(Cross-posted at the Scarleteen blog)
I want to tell you something very personal about me. Not because I want to. I really don’t want to. But I’m going to do it anyway.
It’s one of those things where even though it’s incredibly uncomfortable for me, I feel like sharing despite my discomfort might be able to make a positive difference. And since this has to do with something where I believe others have been making a positive difference in a way I, myself, have not also been able to, it seems the least I can do. I’ve been largely silent around the Slutwalks. There are a few reasons for that, but the biggest one of all is that what inspired them simply struck me much, much to close to home. So, my silence has not been about nonsupport of the walks. In more ways than one, it’s been about my stepping out of the way of them in part based on my own limitations.
If you’re triggered by candid stories about sexual or other forms of assault, this may be triggering for you. I know it still is for me, very much so. Telling this story in this kind of detail remains incredibly difficult for me, despite many years of healing, help with therapy, help and healing found through helping others and a lot of support. It’s not a story I tell often, because even just typing it out or saying it all out loud makes my hands shake and my heart race and turns me into a bit of a mess for a bit of time after I do.
I keep hearing or reading people say things like that no one really gets told the way they were dressed makes them at fault for their assault, despite about a million evidences to the contrary, and knowing far more than one person personally who has had that experience.
Conversely (and oddly enough, sometimes from the same people who say that first thing), I keep reading people stating, despite so much great activism around this lately, that how someone dresses IS what “got them raped.” Or that they were raped because of their sexual history, their economic class, where they live, how they talk, how they do or don’t respond to men, how they identify or present their gender — anything BUT the fact that they were in some kind of proximity to someone who chose to rape them, which is exactly how, and only how, someone winds up being a victim of rape.
A few months ago, I had an apparently politically progressive blogger who would not stop talking to me on Twitter about the “rape outfit” of an 11-year-old girl whose rape case I had linked to. He, without my asking him anything about it personally, expressed he felt she would not have been assaulted had she been dressed differently. He called whatever it was she was wearing a “rape outfit.” Hearing about the fact that I had my own “rape outfit” at 12, or that, when my great-grandmother was raped and murdered in her home at the age of 76, her “rape outfit” was a housecoat, or that the “rape outfit” of young boys sexually abused by priests was often their super-salacious Sunday best; equally not hearing my firm requests to please not keep tweeting me with misogyny which I found deeply upsetting and hurtful seemed to only make him more excited to keep saying what he was. Even reminding him I was a survivor myself didn’t slow him down. Only blocking him worked. I’m quite certain he left the conversation with exactly the same beliefs as when he started it.
These things we read and hear don’t just come from one group of people: some men say them, but so do some women. Social conservatives say them a lot, but progressives say them, too. People who assault people, of course, will often voice things like this or other things to do all they can to avoid responsibility. But even people who have been victimized themselves will sometimes say things like this. Sometimes — and, I’d say, probably most of the time — that’s about internalizing the messages they got. Sometimes it’s about feeling a need to have another victim be at fault for their assault so that they can feel less like they, themselves, were at fault for their assaults, even though no victim is at fault for being victimized. More unfortunately, than I can express, rape culture is one of the most globalized kinds of culture there is.
I keep reading and hearing and seeing people who, so far as I can tell, and intentionally choosing to misrepresent or deny the core issue of what the SlutWalks are about: activism working expressly to try and counter deeply harmful and endangering attitudes expressed about rape and rape victims like those of Constable Michael Sanguinetti, who, in January of this year, speaking on crime prevention at a York University safety forum said, “You know, I think we’re beating around the bush here. I’ve been told I’m not supposed to say this - however, women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimised.” (This is why the word “slut” is so prominently featured in this activism, because it is this comment which directly inspired the first walk.)
I wish I had never heard a police officer say anything like that at all. I also wish that if I was going to hear that, it had been the first time I had.
In seeing so much nonsupport for the walks and people who have participated in them, I started to worry that being silent might be interpreted as being nonsupportive, which is the last message I’d want to send. I’m going to talk a little bit about the walks in this blog post and another in another few days, but I want to start by telling you what I’m about to tell you, if for no other reason than to do what I can do in support, because there are things I can’t do yet, things which others can and have.
When I was 12 years old, I was sexually abused for the second time in my life. The first had been a year before, when I was 11. Then, I was molested by an elderly man who cut our hair in the neighborhood. I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t even totally sure what had happened to me, nor what to call it. It was 1981, I was 11, and all I knew was whatever it was felt horrible, scared me intensely, and was not okay. But I also got the message that telling anyone about it wasn’t okay, and seemed to feel some message that because it happened to me, it must have meant there was something not okay about me, too. The home environment I was living in enabled these kinds of messages constantly and was itself abusive in other ways, so I did not feel safe at that point saying much of anything, let alone disclosing something like this.
A year later, I was alone cleaning up the art room of the day camp where I was a junior counselor at he end of the day. Because the building was still open, someone was likely at the front deck, but that was very far away, and otherwise, the place was a ghost town. The only reason I was there so late is that I’d often stretch out those days as long as I could in order to avoid having to go home.
I’m going to tell you what I was wearing now.
What I was wearing wouldn’t matter and wouldn’t have mattered, to anyone, in a much better world then I lived in then and we still live in now. But it did matter to someone at the time, in a way that messed me up just as much as my assault itself did. In our cultural context right now, or perhaps in someone else’s view, it would seem clear that what I was wearing had nothing at all to do with my being assaulted. In fact, now, in our cultural context about what is and isn’t “slutty” dress, what I was wearing may be seen as indisputable proof that I did NOT ask for rape or deserve rape, even though nothing anyone wears or doesn’t wear proves or disproves that in actuality, which is clear when people are rubbing more than two hateful brain cells together in their thinking process.
It was summer in Chicago then. It’s hot in summer in Chicago. I was working at a camp, and I also had to bike back and forth, so I needed to be work-appropriate, even at 12, but also able to move around easily and not pass out from the heat. If it had been totally up to me, I’d probably have been wearing less than I was so I was more comfortable on the ride home.
But as it was, I had on gymshoes. I had a fairly loose white t-shirt on with the sleeves carefully rolled up, my typical uniform of the time (because big t-shirts are more cool if you roll up the sleeves, everyone knew that). I had on red chino-eqsque shorts that ended just above my knee. I was an early bloomer physically, so whatever I was wearing, there wasn’t then, as there isn’t now, any hiding that I’m a person with an hourglass shape and curves. Would that there had been: after what happened the year before and having been teased at home about my development, I often tried to hide parts of my body as I could. I probably had on some lip gloss. I had chin-length feathered hair that year, gone blonde from being out in the sun.
A group of much-older teenage boys, probably in their late teens, came into the art room started talking to me, and asked what I was doing there. I told them, then they asked how I got back and forth from the camp to home. I remember that as I said I rode my bike, I’d wished that I could take it back. I could feel a lack of safety in the air right then. I wished I had said someone picked me up. They asked if I wanted a ride. I said no, thank you. They asked a few more times, making a bit of a game of it, but a very pushy game. I said no a few more times then said I had to go get something and ran out.
I went and hid in a bathroom stall down the hall for what felt like hours but which was probably only minutes. I didn’t go to the front desk and try to ask for help. There are a lot of reasons for that, but the biggest was probably that I had already learned in my life that being in danger was normal and that not being helped in being safe was what I could most typically expect from people. I had also learned already that sometimes telling when I was in danger only got me hurt more.
When I came out of the stall, I went to the bike rack to get my bike, planning to speed away as fast as I could and unlocked it in a hurry. But those boys drove up behind me in the van they had, physically attacked me and dragged me away from my bike and into their car. (Typical perhaps of a tween mind, I remember having a hard time later figuring out if I should be more upset I got hurt — assault or rape were not words I had at the time — or more upset that in the midst of all of this, my bike had been stolen because it was left unlocked.)
I have very hazy memories of what happened next, memories I have never fully either formed or recovered, that only show up in mushy, jagged pieces in night terrors I have had about this over the years. I will honestly say I am glad I have only hazy recall of what happened in that van, and that while parts of my body have always made clear they remember, much of my brain never has. A day later, a big, nasty bump welled up on my head, so I’ve always figured I got knocked out, and the rest of my lack of memory can be attributed to shock.
The next thing I remember was finding myself back on the curb near the bike rack, scruffed up, shirt ripped feeling incredibly sore and strangely soggy in places. I went back inside to the bathroom and was bleeding from my rectum. I think I managed to wash my face, but that was all I could manage. I was incredibly confused, disoriented and still scared to death, not knowing if anywhere was safe,if those boys had left, nothing. I went to the pay phone and called my mother, who also called the police before she came over. All I was able to voice was that I was very scared and hurt and needed someone to come to get me now.
I went back outside and sat on the curb in front of the park where a lot of people were, hoping I’d be safe there and that my mother would find me. She arrived about the same time the police did, who I didn’t know had been called. I know I was completely incoherent, and I don’t believe I was able to express anything anyone could understand. I suspect what I said was something to the effect of, “Guys. Said no, no ride. Hid. Came after me. Grabbed. Van. Scared. Hid in bathroom. Woke up on curb. Are they gone? What? Are they gone?” I know, though, however incomprehensible my words, it could not have been missed that I was in shock, nor that I had clearly been attacked in some way. Over the years, I’ve looked for rationale and reason of why I got so poorly served, but I always give up, knowing all too well how very, very many victims of sexual assault have had the same experience, and that it isn’t something with rhyme or reason part how poorly sexual assault is treated in most of the world.
While my memories of my attack are very hazy, my memories of what came next have never been. I’ve often wished they, too, were hazy.
The police and my mother talked for a while before anyone even talked to me or asked how I was at all. I sat shivering on that curb, holding my knees, watching a crowd form around us, people at the park starting to pay more attention, feeling more and more freaked out. My mother came over and asked if I was just scared, if the van was still there. I looked around. It wasn’t. I said no, I thought it was gone, I hoped it was gone, please let it be gone. For whatever reason, she said more than once “So, nothing happened? You just got scared?” and I remember not being sure how to answer that because it felt confusing, and like there was some kind of cue about a right answer hidden in there. Then two of the police stepped over, and talked with my mother again, instead of me, and I heard one of them say, half-looking at me, half-away, that I really shouldn’t be wearing shorts that short because if I did, I could expect to have trouble with boys.
I also know and remember that with those words, I suddenly got a little more clear, the clarity you get from having just felt unsafe, thinking you might be safe, and then all the more acutely recognizing you are not, and determined to say absolutely nothing to them or my mother about anything. I agreed that okay, sure, yeah, I just got scared, I was fine, please just get me home, fine. You’ll just make a note about the van, and I should call you if I see it again fine (and yeah, right). How on earth could I have felt safe saying to any of them in that space that I was bleeding from my rectum and I didn’t know why, something already incredibly vulnerable for me to share in the first place? How on earth could I say that I think what just happened to me was like what had happened the year before that I’d told no one about? So, I didn’t say anything. Not to anyone, not until a handful of years later when ever so slowly, I started telling people, scared to death every time I did.
That I didn’t say anything at the time and for a long time shouldn’t be surprising. It’s about all the same kind of things that keep most survivors from reporting or disclosing.
Here’s the part where I think it’s very, very important that anyone reading anything like this knows three vital things.
These are not opinions. These are facts. I can’t stop you from denying they are truths and facts, but you have to know that if you do, you do so from a place of bias or ignorance because we have all the evidence in the world that they are true. We have not just the story of someone like myself but mountain of stories from survivors like myself and survivors different than me, from sound studies and research and loads of “rape prevention” tips that made so many people feel like they were safer who learned the hard way that those tips didn’t do a damn thing to protect them. All they did was control them, make them feel more scared of living, more distracted by all the things they felt they needed to think about to be safe and then and they just wound up getting hurt anyway.
The only factual part of disputes to what I am about to say is that it is absolutely a fact that we still have a long, long way to go when it comes to the way most of our world and many of the people in it treat rape and those of us who have been assaulted and abused.
1) I was not assaulted because of how I was dressed. Those long red shorts and sneakers were not why I was assaulted. But. The person who was wearing a short skirt and heels when she was assaulted wasn’t assaulted because of how she was dressed, either. Even if I had been wearing something else entirely — like the housecoat my great-grandmother was, a burqua, a nun’s habit, overalls, skinny jeans or business attire; even if I was not a woman with a vulva, but a woman with a penis dressing in the clothing I felt was representative of my gender as a woman, but some of the world disagreed with me, and felt I was cross-dressing, how I was dressed would not have been why I was assaulted, nor would my assault have been prevented had I just dressed differently. That’s not because there is one way to dress that “gets you raped” and one way to dress that doesn’t. That’s because the thing that “gets someone raped” isn’t a thing, it’s a person who chooses to rape you and what you do and don’t wear is something we know does not matter and have loads of hard data that has made that clear fro a long time now. People have been raped wearing everything in the world people can wear, and the vast majority of the time people are raped, they aren’t wearing what those who blame them consider “provocative” clothing in the first place.
The idea or statement that how a victim was dressed had anything to do with their being raped does not reflect the realities of rape and rape perpetration, only the realities of victim blaming and rape culture.
2) My rape was a “real” rape. It was not a “real” rape just because my attackers were strangers to me, because there was physical violence involved, because I was so young and had not yet chosen to have any kind of sex yet outside of furtive kisses and some clueless dry-humping with a girl friend at 10, because I struggled and probably yelled no, because I was a girl, because I managed to be assaulted in ways that now, at this point in time, most people recognize as “real rape.” It was a real rape because people really did something sexual to me without my consent and against my will because they wanted to do it and either didn’t care I didn’t, or wanted to do it because I didn’t want to. That is why my rape is a “real” rape, and is also why someone who is raped by their husband at home after church has experienced a “real” rape; why someone who is out at a party in clubbing gear, drinking cocktails, who says yes to something sexual, but no to something else but whose no is ignored has experienced a “real” rape; why someone who is worn down by verbal coercion and finally gives in to sex they do not want has experienced a “real” rape; why a man who is sexually assaulted, whatever the gender of his perpetrator, has also experienced “real” rape.
Rapes are real in all the ways rape can happen, not just in the ways that some people are most comfortable acknowledging, or the ways which do not challenge people to have to consider that rape culture is not only real, but more pervasive, widespread and more a part of anyone’s life, ongoing relationships, and perhaps even personal behavior than anyone would ever like to have to acknowledge.
3) All I have said here has a whole lot to do with Slutwalks and the aim of slutwalks. All I have said here has a whole lot to do with who gets impacted by the kinds of statements and attitudes the walks aim to call out and challenge, how deeply we can be impacted and how those statements and attitudes not only do not help people protect themselves from being victimized, but how they hurt victims and can even put people in greater danger.
All I have said here is exactly about telling women that if they dress a certain way, like sluts (or hos, or harlots or loose women, or whatever word du jour of similar sentiment fits your era, culture or community) they deserve to be raped or are asking to be assaulted. All I have said here is not some kind of strange exception where the woman involved was treated that way but wasn’t dressed “like a slut,” because all I have said here is a textbook example of the fact that the idea of what “asking for it” is is completely arbitrary except for the part where so incredibly often, the mere fact of having been raped means, to someone, if not a lot of someone’s, that a victim must have been asking for it.
I want to finish today by saying one more thing I think is critically important, and another big part of why I’m sharing what I have with you here, despite it all being so difficult for me to say so visibly.
I didn’t attend any of the Slutwalks. I probably won’t. I’m nearest to Seattle, and had some personal issues with some of ours here that were part of what kept me from it, issues I really think are personal and individual enough not to be relevant or important to anyone but me, especially with the bigger picture in mind. I also have some more political issues, but that’s something I’ll talk about more in my second post about this.
What I want to mention now is the one big thing that kept me from attending any of the walks, and that is a lack of courage and resiliency. I need to acknowledge that I have lacked a level of courage and resiliency around this which some other people who have attended these walks have had, and which I cannot possibly express my great admiration and respect for. When I see photos of them, read their words, think about them — survivors like me, who probably have similar or even the same wounds, but went all the same, some even wearing what they wore when assaulted, I am overcome with awe and humility and gratitude.
I know: I have talked about being a survivor very publicly before. In many ways, I am very strong around this, especially since my most harrowing assaults are hardly fresh: they happened a long time ago, and I’ve had a lot of time to heal. But in some ways, I am not strong around this. In some ways, I am still broken in places that haven’t yet become strong or whole. In some ways, I am not brave around this in ways that others have been or can be — or heck, know they aren’t but are so amazing, they do it anyway.
I thought about attending a walk wearing something as similar as I could find to what I was wearing that day when I was 12. And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I just couldn’t open myself up to even one person, saying or writing in a place I could hear anything at all about the way I was dressed and my assault, whether the statement would be that I deserved to be raped because of what I was wearing, or that I didn’t, but some other woman did. I am just not that strong, mostly because hearing what I did, when I did, how I did wounded me just that deeply, that almost 30 years later, I can’t even put on a damn pair of shorts to wear in public without a meltdown, even though I can easily get naked in front of, well, pretty much anyone, or wear almost anything else I might want to with emotional comfort.
I need to say this twice: there are women who attended Slutwalks who DID wear exactly what they were wearing when they were assaulted; who did wear what someone told them made their rape their fault, despite it undoubtedly being scary and painful, because they recognized how powerful it could be for them and for others.
I had to stop for a few minutes after I typed that again, because the bravery and integrity of that action literally makes me breathless. There are survivors who did what I could not do, cannot do, because they know how important it is, to them, to people like me, to everyone. There are those who did what I could not do, who I firmly believe have done something that might seem small, but which is, I think, major. Something that will make it less and less likely a 12-year-old girl, wearing whatever it is she is wearing, who already has been done the grave injustice of rape, will never, ever hear anyone say that their clothing — that ANYTHING — made being raped their fault.
Any of us can have whatever options or ideas or feelings about this activism that we like. We can disagree about some of it, or the way a given person has or hasn’t executed it, but I just don’t know how it’s possible not to recognize the potential power of what so many people have been part of with these walks, nor to ignore how much participating must have required of some of the speakers and other attendees.
So, if there is anyone out there who organized or attended a walk who interpreted my silence as nonsupport, I hope you know now that it wasn’t. If there is anyone out there who feels worn down or unappreciated by the critiques or the resistance, know there is someone right here whose s/hero you are, in a way that someone who usually has no shortage of words has a hard time even articulating the depth of. If there is anyone out there who was brave in a way I couldn’t be, and who got torn down for it or spoken to in exactly the ways that I feared I would, I can’t tell you how sorry I am that after all the courage you probably had to muster up, anyone around you couldn’t manage to have just a fraction of the integrity and care and inner strength you do.
But know, too, there is someone sitting right here who believes that while you should not have ever had to take yet one more hit around this, I believe that in taking the risk you did, you’ve done something that not only will help make it less likely others have to, but you’ve humbled someone who sometimes arrogantly thought she was as brave around this as someone could be by raising the bar.
(P.S. I ask that you please tread gently in the comments on this, if you’re going to leave one, and in whatever you might say if you’re going to blog about my story at all. Like I said, this is something where I feel incredibly vulnerable. I think it’s safe to say it’s something where anyone would, so I’d hope anyone addressing any candid story from any survivor would be sensitive, cautious and thoughtful. I hate to even have to ask something like that at all, because, you know, we shouldn’t have to. But like all too many survivors, especially those who tell their stories and speak up, and as someone who has been burned before when being visible and vocal about her rapes, I know that we do have to ask, and that even then, sometimes even just asking winds up resulting in harassment. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen this time around, but feel the need to make that ask. Thank you.)