My plans for last weekend were pretty mellow: I was going to work on my taxes, do a little housecleaning, maybe get started on my garden now that the sun is back out, hang out with my sweetheart, finish some writing, practice piano and play some Scrabble. I was going to tend to myself, for the most part.
The weekend I would up having was quite a bit different.
Last Wednesday, I raced against the clock — I had to go work at the clinic the next day — to get everything up for our focus this month on sexual assault and abuse as part of Sexual Assault Awareness Month. That included getting together a page and other materials for the “I Was Raped” shirts which months back, I’d agreed to help Jennifer Baumgardner distribute as part of a project to increase rape awareness, both through these t-shirts and the conversation we’d hoped they’d start, as well as through her developing film of the same name, which will focus on first-person stories from survivors.
The New York Times first covered the project, using a photo of Jennifer — which was appropriate, since this is her project. Then Gawker and Jezebel hit on it, using a photo of me in the shirt without my permission or even a request for it (and still have yet to respond to my requests to remove a copyrighted image they have no permission to use). A few more sites followed suit. Later on Friday, KOMO-4 news contacted me, telling me they were doing a story on it that night and asking for my participation. As is my general practice with television, I declined to be filmed, but did finally agree to have a phone interview.
Before that interview, the reporter and I had a discussion about using my image where I explained why I was not comfortable with my face being put on the television as a survivor. I explained that when I went to get coffee this weekend, I needed it to be up to me if I was “that woman who is dairy allergic, so don’t forget, soy only,” or “that woman who was raped.” I explained that as a counselor for an abortion clinic half the week, I didn’t want to make anything of my personal life so broadly visible that any of my clients might recognize me and doubt that it was their issues which were of the utmost importance in my office. I explained that choosing to show my face with this in one context is not permission for anyone to make that choice for me in others, and that I’m the expert on how much exposure I can handle and want. I was told they don’t show rape “victims” faces on television, anyway (and then wondered, if that was so, why we were even having that conversation in the first place).
Apparently, they do, because my face was indeed shown on the news, coupled with the reporter saying I’d requested they did not show it. My words were edited massively — as is to be expected — and no information on the project was even given. The “I Was Raped” t-shirt was compared to t-shirts reading “Yankees Suck,” and “Boys are stupid — throw rocks at them.” The story spread — the tone of it intact — and the video made its way to other stations, and eventually to CNN (which I only found out about after the fact: CNN never contacted me). The story has spread very largely through the blogosphere, and with some notable exceptions, an awful lot of what’s out there is full of a lot of misinformation about me and the project, and in some cases, some really inflammatory accusations. As of today, I’m about one for one between positive emails and negative ones, and while the positives are very positive, the negatives are really negative and many have been incredibly threatening and disturbing.
I’ve been accused of exploiting myself and other assault survivors just to make money, which would almost be comical if it weren’t so vile. Scarleteen gets five dollars from any shirt sold. Five dollars, which to make, means not only my processing the order, packing it to ship, walking to ship them as well as doing all I’ve done to set things up to sell them, the crazy amount of extra bandwidth all the press has brought on (none of which I courted or chose), and all of this causing technical problems with the site, but also includes putting up with all of the crap which I have over the last handful of days. You’d think it’d be pretty easy for a person of any intelligence to realize that if it was about the money, I could do better by setting up a lemonade stand on the sidewalk, make the same dough, and do so without any sort of emotional stress or difficulty. And flatly, if someone doesn’t want $5 to go to Scarleteen, I have no trouble sending it to a different organization which helps with rape prevention, awareness and healing. But since I’m also the one paying the bandwidth bills for all of this, doing a lot of the work, taking care of all the orders and shipping AND being the whipping boy of choice AND since Scarleteen does advocacy work in this area, I’m not sure what the big problem is.
I’ve gotten letters in my email box from those who came to Scarleteen and read some of our rape content, and felt the need to write me and explain to me all of the ways in which any given kind of sexual abuse was not actually sexual abuse at all, be it because the victim asked for it, because the victim apparently really wanted it but was just ashamed of their own desires, because when the victim is male they always really want it; how for “horny” teenage boys, raping is just something they do naturally, how all survivors need to do is find out what we did to get raped, make sure we don’t do that thing again and move on, how in doing what we do at Scarleteen in the first place, we’re setting girls up to be raped by encouraging them to be promiscuous sluts, or enabling rape somehow by educating youth on homosexuality.
I’ve had the great privilege of being patronized, with other victims, by non-survivors, “experts” on rape, or even other survivors letting us know what they think we need to be doing “for our own good,” how they think we don’t know how to protect ourselves, physically or emotionally, how much more it would scar us to take something “private” and make it in any way public…and how all of these concerns are OF COURSE about us, not about them. I have been told what my personal problems are, by people who know nothing about me, and about how I could do a lot more good if I did more meaningful things with my life than I do, or how, if I stopped doing the work I do now, went and took a corporate job, was able to buy a house and car, and then give money to an organization like…oh, the one I run, I could do more for other “victims.” I have been told outright that while a given letter-writer cares for all other rape survivors, they do not care for survivors like me, and feel that it is perfectly appropriate — nay, quite called for — to shower me with abusive invective.
(Might there be some truth in some of them saying this could be traumatic for survivors because of what I’m dealing with myself and how I’m feeling right now? Maybe, save when you realize that most of this is coming from my being shown wearing the shirt in places that were not of my choosing, and where, following the choice they made for me, I have asked not to be shown. In fact, I think how I’m feeling says a whole lot more about how rape survivors are often seen as everyone’s property — since we’ve already been spoiled, see, already ruined — than it does about how my choices to be public have resulted in my getting upset.)
I’ve read about how any survivor who wears this is being a terrible person to other abuse or rape survivors who might be triggered by it. However, I never see the same concerns voiced about, oh, many media representations of sex or romance, people verbally abusing their children in grocery stores, people who enforce ideas that sex is a duty people owe one another in certain social contexts, people using the word “rape” applied in scenarios like “The IRS just raped me,” or… hey, wait! People deciding to verbally abuse a survivor because she breaks silence in a way they don’t like or wouldn’t choose for themselves. Just a word on that? I feel pretty confident saying that many of us who are survivors will not be triggered by another survivor saying he or she was raped, or having that voiced in a pretty sensitive way on a piece of clothing. More to the point, if you think this is the only way in any given day we might be reminded of our rapes, you’ve got to be kidding. The most benign aspects of daily life are often triggers: groups of men crowding close to us in a bus, the street we have to walk down to get home which was the one we were raped on, being quickly grabbed by the shoulder from someone who had no idea that was a trigger, a chair, a doorknob, a broom handle, someone’s hand, a belt, a given way the light looks at a certain time of day, the smell of a cologne, the very skin we inhabit, or someone, perchance, saying something about rape to us like “Don’t tell a soul.”
I have, of course, had to deal with the nasty kinds of feedback we always get any time we talk about rape. I have gotten email which informs me that women are property and that women are raped because men are superior. I have gotten email that told me I am sexist because we largely address rape at the site of men and women which is perpetrated by men, not which is perpetrated by women (which is only because it is perpetrated by women so infrequently, and because we can only respond, in advice queries, to the questions which are asked: I assure you, I have not deleted or purposefully not published any questions about a person surviving a rape by a woman — I simply have not yet gotten any such questions). I have gotten email informing me that I am making a “disgusting display” to get attention and pity for myself — and to help young women, I am told, make false rape accusations — by choosing to put my face all over the news (which again, was very much not my choice, but one made for me against my express wishes). I have gotten email which informs me that if I was raped, I clearly deserved it for being the terrible, horrible waste of breathable air which I am. Of course, I also got letters from people said they would have supported the work that I do and this project until they found out that not only was I, and the site pro-choice, but that I also am a baby killer who works at an abortion clinic (one such letter also informed me that having an abortion would only add to the trauma of a rape survivor, but going through pregnancy or becoming a parent before a person was ready would somehow be in no way difficult or traumatic). I read a thread discussing if I was “hot, for a rape survivor” or not.
For the record, the gender of those with those responses is mixed. These kinds of sentiments by no means only come from men (and when it comes to supportive responses, we’ve had just as many from men as from women). They come from every kind of person you could possibly imagine. This is one of the many reasons why those who have been raped often stay silent: we never know who is going to react to our rapes like this, and are well aware that it’s possible the people we expect it from least may be the ones who react just like this. I can assure you, for the record, that of the people who have sent me the worst of this vitriol, around one of every two is someone who those who know them wouldn’t even suspect the malice they usually keep hidden, save for people like me.
We’ve had server troubles all day which I’ve had to stay on top of when I still have things I need to do which I had planned to do this weekend, but could not do because I have had to spend most of it on damage control, sending requests to people to please stop stealing my face without asking me, correcting tons of misinformation about all of this flooding my mailbox, having to read through piles of hate to find emails from Scarleteen users we need to tend to, and having to try all I can not to have all of this wear on my relationships with people glad to support me, but who also have needs of their own, and things they need from me. Suffice it to say, since we have had many positive responses, many people want the short, and I wasn’t prepared to have to be processing orders all weekend. I have also been reading the positive mails, which are great, but many of them also contain the writer’s personal rape experience. That’s not to say I am not open to being the person someone chooses to share with, and that I am not very glad if I can provide a way for someone to disclose, but obviously, reading those letters is not pleasant or cheerful.
Obviously, this wasn’t my best weekend ever. Many of these responses and results obviously disappoint and distress me.
But what they don’t do is surprise me. I’ve lived as a survivor for almost 27 years now, and I’ve worked in sex education, including in advocacy for survivors and efforts for prevention, for a decade. When I was a teacher, more than once I had to deal with the travesty that was the justice system for a student of mine who was being abused. I am used to people excusing away all manner of abuses, resenting the hell out of those of us who do our damndest to protest that, and am well aware that denial of abuse, and the amount of abuse which exists in the world, is alive and well and living…well, everywhere.
I am used to statements which start with, “If I was a woman and had been raped…” (as if men never get raped: but really, statements like this start that way because they’re about how women should behave, period), or “If I was a rape victim….” or “If I had been raped…” and with the uselessness that follows all of them. Maybe it’s time for me to start talking about how I might feel and behave were I a woman of color, were I a heterosexual person, were I a person of means, had I survived the Holocaust. Because, obviously, my ideas on how I might feel and behave in those situations would be so very useful, especially to those people who actually are members of those groups.
I am used to hearing that if I want to talk about my rape, if I make it important in any way, even for a limited time, that I haven’t “moved on.” I am used to hearing about how I deserved it, asked for it; I heard it from one of my rapists (and had I been fully conscious for one of my rapes, I am sure I would have heard it from more), I heard it from friends and family, I’ve heard it from others who are oh-so-certain they and my rapists have nothing in common. I am used to hearing that the difference between strong survivors and perpetual victims is this: if you never say a word about it, if no one around you even has to know you were raped, you’re a strong survivor. But if you’re upset, if you want to talk about rape or your rape, if anyone around you has to know what happened, then you’re looking to stay a perpetual victim so that you can live a sweet life where everyone feels sorry for you. I am used to hearing that if I want to speak out about my rape, publicly or privately, that anyone who hears me is entitled to react however they would like, even if that means speaking to me in a way which is abusive, threatening, callous or cruel.
I am used to hearing about how any given thing about me is so awful or distasteful that nothing about me or what I do deserves any sympathy or, — and more important to me, since I don’t really need sympathy — any kind of basic common courtesy or respect. Sometimes that’s been because I’m queer, other times because I do sex ed, other times because I’ve had an abortion (and now, because I also work where they are provided), because I’m Buddhist, because I’m this age or that one, this gender or that, because I look this way or I don’t look that way, because I don’t have issues with nudity, because I’m sympathetic to a given group of people, because I’m loud, because I’m independent, because I have sex I enjoy, because I’m still alive. I am used to every kind of excuse imaginable at this point for why I don’t deserve the same courtesies I have always extended to others.
None of these things are new to me, nor are they much different from what I have dealt with simply in my personal life when it comes to my rapes.
And I am used to hearing all of this so much, that while it never stops being hurtful, what it has long since stopped being for me is particularly powerful. Don’t get me wrong: I have spent a lot of the past few days somewhat shellshocked, but that has more to do with the en masse onslaught and a lack of sleep than it does with any particular thing anyone has said or done. I know the place the craptastic stuff comes from, and I know that that place is one of fear, resentment, guilt, ignorance, violence or self-loathing. As much as I revile those things, as much as I want them gone, and as bad as they make me feel, I can at least identify them, and I know very acutely where my own bad feelings come from and, for the most part, how to deal with them. I can even look them dead in the eye: again, that’s a survivor skill, too — to survive, we all have to learn to do that expertly.
I’m also used to the fact that all rape survivors are different. We are not all the same, our rapes were not all the same, how we’ve processed them or reacted to them has not all been the same. I have had plenty of thanks for other survivors in my email box over the weekend, but I have also gotten emails like this:
“You are a sick fuck… and if in fact you were truely raped you would not be so fucking stupid to even want to do something so damn outrageous on wearing a shirt. And I wonder why you dont want to show your face. You are a sick individual and I am a rape victim and now a survivor but you appaul me on such a horrible suggestion on someone wanting to wear such a dumb remark shirt. If in fact you were raped, you are as sick as i could ever imagine. Of how you want to make money on it… this is not fame this is a sick person like you it saddness me to think there are people in this world like you . Playing on what horrific act of rape , how it kills a person day in and day out. We have to live with that horrible thought of it happening to us. And then we have people like you… SICK.. how do you get up and look in the mirror? May god bless your sick soul.”
By all means, I feel the way that person chose to spoke to me was insensitive and cruel. However, I think that it’s really important to remember that none of us lives in a culture conducive to healing, or in a culture which makes it comfortable to live as a survivor. We can’t even trust each other, as fellow survivors (and when we’re addressing a survivor who is same-gender, be we male or female, an awful lot of same-gender learned distrust is tossed in the mix, something often even more difficult for male survivors since their rapists were usually male as well), in our motives, in how our healing differs, in the different places we’re at in it. Survivors are, justifiably, angry — and also all sorts of people — and can often enough direct that anger just about anywhere: that’s how it is when you’re so angry and so hurt and given so little support. I directed mine inward after I was assaulted, and doing that, on top of having my rape be a thread that wound through other trauma I was living with and trying to survive, nearly killed me and also set me up for challenges in my life — as well as more risks of danger — all of which could have been, if not avoided, strongly mitigated by being able to talk about my abuses, at all, and finding some kind of support. I don’t like getting emails like that, to say the least, but at the same time, I have to take a breath, stop, and recognize that at the very least, someone just got some release of all of that anger, and while I don’t think I’m the right person to direct it to, that that person was able to direct it anywhere — to open up that pressure valve — is a likely positive for that person.
It may well also be — and pardon any pop psychology on my part — that as much as I don’t want this kind of visibility, that survivor does, and resents me for having what she wants. That’s also valid, since we are made intensely invisible as a group of people, particularly if we become survivors, rather than remain victims. While if our rapes were in some way found horrific, we might get some media-based ambulance-chasing, once they’re over, we’re non-issues, and if there is nothing particularly noteworthy about our rapes (and for most of them, the general population will find nothing noteworthy about them), we’ll rarely see address at all. In any case, victims trump survivors, and victims who arouse a pithy kind of pity trump all.
Or, this one: “No body in there right mind would believe that you’re truly doing this to help other people. I’m a real survivor because I’d never broadcast or announce the horrible things that have happened to me. the only people who would wear that shirt are full of shit. NO BODY would wear that who’s really been raped. But I’m sure a bunch of girls will buy it who want attention and want people to feel sorry for them. I do think this should be taken away from you and all the bullshitting bitches who pretend this has happened to them. Millions of women have suffered and worked very hard to over come what you are now trying to profit from. You should NOT be allowed to capitalize on other people’s pain. And even if you were raped that shouldn’t give you the right to profit from it. Did you know when you were raped that you were going to get paid for it? Or did that idea come later?”
What I hear in this — once more, forgive me for being armchair — is that this person needs to be validated in surviving, and needs to have someone let her know that however she speaks out of silence is okay, is brave, is laudable, even if it doesn’t look like someone else’s way. My impression is that she needs for her rape to be made important, because if it already really felt that way, I’m not sure why she’d put so much energy (I got three different emails from this woman before I blocked her address) into telling me how no one’s story is true but her own or those which resemble hers. I hear that she is suffering, and I hear that she is tremendously, and probably righteously, angry. That doesn’t mean I’m going to say she’s not responsible for misdirecting her anger at me, because she is, and I’ve directed no such things at her or anyone else, but it is to say that I can only get so angry back at someone in this space. I know that space: been there, done that, and — literally — have the t-shirt.
Here’s what we don’t often see and hear in the various peanut galleries of the Internet: we don’t see many survivors sharing the stories they have also shared with me both in my email box over the weekend and in other avenues I’ve had them shared with me in my life, both with work, and with the people who have personally disclosed to me over the years. I even got stories in my email box from survivors who were at sites talking about this, where so many people incessantly talked about how they were not silencing anyone, and yet, these people didn’t feel able to tell their stories, or perhaps even share the mere fact of being survivors. people who send me email like the above aren’t posting it in the forums or on the blogs: through the resentment, they also know I’m safe, or else I’d not be hearing this. Everyone else would.
Some survivors do want something like this. It’s okay to want it, and it’s okay not to, and wanting it or not doesn’t determine who was and who was not raped. It’s having been raped, only, which determines that. The two women above were raped. The man who wanted one of these and told me it was because of being brutally raped during time he spent in jail over a misdemeanor was raped. The woman who bought one because she was molested as a child was raped. The person who bought it for their partner who is working on acceptance of their rape was raped.
Saturday morning, I literally overheard my neighbors talking about the news story on the porch (and clearly not knowing it was their neighbor, who could hear them, they were talking about: Seattleites don’t tend to be very familiar neighbors)
So, why would a survivor wear something like this? Obviously, I can’t speak for anyone other than myself and for those who have talked about why they would. I’ve also already said a little bit about why I would here. One of the emails above asks how I look at myself in the mirror.
When the t-shirts got here, and I put one on to take a quick photo, checking in the mirror to make sure that despite the fact that I was two days late on washing my hair, I wasn’t too disheveled, it was an interesting experience. It was like myself was telling myself a hard truth directly, but gently. With a quiet, but clear, understanding. Rape is something that those of us who are raped are told at every turn to doubt happened to us, to explain away with a rapist’s “misinterpretation” of our nonconsent, to do our best to rid our memories of the experience, to the point that even someone like me, who also works with other survivors, who has done an epic amount of personal processing for over a very long period of time can have days and times where I, too, wonder if somehow, in some way, I managed to imagine what happened to me. Maybe that blood was from something else: maybe I just had hemmorhoids I didn’t know about. Maybe that soreness is from falling off my bike and I just don’t remember when. Maybe the reason I don’t remember all of that assault isn’t because I got knocked on the head, but because nothing actually happened. Maybe no one wants to believe me because I’m crazy, and this is all some sort of delusion. Maybe all of those body image issues, that overdose, all that poetry I wrote in my teens was about all that OTHER stuff, and that other stuff caused me to believe I was raped. Maybe when he shoved my head in his crotch, he mistook it for his own hand: maybe while I was choking on what he wanted and I didn’t, he just didn’t know I couldn’t breathe. Surviving rape is a whole world of maybe, but maybe nots.
So, sitting there, looking myself in the eye in the mirror with that t-shirt on did cause me to cry, and even if I never wear it anywhere else, even though I have, at other times, been able to acknowledge and accept what happened to me, that moment was powerful for me. I deeply could look at myself in the mirror and accept the woman who is there and everything that made her who she is, even when some of those things are incredibly difficult and not things I wished for. I was proud of her, and she made me feel strong and able, both for myself and for the work I do where I need to help others find strength and resilience. I can do that at other times, too, but I’m always grateful for any new tool to help me do that, because some days, the ones I have don’t work or don’t take me to a new place.
Over the weekend, when I was talking to an old friend on the phone providing support, he said to me, “You know, you can take this. I know it doesn’t feel good, and you don’t want to, but the fact is, you can handle this.” It might sound hollow, that, but the truth of the matter is that yes, I can. That woman looking back at me in the mirror could. If taking it wasn’t something I thought might carry any benefits for anyone, not only would it all be even more upsetting than it already is, I wouldn’t have had anything to do with this in the first place, or even have been public about surviving rape as I have been over the years. I didn’t need to be as public as I have for myself: just telling people close to me and being able to sometimes speak through my art, for me, has been enough. I’ve been more public in the hope that my doing so will help other people be able to break silence, find strength, and be able to find whatever way is their way to healing.
The biggest bummer with things like this is that unfortunately, one very strong message the backlash sends to other survivors is that it is absolutely best they stay silent: because if they don’t, see, if they speak up like I do, speak up in any way, this, too, is what will happen to them. Some who silence with ignorance, fear or guilt probably have no idea that this is a likely result: others, of course, very much are aware that they are silencing and very much intend to silence.
But here’s the thing: something like this shirt isn’t for every survivor, nor for any given survivor in every environment, on every day. I do a lot with my life, and my rape is not often at the forefront of any of it, but sometimes it is, and sometimes, it’s helpful to others if I let it be, as much as I’d prefer not to. Being able to even just say — even just to oneself — “I was raped,” is rarely easy, even though it does get easier over time. It still always hurts, it always infuriates, it always confuses, it always saddens, especially in a world which makes it so very hard to speak just that simple fact and to have it merely acknowledged. It is never easy, and it will never be easy. Saying it out loud, in any way, to anyone, is almost always scary, almost always risky. But for ourselves, and for others, when we can do it, when we are able — and it’s always okay when we’re not — it’s usually, in my opinion, a worthwhile risk. While it means that we might open ourselves up to all kinds of garbage, it also means we might open ourselves up to the good stuff, too, to connections which are rare and unfathomably meaningful, to us or to others.
I won’t be dishonest: I still want that other weekend that I was going to have back. I’d have preferred that weekend, and I really needed that weekend for myself. I spent a lot of time this weekend very deeply resenting feeling like I was pushed into the spotlight in a way I did not choose and I did not want: up until now, I’ve felt like the level of public I have been has been enough to make things better for enough people that something like this level of visibility wasn’t anything anyone needed me to do. And yet, seeing all that I have seen over the last few days, I can only assume that I was wrong in that, since if things like this were not needed, I can’t imagine I’d be seeing so much of what I had. We’d be past all of this by now, wouldn’t we? So, if that’s what needed to happen, and it did or could net anything at all positive, I can live with that. I can have that weekend I needed another time. I can move past my anger and resentment. I can make time up to my partner next weekend. I can have my life go back to being about all the other things it’s about shortly. Again, I can take this: I may not want to, but I can.
There’s no perfect note to end this on. I’m massively grateful for the support myself and the project have been shown by some. I’m deeply moved by the other survivors who have trusted me to share their stories, and to those who also have offered their care and compassion, and not just because you let me help you heal, but you helped heal some hidden parts of me I didn’t even realize still needed healing. I’m deeply saddened, frustrated, shellshocked and worn the hell right out from all of the backlash — and some of that is surprise in that I was more vulnerable than I thought myself to be and at the same time stronger, but also not as over my rapes as I have long thought — but I’m just hoping that maybe at least some of it will result in something positive, either for survivors, or for the world that we live in when it comes to how survivors are treated, how rape is viewed and in terms of anything and everything which might keep it from happening to anyone at all.
And if, from a Buddhist perspective, there truly is no separation between the self and others, and I am seeing and hearing from so many people who clearly need to work through all of this chaos, who have all of this inside and around them — and if the way I, myself, have been feeling has anything to do with anything — then all of these last few days hasn’t really just been about or for other people: it’s been about and for me, as well.
So, as it turned out, and for as much as it sure hasn’t felt like it, it seems I spent the weekend tending to myself, after all.
It seems appropriate to link this to Carly Milne’s blogging project to benefit RAINN, and I’ll write for that project a few more times before month’s end. We’ve linked to RAINN and its services for years at Scarleteen, so it shouldn’t be new to anyone, but to say it is a worthy place to support is a serious understatement. RAINN has made, and continues to make, great efforts for both rape prevention and survivor support, and if you have some extra cash — especially for many of you who get tax refunds — it’s a fantastic place to put it. I know I certainly could have used what it provides, and many other survivors do as well.