How do you write about something that people are afraid to see? How do you expose an undermining, but insidious, practice? How do you change peoples’ minds? How does a civilization heal from the wounds of abuse?
I cried when I read the letter. The letter the courageous and intelligent woman wrote in response to a recent rape verdict in California.
I can’t even count the number of times I have been sexually harassed or violated. I never stopped to think about it. I never took the time to collect them up and consider their effect upon me. I didn’t want to. When I try now, I remember things I have forgotten, but surprisingly the forgetting of them hasn’t lessened their emotional response in my body. There was the time when I was 13 at a car dealership, there was the time I was 21 in my own apartment, there was the time I was 25 on a downtown street in Baltimore at 4 in the afternoon, when I was dressed in a suit to attend a meeting with the Mayor’s office. Then there is a splattering of random times; lewd remarks and gestures, condescending comments concerning my sexuality, unwelcome touch from people I didn’t know in public places. And still other times. Times that I am still not comfortable enough with to strike the keys of my computer, to put the letters together to form the words that would make up the sentences of accounts as much as 0ver 40 years ago, but still too fresh to admit.
Yep, my chest is tight. I feel the emotion at my face and I steel myself against tears. It sucks to feel so vulnerable. It hurts to remember being violated simply because someone felt it was their privilege. Why does this happen? This question is most often answered with silence.
In my silence I have been complicit. I have been afraid to admit out loud the things that have happened. Once at a slumber party, a brave girl told about how someone had hurt her. A circle of 15 year old girls on sleeping bags stared silently at her until one girl said, “Oh that just happens,” and another echoed her and added, “Don’t make a big deal about it.” Those girls, like me, perpetuated the silence. All of us afraid of being judged, afraid of the shame of either what had happened or that we didn’t know how to make it not happen.
Some girls made sense of those experiences by playing them out and crafted their identities around them, some relinquished their senses of security in the world and drew themselves inward, and others, few and unfavored, found ways to speak out against such trespasses. Honestly, I suppose I have done all three, but where I ended up feeling most whole was simply in the silence of it. Best to forget about it, best not to make a big deal about it, best to believe it never really happened. Even now writing this, I fear judgement and criticism. And not because I have held my tongue, but because I dare suggest that I was hurt by someone’s forward or invasive advances. Despite being a mandated reported and a trained mental health professional, I still feel doubt about the truth of what I am writing. “Really?” Some part of me challenges, “I think you are making this into more than it is.” But I am not.
I remember a discussion after work with a group of coworkers, that led to a particular revelations about the social worker who directed the children’s program at a domestic violence shelter. “You were raped,” we told her and she looked like she was only first learning it, even though a high percentage of the very children she helped had been assaulted themselves. Denial, at first an ally in trauma, but in time an obtuse, thick cloud that distorts our own perceptions about ourselves.
I want to say that while silence allows the perpetration of sexual violence, it is not the cause. The cause lies in our deep rooted sense of entitlement. Our percieved right to lord privilege of power over people, animals, and the planet completely destorts our understanding of love and respect.
I cried when I read the letter. I want to tell her that I am deeply sorry for what happen to her and for my small, but significant part in the silence that allowed her to be hurt. I want to say how brave she is, and that I am grateful for and respectful of her strength. I admire her.
I was raised in a different generation. While the Women’s Movement provided me permission and modeling for speaking out about my right to dignity, I hadn’t been programmed that way. Sex was not a topic for discussion, even as it pertained to procreation. Sex was alluded to as a woman’s duty. It was a practical responsibility that straddled a razor-sharp distinction between pleasing a husband and falling into a gutter. Raised Catholic in a small midwestern town, normal feelings of sexual interest or pleasure were diminished to sinful perversions. A female body was either chaste or dirty.
But still, while that does inform my silence, I am over half a century old. I saw Jodie Foster’s brilliant performance as Cheryl Araujoas in the 1983 gang rape movie called The Accused. I watched the 1991 televised testimony of Anita Hill. As a professional and as a woman, I have heard countless stories of sexual violence from woman, men, girls and boys. I suppose what matters more than my silence now, is joining in with the many voices out there like the young woman who wrote the letter. She was quoted saying, “This is a reason for all of us to speak even louder.” And it is.
What is your story? If you want, tell your story here in whatever way you like. Only this time, we won’t believe that, while the thing that happened is not normal, to talk about it is. It is normal to feel afraid, angry and sad when someone hurts you. It is normal to tell other people when you are hurt. It is normal to expose the person who hurt you.
Tami Boehle-Satterfield, MSW, LCSW-C, NBBCH, HTP, a licensed psychotherapist in Boulder Colorado at attentiontoliving.com has challenged herself in 2016 to post weekly about the unpopular topic of abuse. Learn more about Tami at attentiontoliving.com