On being a survivor.

It’s very difficult to know how to exist in a world where it is made clear at all levels of society, that perpetrators’ experiences and rights will always be prioritized over those of survivors (particularly women, children and gender non-conforming folks).

What happens if your perpetrators aren’t politicians or religious leaders, or people with power and status? Does anyone even care? Do those cases ever proceed to court or hearings? Do they get media coverage? Or are they, for the most part invisible, silenced even in cases where the victim DOES come forward, does report and does seek assistance?

How does it feel for survivors to turn on news or social media and be constantly bombarded with how little society values their pain and suffering?

How can any survivors ever really heal and feel safe in a world where their experiences are invalidated, discounted, silenced and disbelieved…not just once, not twice but OVER AND OVER AND OVER for the rest of their lives?

How to make sense of the level of victim blaming and responsibility placed on survivors, while those survivors simultaneously watch excuses be made for their perpetrators? Not just once, but daily and at all levels of society, nationally and internationally. How to understand that your perpetrators’ pasts were just the folly of youth, and his future is too bright to spoil, while you are grappling with severe PTSD on a daily basis as a result of the violence? How to understand that for him it was a “misunderstanding of consent” while you knew what you were doing and were responsible for staying with him?

How to exist when EVERY post about sexual violence reminds you of how your own experiences will NEVER be validated by official society (court, media, child protection) and that your perpetrators will continue to exist without meaningful consequences until the end of their lives?

How to exist when parental rights are prioritized over child protection and the rights of children?

These issues are not just happening in the USA. It’s easy to criticize America and feel morally superior as Canadians. But we have these problems here too. Survivors are not believed here too. Perpetrators have high level, successful jobs here too. Gender based violence is a society wide, structural, social problem here too.

There should be more stigma and consequences associated with being a rapist, than stigma and consequences associated with reporting/surviving rape. Until we not only BELIEVE survivors, but CARE about and prioritize survivors, not much will change.

The roots of an abusive relationship.

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Through some parts of my youth I kept diaries.  Never entirely consistently, but consistently for periods of time, especially when I was in treatment or in hospital.  I’ve been thinking back to this time of year in 2001.  My first year with my abusive ex husband.  My first year in psychiatric care.  My first year engaging in severe self harm.  My first psychiatric admissions (aside from eating disorder treatment).  My first suicide attempts. It’s interesting how all these “firsts” coincided so neatly in time with my new relationship.  At the time I thought it was because memories of the abuse I survived as a teenager were triggered and surfaced when I became sexually active.   That was part of it.  But there was more to it than that.  There was subtle abuse in my relationship with my ex husband that started very early on.  The seeds of gaslighting and emotional abuse were being planted.

It started with showering me with affection and attention.  It started with making me feel special and loved, almost to the point of making me uncomfortable.  It started with planning for the life we’d have together, the kids we’d have, the marriage…within months of meeting me (I was 19!).  It started with gifts, cards, flowers, spending all our time together.  It started with gradually isolating me from my other friends and social outlets.

Then some lies started.  And the lies were repeated so often I believed them to be true.

These lies were focused around my mental health problems and their link to my feelings about his abusive  behaviours.   He would tell me that it was because of my PTSD that I was uncomfortable with something.  He would tell me that a “normal woman” would be okay with it.  He would make me feel guilty, tell me that he felt like there were three people in the relationship: me, him and X.  He made me feel like I was CHOOSING to have flashbacks, like I was CHOOSING to think about X rather than him.  Almost like X was someone I never quite got over, a lost lover, rather than an abuser who had traumatized me to the point I often had flashbacks during any type of intimacy.  Over time, the lies were repeated to the point that I felt crazy.  I felt like I was to blame for the problems with intimacy in our relationship.  We even sought out support from a sex therapist to talk about this.  I had blood tests and was checked to ensure my hormone levels were normal.  I was completely manipulated into believing that the issues in the relationship were entirely my fault.

Today, in 2017, I realize I like some types of sex just fine.  I just prefer consent to be a factor in that sex!  In other words, I like sex, but I don’t like sexual abuse!  It turns out, I’m not physically broken.  I have PTSD.  I have flashbacks, but with a safe, trusted and patient partner I can be okay.  But because of the lasting impacts of gaslighting, I struggle with saying no. I struggle with blaming myself for anything that might go wrong. I struggle with identifying and communicating what I want or enjoy.  And I still fall back into patterns of believing that I’m crazy.

When I left my ex husband, I mainly remembered and talked about the sexual abuse that happened in the last 5-6 years of our marriage.  These were the incidents I felt most comfortable labeling “sexual assault” and “rape.”  When asked, I couldn’t really describe when the sexual abuse started.  I couldn’t really remember the first time.  I couldn’t really say when things started to go wrong.

But reading back in my diary from 2001, the first year we were together, there are so many red flags.  I can hear my 20 year old self trying to convince herself that things were okay.  I can hear my 20 year old self trying to believe that she loved this man she barely knew. I can hear my 20 year old self trying to rationalize that things would be better with him when SHE was better, when SHE stopped cutting, when SHE stopping being so depressed.  I can hear her trying to convince herself it was the right choice, and I feel deeply sad for her.

June 8, 2001

“The evening went well until the car ride home.  Before getting in the car I was feeling panic starting. [He] tried to kiss me but I pulled away.  He got offended.  I tried to explain but he got angry and said he felt stifled like he couldn’t be spontaneous.  He said I only make love to him out of duty.  I got really upset and started crying and I couldn’t breathe. It was like a panic attack and I couldn’t stop hyperventilating. I just was so very scared.  I’m terrified of being with [him], but I do love him too.  It’s such a dilemma all the time. I feel like it would be easier for me to get better without the strong feelings of a relationship.  But on the other hand [he] is my support.  I don’t know.  It’s so tough right now.  I’m so scared of my life and everything in it”

Looking back on the things I wrote, I realize that I was barely more than a child myself. Just turned 20 years old.  I had just disclosed the abuse from my childhood, just started counseling.   I was talking about abuse I’d kept inside for 5 years.  I was in full PTSD crisis mode, complete with flashbacks, hyper vigilance, anxiety and nightmares.  I was on psychiatric medication cocktails for the first time.  I was self harming almost daily and had recently attempted suicide.

It was perfectly normal that I didn’t always want to be intimate with someone.

Perfectly normal.

Today, I choose to forgive my 20 year old self for not knowing this.  I choose to forgive her for not knowing that she was having normal coping reactions to trauma and that she was not crazy.  I choose to forgive her for being tricked into a situation where, instead of healing and support, she found gaslighting, confusion, entrapment and more sexual abuse.

I know I’ll wake up tomorrow, or the next day and feel confused again.  I’ll wonder if the abuse was my fault.  I’ll think that I’m exaggerating or that I’m making things up.  I’ll start to feel the thoughts creep in that I’m not normal.  I’ll start to wish that I had died all those years ago when I attempted suicide.  I’ll start to believe his lies again, because a long term emotionally abusive relationship includes an element of near brainwashing which can take years of healing, therapy, patience, self love and self forgiveness to recover from.

But just for today, I want 20 year old me to know that her reactions were normal.  That she was allowed to say no to that kiss for any reason.  She was especially allowed to say no to that kiss when she was triggered.  She had the right to say no without consequence, without anger, without bullying and blaming.  She had the right to have needs and preferences and anxieties.

It wasn’t her fault that he didn’t understand consent.

Rape Culture.

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Rape culture is so pervasive and it starts impacting children in primary school.  I felt extremely triggered by something my younger daughter shared with me last week after school.  It’s been bothering me all weekend for a number of reasons.  I find rape culture upsetting.  Sometimes I just want to scream, cry and shout about gender based violence and fight against it.  Other times I’m exhausted, burnt out, spent from trauma and secondary trauma and I want to curl up in bed and hide from the world.  Just take it.  Just let it all happen.  Just zone out and give up.  Because I can’t fight rape culture alone.  It’s too big and I’m just one individual person.

My daughter is in primary school.  She told me that the boys in her class were pinning girls up against the wall and humping them.  She told me that the girls were squirming and trying to get away and that they did not like it. The teachers did nothing.  I asked my daughter if the boys did this to her.  She told me they didn’t because they don’t fully see her as a girl yet (she’s transgender).   I asked her if she told the teacher and she told me “No, because the teachers tell me to stay out of other people’s business”

My daughter knows that this behaviour is wrong.  She was upset about it which is why she told me.  We talked about consent.  We talked about bystander intervention and the difference between tattling and telling to get help.  She told me she might talk to a teacher she trusts on Monday.

I’m triggered for a number of reasons.

This type of behaviour shows just how young the messages of “boys will be boys” and “boys chase girls because they like them” etc.  are ingrained, in students, and teachers don’t question them.  My daughter consistently tells me that teachers don’t intervene in situations like this, instead telling the kids to sort it out themselves.  This tells me that the school isn’t teaching consent culture, nor are they valuing bystander intervention, nor are they clearly teaching and demonstrating the difference between tattling and telling.  These are important skills in combating rape culture, preventing sexual violence and helping stop sexual assault in situations where risks occur (i.e bystander intervention).

Though I was very glad my daughter hadn’t experienced this unwanted behaviour, it also drove home a very clear message that women and feminine presenting folks are the main targets of rape culture.  Because my daughter socially transitioned this year, her friends still perceive her as a boy, thus they do not target her for this type of sexualized bullying.  She exists in an in between space, not perpetrating the violence and not yet suffering it either.  Though she does experience some bullying related to being trans or being different, because the kids don’t yet perceive her as a “real girl,”  she is not yet a target for the unwanted sexual bullying.

All of this is extremely upsetting for me.  I’m angry that the school isn’t being more proactive in protecting these female students.  I’m angry that the school isn’t being more proactive in teaching the male students that sexual bullying is not acceptable.  Rape culture takes root during these early years.  It’s far too late to begin education in consent culture in high school.  It’s important to teach school age children that “no means no,”  that games should stop if both people aren’t having fun, that chasing girls isn’t cool unless everyone has agreed on the game, and that humping people against a wall is assault, not a joke.

As adults, role models, mentors, parents and teachers, we can root out rape culture.  We can fight it at the roots by doing primary prevention.  Teaching consent culture to young boys and masculine folks.  Teaching bystander intervention to all kids.  Teaching young girls and women to build each other up, support each other and look out for each other.

I can be a radical feminist.  I can be a social justice advocate.  I can fight to end gender based violence until my last breath.   But very little will change, if young boys are being implicitly taught that humping young girls against a school yard wall is acceptable behaviour and young girls are being taught that nobody will stop it from happening.

To My American Readers

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(photo credit Jessica Bennett)

I’m not an American citizen.  I can’t vote in the upcoming election, but today I’ve been triggered and upset due to the state of American politics.

American friends, I urge you to vote and to consider your vote carefully.

I, and other survivors of sexual violence, have struggled today.  Women (and others impacted by gender based violence) have felt a little more uncomfortable and that their world is a little less safe.  And decent men and masculine folks, you are harmed by these comments as well.

I’m talking about rape culture.

It’s 2016, and one of the people running to be the leader of the most powerful country in the world, is promoting racism, xenophobia, patriarchy, and rape culture.  A disturbing proportion of what this man says is actually considered hate speech by many people around the world.

A politician should be a leader and set the tone for the people they lead.

Glorifying sexual assault is disgusting and it gives people the clear message that consent is optional.  If you are rich and powerful you have the right to take sex. If someone says no, then just try harder.  Or better yet, don’t ask at all…just grab their ****.   It sickens me.

I’ve had a difficult day today.  As a woman, I do not exist to be a sexual object for others.  As a woman, I do not want to be treated as if my word is less valid because of my gender.  If I say no, I mean no.  Consent culture is important to me.  As a woman first and as a survivor of sexual violence.

I don’t want to live in a world where the leader of the country to the south of us grabs women without their consent and then brags about it after.  I don’t want my children (or any children!) seeing this as normal behaviour.  It’s not just locker room banter, it’s assault, harassment, hate speech and misogyny.   A world where this is normal reduces women to sexual objects and men to sex crazed, power hungry rapists.  It benefits no one.

I don’t want to live in a world where racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia are being spouted by world leaders.   It scares me, and I benefit from white privilege.  It scares me that anyone would even consider voting for this man. It scares me to think of the divisive direction this world will take with him at the helm.

It benefits no one.

We are better than this.

 

 

Wash your mouth out

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When I was being sexually abused I soon learned that pleasing the other person, quickly and in the ways they preferred, would mean that I would be safer.  I found it more upsetting to be touched against my will, than to touch the other person.  At least I felt I had a marginal amount of control over the non-consensual sex.  This is one of the impacts of surviving sexual violence that has been hardest to recover from.

My earliest sexual experiences taught me that my own needs were irrelevant, unimportant and that my body existed to please others.  In the present, I struggle to internalize the idea that I have rights, likes, dislikes and the right to say both yes and no in intimate situations.  I keep living out what I learned: pleasing the other person is best the way to stay safe.  I have a lot of guilt, shame and disgust which I direct towards myself, focusing the hatred on my physical body which at some level I blame for the abuse.

When I was 15-16 and being abused by X, I remember such intense shame.  I felt like it was my fault that the abuse was happening, that I was guilty and that my body was to blame.

I remember one late afternoon or evening.  I believe it was in the summer, because it was not dark outside yet.  I was 15.  I was in X’s room.  His room was always dark, the blinds always closed.   His family was home, which only increased my level of shame as I imagined his parents thinking what a terrible, slutty girl I was.   I remember him standing naked at the foot of his bed.  There was music playing.  There was always music playing, giving the impression of teenagers making out, but in reality, disguising the dark tone of the abuse.   I don’t remember how we got there, or how I got home after.  I do remember that my shirt was off, I think I was still wearing either a skirt or underwear.   He was kissing me, he had his hands on the sides of my head.  Then his hands moved more to the top of my head, pushing me down onto my knees and holding me there.   His hands were forceful.  I didn’t try to fight, but I imagined that if I did, his hands would only have held me tighter.  I knew what he was wordlessly “asking” for.  Something I’d never done before, but something I’d heard about from older, more experienced cousins and friends.  I knew the word for it, but it wasn’t something I was even remotely interested in.

I remember his hands on my head.  I remember feeling choked and struggling to breath.  I remember the salty taste, and stumbling quickly to the bathroom.   The bathroom was brighter, ordinary.  A different world.  I remember feeling shaky.   I stood in front of the white sink.  I spat and rinsed my mouth with water.  I can’t remember if I cried silently, or if I was beyond crying and only filled with disgust and shame.

I couldn’t think of how to cleanse myself.  I remember seeing a plain white bar of soap beside the sink.  In desperation, I grabbed it and put it in my mouth, literally trying to wash his taste from my memory.  Washing myself clean, spitting the soapy taste back into the sink.

I don’t think it worked.  I’m not sure it’s possible to wash away the dirt of being raped.   The memory stayed with me, even 20 years later it is vivid as if it were yesterday.

The saddest thing is that teenage me internalized it all.  Never told a soul.  Blamed myself and didn’t spend a lot of time considering X’s responsibility.

I remember going back to his room.   It happened again and again over the months that followed.  He didn’t have to hold me down every time.  I knew what was expected and I did it.  It’s so important for people who have not lived through sexual violence to understand that just because a person doesn’t fight back, it doesn’t mean there is consent.

Consent is a state of mind.  Consent is active.  Consent involves desire, curiosity, wanting, love, interest, participation… Consent is between two people.  There is a matching process, a parallel course, desires intertwined, questions and answers.

Abuse is the absence of these things.  Abuse is a teenage girl mechanically going through the motions so it will be over more quickly.  The violence isn’t always overt (hitting, holding down),  sometimes the violence exists merely in the absence of consent.

Without consent, it’s not sex.  It’s abuse.   It’s just that simple.

It’s a long journey back.