Monday, July 31, 2006

on rape, disclosure, and relationships

I've been contemplating this post for a long time now, which of course means that things have become more, not less, convoluted. But let's see if I can make this somewhat coherent.

People talk a lot about the immediate damage that rape causes for the victim. You see it on TV shows (like my beloved Law & Order: SVU), you hear it talked about when the topic comes up in conversation (however rare that may be), and you read about it when news sources actually cover rape stories (again, a rarity).
You see the immediate effects: the tears, the pain, the complexities of the initial disclosure. Maybe you'll see or hear about these effects a month or two after. They have no qualms with showing that kind of damage. But past that, nothing. It's no longer worth covering or talking about when the pain isn't so fresh. But that, of course, doesn't mean that the pain is any less there.

I talked about this a little bit before, back in my post about the inaccuracy of the rhetoric of the "survivor" a few months back. About how you don't really "heal" or "get better."
I didn't really delve into how that inability to just "get past it" affects every other aspect of life, though.
Specifically, for the purposes of this post, how that plays into getting into/being in a relationship, and how that plays into intimate friendships.

I, personally, can't so much hide the fact that I've got...well, that I've got "a past." My left arm has about as much scar tissue as it has unscarred skin. (I'm right-handed, so my right arm is significantly clearer.) My upper thighs, too, are full of scars that scream "I'm fucked up." But the deal-breaker, it seems, is the scar on my upper stomach, right below my bra line. The scar that just puts it right out there. The scar spells out the word "SLUT."
That scar reveals, in no uncertain terms, that I've been hurt, and that I'm not exactly "healed." Even if someone who I was interested in could somehow get past the plethora of scars on the more easily noticeable parts of my body, that one would (and has) scare(d) them off. Because who wants to be with someone who was (for all they know, is) so unstable that she would brand herself as such?
At least, nobody who hasn't been through a similar situation herself. And even most of the people who have would rather be with someone "normal," not fucked up. (I know I would.)

And this is where things get tricky. Because once they've seen that scar, actual disclosure is somewhat unnecessary. Once they've seen that, they don't really want to know what it's about. And so you don't know how to have the "I was raped/abused/molested" conversation...since by that point, they've probably pretty well figured it out.
And of course, the point at which they figure it out is exactly the point when they decide that they don't want to deal with it. That you're too damaged for them to waste their time on anyway.

I know that sounds harsh. And I've had countless people tell me that I'm not "damaged goods," that I haven't actually ruined my chances of being in a relationship.
But really? It's kinda true.

I remember, when I was reading Lucky (by Alice Sebold), she wrote something about how, as a rape victim, you're perpetually alone. It makes you so different from every other "normal" person out there that people don't really know how to handle you, and they don't really want to.

I wish that weren't the case. I wish that rape didn't have such lasting effects.
But I also wish that people would recognize those effects. That they would actually acknowledge that the damage that rape causes doesn't end after a few months, after the victim "should" be "over it."

This isn't all coming out of nowhere. These are the things you think about when you start seeing (and shortly thereafter stop seeing) one of the lucky, sheltered women whose past is practically perfect. These are the things I've been reading, the things that have hit me pretty hard in the posts I've been reading in the couple past Carnivals Against Sexual Violence. Like the Triggers & Speaking Up post at lelyons. Because there's just something about triggers and relationships and the combination of the two that never seems to get much attention.
And in a way, I understand why it doesn't get that attention. Because really, who wants to talk about that? It's so much easier to pretend that there aren't implications years later, so much less disconcerting to ignore the long-lasting effects. But it's still a completely inaccurate portrayal of the reality.

Yes, I'm sure there are people out there who do well, great even, in relationships with women who have abusive pasts. Mostly, though, these are people who understand because they have similar pasts themselves.
The women I've dated and the women I will date who have practically perfect pasts will never be able to understand where I'm coming from in life. They'll never get why I'll cut away every so often while we're having sex, and they'll never get why I can't just automatically trust that they won't hurt me. Sure, they might say that they "understand," and they might think that they do...but unless you've gone through this yourself, it's not something you can ever fully comprehend.

I shouldn't have to try to explain this to people, though. I shouldn't have to only date people with similarly fucked up pasts just because the "normal" people won't understand. I shouldn't have to continue to deal with this, almost 8 years later.

And I know I do this a lot. I pull the "should" and "should not" thing, even though I know that "should/should not" really doesn't mean anything, and it's not something that I have any control over changing.
So to flip this into something a little more constructive, a little more plausible: I wish that people could comprehend just how deep the damage that rape causes goes. How long it lasts. How inescapable it is. Because even with all of this evidence, even with the huge numbers of victims, people still underestimate the damage and people still see it as a Not So Serious crime. And maybe that's because of our legal system that only recognizes it as such, or maybe it's because of the larger rape culture that surrounds us, but treating rape and sexual abuse as Not So Serious doesn't do anyone any favours...except, of course, the rapist.


Hugo said...

I don't have any clever things to say, Jen -- but I read this post with humility and a touch of sadness and a huge load of respect. It helps me think about ways that I can be more effective on this issue, more sensitive.

And I love SVU. Mariska Hargitay makes the heart go pitter-pat.

Anna K said...


I admire your honesty and astute observations. The unspoken, great travesty of rape is the feeling of isolation. I am currently in therapy and although I am talking about my experience, I fear I shall always feel isolated by my experience. Despite knowing that 1 in 4 women experience rape or attempted rape, I will always feel alone and isolated by my experience. I actually find it is getting worse as I get older. I was raped 7 years ago, and I am finding that the insensitivity and sheer ignorance of other people, at times too much to bare. This is the great problem. There are many scared souls out there, fearful of understanding the full implications of something as horrifically traumatic as rape. It makes them feel powerless and should ( and I believe does) threaten their sense of social justice. But by being silent, by reacting with a dumbfounded look and not listening to a rape surviver, they too are placing a hand over our mouths and telling us to be quiet, not move and not struggle. It can, and often does, feel like the second rape when others do not hear us. But we must shout, we must battle and we must stop this from continuing. We survivied before and we can do it again. They will hear us, someone will hear us.

After all, there are enough of us. We are all someone's daughter, girlfriend or mother. The regularity with which rape occurs is killing our women (and men). People need to realise that rape is a community issue. We need to shout together to obliterate the silence of rape's long-term effects, until the noise becomes so unbearable, people change and they change their attitudes for good.

hannam said...

Love your blog. The ability to talk candidly about rape-- that's a gift.

Anonymous said...

It has been 36yrs since my rape.
Still I suffer. Alone.

Anonymous said...

I was raped at Smith College, at 150 Elm, by a friend that came to visit me. I was a virgin. That was 21 years ago and I am just now beginning to understand how deeply it altered who I was and who I was to become. I agree, it is very hard to find people who want to be with you and work through those triggers to have successful and enjoyable sex. I can't find any.