On being a woman in the USA.

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The Choice to Be Silent

Trigger warning: discussion of rape.

Note: This post has been updated since its original publication. I just kept having more to say on the subject. Also, I’d like to amend “silent” in the title because while many survivors choose not to report, we are often far from silent about our rapes. This is about the choice not to report a rape to the police.

I am a multiple rape survivor. I have experienced what it’s like to report rape and I have chosen not to report rape. And although I want all rapists caught and punished, I fully support every survivor’s right to choose whether to report rape and I do not question any survivor’s choice no matter what. For me—and for most of the feminists I know—this is fundamental.

A recent post on Fiending for Hope discussed the choice not to report a rape as an act of self-care and something to be respected. She went so far as to suggest that survivors who choose not to report are courageous:

People that do choose to report their rapes are incredibly courageous and I support them so freaking hard. But those of us that don’t choose to report are no less courageous.

She didn’t claim that the choice not to report required the same amount of courage as choosing to report and face the consequences which will likely include being grilled about every choice she made leading up to the rape and immediately after. She merely stated that choosing not to report doesn’t make you less courageous. I agree with her (on all counts—read the piece if you haven’t) and will take it a step further: I believe that choosing not to report requires courage (of perhaps a different kind), and I don’t think that there’s a mathematical formula you can apply that will determine which survivor must display more courage. It’s not a contest, and every survivor must be courageous—sometimes just to get up in the morning and live our lives. But while choosing to report a rape may require the courage to deal with systemic abuse of rape survivors, choosing not to report—choosing instead to take care of yourself first and foremost—requires the courage to deal with the fallout when people hold you responsible for the rapist’s future actions.

Because there are still those who believe that a rape survivor owes it to society to report rape—as though by doing that we are protecting society from a rapist—and hold survivors who don’t report responsible for rapists running free. I saw some of this in the reaction to the piece in question—and to the quote above. The idea that a survivor might choose not to report a rape is, to some, not a courageous act but a cowardly one—one that leaves a rapist at large, and so, endangers others.

Fun fact: 97% of rapists never serve time. It’s estimated that about 46% of rapes get reported, only 12% of rapists ever get arrested, and only 3% go to jail. So how, exactly, am I protecting society by reporting my rape when the odds are the rapist will never see the inside of a prison cell? When, in fact, there’s a good chance that my rape kit will sit untested on a shelf for years—possibly decades?* How the fuck do you take a rapist to trial without testing a rape kit? You don’t. (Hence the 9% of rapists who get prosecuted.)

via RAINN

via RAINN

I don’t know the percentage of female rape survivors who report and are subsequently treated like criminals and interrogated about their clothing choices, how much they had to drink, how many sexual partners they’ve had and whether their attacker was one of them, whether the “sex” was actually consensual but they regretted it later…but I’m guessing the percentage high based on pretty much every survivor I’ve read or talked to. So when people say that a survivor owes it to the rest of us to endure this scrutiny and shaming even knowing that the rapist is going to walk free almost every single time, they are basically saying, “If you don’t run the gauntlet, you’re responsible for all future rapes this perp commits.”

A rape survivor is never, ever responsible for future rapes perpetrated by his or her rapist. I mean, the fact that I actually have to say that… But you know, I do. And for anyone out there who questions a survivor’s choice not to report, I’d like you to think about the following:

Would you support a rape survivor’s choice not to report a rape because…

…he feared for his life?

…she was drunk and can’t identify her attacker?

…his attacker threatened his family?

…her attacker is already on trial for another rape?

…his attacker was a family member dying of cancer?

…her attacker got hit by a truck right after the rape and so will never be able to rape again?

If you answered yes to any of these questions (or can conceive of any possible circumstance under which you would be ok with not reporting), then you support a rape survivor’s right to choose whether to report. And so, to question any survivor’s choice to report a rape is bullshit because you have no idea why they are choosing not to report and IT’S NONE OF YOUR GODDAMNED BUSINESS.

Out of three rapes, I reported the first two. I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether to report the first time, but the second time I was afraid it wasn’t rape because I didn’t fight, and a police officer convinced me that it was indeed rape and took my report. Neither of these times did it ever occur to me not to file a report, so no particular courage was required for me to do so. I wasn’t out to save anyone—I was a mess and I did what people told me to do. The third time circumstances were complicated enough that reporting seemed utterly futile based on my experience with the system. I did not display courage in choosing not to report; I just did what I had to do. But I wasn’t *more* courageous when I reported the previous rapes than someone who chooses not to, and to say I was is bullshit. And furthermore, I can’t conceive for one second of holding a prior victim of any of the men who raped me responsible for my rapes.

Like Britni says:

We all have our own stories and our own reasons for making the choices that we make. It’s important to remember that survivors make the choices that are best for them– not the choices YOU think are best for them. And all of those choices are valid. All of them.

Rape survivors don’t owe anyone anything. They certainly don’t owe us their continued pain and suffering so that we as a society can blame them for their rapes and lament the ruination of their rapists’ lives and ultimately let the rapist go free most of the time. They don’t owe us that.

I am a multiple rape survivor. I have reported rape and I have chosen not to report rape. Both choices required courage and still do. Every fucking day of my life.

*True story: One of my rape kits has been sitting untested on a shelf in Texas since 1981.


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ANITA the Documentary: See it and Send a Message

ANITAIn 1991, Anita Hill captured my country’s attention when she testified before congress that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her while he was her supervisor. I was in my late 20s at the time, and I remember how brave she seemed, but the power dynamics were frankly lost on me at that point. In fact, they were lost on a lot of people. Prior to Ms. Hill’s testimony, we weren’t even talking about sexual harassment in the workplace as a nation. Like so many societal ills, it was a silent current running through our culture, accepted as just “the way things are.” Anita Hill changed that.

Now, watching the trailer for the upcoming documentary ANITA, I look at the sea of white, male faces that confronted her (literally) as she testified, and I have a far better sense of just how much courage that must have taken as a woman and especially as a Woman of Color. She spoke a hard truth to the most powerful men in her country and made herself a target not only for politicians but for racists and comedians and anyone else with an axe to grind against a Black woman who dared talk about how powerful men treat women who are subordinate to them. She did so with a grace I know I couldn’t muster in similar circumstances, and I am in awe of her. I expect I’ll be even more in awe after seeing this film.

Watch the trailer:


Yeah, this looks really, really good.

I’ve worked on Women, Action, and the Media (WAM!) campaigns before and hoped at one time to start a Seattle WAM! chapter. Life got in the way and I have had to take a step back from my activism until further notice, but I’m still kicking, and when Jaclyn Friedman asked me if I’d help WAM! get people out to a local ANITA screening I was happy to oblige. But I don’t want to stop there.

Initial screenings are taking place in March and April in select cities (see below). Based on ticket sales for those screenings, distributors for the film will decide how many cities will get the film and for how long. WAM! wants to get as many people as possible out to these screenings to ensure that the film gets wide distribution and in doing so, send a message to Hollywood that “woman-helmed films about women are a good investment.”

I think this is a worthy endeavor—don’t you? I’m hoping you’ll help me get the word out so these initial screenings are as successful as they can be. And BONUS: WAM! has arranged for discounted tickets (see links below)!

From WAM!:

Just past the 22 year anniversary, Freida Mock revisits one of the most controversial watershed events of the past century, the Anita Hill – Clarence Thomas hearings, the weekend of shocking television that made Anita Hill a household name and smashed the door open on the issues of sexual harassment and gender equality.

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Attend a Screening

Screenings are happening in the following cities (courtesy of WAM!—follow links for discounted tix!):

MARCH 21 – 23, 2014

APRIL 4 – 6, 2014

  • CHICAGO, IL – RIVER EAST 21: Email us ASAP to help make a Chicago WAM! screening happen

  • ATLANTA, GA - REGAL TARA CINEMAS 4: Email us ASAP to help make an Atlanta WAM! screening happen

Help Make ANITA a Success!

Watch the trailer. Spread the word about this film, these screenings (and discounted tix!), and our goal to turn out as many movie-goers as we can. If you live in one of the above cities, attend a screening! Any screening! And if you live in one of the above cities and would like to help ensure the success of ANITA in your city, or if your city is not listed and you’d like to bring a screening to your areaemail WAM! and let them know.

Let’s send that message to Hollywood so more films like this one get made and seen.

I’m Tired of All the Damned Splaining so Check Your Privilege, Please

STOPI’m tired. So tired of all the splaining and the related derailing and domination of conversations about issues facing less privileged people by those who have more privilege in our society.

I have written about mansplaining before. Many men (who seem not to have read past the headline) get their feelings hurt by this because they automatically assume it applies to all men. If you do not engage in mansplaining, it does not apply to you. The same goes for what I have to say here: if the shoe fits, wear it.

All of us sit somewhere on a scale of privilege. Some are more privileged, some less. My wish is that when someone from a lower rung on the ladder of privilege speaks out about an issue that affects them, everyone above them on the ladder would take the opportunity to listen and learn and allow room for that voice to be heard. Too often what I see instead is the people from higher on the ladder jumping in to splain to the people on lower rungs why their perspectives are flawed. I see threads about women derailed and dominated by men. I see threads about People of Color derailed and dominated by white people. And it’s not cool.

I am tired of being splained and watching other people get splained. I’m tired of women never being able to speak out about an issue that affects them without half a dozen men jumping in to splain “it’s not just women” or telling us how wrong we are when we try to talk about our lived experiences and how we feel about them. I’m tired of seeing People of Color speaking out about their lived experiences and issues affect them only to have white people splain that “it’s not just Black people” and “that’s not racist.” I’m tired of straightsplainging and cissplaining. I’m tired of abandoning threads I started because even when I say I’m done arguing, the splainers keep on splaining (often becoming more and more condescending as the discussion “progresses”). I’m tired of dealing with people who are more interested in having their opinions heard and being right than in sitting back and listening to people whose lives and challenges are different from theirs and maybe learning something.

You know what? When people less privileged than you are use their voices to talk about an issue they face, it really doesn’t matter whether the issue also affects you. The point is that it affects the less privileged group to a (chances are much) greater degree, and they are trying to talk about that, and it is not helpful or wanted for you to splain that you were once poor or that you got sexually harassed one time so it’s not just them. In fact, when you do that, you take up room in the conversation that really ought to be reserved for other voices in the less privileged group who want to discuss the issue. What would be helpful would be for you to listen and learn about how other people experience the world—other people who do not benefit from the privileges you enjoy—and the challenges *they* face. Consider whether your opinion is required on every topic on which you feel tempted to comment, or whether you are simply exercising your privilege when you and people like you end up dominating a conversation that wasn’t about you in the first place. Consider how your privilege allows you to feel comfortable doing that.

Your privilege means that your voice carries more weight in almost every situation. Do you really have to chime in on every single thread on which you have an opinion? Must your voice be heard, possibly at the expense of others? Want to talk about an issue that affects you? Maybe go start your own conversation rather than taking over one a person on a lower rung of privilege is trying to have.

If this pisses you off, then maybe ask yourself why, and consider whether you’re actually willing to allow less privileged people to talk about issues facing them without splaining how it’s “not just X” or how their perspectives are flawed. Consider whether you are willing to make room for voices that carry less weight in our society. If you’re not willing consider these things, then you are not being an ally to those less privileged than you are.

I’m tired of all the damned splaining. And I’m about to start culling my social media feeds to reduce the amount of it I have to deal with in my life. I have already revised my comment policy here to reflect the fact that I’m not nearly as tolerant of various flavors of bullshit as I once was. This is one of my least favorite flavors because people who do this are often unaware of what they’re doing and consider themselves to be allies, which means that people like me end up wasting a lot of time and precious energy trying to help them understand. False allies are worse than trolls because at least they seem like they have good intentions, but what they end up doing is sucking all your energy as you try to engage them when ultimately, they can’t see past their own privilege to actually listen. They end up dominating conversations instead of learning. And the less privileged end up leaving these conversations because we’re tired of arguing with people who have no intention of hearing us, and so our voices we are effectively silenced. False allies are people who think of themselves as “progressive” but behave in ways that become part of the problem.

If you want to be an ally, learn how to be a good one. If you want to argue about this, go argue with someone else. And please stop splaining.

Because I’m so fucking tired of it.

BE AN ALLY.png


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Trigger Warnings: It’s About Empathy and Choice

Trigger warning for multiple topics*.
EMPATHYsmI am super irritated that I have to write this. That I feel like I have to write it today, right now, because not only did a concern-trolling article come out in the New Republic a couple of days ago, but people were already complaining about trigger warnings as though they were some kind of censorship (some even using the word). As though the people using or benefiting from them were proposing banning words or ideas. As though we want our world scrubbed clean of all references to traumatic topics. This is not remotely the case, and I feel the need to clarify for anyone who’s listening and isn’t sure they get it. 

What’s a trigger warning? The top Urban Dictionary entry does a fairly good job of defining them:

Used to alert people when an internet post, book, article, picture, video, audio clip, or some other media could potentially cause extremely negative reactions (such as post-traumatic flashbacks or self-harm) due to its content. Sometimes abbreviated as “TW.”

Trigger Warning for sexual violence

The New Republic article adopts a slippery-slope argument, pointing out among other things that UC Santa Barbara’s Associated Student Senate has passed a proposal, now presumably before university officials, recommending required warnings before graphic material. The author doesn’t seem curious about how this might help people. In fact she states quite plainly that it doesn’t:

As a means of navigating the Internet, or setting the tone for academic discussion, the trigger warning is unhelpful. … There is no rational basis for applying warnings because there is no objective measure of words’ potential harm.Of course, words can inspire intense reactions, but they have no intrinsic danger. Two people who have endured similarly painful experiences, from rape to war, can read the same material and respond in wholly different ways.

This tells me that the author a) has missed the point entirely and b) didn’t bother to speak to anyone who uses or benefits from trigger warnings (she certainly doesn’t quote any). If she had spoken to some of us, she might understand that trigger warnings are actually very helpful to trauma survivors. They allow us to choose when and how we engage with content so we can do so in a way that results in less harm. It doesn’t mean we won’t view the content. It just means we have a choice—that it doesn’t hit us like a slap in the face and possibly to our great detriment. But people who pooh-pooh trigger warnings often (though not always if they take the time to listen) seem unconcerned with the everyday battles survivors face on the Internet. In fact, like the author of the NS article (quoted again below), some are now wringing their hands over how this practice is apparently harming us as a society and will lead to trigger warnings on cereal boxes and shit:

What began as a way of moderating Internet forums for the vulnerable and mentally ill now threatens to define public discussion both online and off. The trigger warning signals … a wider cultural hypersensitivity to harm and a paranoia about giving offense. And yet, for all the debate about the warnings on campuses and on the Internet, few are grappling with the ramifications for society as a whole.

… it’s only a matter of time before warnings are demanded for other grade levels … it’s not inconceivable that they’ll appear at the beginning of film screenings and at the entrance to art exhibits. Will newspapers start applying warnings to articles about rape, murder, and war? Could they even become a regular feature of speech? “I was walking down Main Street last night when—trigger warning—I saw an elderly woman get mugged.”

Trigger warnings aren’t about not giving offense. They’re about taking the time to consider how material might affect survivors of trauma (empathy) and allowing them to a) brace themselves emotionally for the material or b) skip it entirely (choice). They serve as a helpful guide for people who might want or need to prepare for—or choose not to experience—content that might trigger reactions that they aren’t ready to deal with right now—reactions that can range from mild discomfort (which is what most people who have a problem with TWs seem to assume we’re talking about) to outright panic to self-harm. In an age when most of us are suffering from information overload, it’s about giving people more awareness of possible emotional landmines so they can make informed choices as they navigate their day. Believe me, we’re going to encounter plenty difficult material without the benefit of a trigger warning. We’re not living in a sterilized environment. But we do appreciate a heads-up when something might reopen our wounds. To me, it doesn’t seem like much to ask, and it doesn’t cost me anything to include trigger warnings on my content.

As yet, no one is obligated to provide trigger warnings. It’s something we do out of consideration for those who might appreciate and benefit from it. A simple [TW] before a tweet about a difficult topic gives readers a chance to steel their gut or skip it if they don’t feel like dealing with hard stuff just now. Ever read or watched something that made you cry at work? If so, you might know the feeling of wishing you’d waited until later. Have you ever said something insensitive in front of someone who was hurt by your words and wished you hadn’t opened your mouth? Would you knowingly walk through the world causing people to feel either of those ways…or much worse?

No, the world cannot and should not be free of all references to rape, abuse, domestic violence, racism, slut-shaming, fat-shaming, suicide, war…but knowing what we’re in for allows us to reduce emotional stress and strife in an environment that—for at least some of us—feels like a barrage of those things on a fairly constant basis.

It’s about self-care, and those who think trigger warnings are unnecessary or asking too much are basically saying that they don’t care whether we’re able to practice self care, or whether being blind-sided by something might cause us to engage in self-harm or flip a switch in our brains and trigger anxiety that can last for weeks (or months and require medication or even hospitalization to overcome)…this is what we’re talking about here, folks. We’re talking about caring enough about survivors of trauma that we allow them to choose. The National Institute of Health estimates that over ten million people suffer from PTSD in the United States alone. We’re talking about avoiding doing or saying something carelessly that might cause real harm to people who are already struggling every single day.

Here’s where the concern-trolling really gets going:

Issuing caution on the basis of potential harm or insult doesn’t help us negotiate our reactions; it makes our dealings with others more fraught. As Breslin pointed out, trigger warnings can have the opposite of their intended effect, luring in sensitive people (and perhaps connoisseurs of graphic content, too). More importantly, they reinforce the fear of words…

*scraaaaatch*

Go read the article if you want. I’m done.

Yes, there is a good chance that trigger warnings will rise in popularity as people become more aware of why they are a thoughtful thing to do. And people who think they’re useless will continue to wonder “What’s next? A trigger warning because you don’t like the brand of beer I drink?” And I will shake my head and wonder why it’s so difficult for them to consider the lives of others—lives which are clearly quite different from theirs when their reaction to our trauma is “This is the world. Deal with it.”

Well, this is empathy, and it’s what allows people to care for each other and not hurt each other. I recommend that everyone take a spoonful with their tea in the morning and see if your day and that of everyone you interact with doesn’t get just a bit better. At the very least, maybe you’ll cause less harm.

Screen shot 2014-03-05 at 10.58.17 AMSpeaking of lack of empathy, here’s what Dan Savage had to say about the NE article:

Any article in which I’m cited as triggering needs to have a trigger warning. Because that totally triggers me.

Way to be an insensitive fuckwad, Dan. High five.

I mean seriously: aside from some people’s snide reaction to the idea that some people need to be a bit more gentle with themselves than others, what is the problem with a warning before a particularly graphic film or tv show (many of which already feature them, and have since I was a child)? What is the cost? Do we really think this is going to lead to everyone walking around in full-body armor and darkened goggles that filter out anything objectionable? Why don’t we start by worrying about survivors and concern ourselves with the Trigger Warning Dystopia later? Because at this point it sounds to me like some people are just irritated by other people’s sensitivities, and to that I say, get out into the world and meet some people whose lives are completely different from yours. Listen to what they have to say. That’s where your full dose of understanding will come from.

I’ll close with a quote from the always-amazing Anne Theriault of The Belle Jar:

Life is an ongoing exercise in empathy. As a human being, your job should be constantly learning how to make your own way in this world while causing as little harm as possible.  Which is why I’m ultimately baffled when people wonder aloud if they’re supposed to look at everything critically and worry about its potential to harm others. Because yes. Yes, that is exactly what you are supposed to do.

tortoise

Me empathizing with a baby tortoise, in case that’s helpful.

*See how easy that was?


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Rape Culture at UofO: Come at Me, Bros

Trigger warning for discussion of rape and rape culture.

Screen shot 2014-03-03 at 2.59.43 PMMy friend Anne Thériault of The Belle Jar wrote a post a few days ago about an incident at University of Ottawa wherein several male members of student leadership gathered to chat about Anne Marie Roy, president of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa. Ms. Roy had apparently beaten a dude for the office, and these dudes were not happy. They went on for several screens talking about how someone should “punish her with their shaft,” speculating about what venereal diseases she might have, and offering to buy beers for a guy who says he’s going to “fuck her in the ass” on someone’s desk. You’ll find the whole disgusting mess over on The Belle Jar. Here’s an excerpt from Anne’s article, which you should go read right now.

Someone punish her with their shaft. Someone punish her with their shaft. This is the type of thing that’s said about women in positions of power – not a critique of their policies, but a threat of sexual violence. Not a comment on how they do their job, but graphic fantasies about how they should be sexually degraded. Nothing about their intelligence or capability, just a string of jokes about how riddled with venereal disease they are. This is misogyny, pure and simple. This is slut-shaming. This is rape culture.

As I’m sure you can imagine, Anne was immediately subjected to verbal abuse of the sort women who dare to speak out on the Internet will be familiar with. But then Anne Marie Roy received a cease-and-desist letter. From CTV News in Canada:

The letter — which identifies the four participants as Michel Fournier-Simard, Alexandre Giroux, Alexandre Larochelle and Robert-Marc Tremblay — threatened legal action against Roy if she did not “destroy” her copy of the online conversation and stop sharing it with others.

It wasn’t long before Anne Thériault received a similar letter. These individuals have now withdrawn their threats with regard to Ms. Roy. Anne is still waiting to learn whether she will be sued for her blog post.

Every single day, women are silenced when they try to speak out about rape culture. Every day we are told that “it’s not rape culture” or “it’s just how guys are,” which sound to me like conflicting statements. Why are guys just “like that”? Duh, because of rape culture, which Matthew G. P. Coe defines thusly in his follow-up at the Good Men Project:

Rape culture is the gradual normalisation, through, for example, jokes, commentary, and apologia, of the exertion of one person’s will over another, through the use of coerced or forced sex acts, such that such exertions become acceptable or justifiable as either hypothetical or practical actions.

Every time a conversation like the one Anne Marie Roy and Anne Thériault have helped bring to light takes place, it reinforces this culture of rape as acceptable. It reinforces a culture that treats women as objects, as products for men’s consumption, as sex toys, as less than human. And it reinforces a culture where women remain silent when things like this happen. Or as Anne says,

If these men face no consequences for their actions – indeed, if they are able to press charges against Roy for publicly addressing their comments – what are the students going to learn from this? They’ll learn that rape is a joke, that women can be terrorized into silence, and that it’s useless, maybe even dangerous, to speak up. Are these the lessons that we want our student leaders to be instilling in the heads of seventeen and eighteen year old kids?

I’d like to ask each of you to think about how you can help shine a light on this bullshit and show the world that we will not be silent. As for me, I’m looking forward to my cease-and-desist letter. Oh! I probably won’t get one unless I include at least part of the conversation, so here you go, bros:

screen-shot-2014-02-28-at-1-57-41-pm

And here’s my call to action:

Join me by writing your own post, reblogging/sharing Anne’s post or this one or Matt Coe’s or all of them, and tweeting on #UofOrapeculture. Let’s shine a frakking Klieg light on these assholes.

Update: All four members of student leadership involved in this conversation have resigned their positions. (I missed this article previously. Apologies.) No word on whether legal actions will continue.

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An Open Letter to B

Dear B,

Today will be a crying day. I can’t always tell when I wake up, but when I wake up and burst into tears and cry until snot runs down my face, that’s a sure sign. Last night I fell asleep acknowledging that there’s a part of me still waiting for her baby to come back, and this morning I dreamed that I followed you and your girlfriend around like K did when we were first together, trying to give you gifts and be affectionate while you mostly ignored me.

Waking up my first thought as the tears came was “But I don’t want to.” I’m still trying to work out what that means. Don’t want to be over you? Don’t want to walk away like I did at the end of my dream? None of this makes sense because what I want more than almost anything in the world is to not feel anything where you’re concerned. Anger protected me for a lot of last year but as it subsided—as my brain started forgetting to hate you—I began to remember who you used to be to me: not a villain but the man I loved.

You’ve done a lot of crappy things. First there is the original betrayal—it seems so wrong that I can sum it up in three words like that when a) it went on for so long and piled betrayal upon betrayal and b) it has left me more broken than anything that came before including rapes and beatings I wasn’t sure I’d survive. Telling me over and over again via email about your new love and your bullshit philosophical “types of love” and how I fit into this one box over here, but that one didn’t really count, and your wishes for multiple lovers in the future and your hope that she would accept that, as though that information could possibly help me heal. Then ignoring me on our anniversary after I told you how hard just the days leading up to it were and how I dreaded it. Then promising to leave me alone about the house for six months and then sic’ing your lawyers on me after only three. These are the bigger ones, but once in a while I realize that some part of me still feels that your worst crime was not loving me—not loving us—enough to stay and try to fix it. The absolute worst thing about this for me is that you don’t love me.

For the past 14 months I have been in a state of illness. For several weeks I could barely get off the couch. It was four months before I felt ready to move back to our bedroom and since I did, I’ve barely left it. I am unable to earn a living because depression keeps me from working more than a few hours a day for a few weeks at a time (which means I can get through a book editing project, but a full-time job feels out of the question). I am fighting a constant, uphill battle just to get back to the level of depression I occupied when you were still here. For the past six months I have been largely unable to blog. It’s like I’ve run out of things to say and confidence in my ability to say them.

J told me that you said your actions were hurtful. They weren’t just hurtful—they were harmful. Nothing in my life has ever left me this broken. She said you mourn the loss of your friend. My first thought, and what I said to her, was this:

“He killed his friend. And he killed mine. I will never, ever be the same person I was when I met him. I will never start a relationship with that trust. 8 years ago today I met the man who would murder the person I was that day.”

I know you’ve read things I’ve written before and come away thinking that I hated you. I have tried to, but I don’t. The honest truth—and the most excruciating thing I have to accept on days like this—is that I still love you. And accepting that, it takes everything I have not to hate myself. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned this past year it’s to be gentle with me because I have been on the edge and I know what it feels like to want to slip over and lose myself. I can’t let that happen.

Now you see where I still am 14 months after you left and a year and ten days after we last spoke. I am still crying over you. I am still dreaming about you. I am still waiting for you to come back to me. And I am still agonizing over all of these things and trying not to despise myself. The best thing my anger did was to protect me from that hope and I really wish I still had it. Since I don’t, I’m just trying to get through the time it will take for the hope and love to fade away. I really thought a year would be enough.

I painted this for you back in the early days. For me it expressed what I thought was happening between us: something so big and important that it threatened to burst out of the confines of this mortal existence.

Art by Rosie

Art by Rosie

Now I realize that it was big and important, just not in the way I thought. Now I see the flaws in a painting I once thought beautiful and I look for meaning in them. Where is the line that shows you falling out of love? Where is the one that predicts your betrayal? Which lines represent not love but pain? Which ones are the signs I should have seen that would have allowed me to prevent us from falling apart?

So, this is the state of things. These are some of the things you need to know before you make any attempt at another apology. I wish I could tell you everything. I wish that I could make you experience what I have experienced this past year. I want you to know what it is to be the one left behind instead of the one always leaving and leaving destroyed lives behind you. I wish I could communicate the sadness I’ve felt watching friends and even my family members choose to remain in contact with you even when they know how much it hurts me. I want you to feel what I have felt and know the pain that your choices—and complete lack of empathy for me—have caused. And I want to understand, I think, but maybe I don’t because every time you’ve tried to explain you’ve only caused me more pain. What I really want is for things to be ok, and on days like this it’s hard to believe they ever will be again.

Sincerely,

Me

#IStandWithDylan – My Story of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Trigger warning for discussion of childhood sexual abuse and rape.

Me, age 2

Me, age 2

This week, Dylan Farrow published an open letter in the New York Times detailing her story of abuse at the hands of recent Golden Globe honoree, Woody Allen. Immediately, the debate began, as I knew it would before I even finished reading: should we believe her? As I often do, I took to Twitter to show support and talk about my experiences with abuse and the disbelief that often follows under the hashtag #IStandWithDylan. Lots of other people joined me and over the past few days, we’ve talked a lot about the culture that tells childhood sexual abuse victims they are probably lying or maybe they really do believe what they are saying, but it’s still not true.

I have spoken in the past about my history of abuse and alluded to multiple instances of childhood sexual abuse. I was one of the fortunate ones in that when I finally broke down (and I do mean that literally) and “confessed” my abuse to my mother, she believed me without hesitation. I wouldn’t experience the incredulity rape culture demands until I was raped at age 12 and again at 16, and then for the rest of my life at random times.

I have alluded to my childhood abuse, but I haven’t talked about it in detail. But given the conversation I’ve been having on Twitter (and to a lesser degree, on Facebook) the past three days, I feel like it’s time to tell the story of my childhood abuse, partly because I haven’t, partly because people need to understand that predators can be anyone, and partly because, as Andrea Grimes says in her (amazing) RH Reality Check article,

The more stories survivors tell, the less aberrant we will be—though I contend this is an imagined aberrance. If we can tell our stories, and if those stories can be heard, we may someday stop this relentless “he said, she said” tug-of-war where no victim is ever perfect enough, no accused ever quite guilty enough.

This is not going to be pretty. If you’re likely to be triggered, this is the place where you want to stop reading.


The Maintenance Man

It started at four or five. We lived in an Army housing development in Southern California. It was a tight-knit, seemingly safe little community of soldiers and their families. My dad was away a lot and my mom was mostly a single parent with two small kids and possibly another on the way by then. Kids ran around the neighborhood freely in those days (the late 1960s) and we often played in the park at the end of our cul-de-sac, right next-door to my house. One day a friend and I met a park maintenance guy and chatted with him for a bit. I don’t remember anything about that visit except that he stood there and whacked off in front of us. I think he asked if we wanted to see a “trick.” I remember it in almost cartoonish terms, the rapid movement of his hand (in my mind the motions are big and wide) and then the spurting of semen. It was bizarre, but at that age, we had no idea that it was anything else.

I have only vague memories of how I came to spend more time with “the maintenance man,” but vivid ones of him fondling me in his truck, teaching me to suck his tongue, and once behind the fence where the machines that powered the housing development buzzed, I remember his penis in my mouth. The taste of it remains with me to this day.

That was about the time I told my mom (just the tongue-sucking part, as I remember), and she believed me. She told me in no uncertain terms to stay away from that man. The next time I saw him he strolled past where me and my friends were sitting (away from the park, because I’d seen his truck and experienced the first of what would be a lifetime of prickly, sick sensations in my gut). He chuckled. “You told, didn’t you?” he said, in a way that made it clear he was an old hand at this. I like to think he died soon after in horrible agony.

The Uncle

About a year later, my aunt and uncle and cousins came to visit, and I made the mistake of walking in on my uncle while he was napping. That day I ended up performing my second blowjob, and sometime soon after while we were camped out in the front yard, I spent the whole night with my panties bunched around my hand, the elastic cutting into my legs and waist and fingers, while he quietly tried to get into them. I was six.

The Family Friend

A few years later, after we’d moved to Northern California, an old family friend came to visit. He made everyone laugh, and he doted on me. He brought me an accordion and taught me to play it. He took me on outings and let me bring a friend. But it wasn’t long before things started to get gross. He wanted to watch us put our bathing suits on—acted like it was no big deal, so we felt like we were being weird when if we didn’t let him. Then one day when my parents weren’t at home he took me into my bedroom to “show” me something that he and his daughters used to do together. He asked me to lie down on the bed and he took my pants off and performed oral sex on me. I was nine years old.

(It will not surprise you to know that oral sex is kind of an issue for me. It’s difficult to enjoy because it often triggers memories of this event.)

I only remember this happening once, but I have a feeling of this as being an ongoing thing. What was definitely ongoing was the growing anxiety inside me. I was absolutely terrified at almost every moment of the day that somehow my mom would find out. (My dad was a salesman by this time, and still spent very little time at home. That was pretty much his M.O.) My anxiety intensified when my mom and my aunt went to visit a psychic. I knew for certain she was going to come home knowing everything, and I dreaded seeing her car pull up that day, but she came in smiling and I had my reprieve. And the anxiety continued to build.

Then one afternoon as my brother and I were sitting out on the lawn with some neighborhood kids, she came out angry, yelling for us, and I just knew that was it. We went inside, and I sat on the couch, and panic rose, and after a moment it burst out of me in screaming sobs that must have been utterly horrifying for my mother. But not as horrifying as what she finally got out of me, seated on the toilet lid, me on her lap gasping and sobbing and apologizing. She believed me, and she told my dad, and the next time that guy came over we were in the car on our way somewhere and my gut started doing that thing again. My mom and dad conferred, and my dad got out of the car. I thought he was going to punch they guy or something, but my dad shook his hand and the guy got in his car and left. I was relieved that it was over. My dad had sent him away. But years later I would realize how angry I still was at that handshake.

The Clay Man

You’d think that by now I’d avoid pedophiles instinctively, but instead, I seemed to gravitate toward them, or them to me. The next time I met one (about a year later) I was a willing participant in my abuse. The man around the corner—the one with the workshop and the kiln who taught me how to make a vase out of red clay—saw me coming a mile off. He fondled me and then—Jesus, I almost forgot this part—he gave me a cigar tube to use as a dildo to widen my vaginal opening so he could penetrate me. I don’t remember whether this was before or after he attempted to do so by sheathing his penis in a finger cot to make it small enough, but I suspect it was after. I was ten.

The Rest

Somewhere in there was the man who fondled my nipple during an evening game of outdoor hide-and-seek at my cousins’ house and the guy in shorts and no underwear who, when he realized me and my friend could see his dick, flexed it at us a few times. And my friend’s dad who took naked pics of us so he could masturbate to them. And the guy who pulled over on the side of the road naked and opened his truck door so he could masturbate at me. And, and, and.


This is my story, and I have heard far too many like it from women I know. I’m sharing it in hopes that it will help promote greater understanding and empathy for survivors, that it will help other survivors of childhood sexual abuse know that they are not alone, and finally, in hopes that those who doubt survivors will take a moment to think about whether they truly need to express that doubt out loud. Every time you call a survivor a liar, other survivors hear you and decide it’s not safe to tell their story. And God forbid a child should hear you—a child who needs desperately to tell his or hers.

If you need support for sexual abuse, you can find it here: 1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673)


Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.

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