To those who need it,
In the wake of the Stanford rape case, a lot of difficult feelings have arisen for me. Whenever this topic surfaces in a powerful way, it unearths my own trauma in a fresh way. I relate so strongly to the words of the survivor in that case, her feelings of immense shame, the way in which her relationships with her body and with those around her have transformed forever.
As a rape survivor, I struggle to read the commentary, and I often avoid it altogether. Online, people question what role the victim played in “encouraging” the attack. They blame her. Meanwhile, some people rally around the attacker and defend his actions. They leave the impact of his actions on the survivor’s life out of their statements, out of their concerns.
It’s hard to watch another convicted rapist receive so little punishment, asking for zero accountability for his actions. Worried about how his actions will affect his life, the assailant acts as though he is the real victim. It’s far too reminiscent of my own experience, feeling as though there was no course of action that would right the wrong. My own case being one of the two in three estimated unreported, and my attacker being one of the 97% who will never see a jail cell.
And here I am, watching these patterns repeat themselves, perhaps like you, as a victim of rape. I’m re-experiencing my own shame and working myself through it.
I’m angry at the outcome of a broken system that re-traumatizes victims and rakes their character through the coals, that speaks of her in terms of a broken past and her attacker in terms of a bright future.
We’ve learned to ask questions about her character, her dress, her choices and where she has been. While hearing about his sports stats, his grade point average, the places he could go. Missing entirely where she was headed, what her passions are, what kind of emotional pieces she is picking up and for how long. How violence might impact her bright future. Though we know the emotional distress of sexual assault victims is reported at higher rates than any other violent crime.2
As my mind and heart swarm with difficult emotions, and a furious desire to control my own future and path forward, I wrote this letter to tell you the things I keep telling myself. Reminders of facts I know cognitively, but that warrant frequent, heartfelt repeating:
As women, we’re hardwired to believe that we are responsible for how others respond to our bodies, even with violence. We think carefully about how we present ourselves so as to not be “distracting” or attract “the wrong kind of attention.” Similarly, it took me years to feel solid in my own understanding that I didn’t cause my own attack, and that no outfit or perfect combination of choices prevents assault. But I now know firmly that the responsibility of this crime lies solely on the rapist. Most assaults occur in our homes or by trusted people in our lives. Rape happens to people in all types of dress, in all different circumstances. It happens to people who make all different choices.
The scrutiny that victims often endure following rape is an indication of what is broken with society, not an indictment of you.
You did not cause this. You share none of the blame.
It has been 20 years since my first assault, and the process of healing is still unfolding for me. It’s OK to not “be over it.” It’s OK to grieve again. It’s OK to be angry, sad, frustrated, emotional—or all of the above. None of those feelings are meant to be a residence where you live out the rest of your days, but they do demand attention. It’s OK to feel whatever you need to feel as these topics present in the forefront again. You deserve to feel your own feelings without judgment about what they are.
The department of justice reports that one in six women and one in 33 men are assaulted in their lifetime.1 Every time I speak up about assault, I receive emails from countless people who share their own experiences with me. They say that I’m telling their story. That they are still seeking a way to feel connected and whole in their bodies. That they are grieving, too. Shame thrives in solitude, and you don’t have to live there alone. If you want to read others’ stories there are many on The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) website here. It can be therapeutic to have another person put into words the feelings you haven’t yet been able to express. But if you aren’t in a place in which reading more about assault helps you, please just know that you are not alone.
Now and always. Counseling, trusted friends, whatever therapeutic modalities you are comfortable seeking: utilize them. Reach out. RAINN’s help finder allows you to enter your geographic information to locate a center near you if you don’t know where to begin. Support is available to you, whether you have never sought it before or need it for the hundredth time. You deserve to have people in your life who show up for you to help you work through your healing.
When things like the Stanford rape case come to the forefront in the media, I have a network of women who reach out to me. They check in to see what I need and help with whatever I ask. Sometimes I want to get together to chat and sometimes just a text letting me know I’m being thought of is all I need. Don’t be afraid to let people know how to support you. Often our loved ones want to be there for us, but they just don’t know the best way to do so.
There is no “right” timeframe at which you are no longer allowed to be impacted by this. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Now and always, you deserve whatever you need to keep yourself afloat. It might mean speaking out and speaking up, finding your voice and standing in it. It might mean turning off the media and seeking quiet to process your feelings more privately. It might mean upping your time spent in the gym or on the trails, sweating out the pent-up emotions. I know I often want to shake my fist at the sky that I need so much time and space to process when these things come up. Sometimes I’m frustrated that it still impacts me in so many ways. It feels so unfair. But I keep reminding myself that I am worthy of great care. Do whatever you need to do to care for yourself in this time. What is best for you doesn’t have to be the same as what is best for me.
When it comes to sexual assault, perhaps the only thing sadder to me when I read about a new, public case is the sheer number of us who relate so intimately to that experience. I truly believe that more than ever our voices are being heard. I believe that we can be the generation who will not be shamed into silence. However, your individual role in that is not determined by anyone but you. You do not have to feel called to the spotlight if your own healing process is asking for something different from you.
Regardless of what is right for you, I hope that you are taking care of yourself. I hope that you walk toward your own unique healing path like the warrior that you are. I don’t pretend to know exactly what it is you feel, but I do know that the layers I’ve had to work through between me and the peace I seek have been plenty.
We deserve so much better than what happened to us, but I believe I will be OK. I believe you will, too.
I believe in you. You’ve already survived; you’ve made it this far. You are made of tough stuff. My heart is with you as we all seek greater peace in our own ways.
If these sound familiar to you, you are not alone.
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