A Love Letter to My Fellow Rape Survivors Part 3: How We Might Reclaim Our Power

Photo Courtesy Morgan Jo Photography

Sometimes there are points in your life of such clarity that you are able to completely reframe how you function and live in this world.  Last night was one of those moments.

It’s good to have friends.  It’s great to have friends who get it.  Who know you so damn well, they say things that fundamentally help you understand exactly why you are feeling what you’re feeling–who suddenly unearth the causes of the pain you’ve been feeling.  For so long I’ve felt as though I’m continually at a bottom of a well, clueless as to how I got there, clawing my way to get out, and last night, one of the most important people in my life reached down to the very bottom of that well and pulled me out.

For those who know me well, and who follow this blog, you know I struggle very much with mental health issues.  Depression, anxiety, OCD, PTSD, ADHD, and for whatever reason, this semester has been one of the most difficult semesters I’ve ever experienced.  I’ve had more days where I cry for no reason.  I’ve had more panic attacks, and feelings of such despair I’ve wished for illness and sickness so I could just take some time to run away from those horrible feelings–be free of all my responsibilities–and take a vacation from the constant negative internal monologue running through my brain.  What I wouldn’t give to have a remote control to just turn my brain off.  I am also a rape survivor and have written and researched this topic extensively.  Though I feel as though I’ve worked through much of the pain associated with this type of violence, I realized last night that even with all of the lectures I’ve given on this topic, the number of pieces I’ve devoted to this topic, a part of me never made peace with what happened.

This semester I went back to counseling.  I’m exercising more than I have in my entire life.  I’m learning how to do yoga properly, meditating, and figuring out how to take care of myself so I can get through the day.  I’m working on being present and mindful–to not get stuck in my prefrontal cortex that reevaluates the past and focuses on the future–a way of being  Buddhists call “suffering.”  And it’s helping.  But every day is still a struggle.

For those of you who suffer from anxiety or OCD, you know much of it has to do with control or feeling as though you’ve lost control.  When you feel as though everything around you is out of control, deep cleaning your apartment or color coordinating your closet can give you a semblance of control.  If you’ve only ever been in dysfunctional relationships, you find yourself figuring out ways to sabotage a healthy relationship because, again, your brain tells you that inserting drama into this healthy relationship seems like you have power over *something* when other parts of your life lie out of the realm of things you have a say in.

“So what has changed?”  My friend asked last night.  Last semester, even with everything going on in Wisconsin, I still loved my job.  I looked forward to going to work every day.  I didn’t have spans of hours where I simply couldn’t get out of bed or stop crying.  Life may have not been perfect, but for the most part I was happy.  And on paper, I have so much to be grateful for.  So what changed?

I’m still trying to figure that out, but it’s absolutely possible that nothing has changed.  That my “off switch” simply won’t let my brain relish in all of the amazing things I should be grateful for, and is intent on focusing solely on the negative–that which is out of my control–and that I’ve simply lost the coping skills I once had to deal with the anxiety that has always been there.

And then my friend said something that will forever change how I view what is currently going on and how I can regain my power.  He said, “You need to remember, something happened in 1997 that changed the course of your life forever.  You were raped.  You lost your virginity through that rape.  Your parents were going through a divorce.  Everything that you held dear slipped out of your life through no fault of your own.  You lost so much.  You lost control.  You lost your power.”  And then he said this:

Every time you allow yourself to let your anxiety get the best of you, he wins.

Every time you question the healthy relationship you are in, he wins.

Every time you question your decision to teach, to do the job you love, he wins.

Every time you can’t get out of bed, and cry, and let the sadness take over, he wins.

Every time you spend hours disinfecting the apartment to gain a sense of control, he wins.

Every time you tell yourself you’re not good enough, that you question your abilities, your intellect, your beauty, and your worth, he wins.

No one, no one in my life has ever put it that way.  For so long, I’ve allowed the man who took so much from me to continue to rule my life–how I feel about myself.  I’ve allowed him to sabotage all that is good in my life through self-doubt.  That is where it began and though I’ve gone to counselors, done everything in my power to control the uncontrollable, I’ve allowed him to be in the driver’s seat of my life.

Today, and for the rest of my days in this world, he no longer wins.

I will still suffer from anxiety.  I will always suffer from mental illness.  There will be good days and bad.  But reminding myself that every time I choose to engage in destructive behavior or entertain untrue thoughts about my self-worth that I’m allowing him to win–to continue to wield power over me–my hope is that instead of feeling sad and overwhelmed, I will get angry, and, well, that feels empowering.  That is power.

For those who suffer from mental illness, we know much of it is irrational, and that searching for root causes might help, but our brains are just wired differently, and that that’s ok.  But for me, this was a breakthrough.

It’s been less than 24 hours since this breakthrough, so I don’t know what the future holds, but I do know this.  I will do everything in my power, in all aspects of my life, within the realm of what I can do mentally and physiologically to not let him win anymore.  To not let him dictate how I choose to view myself.  To view myself how others view me and believe them when they tell me I’m a good person.  That I deserve to love and be loved fully.  That I’m not damaged.  That I’m thriving and that what I do makes a difference.  That I am strong.  That I am good.

Today he doesn’t win anymore.  Today I win.  I am taking control back from him.  I am taking everything he stole from me and reclaiming it: my power, my self-worth, my dignity.  Today, and for the rest of my life, he doesn’t win anymore.

To those who have experienced the hell that is sexual assault and violence, my wish for you is that you no longer allow the person or persons in your life who stole something from you to win, either.  Because today, for me, it feels pretty damned great.  Peace and love to you all.

Rape Culture 101: A Love Letter to My Fellow Rape Survivors

Things that cause rape

It wasn’t your fault.  I believe you.  What happened to you was rape.  You are not alone.  Those are things I wish someone had said to me when I was raped.  But that didn’t happen.  I never reported my assault because I was 18. Because he was my sister’s friend. Because it wasn’t “rape rape.” Because I was more concerned with being pregnant or having an STD than getting revenge on my rapist. Because I was a virgin and had no idea what had just happened to me. And my story is not uncommon. And the repercussions of what happened to me are also not uncommon: anxiety, depression, total loss of self, unwillingness to trust, dysfunctional relationship with sex and my own body–this is what happens to those who are raped.  But we live in a culture where we don’t talk about these things. Because it’s traumatic. Because it’s embarrassing. Because we blame ourselves, or others blame us for our actions.  Because who wants to tell their new partner about how they have a really difficult time with intimacy because they were raped?  These aren’t first date discussions, and sadly they end up being non-discussions because we live in a culture that doesn’t talk about the bad, the horrifying, and the traumatic.  We live in a Facebook era where we only ever want to show the best parts of ourselves to the detriment of so many who believe they are the only ones who’ve faced this.  And it needs to stop.

The following is my analysis of our current rape culture, the reasons so many never come forward, and a call to everyone that we need to stop victim blaming and start looking at the root causes of sexual assault.  Why does this keep happening?  Why do we as a society still engage in victim blaming? Why is it still so difficult to believe their stories? And how do we stop the epidemic of sexual assault here and around the world?

As Jennifer Cady reports, “For the first time since accusations of rape were made against Bill Cosby, 35 of the reported 46 women total who allege that the 78-year-old comedian sexually assaulted them have united together to tell their stories. New York Magazine photographed and interviewed each woman separately and notes that each of “their stories have remarkable similarities . . . . An empty chair was also left on the cover to represent those women unable to tell their story, which subsequently sparked a Twitter hashtag around that discussion.”  Twitter users created #TheEmptyChair as a way for victims/survivors of rape, sexual assault and abuse who are/were too frightened to come forward due to shame, stigma or the possibility further abuse to have a space to share their stories.  Others have posted in support.  Though heartbreaking to read, I would encourage everyone to read these stories.

But the fact that in 2015, we need a hashtag for those who were victims/survivors of sexual assault to share their stories, prompted by a cover of a magazine in which only 35 out of the 46 accusers were visually shown, shows how far we have to go in the ways in which we treat those who have been sexually assaulted.  That empty chair represents far too many who never speak out for so many reasons. Too many people in my life have sat in that chair. Enough. We need to break this culture of silence.

So why is it, how is it, that in this day and age, it takes 46 accusers to bring down a serial rapist?  My top reasons in no particular order.

1) Victim blaming.  As Laci Green notes in this video, there are horrible ramifications when we blame the victim instead of the perpetrator.  We place the onus on victim/survivor to engage/not engage in certain activities or to “prevent” themselves from “getting raped” versus looking at what causes some to rape in the first place, victim blaming protects sexual predators, and it makes it harder for justice to be served.  We invent things like rape-proof underwear and rape-proof nail polish.  And while the intentions come from a good place, the logic is horribly misplaced.  Again, it tells women, “you’re most likely going to get raped in your lifetime, so you should probably wear these underwear so it will be harder for someone to assault you.” Or even worse in the case of the nail polish, “Ladies, men are so horrible and disgusting, that they’ll probably slip something into your drink every time you go into a bar, but worry no more! Just dip your nails into your drink to tell if you’ve been drugged! Problem solved!”  This again not only reinforces the idea what someone needs to “prevent” themselves from getting raped, but is an incredible insult to men who DON’T drug people like the four men who created the nail polish.  I’ll get to the problem with the “boys will be boys” mentality in a bit.  In addition to others blaming victims, victims often blame themselves which leads me to my next point.

rape proof underwearrape proof nail polish

2)  Culture of Silence/Self Blame/Shame:  In a culture where we blame those who get sexually assaulted and place such a high prize on purity and virginity, it’s no wonder that those who are assaulted don’t come forward.  In Jessica Valenti’s “The Purity Myth,” she claims, “The lie of virginity—the idea that such a thing even exists—is ensuring that young women’s perception of themselves is inextricable from their bodies, and that their ability to be moral actors is absolutely dependent on their sexuality. It’s time to teach our daughters that their ability to be good people depends on their being good people, not on whether or not they’re sexually active . . . . so while young women are subject to overt sexual messages everyday, they’re simultaneously being taught—by the people who are supposed to care for their personal and moral development, no less—that their only real worth is their virginity and ability to remain ‘pure.'”  So, what happens when you’ve been told that your power rests in your ability to stay “pure” until marriage, when you’ve decided to remain abstinent, when you’ve attended a purity ball (yes these exist) and you’ve made a conscious choice to not engage in sexual activity until marriage and then someone takes that decision away from you?  Many see themselves as “damaged goods” who no longer hold their v-card, and since their purity is now gone, they may engage in dangerous sexual activity or have an incredibly toxic relationship with sex and their own sexuality because they’re no longer “pure” in the eyes of their God or society.  In addition, survivors tend to use the same rhetoric others use when victim blaming on themselves, “well, I probably did drink too much” or “maybe I did give off mixed signals” or any other of the thousands of reasons we tell those who have been assaulted that they somehow brought this on themselves.  When that happens, these assaults go unreported, the victim rarely tells someone, and does not seek treatment which can lead to dangerous repercussions.

3) A taught behavior:  We assume this is normal, that “boys will be boys,” and that this is just part of human nature.  Again, this is HUGELY insulting to all the men who do NOT rape and assault other men and women.  In addition, as Emily Hauser notes, “We teach our boys, from a very young age, that access to sexual release is their right, that indeed, their manhood is to be judged by how many vaginas they can penetrate. We teach them that those who would deny them this release may be manipulated and ignored, because the measure of a man is more important than the humanity of a woman. We encourage them — in winks, nods, jokes, songs, and men’s magazines — to view women as prey and as body parts, women’s own needs and desires as obstacles to sexual release. If removing those obstacles requires roofies, so be it — but often enough, copious amounts of alcohol (the original date rape drug) will serve.  We teach young boys and men that they “can’t help themselves,” that they should be sexually aggressive, that if they DON’T objectify women, they are “weak,” and if they are not sexually active, they are “weak” or “less than” a “real man.”  So whereas women are told that their power lies in protecting their virginity, we have entire films devoted to men losing theirs to “gain” power or masculinity: Porky’s, Weird Science, American Pie, The 40 Year Old Virgin, The Girl Next Door, Superbad, Sex Drive–you get the point.

4)  Dehumanization:  In ads, films, and almost all popular media, women’s bodies are constantly turned into things and objects which creates a climate of widespread violence against women.  Again, it is not a direct correlation, but turning a human being in to a *thing* is almost always the first step towards justifying violence against that person.  As Jean Kilbourne notes, “Just as it’s difficult to be healthy in a toxic physical environment if we’re breathing poisoned air for example or drinking polluted water, so it’s difficult to be healthy in what I call a toxic cultural environment, an environment that surrounds us with unhealthy images, and that constantly sacrifices our health and our sense of well being for the sake of profit. Ads sell more than products. They sell values, they sell images, they sell concepts of love and sexuality, success, and perhaps most importantly, of ‘normalcy.’ To a great extent they tell us who we are and who we should be.”—Jean Kilbourne, Killing Us Softly 4.  As Rance Crain, former Senior Editor of Advertising Age notes, “only 8% of an ad’s message is received by the conscious mind. The rest is worked and reworked deep within the recesses of the brain.”  Messaging matters.  Language matters.  It is because of these objectifying images and this toxic culture that allows boys to rank their female classmates in a bracket and see absolutely nothing wrong with it.  96% of sexually objectifying imagery is of women’s bodies.  When we don’t see people as fully human and only as parts and things time and time again, we create a culture where it is much easier to do harm to that person.

5) Lack of Conversations Around Consent:  There is a myth that consent isn’t sexy.  But as Laci Green points out here, not only can it be, but conversations regarding consent need to be seen as something that become part of our everyday vocabulary.  What is consent?  It’s clear.  It’s enthusiastic.  There shouldn’t be any confusion, and if there is, check in.  Ongoing dialogue should be part of sexual encounters. Still confused?  Maybe this will help.  What’s troubling is the lack of consent or discussion of consent anywhere in the media.  We don’t see people having these conversations, so how would we know how to model this behavior?


6) Sexual violence/Street Harassment isn’t taken seriously.  I’ll just leave this right here.

7)  “Rape Rape”/Trivialization of certain kinds of assault.  We are conditioned to believe that it only counts as “rape” if what happened to you was 1) done by a stranger 2) in a dark alley 3) at knifepoint/gunpoint.  The reality is:

Approximately 2/3 of rapes are committed by someone known to the victim.
73% of sexual assaults are perpetrated by a non-stranger.
38% of rapists are a friend or acquaintance.
28% are an intimate.
7% are a relative.

This is why we have words like “spousal rape,” “intimate partner sexual violence,” etc.  Yes, you can get raped by your spouse. Yes, you can get raped by your partner.  Yes, you can get raped by someone with whom you once had consensual sex. Yes, you can get raped by a friend.  Yes, you can get raped by a loved one.  Not sure if you were raped? Read this.

So, what do we do?

Here are the realities, the statistics:

In Wisconsin

  • 1,224 women were reported forcibly raped in Wisconsin in 2012, up 3.6% from the year before.
  • 21.4 forcible rapes per 100,000 Wisconsin residents.
  • *The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), administered by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008-2012
  • *Wisconsin Statistical Analysis Center Report, 2013
  • Crime Information Bureau
  • Department of Justice
  • P.O. Box 2718
  • Madison, WI 53701
  • ojasac@wi.gov
  • http://oja.wi.gov/sac/

In the United States

  • By age 18, 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will experience some form of sexual violence
  • At some point in their lives 1 in 5 women and 1 in 33 men have experienced attempted or completed rape
  • Sexual Assault victims are 3 times more likely to suffer from depression, 6 times more likely to suffer from PTSD, 13 more times to abuse alcohol, 26 more times to abuse drugs, and 4 times more likely to contemplate suicide
  • *The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), administered by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2008-2012

Many of these numbers are low because sexual assault is still one of the most underreported crimes in our country.  Roughly only 27% of rapes or sexual assaults were reported to police in 2011.

  • *The National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), administered by the United States Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2011

You know someone who has been raped.  Statistically, it’s impossible that you don’t.  So what’s the answer? Stop the blaming.  Intervene if you see something happening that seems wrong.  Speak out against sexual harassment, street harassment, rape, and sexual assault. Support ongoing training for those who investigate allegations of any type of interpersonal violence to include trauma-informed investigation training.  And support anyone who comes to you.  Every assault is different, but circumstances don’t make any assault less traumatizing.  Tell them you believe them.  Tell them you love them.  If nothing else, just listen.  You won’t be able to fix it.  Nothing *fixes* it.  As my fellow survivors know, you’re never really “ok.”  Ever.  Something has been taken from you and from that point on, your life is never the same.  No, you are not “damaged goods” but you are damaged.  A part of you will forever be destroyed.  But nothing will change if our culture remains the same.  If we place the blame on the victim; not the perpetrator.  If we don’t believe their stories.  We as individuals must speak out.  We need to read the heart wrenching stories of others and do our best to reframe the ways in which we talk about rape and assault in our culture.  To my brothers and sisters who survived these unspeakable acts of violence, and to the many others who did not, my heart breaks for you every day.  This is for you.  It wasn’t your fault.  I believe you.  What happened to you was rape. You are not alone.  We will heal.  We will survive. We will thrive.  And I will forever love and support you just as I was loved and supported by so many who made it possible for me to even write this.  Peace be with you all, and here is to hoping that by speaking out, someday, someday, we won’t all know someone who’s been raped.

Update:  since posting this yesterday, within less than 24 hours, I have had enough men and women contact me or publicly post their own stories that I could write an entirely new blog with just their horrifying experiences.