Tuesday, April 18, 2006

blogging against sexual violence #3

(The last...)

I have a problem with the fight against rape and sexual violence.
Don't get me wrong -- I loathe sexual violence, it needs to end, and we need to be vocal - hypervocal, even - about it before it ever will. I've done numerous final papers about the rape culture, how all the different things like race and class and sexuality (and so on) intersect with and work within the patriarchy in order to create the rape culture.
My problem doesn't lie in the ideology behind the fight. There, I'm behind you all the way.
My problem lies in the rhetoric employed in the fight.

Specifically, the rhetoric and model of "The Survivor."

In every anti-rape, anti-sexual-violence form of activism I've been a part of, the message (apart from "good god, let go of the rape culture already and let us control our own bodies") has been centered around "Healing" and "dealing with it" (but never really "getting over it") and mostly, about crossing that line from "victim" to "survivor."

The thing is, the dichotomy of "victimhood" and being a "survivor" is absolutely false. Many, many people who have been victims of sexual violence go their whole lives with one foot in both worlds, stuck in between and never fully fitting into either category. Some people might never get to that place of "survival" at all, and will never be able to "heal" or "deal with it" in any meaningful sense. Like me.

There are lots and lots of reasons that I know I will never reach that place of calling myself or being a "survivor," which I won't go into here. Some of them are entrenched in the rape culture that makes me blame myself for my abuse and my rape(s), but some of them are simply because I don't have that capacity to "heal." You might be thinking, "Oh, don't be silly, you're only 20 years old, you don't know what you can heal from yet," and maybe, just maybe, you're right. But you're probably not. But that's exactly the problem I have with this fight against sexual violence. There's always the assumption that everyone can heal. That someday, if you just work hard enough at it, you, too, will be able to be a "survivor."

I reject that notion. It's simply not true.
But more, I reject the entire model of "The Survivor" as the universal model for all victims of rape/sexual violence. No (or almost no) victim's experience of sexual violence is identical. So why should the form that their recovery (or lack thereof) takes be the same?

I know, I know. Nobody wants to hear the story about the girl who was victimized for 7 years of her childhood and never got over it. They want to hear about the girl who was abused, but went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work with children in Uganda. And while that girl who went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize is no doubt extraordinary and amazing, that's not every victim's story. That's not how everyone's story ends. But just because my story, or four hundred other women's stories, don't end in sunshine and rainbows and the extraordinary (sometimes out-of-reach) achievement of overcoming one's victimization, that doesn't mean that those stories are any less worthwhile, any less valid. Our stories need to be told too.

Yes, thinking that you can get over this and you can "heal" is vital for recent victims of sexual violence. But not at the expense of alienating those who don't fit that model, of ignoring their stories of non-recovery.

So, with that, here's my story of non-survival:
I was abused by my brother from the time I was 6 or 7 until I was 13. I told nobody until I was 15. My mother walked in on us once when I was 9. She had a talk with me, told me, "don't tease your brother. Boys can't always control themselves." When I first told, I was in the hospital after telling someone I was slightly suicidal. The hospital would not discharge me if my brother were still at home, so my parents (my mom, begrudgingly) sent him out to live in San Diego, where my other brother was. I spent the rest of high school pretty much going from boyfriend to boyfriend, but not attaching myself to anyone, and never letting any of them in, really. I gave one boyfriend a blow job a few times, and he reciprocated each time. I never orgasmed.
I didn't orgasm until I was 19, the first time I was with a woman. Even then, we had sex three or four times, and I only orgasmed once.
I started cutting when I was 13. I still haven't stopped. I bruise, too, and burn sometimes. Occasionally, I go through cycles of disordered eating (but really, it's not an eating disorder), sometimes lasting a day, sometimes two months. I still think about suicide, in the abstract, even though I'd never do it.
I can't say no, even when I want to, especially to a woman. To men, it's slightly different, but it's not like they listen anyway. This past summer, I got drunk at a friend's party and ended up in a threesome situation with one woman and one man. He was sober. We were not. We both went down on him. I said I didn't want to once or twice, but never really assertively.
At a new year's party this year, I was raped by a boy I've known since preschool. Again, I was far more intoxicated than I should have gotten. It was a threesome situation, and I was into the girl, but not him. Somehow, he ended up inside of me even though I said over and over that I was gay, that I didn't want to, and once he already was, I said that I was done with the hetero part, that I wanted him to stop. He didn't. I told nobody until last week. I told my best friend, who had been trained as a rape advocate/educator. She asked me if I'd made it worse in my mind since January. She told me not to think so much about it, that "it was just an accident."
I can hardly function as a student. I've had to ask for extensions on most of my work this semester, and have to go talk to my class dean on Thursday about taking incompletes and/or getting extensions for my final papers past finals week. Not a day, hardly an hour, goes by that I don't think about my brother, or the boy this summer, or the boy I've known from preschool.

So, no, I'm not ok. And no, I probably never will be. But at least this story is authentic. At least with this story, there is no happy ending.


Jen said...

I think that you're right in saying that the survival retorhic is creating a dichotomy in rape culture of victims and survivors. However, I think that the survivor retorhic is an ideal.

Like you said, people want to hear about the girl who was abused for 7 yrs in her childhood, got over it, and went on to win the noble peace prize.

However, I don't think that there are non-survivor stories. I think there need to be real survivor stories. Stories of real women, who don't get over what happened to them, who still think about it again and again, but who have found a way to go on with their life. Women who have found a way to cope with what has happened to them, whether that means writing, speaking out, not speaking about it all, etc.

I think what needs to happen is we need to come up with an alternate narrative for survivors instead of saying that there can be non-survivors. By saying there can be non-survivors I think we'd be taking away hope from people who have just been assaulted or raped. It's really hard to hear someone say that they have been dealing with rape or sexual assault for a few years now and don't think they will ever survive it.

The story of survival gives women hope, but the ideal story gives women false hope. It's like telling a person who's dying of cancer and only has two days to live, that they're going to beat it and live. It's doing more harm than good. It makes those of us who haven't reached the dominant idea of "survivor" feel like we're failures and like we'll never survive.

And maybe it's me just being an optimist, but I think that there are survivors, there are people that figure out a way to get through life without cycling every few weeks. Women who are able to have relationships and not have flashbacks or spiral everytime there is physical contact, or after they have sex.

I think she's a survivor, the woman who can deal with being raped, still go to school, and still pass is a survivor, even if she still flashes back, has disordered eating, and cycles in and out of depression.

le lyons said...

you're right.

i'm too tired to respond intelligently, but i wanted you to know that i changed that category to "personal stories" which i think is appropriate.

i am the first one to hate terminology and consider it a barrier in conversation, so i am surprised i never noticed this one. i don't think it's terrible to use the term survivor because it does help some people...i guess, but you're right...becoming a "survivor" is some sort of odd goal that isn't really achievable.

i'm sorry to hear about your stories. you are extremely vocal and awesome and i am happy to have found your site. thanks for all the hard work you do...and thanks for breaking your hiatus to participate. you are inspiring.

Sage said...

I call myself a survivor because the event ended and I'm still standing. I've lived to tell the tale. To me "survivor" doesn't imply unscathed or completely healed, but a fighter who's continuing on in spite of tragedies of the past. I prefer it to "victim" which sounds too defeated to try to keep going.

I think the hardest struggle for survivors isn't winning prizes or doing well at work (sometimes work is a safe place of escapism so I'm not surprised if they do well there), but developing a loving relationship after growing up in a poisoned environment. Abuse trains us to relate in abnormal, destructive ways. It's hard to unlearn and relearn how to be with another person, and how to trust someone again.

I'm not you, but I've been in a similar place. It's been over 20 years now. I used to break down weeping in the middle of doing dishes or sweeping the floor. I don't anymore. Some things still trigger me, but I go for longer and longer periods without giving a second thought to abuses and assaults of my past.

All you need to do to survive, is just keep on going.

Hang in there.

River said...

I think you are right; not everyone gets over it. I am still angry and it's been nearly 20 years. I am angry at the culture that promotes rape at the expense of women. I am angry that, in 1987 in California, I was told - not asked, but told - that I enjoyed it.

I believe that every woman who survives being raped is a survivor. We are all victims, too, but for me, I need that mentality of survivor in order to be able to function.

My daughter has severe PTSD and can't remember anything of being raped or anything related to it. Yet she, too, is a survivor, because she nearly died but did NOT die; she survived being attacked.

Thank you for your post.

Natasha! said...

I hate the term survivor, but I've never been able to pinpoint why...maybe it's just because it's always used to talk about rape victims, but never attempted murder victims. Maybe it's because the implication to me is that average folks shouldn't be able to survive it. When I was assaulted the crisis counselor said to me,"I'm gonna tell you what we tell everybody who comes here: You are a survivor. You got away, and you can go on." It didn't strike me as wrong then and there, but my skin crawls every time I hear it. It's like it's code for sexual assault. I know it's supposed to be empowering, but to me it just screams, "we don't want to call it what it is."

midwesterntransport said...


thanks for your post. i'm with you that every person deals with their abuse/assault differently, and not everyone is going to find the same terminology empowering. sometimes folks just find it downright irritating.

the rhetoric that bugs me the most is the "i learned to forgive and now i've moved on and am happier" bullshit. it implies to me that forgiveness is a requirement, which it IS NOT. like i said, every person deals differently, so if forgiveness works for someone, go ahead but dammit i don't forgive and i don't feel i have to. know what i mean?

for me the term survivor is more appealing because it embraces the different ways that folks heal and allows me to be whatever i want to be on any given day. if i feel depressed and down, so be it; if i feel angry and righteous, so be it; if i feel like i don't wanna think about it, so be it. for me, the term victim is stifling, but the term survivor is defiant, a sort of "fuck you, i'm still around, asshole."

being a survivor to me means that i'm still living, not that i've become a pulitzer prize winner.

Winter said...

Jen, I really think you should be putting youself first at the moment - looking after yourself.

Any narrative which generalises about peoples' experiences or imposes norms/ideals/expecations on them is hugely problematic.

I'm sure the "survivor" narrative came from a desire to counter the historical "victim" narrative which told women who'd been sexually assualted that their lives were as good as over - they were damaged goods and that was that. For a long time there were so many cultural representations basically encouraging raped women to go and kill themselves.

But you can't just take away one narrative and replace it with another one. There is still a refusal to accept women's individual experiences and a refusal to stop telling women what to do, what to think and how to feel. I think this is what we really need to break out of.

Women will respond very differently to sexual abuse and we can't generalise about their experiences. "Survival" does not mean the same thing to every woman, as the comments show.

The worst thing about it is that implies that people who don't "survive" are failures in some sense. This is not helpful and I can understand why it makes you angry.

Loosely Twisted said...

I was moved by your story. I am sorry this happened to you, and I was bothered by you thinking that the term suvivor didn't apply to you. Your alive, your not exactly well, but your alive.

That alone implies you survived. So I went to bed distrubed and wondered why this term didn't include you.

Then I had an epiphany. What is it called, the all inclusive term, that can be universal for all of us who have been through sexual violence. The common theme that I found is we, were all silent, and now we are starting to vocalize what happened. I came up with a term that is neither implicational and I believe is all inclusive.

We are recovering vocalists. We are finding out our own issues with in our heads and vocalizing what happened. We are finding our narrative and our anger.

One day with enough of us Recovering Vocalists, we will stop this violence that plagues us.

Stay strong, and keep vocalizing everything.

You have my hugs, and my prayers to my goddess.

Loosely Twisted
a Recovering Vocalist.

Amananta said...

Thanks for this. I get tired of that idea too. It seems to be just another version of the "get over it!" line.
OTOH, I do think a survivor is anyone who didn't die while being attacked, and not something you have to "earn" by being "strong enough". It's hard for me to speak up in the way I do, but one thing I am trying to get across to people now is just what you are saying here - there is never going to be any light fluffy happy ending for me where I just decide to make a mental adjustment and "refuse to allow" all of the horrible things that happened to me to ever affect me again. I tell people flat out - I am broken. They argue with me, they don't want to hear that - I guess it hurts them too much. But a few years ago I realized - this isn't ever going to end. I'm aleays going to have PTSD. There is no magical therapy cure or medication cure of motivational book that will make all my past go away and stop affecting me. I just have to learn to get through each day one day at a time.
It frustrates me a lot. If my parents had broken my legs so badly I couldn't walk, no one would be saying, "Be a SURVIVOR, not a VICTIM! Ignore the broken legs and walk, otherwise you are wallowing in your pain and aren't worthy of respect!"
Sorry if I went on too long, this post just really touched me.

Richard Jeffrey Newman said...

Anyone who lives through sexual violence is a survivor; anyone who manages to stay alive after living through sexual violence is a survivor for as long as they keep themselves alive. The only pure victims are those whom the perpetrators kill right there or those who cannot manage to keep themselves alive any longer. As a male survivor of child sexual abuse, my experience of confronting what was done to me and coming to terms with it to the extent that I have been able--and it has been 30 years since it happened--is different from yours in all the ways that gender makes a difference in the lives of men and women, but I would say this to you: the fact that you can say what you have said in this post, that you have the courage to say it--and, even more, that you have the courage to say it publicly, to complete strangers like me, as well as those know you--demonstrates in and of itself that you are a survivor, that you have what it takes to survive—not in some ideal, Hallmark greeting card, violins playing, trumpets blaring, after-school-special-and-she-lived-happily-ever-after version of survival, but what someone else called upthread "real" survival, the nitty-gritty, painful, difficult, heart-rending work that it takes to keep going, and while I would never say that is something you should be "proud of," it is something you should be able—and hopefully one day you will be able—to look at in yourself and feel good about, accepting it as the strength that it is, in the same way that you are so nakedly honest with yourself about the ways in which you are "broken."

One of the most important lessons I have learned in a lifetime now of coming to terms with all the ways that having been sexually abused has shaped me is that the tools you use in order to survive are never indications that you are "broken." Rather, they are indications that there is in you the desire and capacity for wholeness--and wholeness does not mean innocence or purity or the return to some pre-abused state or anything other than the desire, as someone else put it, to find your voice and live a life that you can inhabit fully as yourself; and the thing about this is that the voice you have, the way you inhabit your life, changes as you change, and it is rarely without pain and rage and anger and shame, and it is never without the particular burden that having been abused imposes on you, but if it is your voice, however small, however tentative, with which you speak--or your silence from which you do not yet speak--and if it is your life that you are living, even if only in very small ways, then you are, in a very important sense, whole--even if that wholeness does not correspond to what this culture considers whole.

I guess what I am saying, and I apologize if I have gone on too long, but this topic does get me going, is that surviving is a process (as is healing) that does not end and that this post you have written is an act of survival, an act of healing, even if it doesn't feel that way to you at the moment, and even if it never feels that way to you, look at the people who have commented here whom it has helped: to be able to do that is no small thing.

Anything But Anonymous said...

I know this post is an eternity old, but I thought it was interesting that while in some ways our experiences are similar (I was abused from the ages of 8-13 by my step-father, who my mother knew was a convicted sex offender), my reaction to the idea of being a "survivor" is almost completely opposite yours.

It's been my perception that society almost universally sends the message that there can be no true recovery from sexual abuse. Sure, you can be a victim. Sure, you might even "survive". But you'll never function as a healthy, happy human being. Hell, most serial killers were abused as children, right?

I've always considered it a very hopeless message, that as a survivor I may be able to cope with my past, but I can never really get over it. That no matter what responses I have (active, celibate, gay, straight, happy, depressed, whatever), there's a ready explanation available for why *that* response is completely symtomatic of a pathalogical and unhealthy response to being abused as a child.

I guess it just points to the wide variety of experiences and perceptions... even amongst people who would often be lumped together as being the "same".

Anne X said...

I don't think I ever posted a comment to this, but I read it sometime earlier this year when I was having a tough time at my internship. It really inspired me, and I feel kind of bad for never telling you. I think the internship got me to realize that I didn't know the line between sexual abuse and utter apathy on my part. Like you said, you'd resist, but never really aggressively. That's what I'd do, I'd just give up. I still don't even know that I identify all of what happened to me as rape or molestation, for the simple fact that I was so apathetic and just stopped caring. I just shut off and would fake being asleep or something. That's my fault. And then there's the issue of coming forward. I felt like I had more to lose by exposing it than I did by keeping it a secret and not bringing a bunch of other people into the mix.

But you're right. I hate the idea of survivor. I consider myself a survivor for a number of reasons, but I didn't survive sexual abuse. Whoever I was before it all, she's gone. She doesn't exist anymore. She's dead. What remains is a different person with a different story, and different experiences that make up different perspectives. My experiences have taken me down a different path. I guess if you believe in fate, then this was the path I was always destined to take, but that doesn't stop me from wondering where I'd be and how much different and less confused I'd be about everything surrounding love, relationships, and sex had none of it ever happened. That girl I was didn't survive. But the girl I became isn't necessarily a victim, either. I like to think of myself as what rose from the ashes.

And I think what rose from who you were or could have been is a pretty incredible person whom I admire very much. So at least there's that.

Anyway. I want to thank you for sharing your story. I've only begun sorting out my issues, but I hope I can eventually be as open and honest with people about mine as well.