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.

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.

Innocent Until Proven Guilty.

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I’m feeling frustrated today about how survivors of sexual violence and abuse survivors in general have to constantly justify their existence to everyone on this planet, especially to people in authority.

We have a legal system which states that perpetrators are innocent until proven guilty.

But what about survivors?  Where are our rights to be considered innocent until proven guilty?

Why is it when a survivor comes forward and says “He raped me,” she is often met with doubt, blame, judgment, disbelief and then faced with barrier after barrier to being believed and getting support?

Doesn’t this strike you as wrong?

I’m here to suggest a radical position.  Our legal system can still consider perpetrators innocent until proven guilty, while at the same time survivors can be believed, validated, treated with respect and not accused of fabricating.

It’s very unlikely that a survivor would make up claims of abuse, especially considering the lack of support and validation in our society.

A few years ago my psychiatrist told me something I’ve been thinking about this week.  During the session I had been speaking a lot about my negative self esteem, my guilt, my shame, my body hatred, my struggles with anorexia and so on.  He asked me a question “If you were guilty of committing sexual abuse how long would you go to jail for?”   I answered him “Probably I wouldn’t go to jail, and if I did it would be for less than a year.”

He looked at me and said “You’ve been punishing yourself for more than 15 years for crimes you didn’t even commit.  Even if you were as guilty as you say you feel, you would have been out of jail long ago.  Stop punishing yourself.  Even criminals wouldn’t receive a 15 year sentence!”

It was a good point and I thought about it some.  I haven’t thought about it again until this week.

Honestly, my doctor was missing something in his analysis.  Maybe survivors, myself included, would have an easier time recovering and forgiving themselves, if they did not have to spend years justifying their experience and trying to convince others that the abuse really happened.

Maybe if women weren’t labelled as crazy or mentally ill.  Maybe if police treated women who report with respect and investigated their concerns quickly, thoroughly and with dignity for the survivor.  Maybe if the legal system wasn’t founded on white patriarchy.  Maybe if sexual assault conviction rates were higher.  Maybe if sentences for assault charges took into account the amount of harm that was done to the survivor.  Maybe if our society didn’t worry about “how it will impact his career” and instead considered “how it will impact the rest of her life.”

Because make no mistake.  Sexual assault impacts people’s lives.  It is not a crime that lasts for “just a few minutes”  it lives on in people for years, maybe forever.  The impact IS that voice inside the survivor which whispers “it’s your fault, you are dirty, you should be ashamed, nobody will believe you.”

Maybe we punish ourselves because there is no other option in a society that doesn’t validate what actually happened.  Maybe we doubt ourselves because society blames the victim.

I think that a large portion of the guilt and shame carried around by people like me was caused, not just by the perpetrator, but by a set of systems which are designed to blame us.

At this point in my life, I feel I have suffered an equal amount of trauma at the hands of systems that were supposedly designed to help me, as I ever did at the hands of my abusers.   This is a part of rape culture that we need to be talking about.