06 December 2013

Let's Talk About Rape Survivors

There's no shortage of reasons or prompts for starting such a discussion. We could pick a high profile case, such as the recently dismissed charges against Florida State University's star quarterback Jameis Winston. USA Network seems to run a weekly marathon of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. We have a seemingly endless parade of politicians saying something asinine, like Todd Akins's notorious "legitimate rape" remark last year.

But more likely, you or someone you know is the one in four women sexually assaulted each year in the United States.

Through social media, I have become connected with several such survivors in recent years. You might suspect that these women are man-hating militants calling for escalating acts of heinous violence in revenge, but you'd be entirely wrong. In fact, I have yet to encounter the revenge fantasy at all.
They want to heal.
Instead of those "they should all be castrated" champions rushing to their aid, they find themselves standing alone. Their situations are used as fodder for lazy storytelling; as the subject of despicable jokes; and perhaps worst of all, they find themselves under suspicion as liars. They become The Little Girl Who Cried "Rape", toxic to be around without trustworthy witnesses, because, you know, they have a "history" of attention-seeking.

What I have heard, time and again, is how crushing it was to speak up at all. This is true even of the most vocal activists I know. Even some of the most candid sharers have only been able to bring themselves to acknowledge that something happened, unable to go any farther into detail than that. It doesn't matter that philosophically, these survivors understand that it was not their fault. They face tremendous scrutiny and disbelief at every turn, and that is their ultimate battle.

Very rarely have I heard a survivor say much of anything at all about the actual assailant. Whenever a news report flashes across my Facebook wall reporting that someone was charged or convicted of sexual assault, there are often people quick to call for castration, the electric chair, etc. None of the survivors I know would bother to say such things. Not because they're altruistic, or possessed of zen master level big picture serenity, but because their real battle isn't with their assailant.
Their real battle is with the culture that puts the victim on trial instead of the assailant.
When the survivors I know have shared their stories, this is where their anger is directed: At the friends who chose to believe the assailant instead of them; at the police they could scarcely make themselves talk to in the first place who dragged their heels; at the ways in which total strangers rationalize defenses for why there's "no one to blame" but the victim for wearing a skirt or having a glass of wine, or for going to a party, or myriad other excuses.

It's even worse for women of color, and for the trans community - both of whom are marginalized inherently anyway. The statistics for either of these groups is staggering. Few believe a white woman who reports an assault; fewer even care when it's a woman of color or a trans woman. Women of color are still plagued by the "Jezebel" accusation dating to the era of slavery, and trans women are derided as not even being "real" women anyway, and since "a man can't be raped", they're obviously not trustworthy.

Sexual assault survivors want, need, and deserve to be believed. That's what they ask of our society. It's not hard to find survivors daring to tell their stories. They're all over Tumblr and Twitter. I won't embarrass anyone I know by citing or linking, but I invite you to take some time to seek out some of them. Read for yourself. Just knowing someone acknowledges and believes their account can help a little bit in their healing process.

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