationships, and extrodinarily slow to expose myself emotionally in them. I became very condescending about naivete, and would do anything not to be seen as that. I've felt for a long time that having developed these characeristics was a benefit to me--I thought they heped scare all the users, mysogynists, and idiots away from me, and let only the cool people in. Now I'm not so sure if they've helped me or harmed me along the way, you know? Plenty of assholes got under the radar anyway, and maybe I've been so stand-offish and formidable that I've actually scared people away that I would have benefitted from knowing. I'm just not sure. But I think it would be very hard for me to go back to allowing myself to be naive and fully open in any way. In fact, now that I am who I am, I don't even know how I could be that person anymore.

4/11/2006 11:42 PM  

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