Thursday, November 15, 2012

On Sexual Assault

Majorly personal not-at-all beauty-related information behind the cut, so if you're here for lippies and blush, I recommend reading old posts. Also, major trigger warning for sexual assault/rape, in case that wasn't clear. It's really long, and kind of sad, and please don't feel like you have to read it. (I'm also a little scared about posting this, since the internet is not always an understanding place, but it's risk nasty comments or say nothing at all, so I'm sharing it anyways.) This was scheduled to post tomorrow night, but after reading this post on the Swarthmore weekly newspaper site just now, I've decided to move it up.

This post has been several weeks in the making, since I first read this article by a former Amherst student about her experience with the administration after reporting a rape. I read it, even with all the trigger warnings. Of course it brought back bad memories, but more than that, so much anger. The first draft of this post was confusing and crazy and rambly, and subsequent edits haven't helped all that much. I wish it could be a nice tidy story, but it's not, and even though I'm not totally satisfied with it I'm sharing it anyways, because I don't know if I'll ever be satisfied with it, and whatever, it's a story about rape, there's no need to make it make sense.

In the process of writing this post, I went back and revisited the statement I'd written for the CJC (college judicial committee). It's quite long, explicit, and extremely personal, so I'm not including all of it, but anything that appears like so is taken from the statement.

My ex-boyfriend (henceforth J) sexually assaulted me, repeatedly, during sophomore and junior year of college. I didn't report it at the time, and in fact didn't even realize that it was assault.
It took me until long after the fact to fully recognize my feelings of violation and abuse.

From the very first night on, I was manipulated, cajoled, physically forced into doing things I didn't want to do. 
I was too shy/insecure to ask him to leave.
I didn't want to be difficult or offend him.
I was uncomfortable, didn't know what I was doing, and didn't enjoy it, but I didn't feel (then or almost ever in our relationship) that it was within my rights to reassert that I didn't want to continue.
It wasn't until another friend was assaulted senior fall while J was studying abroad that it really dawned on me how violated I had been, how violated I had let myself be. 
I came to think that since I'd already turned him down once, how unreasonable would it be for me to not give him at least [a blowjob]? I gradually stopped even considering saying 'no'. It was either giving in and doing what he wanted, or getting into an argument which would leave me feeling guilty for not fulfilling his needs and ending up doing it anyways. [He would say] he felt like I didn't like (replaced eventually with "love") him as much as he did me because I didn't want to have sex with him. [When we first had sex] it was as much to get him to stop asking and pestering me about it as it was because I actually wanted to.
Now, I know that's not the right way to think about it, and I've gotten better about not thinking about it like that. But there's still those thoughts, that it was my fault, that I should have done something(s) different, that I would do things differently now. I think that may be a reason why it's been so hard to get past: I feel like I was an accomplice in my own rapes, like I betrayed myself. 

That is wrong. It is never the victim's fault. Not ever. And many people, myself included, don't recognize assault until long after the fact. That doesn't make it any less valid, and it doesn't make you any less of a person. Our brains have ways of dealing with trauma, and one of them is ignoring it, rationalizing it away. It's self-preservatory, and you should never feel ashamed for it, nor should anyone else make you feel ashamed. There's no time limit on realizing trauma, and everyone is different. It's easier for me to say this to others than it is for me to believe it for myself, but I am trying.
I wish I had realized then that no one should ever make me feel bad for voicing my own desires and limitations, that mutual desire and enjoyment should, in fact, be the primary goal of any sexual encounter, not merely the accomplishment of orgasm. I still have trouble remembering that my desires are equally important, and that anyone who truly cares for me will recognize that, but it's something I'm working on.
I have to keep reminding myself that I should never have been put in a situation that necessitated me needing to protect myself. No one should ever approach relationships, or sex, or physical contact, as "yes unless told otherwise, forcefully". It should always be "no unless told otherwise, enthusiastically". 

I didn't report it to the administration fall term, but I did send him an email before he returned to school outlining what he had done. I hoped that would be enough to prevent it from happening again, that he would see just how fucked up his treatment of me was. For a couple months, I thought all was well (besides the swoopy feeling of dread I got whenever I happened to see him on campus––Swarthmore is not a big school). Until another girl (henceforth Y; not her real initial) contacted me and said he had done something similar to her (as he had to yet another girl, X). I was outraged. I still am. I couldn't believe that he had hurt another girl like he'd hurt me. I was inspired to take action, to report it to the school. The excerpts are from the statement I wrote for the school administration.

Angie's story from above is so much worse than anything that happened to me. The school counselor I talked to fall term (before I decided to pursue action) was incredibly helpful and understanding, and affirmed my experience and feelings and explained all the options available to me. The members of the administration that I talked to also believed me and were helpful in explaining what I could do. I'm really glad I didn't talk to the dean in charge of sexual assault, though, because she told a friend and Y basically the same thing that all the Amherst deans said to Angie––it's not a big deal, get over it, stop being so emotional, you're perfectly safe here. I hope I don't need to say that that is the absolute worst response in the entire world. The fact that anyone, much less a person in a position of authority who is designated with helping support students, would say such things to a victim of sexual assault is just unconscionable. (The article from Swarthmore above makes it clear that other members of the administration were equally callous, but it sounds like there's been a change in administrators in the past year which will hopefully help matters.) The sad fact is, though, that's the norm. And that norm keeps thousands and thousands of women from reporting assault. Every statistic about sexual assault severely underestimates, because for every case that is reported, there are dozens that are not.

If you have been assaulted and run into someone who tries to play it down, walk away and find someone who understands the magnitude of what has happened to you. You should never have to try and convince someone that your feelings are valid, and fortunately, there are lots of people out there who understand––counselors, teachers, friends, parents, and always hotlines (there are lots of local organizations, too). You don't have to go through it alone, and there are many attorneys who will take on cases pro-bono (check out the RAINN website linked above, as well as Womenspace here in Eugene and any sexual assault support services in your area). It's a little different if you're assaulted at college, because colleges have their own internal justice system with a lower burden of proof and no police involvement, but the punishments are also lighter (no jail time, for example) and you may have to deal with incompetent, inconsiderate administration members. I chose to go through the Swarthmore college judiciary since I didn't feel like I had enough evidence to do anything with the police, and figured I would have a greater likelihood of getting some kind of justice if I went through the school, especially since Y and I planned to file a case against him together (X opted not to pursue anything against him, as she didn't feel up to all the stress and trauma that such would bring).

The administration wouldn't allow us to file a joint report, even though that was the biggest part of why I was pursuing any action at all––had it just been me, I would have rather let it be, but the fact that he had assaulted at least one other girl revealed a pattern of behavior, a willful choice on his part to continue his harmful actions. I recently found out that he has treated other girls on campus similarly, and I've come to realize I can't just blame his behavior on ignorance or naivete, and that I owe it to others to do this. The fact that you can't have more than one party file a case against a rapist at a college is disgraceful, and completely ignores the fact that many (even most) rapists are repeat offenders. One time is terrible, multiple times is a pattern. But we each proceeded with our respective cases. I ended up opting for a year suspension, agreed upon "out of court", because I did not want to go through the judiciary committee hearing, especially since it had been such a long time since it had happened to me, even though the emotions were still very fresh (which was also a factor––I didn't feel ready to face him).
ETA: The administration lied to me; they denied having ever facilitated any agreement between J and me, and I am glad that other Swarthmore students are filing federal cases against the college for mishandling sexual assault cases. 
Y did have a hearing, and he was found guilty (or rather, it was decided that the assault was more likely to have happened than not, which is the criterion by which such things are evaluated at the university level), which meant a year suspension and it going on his permanent record. Through some maneuvers to which I was not privy, but which I suspect owe something to J's parents both being lawyers, he ended up getting the charges removed from his record and voluntarily withdrawing from the college entirely. So that's Swarthmore's punishment for sexually assaulting (at least) two women––you have to find a new school to attend.

For him, the social stigma of having to withdraw from his prestigious college and have it known why by his former peers was undoubtedly a major blow––he was very concerned with his image. I continue to hope that the experience has led him to get counseling, and that he will not do to other girls what he did to me. Because that's all I can do: the reason for his withdrawal isn't on his record, and he may very well have been able to transfer to another good college, reputation intact. ETA 6/6/13: He graduated from NYU this spring.

It's been more than 2 years since we broke up, and more than a year since I graduated from college, and I am not healed. I still have flashbacks. I still can't have sex without psyching myself up, without checking and rechecking that it's actually what I want––and sometimes, no matter how much I want to, my PTSD self, the part of me that can't imagine sex ever being anything besides stressful, overwhelming, and unwanted, just isn't having it. I don't know if that part of me will ever be really gone; sure, I'm able to have sex, and to enjoy it. But it's never without the memory of what happened to me; it's never a purely fun, pleasurable, amazing thing. There's always some shadows, some sadness. My first time was with a rapist, and there is nothing I can do to change that. That's not to say it's not gotten better––I haven't had a nightmare about it in months, and I'm not scared to say "no" now, to yell it at the top of my lungs (not that I ever need to, now). But it's not gone, and I don't know if it ever will be.

The degree to which I am still affected by the trauma I went through––just last night, actually, I discovered another trigger, and was reminded how grateful I am for the seemingly-unending patience of others––is not contingent on J's punishment, or lack thereof. But that doesn't mean I'm not still furious, for myself but more for other survivors, that rapists like him get off. What kind of fucked up world do we live in that a victim of a violent crime is told she somehow earned it, should she even have the wherewithal to report it in the first place? How is it that so very many women, my previous self included, think that coercion and reluctance in the bedroom is acceptable? How can so many people look a woman in the eye and tell her she's overreacting after being violated? How can so many rapists get off without any punishment, even receive congratulations for "putting her in her place"? How can the first response to any public accusations of rape be "she's making it up"? How can victims be told that they shouldn't report a rape, because it might ruin his life?

It's not the reporting of the rape that's to blame for any negative consequences in his life; it's the rape itself, and the only one to blame for that is the rapist.
This I fully believe, not just in my head, but in my heart as well, and I feel no guilt for pursuing action against J.

I find myself simmering with rage, at society, at J, at school administrations that turn a blind eye, at victim-blamers, at rape culture, at the fact that my friends, family, coworkers, students, strangers on the street have been subjected to unwanted sexual advances. Sexual assault isn't restricted to rape (even as wide a definition of rape as the one I'm employing, that anything less than full and enthusiastic consent from both parties is rape); it's being harassed on the street, it's being groped in a club, it's being expected to be flattered when such things are done because hey, at least a man finds you attractive. That is bullshit.

I wish I had some sort of arc to my story, and to this post. It would be nice to say, "these things happened, I reported it, he was punished [relatively speaking], I've moved on and you can, too." But I can't, because for me, that's just not true. The fact that I'm a sexual assault survivor will forever be a part of me, and I can't change that (though it has become a less intense part of me). I'm not sure I'd want to, either; the whole ordeal has made me the person I am today, for both good and bad. Were it not for the sexual assaults, and the whole process afterwards, I would not be as aware of the terrible things that so many women go through at the hands of those who claim to love them––as damaging as what happened to me was, there are thousands out there who have endured, are enduring, so much worse. I also probably wouldn't be as pessimistic as I am when it comes to sexual assault and the law, but I've come to realize just how stacked the deck is. But I've also discovered real, true, lasting friends, become more confident, embraced my role as the overly-PC, annoyingly opinionated "harpy" who refuses to watch TV shows featuring rape and will scold the hell out of anyone who makes a rape joke in the hopes that I can help teach people how harmful, and pervasive, sexual assault is. I'm encouraged to see the negative public outcry against politicians like Akin (and I nearly cried with joy on election day when he and other apologists lost)––though discouraged to see all the people who step up to defend him. I do think we're moving towards a less rapey culture, but there's still such a long ways to go, and I hardly feel equipped to try and help effect change. I tend to just break down into angry flailing and long rambles.

I'm not sure what I want this post to do, if anything. I have opened up about this experience a couple of times since leaving college, and have been amazed at the support I've gotten, and dismayed at the number of others who have survived assault themselves. I realize this is a weird place to post a personal account of sexual assault, and I may lose readers over it, but I'm posting it anyways, because I don't want it to be a shameful secret, and I think it's important for everyone to realize that rape and sexual assault of all kinds happens to so many women, usually at the hands of someone they know, and that ignoring it won't make it go away. I don't want to be silent, and I don't want to be ashamed, and more than that, I don't want others to feel locked in themselves, alone and adrift. The last sentence of my statement is appropriate for here, too:

I want to try and ensure that other women don't have to go through the pain, guilt, self-doubt and -hatred I have.
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