The #metoo is something which I have strong and mixed feelings toward. I don’t know that it’s bad. But one of my friends, Katherine Coble, pointed out the tragedy of this situation, referring to this as a “place where we have to continually expose our pain, make ourselves vulnerable in order to make clear a basic point.”
That sums up precisely how I feel. And let me make clear, I and many others posting this hashtag are not saying that we are only victims (this is not some prize that we won either). We are survivors.
But we are survivors who have to prove not that we have survived but that we were injured in the first place. And subsequently we must demonstrate that it was an actual injury and not some mere scrape or inconvenience or misunderstanding.
Even posting about #metoo makes me feel vulnerable, broken, weak, as if I have somehow failed (though what exactly, I can’t tell you). I do not like feeling this way. I don’t like to remember what happened on these occasions (because yes, there was more than one). But here are some of my thoughts on it.
It feels like in part I have to put myself on display to validate many issues. Tear off the veils and expose the scars, break down the walls and show off the wounds. And, to a certain degree, that is necessary. Evidence is needed in many cases. But sometimes that supposed balance tilts so far over the other direction, it feels like there is not enough. That there will never be enough unless it’s the ideal case with objectively demonstrable facts. And that creates a heavy burden that crushes the will to speak or to act when you know that, despite the letter of the law in some cases being on your side, the practice and the individuals involved are not.
I accepted in one instance that there was not enough evidence to support my claim and let it go. Even then, I understood that the worst part about many of these situations is that they can be hard to prove. In that case, the eczema lesions were bloody and covered a broad enough span of my body complete with bruising, particularly where I was grabbed, that there was no independent evidence. And I simply wanted it to be over and forget it ever happened. I also felt intense shame that I could not reason my way out of, and in another case, I was instructed to let it go because he was “mentally damaged and this will go badly for him.”
To be clear, this is not something I want to have a dialogue about aside from in general terms. I only want to use what I need to to make the point that it has happened, and it was violent. (Some might say and have said to me that those who wounded me can no longer hurt me so I should speak up and be loud, but I would counter, no. You cannot force me, and you do not have the right to compel me. I do not ask for pity, and I do not ask for chastisement either.)
Some of the questions and analysis must come about when these matters are investigated. I do understand this. We live under a system of law which in theory follows Blackstone’s formulation that “it is far better that ten guilty men go free than one innocent man be wrongfully convicted.”
But it so often seems that in the case of sexual violation and misconduct, the guilty go free and the innocent suffer (which includes the wrongly accused). (This is in part because our system is one that does not focus simply on the facts but in which legal play and connections and deals make a difference. Justice could be blind, but she is not the only one surveying the case.)
In the times when it happened to me, I did what I thought was best. It was not always what was wisest. (Which is part of the reason that we need to be clear and empathetic about how to handle these situations. Young ones are often the target, and if they get separated from good counsel and their families, even when they have good ones like mine, matters often become worse.)
We need to move to a point (or create a better one as such a place didn’t ever completely exist) where we go back to the focus on justice and protecting the innocent without also sacrificing the wounded on the altar of entertainment, gossip, and convenience.
What About the Liars or the People Who Want Attention?
And inevitably from this will come the “what about people who make it up?”
One of the most traumatizing events for me in college came from a bond I made with another young woman. Somehow in a conversation after midnight, we began talking about life and tragedy, and I let what happened to me slip. She shared that she had been brutally raped. I was horrified. He had gone completely unpunished. She showed me his picture, told me horrifying details. And I decided to support her the way I had needed someone to support me but couldn’t articulate.
I did research standards for the county we were in. Got phone numbers. Contacted the necessary people. She expressed little interest in pursuing anything related to it.
What terrified me was that he started showing up. He lurked near our dorm. He appeared in various places. One night he arrived as we were leaving. He was within arm’s reach and called out to her. I hit him across the knees with a parasol and told him to get back, I was going to call the police. He was confused. She didn’t want me to do anything about it.
Maybe a week or so later, I saw on Facebook, they were dating. I wasn’t sure what to think, but when I talked to her, she admitted he hadn’t raped her. She had said that he had because they had sex and then he broke up with her but now wanted to get back together. (For my readers who aren’t from a conservative religious background, sex before marriage is still a very bad thing because sex is to be saved until marriage.)
I felt gutpunched, betrayed. My soul was crushed. How deeply I despised that man, putting on him the sins of others, still haunts me to a degree. But recognizing this does not mean that we should ignore the claims of others. That doesn’t mean it was easy though. I was completely shaken after my friend’s confession.
Yes, even having experienced assault and more, I found myself struggling in the aftermath of that to believe when others shared what they had experienced in a similar manner while at the same time wanting to understand and wanting to help. I felt like I was being shredded like chicken that’s been in the pot too long because it filled me with doubt. (I also tend to be oversensitive to anyone who might be lying and would note that many who have been assaulted are the same because those who do choose to lie make it all the harder for those who have come forward or will come forward.)
I would also add that in all my years thus far, I only know of a handful of false report cases, and I know of far more situations where the abuse was not reported.
My point in sharing this is that I am well-aware of the fact that not all abuse allegations are true. I have no idea of the actual numbers, but recognizing the reality of some lies, I would still insist that we have to do better in assisting those who are not lying.
There will also be some glib responses of how we must not be victims and must speak out to prevent this from happening. And this bothers me too.
The damage done in a violation is done whether the survivor steps forward and speaks up or not. The burden of the wrongdoing is on the perpetrator first and foremost. Or it should be.
But so often it slides to the survivor. Even when it’s not intended.
Not everyone who goes through abuse is able to speak about it. There are some who know that their cases cannot be proven or they live in a place where they are not able to. And the condemnation, scorn, and anger about a survivor who does not respond properly or take all the right steps can feel even larger because that survivor is also dealing with the wounds from the attacker.
One of the most important places to speak up is after it happens to bring those individuals to accountability if that is possible. (But even then I firmly believe that this is the survivor’s choice. There are so many complicated facets to this conversation, and there are few hard and fast rules.)
Another essential place to speak up if you can is when others can be harmed by your silence. Maybe you can’t do it publicly, but do it privately if you can.
After that, demanding that they do more moves into this “show us your wounds!” mentality. Not that it is stated that way. More often, it’s implied in assertions that abuse, harassment, and such do not exist or that they are exaggerated or misinterpreted. Or in the skeptical assertions and knowing glances.
There are individuals who step out and speak up. What they are doing is admirable and deeply appreciated when they do share the truth. This does not mean that all survivors must speak up publicly or that they are somehow deficient for not doing so. Nor does it mean that these survivors must make speaking about sexual abuse, harassment, and assault their priority.
Why Are You Living in Fear?
I know that one of the other responses likely to come from this is “why do you live in fear? Do you think someone is waiting behind every lamppost to rape you?” Usually followed up with a “no one would want to rape you, you’re too ugly” or a “I wouldn’t rape you cause X.” (Joys of the Internet, my friends. Yes, I’ve had this and lots more said to me.)
But I would ask that two things be understood. First, rape or assault has little to do with attraction to the individual but is more often about power and the attacker’s needs. My looks, such as they are, are irrelevant. Second, it is not necessary for a threat to exist behind every post and shadow for one to take precautions. I’d point out that many who condemn survivors living in fear still lock their car doors and houses at some point.
I do not live in fear. I battle fear. I beat it down and break it apart. But it does lie in wait and creeps at the corners of my mind, a skulking, slithering being that will grow if I do not work to decrease its power. I am not alone in this. (And even those who do live in a state of what more would consider fear and possibly timidity, I’d point out that the vast majority of them fight valiantly as well to even function. It is simply that their circle is far smaller and sometimes their monsters far stronger.)
Some days are better than others. I know how to carry myself. I learned how to defend myself. I learned who not to listen to. I am bold, but I am not a fool. My choosing not to do certain things is not proof that my attackers won but rather that I have adapted.
For Those Learning to Survive and Those Moving Ever Forward
Ultimately what I would add in addition to #metoo is that if you are going through this, you may feel alone but you are not alone. Knowing this does not mean the sensations or the pain goes away. Sometimes it is far more of a feeling than a reality, but that does not make it easy to deal with.
Healing is a process. Some part of you may never feel the same, and, in truth, my friend, you are not nor will you ever be the same. Every experience we have changes us in one way or another. Ones such as this are no exception, and indeed they can prove the rule in a particularly harsh way.
But be kind to yourself. Listen to what you need even if that is simply to be left in solitude and silence.
Understand that some of your feelings, while accurate in that you are feeling them, are not accurate to the facts. For instance, simply because you feel ashamed or weak does not mean you actually did anything wrong or that you are weak. It took a long time for me to wrap my head around that. Bad things sometimes happen to those who do not ask for them or deserve them.
Know that while some questions are normal, it is all right for you to shut the doors when some people become too intrusive (though as you know in the legal system, this gets…iffier). If you don’t want to talk about it, you don’t have to except in a few circumstances. If you don’t want to participate in #metoo or anything like that, you don’t have to, and it does not make you less of a survivor or mean you do not matter.
Research what to expect in your recovery and how to handle this. It may seem strange, but physical maladies (not just STDs) can manifest after these events, not to mention psychological and mental challenges as well. This does not mean you are weak. It is simply an indication that sexual abuse and harassment are more than just physical and have deep roots that will affect you in more than the obvious ways.
Reclaim what you can. If there is something that you can do better, then do it. (But know that just because you erred in one or two ways does not mean you deserve what happened to you.) Then take the rest of yourself back. You don’t have to punish yourself (though if you are like most, you likely will). Focus on healing. I have had to spend a lot of time in prayer and thought, sifting through all that happened.
Forgive. There’s often a lot of people to forgive in this, and I don’t mean it glibly. Forgiveness frees you from the burden, but it’s not just about forgiving your attacker (oh and this doesn’t mean you won’t still be angry at that person). This does not absolve your attacker from what was done either. You will most likely have to forgive others for how they responded and yourself. If you are like many, you will blame yourself because there will be so many choices that could have gone differently. I know I did. I could have just chosen another route. I could have asked for another shift. There’s a lot of “could have justs.” But what is done is done, and you need to forgive and let go as soon as you can.
Reach out to those you can trust. Get help. And if you don’t know anyone you can talk to, bear in mind that there are organizations like RAINN which have a 24-hour hotline (800-656-4673) as well as The National Center for Victims of Crime and No More. There are many other such organizations, some of which are local. Others can be found through Facebook. Provided your church leadership is not part of the abuse, they also have many resources.
Recognize it may be a long process. As I’ve mentioned, I still don’t like to talk about this. I prefer focusing on trying to get the laws and procedures changed and work with advocacy groups that assist survivors or assisting individual survivors. And, frankly, sometimes things will set you back. It’s hard to keep your head up and not give in to what the fear tells you when someone curb crawls you with dark tinted windows and mud covered plates or someone sends you a threatening letter or email.
But even if your head slips down and you have to cry or all of it comes pouring in and overwhelms you, that doesn’t mean you’ve been beaten. You just pick yourself back up and lift your head again. And remember that even if they demand to see your scars and your wounds, you don’t always have to show them. It is your choice what you do even if once or more someone tried to take that away from you.