TW: sexual assault
I am a pretty open human being. I’ll tell you about my self harm scars, or the way my body still reacts oddly to missed meals because of all the time I spent calorie deficient. I’ll share my experience of autism, and talk to you for hours about my special interests (octopuses anyone?).
But there’s one topic that I have managed to avoid for years. I’ve been in countless hours of therapy and delved into so many dark recesses of my brain that I’ve gotten lost more times than I can count. But somehow, this topic just never quite seems to come up, or it gets mentioned and then the topic shifts, or we just don’t really get into it.
I’m talking about sexual trauma. About assault. About abuse. About bad situations that were no one’s fault, but that left me with a fear unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Why can’t I have this conversation? Why is it that of all the taboos that I’ll break openly and often, this is the one that leaves me silent?
Early in my time blogging, fairly soon after breaking up with a man who did some fairly abusive and horrific things to me, I named the abuse and included a picture. The immediate response of someone close to me was “take this down, it leaves you open to a lawsuit.”
We are inundated by the idea that telling the truth about sexual assault is bad for women. Some people enforce this notion by questioning every truth that a woman tells. “Are you sure it was assault? Why didn’t you speak up earlier? Won’t you think about his future? What were you wearing? Were you drinking? Was he drinking? Did you consent earlier? A different time? To something else?” The questions are endless and disgusting. No one makes false rape accusations because it’s incredibly fun and easy to do.
But these types of questions worm their way deep into your brain, even when you know better. What if what happened to me wasn’t REALLY assault? What if he didn’t REALLY mean it? Did I communicate clearly enough that I didn’t consent? They leave you in a state of constant uncertainty about your own truth. Yes, this is the definition of gaslighting, and yes it may seem trite at this point, but when you’re the one who tries not to remember that night, the night you aren’t sure was assault, but the that makes you cry every time you think about it, that gaslighting becomes incredibly important. It becomes the most important.
Other people, in an attempt to keep you safe, warn you away from the truth. “They’ll sue you. They’ll drag your reputation through the mud. They won’t believe you. Speaking up won’t result in any action.”
I understand the desire to protect each other, to save someone from the pain of being questioned and attacked and forced to recount an awful moment over and over. I believe that it’s important to speak about the problems with the current system. But even more than that I believe each of us should have a choice about our disclosure, our confession. We get to consent this time too. Give us the information, but let us make our choice. Give us that small ounce of power over the narrative.
Perhaps more deeply than even the pressure from outside to stay silent, I feel the lack of language in this area. We have a very few, very loaded words to talk about sexual experiences that are non-consensual: rape and assault. Neither of those words make sense to me because none of my experiences came with intention, manipulation, violence, anger. They came from a deep misunderstanding of consent, a desire to be close to a partner, and a feeling of entitlement (which is the only element that crosses into assault territory for me).
In all of the cases where I was traumatized I said yes…eventually. In all of the cases where I was traumatized I was in a relationship with the man, and I wanted to want to have sex. I wanted to be able to express closeness in a way that they seemed obsessed with. I didn’t know how to navigate my own sexuality and they certainly didn’t understand how to navigate a sexuality that would have been perfectly happy to stay chaste for months at a time.
So they asked and asked and sometimes I said yes just to make them happy or to see if I could enjoy it or because I felt guilty, but not because I actually wanted to. There aren’t words for that. There aren’t words for trying to connect but feeling empty and used. There aren’t words for the way that you wish your partner would notice, but they just…don’t. Or they don’t care. And you don’t know.
When there are so many people who have been intentionally used, mistreated, manipulated, abused, why should I talk about these nebulous experiences that were just accidents at heart? Misunderstandings really.
But if I’m honest, the reason that I don’t talk about these things is because I’m scared. I’m terrified that the men I loved felt entitled enough to my body that they ignored all the signs that I was giving and were willing to pretend everything was fine because they thought a relationship meant they were owed sex. Maybe not today specifically. Maybe not tomorrow. But soon. Regularly. I’m scared that I let them use me that way, that I wasn’t strong enough to say this doesn’t feel ok to me. I’m scared of the damage it did and how deep it runs.
But really those are all reasons I should be talking aren’t they?