When The Rape Myth Is Your Reality
When the Rape Myth is Your Reality
“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable.” ~Fred Rogers
After a dozen years of researching, teaching and listening to private testimonies about sexual violence, I have heard the majority of the societal stereotypes (often referred to as rape myths) that silence survivors’ stories and minimize the depth of these traumatic experiences. Our national denial of the prevalence of this interpersonal trauma creates a false sense of safety that many use like a shield to cover the ultimate insecurity – which is that any one of us could be a victim of sexual violence. Believe me, the unwillingness to face our fear is not shocking, there are many days I wish to buffer my brain from the images that lurk beneath the humble courage of my survivor identity. Still, there exists no positive phrase we can methodically repeat to ourselves, no drink or drug, no physical exercise, no new adventure, and no relationship that can actually erase the memory of sexual trauma, nor does there yet exist a golden cloak to ensure we make it through life unscathed by its reach.
If we are lucky though, survivors can learn over a lifetime, with the utilization of healing techniques that specifically serve us, how to establish a sense of grounding within ourselves. This inner stability allows us to develop the confidence to practice not resisting memory and instead letting what wants to emerge to finally move through and out of us. Whether our memories surface through emotions, through subtle and not-so-subtle physical sensations, or through our dreams, we can begin to carefully explore how to tolerate our pain. Eventually, we might re-direct our pain into the life-force that cultivates the healing of a heart that is equally supple and strong. That inner power can feel like a flickering flame on a cool summer night – occasionally bold, with clean, curved edges that extend upwards and outwards with the single purpose of enlightening the surrounding space. Often though, our flame is wavering, hanging on, and just about to burn out until the wind settles for a moment, and it expands into and beyond its original fullness once again. That kind, quieting of the weather around us catalyzes the next wave of our relief.
Yet, even after many years of focused attention to my healing and recovery, I received a message in my email inbox that sent me spinning. In an instant, I felt invisible, angry and isolated. My pulse pounding and my skin prickled with sweat. The content referred to a sexual assault within the college community where I lived and worked, and espoused this message-
“While this terrible incident did not take place on our campus or involve any of our students, it is important to remind you that attacks by strangers are extremely rare. I also want to remind you of several ways you can be safer on and off campus:
- If possible, walk in groups of two or more, especially at night
- Be aware of your surroundings
- Have 911 ready to dial when you are in areas of concern
- Have your keys in hand on your way to your destination
- Always look in your car before entering it
- Plan your activities so that others know where you are supposed to be, and when
- Campus Public Safety will provide escorts on campus, if requested.”
Where do I begin with why this hurt so badly?
On the surface level, of course, learning that yet another precious human life (and all they lives they touch) has been harmed in this way – a way that secretly far too many of us intimately know – breaks your heart and then pulls you backwards into your past. Secondly, it reinforces a totally unjust notion that it is up to survivors alone to shoulder the responsibility, as well as the multi-ton psychic burden to stop sexual violence from happening. In fact, we should look in the mirror and question a culture that is carefully constructed upon a terrifying foundation of dominance, destruction and disconnection – and then strive to dismantle it. Thirdly, it reminded me, which I felt sharply in my gut, that when I was raped, according to the majority of our societal teaching about sexual violence and every word in my employer’s message – I was doing everything wrong.
- I was running in a massive park all alone – a moving meditation that I cherished since discovering at 14 years old, the way that long distance running could soothe me. My relationship to running has now completely altered. Beneath the benefits for my heart and the beauty I am blessed to view along my route, there is a still guarded part of me that considers the practice of running like a tool. Running is now another survival skill to maintain a particular kind of strength: the muscular strength in legs and lungs should I ever need to run too far, after having already run too long, in order to save my own life. Since this message also cautions against the night, it subtly implies that I should have been safe at 10:30am in the morning, with the sun blazing down and the great wilderness with all its majestic creatures totally illuminated – but I wasn’t.
- I was totally unaware of my surroundings, the opposite of the sort of paranoid way of living in the world that this advice encourages. I was not vigilant about my environment – at all. I had, in fact, to some degree actually merged with it. When I ran in this magnificent park, I would find myself totally lost in the magnificence of wild horses, grazing llamas, snow-capped volcanoes, the swaying of eucalyptus trees and the perfection of the moment. Slowing down my over-active brain was the intention of that dedicated time to myself and my body – this was what made it so transcendent.
- I obviously wasn’t thinking about, nor prepared to make a quick call to the police should trouble have arisen, I didn’t even own a cell phone. Not to mention the fact that the police had not historically proved themselves to be a source of safety in the specific context of my circumstances. Was I running in a so-called “area of concern” and how does one even disseminate that kind of space living in a culture with so many intersecting systems of oppression – racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia (to mention a few) that force upon so many, a conscious and unconscious self-policing for survival. Are we ever really safe? I went out for a run to express and to feel my freedom, to move my body, to nourish my spirit – I wasn’t running while simultaneously awaiting the threat of ambush. I was oblivious to the fact that I was being stalked like prey. It still mystifies me to consider how long I was out in those woods feeling a particularly potent joy that day for all that I was witnessing and all that was unfolding in my life, all the while I was being tracked at a distance. When this predator finally made their move, I did not stand a chance against that much rage, that much entitlement, that kind of shutting down of the soul – not to mention being enveloped between the sharp blade across my face and a ferocious body on my back.
- I was so far from my eventual destination that the keys tied on my shoelace were all but forgotten until the moment between songs on the “discman” when I would hear their rhythmic jingle and be assured that I wouldn’t have to climb into my apartment through the window once again, having lost my gamble with cotton, motion and gravity.
- I was on foot. I was running! There was no car to escape to, nor a back seat to check while holding my breath with the hope that it is empty because no one ever taught us the “safety tip” for what to do next if you actually discover someone there. Was I expected to run backwards for self-preservation? Should I have never left my home in the first place? If I was going to escape from this violent chaos, it would be solely by the strength of my still-shaking legs and the endless effort of the burning lungs that had carried me this far. I was many miles from roads and cars.
- I changed my mind and I changed my plans unexpectedly that day – and I didn’t tell anyone about it. My friends thought I was going home during a work break to practice yoga before meeting them out for lunch. I decided on a whim that on this crisp, sunny Friday, my psyche would be best served by heading outside and savoring the yoga of nature.
- I didn’t require the assistance of an escort to get from Point A to Point B that day. One of the amazing benefits of running is the gift of experiencing our own self-direction, a kind of embodied self-realization. I was simply exercising that day – both my body, and my right to witness and experience the vastness of the world around me.
In the prevention, education and awareness raising work I deliver on the topic of sexual violence, I strongly critique these aforementioned “safety tips” as they are geared towards stranger attacks and over 80% of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. They support beliefs that keep the majority of our communities ignorant about the nature of sexual violence and prevent us from having survivor-centered responses when someone discloses to us. I also critique them because I refuse to ask certain populations (women and girls, people of color, LGBTQ identified folks, and more) to conform to a bigoted society constructed upon fear and power inequity. Not to forget the many male survivors whose abuses have been insidiously flipped by the patriarchy into glorious and strange conquests of their supposed, insatiable sexuality, while the preciousness of their own right to decide how and when and with whom is stolen, and replaced by the mandatory guise of a sexually-aggressive masculinity.
Instead, I believe that we can demand nothing less than a total transformation of these notions for how to increase safety by re-directing our focus on the social norms our society condones and promotes, along with the perpetrators themselves, that create the conditions where none of us are safe. Let’s demand demonstrated reform from those who do not respect other people’s boundaries. Let’s make consent education mandatory and teach people about compassion and communication, so that they can in fact change – their attitudes, their beliefs and their behaviors. Let’s invest even a percentage of what we currently devote to “response” to actual prevention. Don’t we want to end violence? We have to engage young people and whole communities in the sometimes uncomfortable, inherently nuanced dialogues about sexuality and sexual activity for this tide to shift. We must create wider, more inclusive spaces where people can recognize and remember their own humanity (as well as grieve their own losses) if they are ever going to acknowledge the humanity of another person, and make a different choice – the choice to not assault someone. We have to say out loud that sexual violence is not inevitable and we have to actually believe that for our efforts to be effective and to take root.
Yet underneath all of that, here is what broke my heart for the millionth time on a day: It was a day where I was particularly exhausted by straining to make my voice heard in a setting (college campuses) where survivors with strong opinions are not necessarily welcome. Therefore, despite a brain that is well-versed in responding to triggers, it simply could not protect me from the onslaught of this pain. Our hearts can only withstand so much. After reading the email, I heard a voice inside my head say: the rape myth is your reality.
Literally, I was attacked by a weapon-wielding stranger who jumped out from behind a tree. Even though I have personally critiqued this media-enforced myth by drawing upon statistics, on that day, when I read the words “attacks by strangers are extremely rare,” I felt silenced again and invalidated. I was struck in such a deeply personal way. Normally, I can manage victim-blaming statements when presenting to college students whose sole education around sexual violence comes from the highly sensationalized depictions on SVU. While many survivors of non-stranger sexual assaults feel erased by a culture that never portrays their experience, or in the most twisted manner, actually blames them for the perpetrator’s decision to attack – those of us who were assaulted by strangers feel a private ache as the facts of our lives are devoured as fiction and entertainment on the screen. Whether your perpetrator is known to you or a stranger, the damage of sexual trauma is profound.
“Attacks by strangers are extremely rare.” Was that statement actually necessary? What were they trying to convey? Were they trying to make people feel safe? Again, which people are more safe when they hold this belief? Were there any other survivors among the 7000+ members of our campus community who, like me, were raped by someone they never knew? Does the supposed rarity of stranger attacks make them somehow less significant? Is the incidence of 15% – 20% of sexual assaults being committed by a stranger really that rare given current information about the frequency of sexual violence in this country? Considering this data collected in research by CounterQuo, I am inclined to think “rare” is the absolute wrong choice of word to describe stranger assaults:
“Approximately 620,000 women 18 years and older were forcibly raped in 2010. This number is an underestimate of the total number of females sexually assaulted and raped each year for a number of reasons. Among them are the lack of inclusion of many women at high risk of sexual assault who have no access to telephones, such as women who are homeless, in hospitals, nursing homes or mental health institutions or other controlled environments like jail or residential treatment. Additionally, the survey did not include girls under the age of 18. Between 1 in 47 men (2%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) of men reported being raped within their lifetime. Recent studies report that from 7% – 13% of adult women and 2% – 3% of adult men report that they experienced forced sexual assault before the age of 18. Please note that the framework for these statistics is sexual assault, which is a broader range of experiences than rape.”
In my readings of statistics I recognize that while it is difficult to locate accurate data for sexual violence incidence in general (another way in which the rape culture functions to maintain the status quo – ignorance) it is even harder – and so terribly disheartening – to find accurate research that has specifically tracked the incidence for trans and genderqueer survivors. This is yet another brutal reminder that all of these numbers are likely gross underestimates given the lack of a national understanding of what constitutes sexual violence, our erasure of so many forms of sexual violence, as well as the dismissal of the stories of the many people/communities who, due to their marginalized identities within our society are actually targeted with sexual violence, and of course, the many, continued barriers to reporting.
Given all of this, can we really label the hundreds of thousands of stranger assaults as rare? Or, did I just have the worst luck on the planet because despite the rarity of stranger rape – it happened to me? Can we talk openly and honestly about these numbers without devaluing or minimizing the 15% – 20% of us that in fact had our trauma transpire more painfully that any gratuitous film director could develop for their next blockbuster? Can we listen to survivors of all forms of sexual violence and honor the ways in which our journeys are uniquely painful, as well as connect around the moments within struggling and healing where our wounds overlap? Can we resist qualifying the details of the millions of survivors’ lives in order to determine who is a “real victim”, a “true victim” or a “sympathetic victim” and accept that no one deserves sexual violence? Instead, can we wrap our intentions around a shared commitment to reduce the rates of sexual violence against all people? All people!
Politically and socially, I recognize the importance of emphasizing the numbers around acquaintance, family, friend, partner and other “trusted person” sexual assault. This discussion is absolutely overdue. For too long (and to this day) survivors of that kind of sexual violence are not actually seen as victims – they are not believed, they receive less empathy, and people blame the survivor’s behavior/appearance/attitude/history/identity for somehow provoking someone to commit this kind of attack. We will convince ourselves of anything to avoid dealing with the real problem: an institutionalized belief (informed by racism, sexism, ableism and more) about the ownership of other people’s bodies, a hierarchy of which bodies matter, and a right to control and silence marginalized bodies through violence. Not to mention our increasing disconnect from ourselves and each other in a society that encourages faster, higher, bigger, next – when what we really need is slower, simpler, grounded, now.
Too few people have the courage to fully acknowledge and respond to the horror that we as humans could consciously commit an act so indescribably brutal to those that we know and even love. Instead, we bury that cruel realization beneath victim-blaming and turn our faces away from those whose open wounds risk magnifying our denial. It is also important that people are given full permission to label that kind of sexual harm when it happens within relationships (however intimate or casual) as exactly what it is: sexual violence. We must affirm that their intense feelings are valid, natural responses to what they survived – that there is nothing wrong with them, while empowering them to choose the next steps to begin healing – without our agenda interfering in their process. As well, we need to dismantle the culture that feeds us the message of one kind of rapist – a monster who we will only encounter at night on a dark street when no one else is around. Some of us know too well that the rapist could be our best friend.
We need to be talking about sexual violence before it actually happens. This isn’t rocket science, this is simply a sincere commitment to prevention.
When I reflect on my own life story, I see that I am a composite of these harsh statistics of stranger and non-stranger incidence of sexual violence. Discounting the impossible to quantify experiences of sexual harassment, I have 4 significant incidences of sexual violence and all but 1 of the perpetrators was known to me: a friend, a crush, an ex-boyfriend – and one stranger. In addition, three out of the four assaults involved copious amounts of alcohol. It breaks my heart that I didn’t have the language to describe what 3 out of the 4 incidences were, and therefore did not know how to express my hurt. I did not know why I was reacting and remembering the details so intensely, yet in such a disorganized manner. I did not understand why I felt such shame around my body and sexuality, while knowing sadly that on some level I dare not ask for help. Who could I possibly tell? Who would believe me? Would I get in trouble? Was it kind of my fault? Why was I making such a big deal about this? How does a body manage all of these breaches from men – some of whom were still in my life.
No one had ever talked about sexual violence – not like the way it had happened to me. The way those 3 attacks played out didn’t fit within the sexual assault script I had been fed since childhood. That script conveniently confuses the majority of victims of sexual violence about what happened to them. It creates self-loathing and insecurity that can drive us to very difficult states of mind thinking that something is terribly wrong with us. This is then compounded by a very scary and unsettling feeling – since as far as society has taught us, nothing “violent” has actually occurred – but yet, we feel so incredibly torn up. Then returns the boomerang of doubt: What if it was my fault – for misbehaving in class, for flirting too much, for getting so drunk, for dating this person that no one else liked?
The slew of self-interrogating questions is then followed by the impossible effort to squash our surfacing pain. This hostile investigation can cycle on for years until we finally tell someone who has the clarity to stop us in our self-blame loop, gaze directly into our watery eyes and say firmly, “It was not your fault. It was NOT your fault.”
We quietly wonder if maybe someday, we will be able to honestly give ourselves permission to release the misplaced hardship of blame. That knowing – that it wasn’t our fault – lives within us, which is why society’s shouting that it was in fact our fault, stings like salt on a still raw wound. When we can hear our own truth and embrace it, it can be a pivotal moment of trusting ourselves after much external searching for answers from everyone else. Our opinion on our survival and our belief in our inherent worth, becomes the only opinion that actually matters in living and moving forward. It may take time, but we can also rest into the notion that the resilience we are building is organic, it is innate. It is still happening even on the most difficult days, just as the sun keeps shining hundreds of miles above a storm of clouds. The nature of our healing is ever-present, we can loosen our grip on controlling this process.
It wasn’t until being attacked by the stereotypical, yet painfully real monster, that all of the memories and stories of the multiple times my body had previously lived through this came rushing back. I share all of this because I truly believe we cannot quantify the impact of sexual violence along a scale of less bad to worst. Sexual violence is a rupture of trust, a violation of the body and a splintering between one’s spirit and both the body and world it inhabits – which can require a lifetime to piece back together. Once you know that kind of violence you can never not know it. It loiters and it re-surfaces, time and time again.
I grieve for my fellow survivors whose boundary was breached 1 time, or 100 times, by someone they loved, someone they went to bed with, a classmate that came over to study, their favorite coach, or someone whose face was hidden behind a mask they never saw. In myriad ways, our society actually prepares certain folks for this horrific, and supposedly inevitable day – which is absolute madness and a reflection of not only pervasive social inequality, but also, a total disregard for what sexual violence does to our humanity. If we let ourselves be vulnerable enough to fully acknowledge its impact, we’d never cease in our quest to dismantle all the intersecting systems of oppression that conveniently converge to support a culture where rape is normalized, minimized and glorified.
I long for the day when sexual violence is no longer a cultural phenomenon that we expect and accept. Alongside countless others, I work daily to usher in new ways of relating with humankind, recognizing how injustices overlap, and developing a network of holistic healing support for the millions of people in our country still desperate to survive. However, until the day comes when any and every form of sexual violence is rare, and until our institutions find the courage to center the wisdom survivors already hold inside, I wish for a different message to be sent through campus mail and beyond into the ethers for those that may benefit from reading it – maybe my former employer will take note:
“We are shocked and saddened to learn of the sexual assault of one of our community members. Sexual violence is not tolerated in our community and we are taking diligent actions to prevent its occurrence. To that point, we invite your collaboration and insight around visioning a comprehensive approach to dismantling this cultural epidemic through programming, education, support services, activism and community organizing. We privilege the insights of survivors who know too intimately the impact of sexual violence and whose experiences navigating the path of recovery after violence need to be heard and integrated into our approach if we are to enhance our systems and truly provide survivor-centered care. We believe in the resilience of this individual and their ability to recover in spite of what they have endured, and you can trust that we are working collectively to coordinate mental, physical and logistical support to assist them in navigating the journey ahead. Whether or not you have experienced sexual violence, please be gentle with yourself and seek out our campus and community resources to process the emotions that might surface in the wake of this news. It is never too late to ask for help, it is never too late to embark on your own recovery. The timeline for healing, as well as the way in which we explore healing, is unique to each person. What we need and how we choose to recover may change over time and that is an organic, inevitable part of this non-linear process.
Please remember, it is never the victim’s/survivor’s fault. Whatever they did to live through this attack was innate and part of the miracle of the human nervous system to bolster our chances of survival when faced with the life-threatening event of sexual violence. While this kind of trauma runs deep, all survivors have the capacity to heal and there are as many options and routes to recovery and justice as there are people on this planet. Trust in your own process, you are the only one who truly knows what path will serve you. If you or anyone you know would like to confidentially explore resources and options, please don’t hesitate to reach out to us. Sexual violence affects not just the survivor, but truly whole communities. When we move through this initial phase of triage response, we will be emboldened to strengthen our community efforts to support survivors unconditionally and to work strategically to bring an end to sexual violence. We remain in hopeful, committed solidarity with you, with survivors of sexual violence and with our community.”
When the Rape Myth is Your Reality was written by Molly Boeder Harris. Molly is the Founder and Executive Director of The Breathe Network, as well as a certified yoga instructor teaching private and group classes for the general public and for survivors of sexual violence. You can read about Molly’s yoga and Somatic Experiencing practice in Portland, Oregon with survivors of sexual violence and trauma by visiting her practitioner page.