TW: Sexual assault
I first wrote this piece on February 24th, 2020, upon the receipt of a WSJ news notification that Harvey Weinstein had been convicted. Although I considered sharing it at the time, I wasn’t sure that I had anything new to contribute to the discussion; why would sharing my own story make any difference? However, as the days and weeks passed, and as stay at home orders shut down our country, another story emerged that calls into question another incredibly powerful man’s actions from his past.
I’ve considered sharing my story many times over the years since their original occurrences, however I knew that really my only evidence is my word. And, as has become painfully obvious, when all women have is their personal memories to arm their claims, our society’s preferred response is to presume dishonesty rather than take the time to confront larger, painful truths about the people we share our lives with.
As we as a society move ahead with the coronavirus and with Tara Reade’s accusation of our presumptive Democratic nominee, it is imperative that we as a society learn to believe others especially when the only evidence they have is their word. We need to learn to believe the everyday people who deliver our food, care for our loved ones as they breathe in their last couple moments, serve as assistants to powerful men, and all the others who aren’t heroes, but who are simply alive and screaming to share their real, lived experiences of pain.
I’m sharing my story after 6 years of hiding simple because I didn’t have any evidence besides my own memory. I’m sharing my story because I know that there are countless other women out there who, like me, deserve to be believed and trusted at our honest word.
As soon as I saw the Wall Street Journal headline, I started sobbing. All day I had spent feeling confident that the jury would convict, not yet having realized how deeply I was yearning to see it in print nor the weight that would be lifted from my consciousness in knowing that there is now a legal precedent making it explicitly clear that nobody — regardless of their wealth or social status — is entitled to violate the bodily autonomy of another individual.
I find myself incredibly relieved that the trial is over, and thinking towards what’s next for the #MeToo movement. This is just the beginning of a larger reckoning. Let Tarana Burke’s name be written across the sky and emblazoned on the $20 bill. Scream her name and the names of every single person who laid themselves bare and sacrificed their personal peace and private lives to the greater fight against rape culture and misogyny. I can only begin to imagine the emotional and physical toll of the years of fear and shame, let alone the most recent several years of public commentary and inquiry; and I am endlessly inspired and grateful for their extraordinary strength and courage.
As I process the jury’s verdict, I can’t help but think about all the pain and anger that was channeled into this man’s conviction. I also can’t help but think about all the people who will never be able to experience the (presumed) bittersweet relief of having their rapist convicted. For so many of us, it’s an experience that we will only ever be able to experience vicariously, through newspaper headlines and celebrity tell-all memoirs.
I am incredibly, painfully envious of the women who came together to build the case against Weinstein, and then had the pleasure of watching him squirm as the announcement of his sentencing decision was released. This is an incredibly uncomfortable thing to admit to myself — to acknowledge the muddy gray moral ethical area in which I reside, advocating for a criminal justice system centered around restorative justice and forgiveness, while also wanting dearly for Weinstein to spend the rest of his life, miserable, in prison. I’m okay being a Bad Feminist if it means that women around the world can hold up this legal precedent as a beacon of hope.
Making peace with the reality that I’ll never be able to see my rapists convicted or even just take responsibility for their actions continues to be the hardest part. I will never have the relief and validation of hearing “I’m sorry for what I did. I take responsibility for the harm I have caused, and I commit to being better in the future.” Instead, like so many women, I am left to navigate the path to restoring my trust for men (and human goodness, in general) largely solo.
I wonder if there will always be a voice in the back of my head saying,
but if you never said “no” out loud, were you really raped?
What makes you think anyone would believe you?
Everyone knows you had quite the reputation on campus; isn’t that what you wanted?
You were stoned and had been drinking — you got yourself into this mess, and now have to take responsibility for your actions.
What were you wearing that night again? Weren’t you dressed up as a Slutty Possum for Halloween?
You were the one that asked for a condom. Just because he took it off without asking you doesn’t mean you didn’t ask for it.
My internal dialogue goes through this back and forth often, my past and future selves angrily yelling from either end of the brain hemispheres in which they reside. These are all types questions that most survivors of sexual assault are familiar with — questions that we all know people ask, some of which we’ve even received personally. One benefit of this internal dialogue is that I’ve gone over this argument so many times in my head that, at least, I know how I’ll respond next time someone asks me what I was wearing or how I didn’t even know it was rape until several years later.
I’ll say that after years of shaming myself over what happened, I’m done idly standing by while the stories of survivors continue to be picked apart, every decision and memory being picked over by men who fear that one day they too will be outed for their abuses of trust with women. I’ll say that I am outraged that the wellbeing of survivors comes secondary to that of the person who caused us this pain in the first place. We are human beings — living, breathing and thriving — who now have to carry the unbearable knowledge of the depths to which some men will go in order to feel that they have power over another person’s body. I’ll tell them that I have never once in my life met another women who doesn’t have their own memories of being publicly humiliated by men in their life, even if they’ve grimly accepted that “boys will be boys”. I’ll say that for my only evidence is my memory; memories that will haunt me til the day I die.
These memories which fill me with absolute all-consuming rage that I have been told to keep to myself. An outraged woman is nearly always a woman unhinged; the door was knocked off my hinges long ago by men who convinced me that the door was never supposed to be there in the first place.
I am enraged that all my life I was told that I am too loud, and that I ask and expect too much of others. That I take things too seriously and should be careful because I was going to get myself in trouble one day. Time after time I heard story after story of friends and peers who had lost their academic progress, social standing and even a couple friends after submitting themselves to the long, painful process that is required of anyone reporting sexual misconduct on a University campus. I watched, horrified, as people I trusted and considered close friends stood up to defend my rapists because they preferred to “keep the peace” rather than face the uncomfortable reality that their friends are equally capable of kindness and friendship as they are of taking advantage of a situation, and my body.
So, when I was raped, I didn’t speak up. I didn’t want to make a fuss nor did I even consider reporting my rapists. I couldn’t bear the thought of explaining what had happened to the Police. I knew they wouldn’t understand; I knew they wouldn’t call it rape, but they would call me crazy.
If my memories tell me I was raped, but a Police officer says that I wasn’t because they deem my memories not memorable enough, was I still raped? If a women is assaulted and nobody sees it, did it really happen? Do I still need to pay for my wildly expensive weekly therapy appointments that my insurance still doesn’t cover because mental health isn’t a priority for private insurers? Can I not have traumatic flashbacks every time someone tries to hold my hand on a first date? If I really wasn’t raped, and I have a son someday, can you tell me that I’m not going to be kept awake at night with the fear that someday my son might become the kind of man that has sex with women when they’re passed out on the floor? Will he find her friends and bring her some water, or will he feel entitled to take a quick peek beneath her panties first? Because if not being raped were as simple as a Police Officer deeming it so, my life and the lives of people all over the world and throughout history would have been a lot easier.
I truly, deeply, dearly hope that the Weinstein conviction leads to more guilty verdicts for perpetrators of sexual assault. I also dearly hope that the continued dialogue around #MeToo can help more people understand the importance of standing with survivors. For many, myself including, this means reflecting critically on the times where you, too, may have caused others pain, regardless of good intention.
The unfortunate reality is that good intentions are worthless without a recognition of their real impact. What separates the good from the bad is the ability to look past your ego and recognize each of our roles in the larger war against institutionalized misogyny. If it wasn’t already crystal clear, it’s all of our responsibility to support and care for one another as co-inhabitants of a diverse & complicated international community.
This isn’t about you, this is about all of us.