Every time you speak about sexual violence you’ve experienced, you get this look from people that’s half pity half not knowing what to say and with a dash of something else that goes beyond words. People are usually well intentioned in their responses – because after all, saying the right thing usually never happens – but every so often, there’s a person who equates it to being your fault. That you somehow brought it on yourself and that the person who committed the crime is blameless or didn’t really mean to do it. But like with every negative comment, those are the ones that stick with you the most. Because you’re often already saying that to yourself, whether or not you’re aware of it. The look itself is hard to communicate in words but you know it when you see it. You get used to it after a while.
For me, the last time I was sexually assaulted, I went into a tailspin fueled by shame, guilt, and a garden variety of other emotions. I had already been through this type of violence thrice before so I thought I had a handle on the aftermath—but looking back, you never really do have a handle on it. At least, not at first. But something about this time, about being drugged on a first date while I told him no several times before, during, and after really set me off. I did everything you’re supposed to do. I wore modest clothing, I didn’t flirt too much, and I told him no. I fought back. And he, being the monster that he was, still attacked me.
It took a while for me to start going towards the light and realize that I couldn’t do this on my own. I started associating more with people that understoof and would help remind me that the PTSD diagnosis wasn’t a be all-end all. It was just a chemical imbalance working against my favour. It wasn’t a death sentence, even when it felt like it. Or when I couldn’t find the oh shit bar to hold on to in order to find the light.
Though it’s vastly uncomfortable, speaking about my experience with sexual violence has helped tremendously. It helps break the stigma of what a rape victim is ‘supposed’ to look like, because my experiences are not the cookie cutter variety. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from fellow survivors, it’s that the shame and the guilt of not having the ‘perfect scenario’ will often stay with you for longer than expected. Often times, the perfect scenario we’re looking for doesn’t exist, nor do I think it ever will. There is no cookie cutter version that wins every court case and brings every rapist to justice. And the shame comes out of the woodwork at the strangest times. It gets easier, sure, but some days are fantastic and other days, well, you need a pint of ice cream, a good support system, and a way to get the pain out without hurting yourself. And I’ll be honest, I’m still working on it. Some days, I do well, and other days, the guilt is that overbearing helicopter parent we all wish we didn’t have.
But all in all, speaking about it and challenging people when they wonder why people don’t report, I ask them whom they blame first. Do they blame the victim or do they blame the perpetrator? More often than not, they say the former. Our first instinct is to victim blame because that’s what we’re taught in social circles, in movies, or in other forms of media. The stereotype of a sexual assault victim is a woman in going out clothes that’s attacked by a stranger in an alleyway late at night. Watch any Law & Order SVU episode in one of the early seasons and half the time, this is what happens. So it’s not totally their fault for blaming the victim first. But it is incredibly contradictory when we question survivors’ stories and then blame them for not reporting it and taking another assailant off the streets. It’s a nuanced crime that is the only one I can think of where the victim is often more questioned than the suspect and perpetrator.
And its often because our own bias why survivors don’t immediately come forward. We’re – at least I was – often more worried about anticipated questions of what we were doing wrong more in correlation to questions about the person who violated us in the most intimate of ways. We’re worried that we’ll be part of the statistic majority where our perpetrator goes free, instead of the minority where they get time behind bars.
Sexual violence is a messed up crime. It’s one that’s complicated, nuanced, and often far more twisted than anyone can really understand, unless you’ve been through this act of violence. It tears at you and affects more parts of your life than you can anticipate. And it often comes back to visit when you’re at a good point in your life. Sure, you’ll have ways of dealing with it head on when the bad days come, but that doesn’t mean the trauma still won’t try to throw you for a loop.
So how do we actually protect the survivors and help bring the assailants to real, honest, and legal justice? We believe them. We believe their stories. We throw the book at the rapists. And we realize that we have wronged them in the past but we can commit to doing better, even when it’s uncomfortable and even when it’s difficult. We protect them and we help them understand it has never been nor will it ever be their fault. And that there is no one way to experience sexual violence. But there is one way to treat the survivors–with respect, dignity, and your belief in them.