Tuesday, April 26, 2011


A friend of mine recently posted about a 10-year anniversary, and that got me thinking about milestones, steps on the path, and how far I’ve come. In June of this year, it will have been twenty-six years since I was sexually assaulted; and it will be ten years since I actively sought healing from that assault. I remember how frightened I was when I first sat in front of my computer and typed the words “healing after rape” into the browser bar. I didn’t know what I would find, but I did know that I could not continue with my life as it was.

For a few years after the assault, I never thought about what had happened. I literally blocked the incident completely from my memory, though the pathways leading up to those moments were clear and unobstructed; there was a space and time inside my head that was just grey, like a room filled with dust and cobwebs. I did not want to enter in. Then there came a morning in the summer after I graduated high school when I woke up late and jumped out of bed, only to be hit by the most crippling flashback I’ve ever experienced. I ran to the shower and stood there under the spray – as hot as I could make it – still shivering and shaken by the memories. I felt sick. I WAS sick. I became sicker as time passed – years went by and I began to avoid life, avoid people, avoid everything. I dropped out of college. I sequestered myself in my home and hid myself behind my writing. Simple things like going to the grocery store or ordering pizza over the phone became monumental obstacles. I never went anywhere alone, if I could help it. Driving alone engendered total panic. I stayed that way for the next eight years, until I had my first child. Giving birth to a daughter changed everything; I knew I had to find a way to face the world again, but I didn’t know how.

It wasn’t until right after the birth of my second child that I began to actively seek healing. Things had happened that proved to me that I was out of control and that I had to change. My fears had driven my marriage to the brink of destruction, and I hated the person I had become. So I sat down in front of the computer and typed those words that led me to the first milestone: Pandora’s Aquarium. Here I found understanding and acceptance. This incredible group of survivors – women mostly, but some wonderful men, too – did not tell me I was crazy or that I just needed to “get over it”. They embraced me and welcomed me into their community; they listened when I needed to vent, they heard my story and understood the fact that I just couldn’t remember everything. Though they are a varied group of many different faiths – and no faiths – I truly felt that God’s unconditional love was extended to me through them. For the first time in many years, I felt something close to normalcy. It was an incredible feeling.

The second milestone came about fourteen months later, when I applied for a job and was hired. I had worked in the past, but never for more than a few months. I simply couldn’t handle being around people. The anxieties and panic attacks I experienced were debilitating, and I had given up on the idea of ever being employed. But I ran across the advertisement for Jubilee Project by accident; a poster on the door of our local pharmacy said that they were accepting resumes through that afternoon. Before I had time to really think about it, I made a phone-call that would change my life. Though I couldn’t get the resume there that day, they extended the deadline for me. I applied and within a week I was going to work for the first time in eight years. I really didn’t believe I could do it, but I was wrong. Not only did I do it, but I thrived on it – the small salary was only a tiny part of the benefits I reaped. Like the survivors at Pandy’s, the people I worked with gave me caring acceptance – again, I felt that unconditional love that is a hallmark of God.

There were other important milestones on the path – ones that enabled me to work proactively in my own life. Losing 130 lbs, going back to college, moving to a new town with more opportunities – all these were massive steps on the journey. In 2009, I began working at Cherokee Church, where I again encountered God’s people and more examples of his unconditional love. That year, I became involved with a man who had been my pastor; who used his connection and my faith to get close to me. He betrayed my trust in horrible ways – the abuse was emotional, sexual and physical. His suicide-threats kept me in the relationship until it was clear that I had to make a choice – would he survive, or would I? I chose me. I left in December of that year, but then ended up getting an order of protection against him the following July – another milestone.

Today, I consider myself to be a survivor. I am grateful for the people who have extended love and kindness to me along the way. I am in a relationship that is a partnership in every meaningful sense of the word, with someone who respects me and tries his best to understand me, even when I’m triggered and in my most vulnerable state. He never takes advantage of my weaknesses or suggests that I should “just get over it.” He is always willing to listen when I need to talk. I still have plenty of bad days, but there are plenty of good days, too. It has been almost twenty-six years since I started walking my wilderness path through the aftermath of rape. I’m still walking, probably always will be. But that’s okay – life is about the journey, and there are many milestones ahead.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Rape Culture: Deconstructing Myths

Our culture has become one that promotes rape. Don't agree with me? Then let's look at some facts. A rape culture is one in which sexual violence against women is common, and in which the media, shared attitudes, and practices excuse or tolerate this violence. For example, sexist jokes are told which engender disrespect for women and a disregard for their general well-being. Ever hear or laugh at those blond jokes? Isn't it always a woman who's thought of as stupid but hot in those jokes? People make value judgments about each other that promote these attitudes - for example, have you ever been with someone who looked at a woman wearing a skimpy dress and heels and said, "she's asking for it" - "it" being sex, of course, consensual or not? Sexualized violence toward women continues in cultures where women are judged as being sexually available simply because of their gender. Victim-blaming and the objectification of women are both behaviors found in rape cultures, and both problems are rampant in the US. Recently, an article in the New York Times suggested that an eleven year old girl was responsible for her gang-rape by a group of men and boys because she sometimes wore make-up and dressed in suggestive clothing.

Let's have a show of hands: how many of you have heard men refer to their girlfriends or wives as "their bitch"? How many of you have heard men talk about women's body-parts, reducing a person to a perky pair of breasts or a nice rear-end? How many of you have heard someone say of a pretty woman, "I'd do her"? This casual commentary that so many of us engage in on a day to day basis helps to create a society that disregards women's rights to enjoy basic human respect and fundamental safety.

Life in a rape culture affects every single woman. The rape of one woman is degrading to all women; each time one of us is dragged down, the rest of us know a heightened sense of fear. Maybe this is why women indulge in victim-blaming too. Isn't it safer if we can reduce the victim, if we can make the rape her fault? If we are able to say "she shouldn't have worn that skirt" or "she shouldn't have painted her nails red and worn high heels" or "she shouldn't have been in a car with that man" then we are able to say, by default, that such a horrible thing could never happen to US. No, we are safe - we would have better sense than to wear a mini-skirt or have red nails and high heels, or to go on a date with someone who hadn't been throughly vetted first. Wouldn't we?

Women - the plain fact is that we are all at risk. Deep down, we all live in fear of rape, and we all limit our behavior because of it. It's why we go to the bathroom in pairs, why we take our girlfriends along when we go to the movies, why we ask our husbands to accompany us to the laundrymat or the grocery store. The fact of rape holds the entire female population in a position of fear and subjugation, even though there are many men who do not - and would never - commit rape, and there are many women who are never victims of rape. This is the legacy of our mysogynistic culture; this is the legacy of "no means yes" and "she's asking for it" and "hey, look at the ass on that bitch!"

So - what if we just stop?

Men, think about it. What would happen if you suddenly stop listening to jokes that sexually degrade women? What would happen if you refused to take part in conversations that objectify women? What would be the result if you taught your sons to do the same? What if you defined your own manhood and refused to allow stereotypical definitions of it to rule your life and your actions?

Women, we need to think about it, too. Instead of saying that women should take self-defense classes or should be careful how they dress and where they go, what if we teach our sons not to commit acts of sexual aggression? What if we teach our daughters that they are worth more than casual, physical contact? What if we, as women, refuse to live in a rape-culture? What if we speak with our fathers, our husbands, our brothers, and our sons, and communicate to them that their actions shape our lives?

We are all responsible for the culture we live in. Every single one of us, every time we hear a sexually explicit and demeaning joke and we laugh instead of calling down the joker; every time we see a headline that says "Woman Claims Rape" and we question whether it really happened; every time we scrutinize the history, backgrounds, dress, and motives of a victim of rape, we ARE building the culture in which these crimes continue, unabated. We must work together to make this world better, none of us are able to do this alone. How can we start? Well - here are some common myths about rape, and some ways to counter them. What if, instead of laughing it off when someone says "no means yes" or "boys will be boys", you counter the myth with the reality? Let's look at some of the myths and the facts that can deconstruct them.

Myth #1: No means yes.
Fact: No means no. It is not an invitation, or a starting point for negotiations. It means stop what you are doing to me, and stop it NOW.

Myth #2: She asked for it.
Fact: Nobody asks to be raped. Rape, by definition, happens when the victim does not give consent to sexual contact.

Myth #3: Boys will be boys.
Fact: There are plenty of boys who would never dream of committing rape. Rape does not happen because boys are high spirited, or hormonal, or more aggressive than girls. Rape happens because somehow, somewhere, rapists developed the idea that their rights and wants are more important than anyone else's.

Myth #4: Rape is about sex.
Fact: Rape is about power and control. Rape is a crime of anger, not of sexual desire. Gratification comes from overpowering the victim and the imposition of the rapist's will over that of the person who is raped.

Myth #5: Women can prevent rape if they try hard enough.
Fact: There is no right way to respond to rape. Rape, whether coercive or violent, cannot always be prevented or avoided by fighting or begging, or screaming. Saying that a woman could have avoided rape by fighting harder or being more careful is another way of blaming the victim for her rape.

Myth #6: Only women can be raped.
Fact: Rape happens to men and women, boys and girls. It is equally horrible, no matter whether the victim is male or female. No one deserves to be raped.

Myth #7: Women make false rape reports all the time.
Fact: Less than 2% of rape reports are false. And lots of rapes are never reported, so the statistic of false reports is likely even less than 2%. So for every two false reports of rape, there are 98 true reports.

Myth #8: Only "bad" women get raped.
Fact: Anyone can be raped. There is no guarantee of safety. Sexual violence happens across class, cultural, ethnic, gender and age lines.

Myth #9: When women are raped, the perpetrator is usually a stranger.
Fact: It is much more likely to be someone a woman knows, or even someone she likes, or dates. 80% of rapes are perpetrated by someone known to the victim.

Myth #10: If a woman didn't fight back, then she wasn't really raped.
Fact: Rape can be life-threatening and it is not always in the victim's best interests to fight. Whatever the victim did to survive was the right thing to have done.

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but rape occurs all the time, everywhere, and can happen to anybody. Together, we can make a difference to many people. Join me in raising awareness, in deconstructing the rape culture we live in, and in dispelling rape myths - let's make the world a better place.

Friday, April 15, 2011

A Disease of Darkness

In January of 2010, after the great exodus from my abuser’s home, I was alone one Saturday afternoon and I chose to spend it doing my laundry. At that time, I lived in an apartment with an on-site laundry-mat. Carrying my hamper, I stepped out onto the sidewalk and started past the other two apartments in my row. It was sprinkling rain and the air was damp and cold. As I approached unit 3, I could hear voices; as I got closer, there was the unmistakable sound of a fist striking flesh. I heard a woman’s short, startled scream and a man shout, “You can’t do this to me!” before he struck her again. I don't know what happened next, because I was swept away into a moment that had occurred back in November; a moment of trauma and pain that I would have preferred to forget.

I am huddled at the end of the sofa and he is looming over me, his fists pounding the back of the couch in front of my face. His voice, high-pitched in his fury, rings in my ears: You can’t do this to me! I am frozen, watching in horror as he stops hitting the couch and starts hitting me instead, first punching me in the forehead, and then striking the left side of my head again and again, on the temple and above my ear. There is a burgeoning explosion – fire blossoming white-yellow-orange-red. Pain radiates outward across my skull, curling on the edges of this neural flame. I clutch my hands to my head, covering my face, voicing a sharp, startled scream –

When I came to myself again, I was wet with rain, even though it was still just sprinkling. The hamper was overturned beside me and a few articles of clothing were lying on the sidewalk. I was clutching the left side of my head with one hand and guarding my face with the other. The only sound coming from apartment three was from the television, where some unseen salesman was hawking a new kind of furniture polish. I didn’t have to wonder what had happened – I knew: I had just suffered a flashback, a vivid recreation of past trauma. It was the first one I’d had related to the abusive relationship I had just left a couple of weeks before, and a definitive sign of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is best defined as a normal human reaction to an abnormal event. Many people are familiar with it as something suffered by combat-veterans; at one point, it was even called shell-shock. What many people don’t know is that anyone who suffers a life-threatening event, or actual or perceived threats to physical integrity, can develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is characterized by feelings of intense horror, helplessness, or fear, re-experiencing distressingly vivid memories of the event (these are flashbacks), and sometimes, intense nightmares about the trauma. People with PTSD regularly avoid reminders of their trauma – these reminders are called triggers. They often show symptoms of increased arousal such as sleep difficulties, hypervigilance, irritability, and an exaggerated startle response. A diagnosis of PTSD is given if these symptoms are experienced for more than a month (RAINN, 2009). PTSD is a disease of darkness and helplessness, it traps and entangles you; your body is no longer yours to control. The fear engendered by flashbacks is almost indescribable – how dreadful to know that you are safe and yet to be unable to feel it, how awful to know that you are free from the danger but to re-experience that trauma again and again. Your body disengages from your will and you may even feel ghosts of the pain you once felt.

What happened to me that day on the sidewalk was a deep flashback, triggered by a fight between my neighbor’s daughter and son-in-law, who had moved in with her when they lost their home due to unemployment. I was unprepared for the swiftness of the symptoms though not unfamiliar with them – for years after the sexual assault that happened when I was a teenager, I had suffered and dealt with PTSD. I knew my triggers and I assiduously avoided them: pine-scented cleaner, the echoing sound of running water in a public restroom, adolescent male voices with no visible source, the taste of Dr. Pepper, and the smell of bourbon. But after the violence of my recent relationship, it appeared there were new triggers to be learned and dealt with. It was a depressing thought. I knew as well as anyone how debilitating PTSD can be – for me, it had led to a kind of quiet, social anguish that kept me cloistered at home and unable to work or even deal constructively with people at all. Things as simple as making telephone calls or paying bills had become an ordeal for me in the past, and it had taken a lot of conscious work to overcome the symptoms and be able to live my life again. The last thing I wanted was to have to go back through those days of darkness.

Soon after the flashback that January afternoon, I began experiencing nightmare-flashbacks of being trapped in a car with my abuser; snow pelted down and the sensation of reckless speed made my skin crawl. He screamed, pounding the dash and the windshield, threw wild punches at me, connecting with my mouth, my jaw, my shoulder. Sometimes the dreams were not memories, but were new fears being expressed during sleep – I would be moving through my day and would look up to see him, standing somewhere near, watching me… Probably the most horrific of these night-terrors were the ones in which I was frozen and unable to move as he slid into bed beside me; I could actually feel his body against mine and would awaken with my heart pounding and my throat aching from screams I could not voice.

Fortunately, I had developed some good coping mechanisms during my struggle with PTSD. For example, I had learned how to ease myself out of a flashback by concentrating on the ocean-sounds of my breath as air moved in and out of my body. This grounded me and helped me to focus on what was real. Another tool was counting down from 10 to 1 as I inhaled and exhaled deliberately, controlling and calming my breathing. As the weeks and months went by, the flashbacks became fewer, though they have not completely gone away even now, over a year later. I am still learning my new triggers; the sound of a man shouting, driving in snow, and the sound of breaking glass to name just a few. They are little things, but they plunge me down into darkness, and it is hard to climb back up.

Women who suffer sexual assault are at high risk of developing PTSD. In the month after a rape or assault, 94% of women report symptoms of PTSD. Nine months after a rape or assault, 30% of those women are still experiencing full-blown Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (US Dept. of Veterans Affairs, 2007). Throughout their lifetimes, 11% of women who survived rape will continue to experience PTSD. So does that mean that there is no cure?

No – it just means that our society doesn’t always know how to help sufferers of PTSD. However, there is help if you are experiencing symptoms. You should talk to a mental health professional. The treatment you receive could range from talk therapy to cognitive behavioral therapy, to EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) to medications. Your health care professional should be able to help you discover the best treatment for you, but be careful to choose someone who has experience in dealing with survivors of rape and assault, and the treatment of PTSD in survivors. Not all physicians have the knowledge needed to help you find the best treatment for your PTSD; the first doctor I spoke to about my symptoms wanted me to take Zoloft. I refused; I wasn’t depressed. I was traumatized. I opted instead to begin with talk-therapy, which I found helpful.

I am not yet 100% PTSD free, but it is possible to be. There are some great resources out there for knowing how to help yourself, but one of the most encouraging ones I’ve found is Heal My PTSD, a website founded and managed by Michele Rosenthal. While she is not a survivor of sexual assault, Michele’s struggles with PTSD and her subsequent healing can provide a wealth of inspiration and information for anyone with PTSD. So – help is available, and there is hope. This knowledge is what I hold onto when the darkness rises – and it does, more often than I care to admit - like last night, for example.

I can’t move. It’s the first thing I notice – my body is heavy and I feel as if some invisible force has immobilized me. Behind the heavy curtains I can hear furtive movements – the scratching of rats inside a wall. But it isn’t rats…rats can’t speak – rats can’t whisper threats, can’t urge each other to do unspeakable things. I am frozen in place and the harsh words echo inside my brain: Let’s get her. The curtains swirl and then I see hands, pale in the gloom, hands reaching and grabbing and tearing at me…

Though I know that this moment ended almost twenty-six years ago, I am THERE, I am pinned and used and broken; though I try, I cannot escape. Almost thirty years later, I am still trying, but that’s what surviving is about – you never give up.


Rape Abuse Incest National Network (RAINN). 2009. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Retrieved April 15, 2011 from http://www.rainn.org/get-information/effects-of-sexual-assault/post-traumatic-stress-disorder

US Department of Veterans Affairs. 2007. National Center for PTSD: Sexual Assault against Females. Retrieved April 15, 2011 from http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/pages/sexual-assault-females.asp

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Keep on Talking

The tone of the email was angry and abrupt. An unknown woman had been offended by a comment I had made on a website discussion board where a group of folks were talking about sexual assault and who was at fault when it happened. She tracked me back to Facebook and sent an email that was designed to insult rather than persuade. "Why do you keep on talking about rape?" she asked. "It's all you ever talk about. There must be something wrong with you. You must think about rape all the time."

I read through the letter, looking for clues or red-flags that this was more than just someone who happened to disagree with me and the way I communicate. I admit that I wondered if it could be my abuser, taking a circuitous route to be in touch with me and berate me, but after examining the sentence structure of the email and the syntax and grammar, I decided that it was not him. She went on through a couple of paragraphs, telling me how sick and disgusting I am for my vocal stance on rape and intimate partner violence. "Nice people don't like hearing about things like that," she said. "I'm sorry if you got yourself raped, but you need to get over it and move on."

My initial response was - of course - anger. Whose wouldn't have been? But after some consideration, I realized that I had been given a rare opportunity. I had the chance to open a dialogue with someone who needed education. There was no way to change this woman's mind or to win an argument with her, so I decided not to argue. Instead, I did my best to give her some answers and some things to think about. Here is my reply (and please note that her comments and questions have been edited by me for grammar and spelling errors; also, I have changed her name to protect her privacy).

Dear Kate,
Thank you for your email. I must assume from your comments that you are one of the nice people who do not like to hear about rape and domestic violence. It is regrettable that you were offended by my comments about only rapists getting to choose whether or not someone is raped, but I cannot bring myself to offer you an apology. I have nothing to apologize for. What I said was true and not inflammatory. No one chooses to be a victim; rapists do choose to commit rape.

You gave me some advice in your letter - you said I should get over the rapes and the domestic violence I suffered and move on. Well, I am happy to say that I am moving on. Advocacy and publicly addressing the issues are how I am moving forward with my life. If you meant that I should pretend these things never happened to me, well, I'm afraid I can't do that. Not anymore. I tried it for many years and it did not work for me. I suspect there are many survivors of rape and abuse who would say the same thing. And just for future reference, no one gets themselves raped. As I said before, rapists choose to commit rape; the person who is raped has all their choices taken away.

You asked me why I "keep on talking" about rape and domestic violence. I do it because I have daughters and friends, sisters and a mother, and because I don't want any of them - or anyone else, anywhere, ever - to be raped or abused. To my way of thinking, the more people who know it's a problem, the more people there are who might intervene if they are faced with an assault or see domestic violence situations. My daughter says that awareness is the first step toward eradication of these crimes. She's only fourteen, but she's got something there, hasn't she? Another reason why I keep on talking is because I experienced rape, both as an adolescent and as a grown woman in an abusive relationship. I know the aftermath of rape and abuse, and I feel that I have a responsibility to myself and others to be as educated as I can be, and to tell the truth about sexual assault and domestic violence, so that others can recognize signs and warnings. My goal is to raise awareness so that fewer people suffer what I suffered.

Despite your letter, I have no current plans to shut up about rape, as you asked me - well, ordered is probably a better term - to do. No, I believe that the best way to end the darkness of ignorance and shame surrounding rape and intimate partner violence is to shine the lights of truth and justice on these crimes. Every time I tell someone the one-in-four statistic, every time I make someone question her certainty that she can't be raped because she's careful or because she carries pepper spray or because she's taken martial arts training, every time I blow another rape-myth out of the water, I am lighting another candle to drive back the dark. I will keep lighting those candles. I will keep on talking.


I sent the email and have not received a reply. I don't expect to get one, and if I do, it will likely be contentious, with more insinuations about my character and my motives. That's okay, I've heard a lot worse from people I know and love. It is easy to disregard the rantings of a random stranger; much more difficult to pass over the hurts caused by people I care about, and who care about me. For instance, when I first disclosed to someone very close to me about my rape as an adolescent, the response was, "don't tell me you got yourself ruined." Another friend, on learning what had happened, said, "eww, that's so gross. Let's talk about something else." I've been called a slut, a whore, have been asked why I'd let people use me that way, have been told that I am the one who is responsible for the assaults and abuse, have been told that I am weak, unable to deal with life, living in a vacuum, and that I don't know what "the real world is like". All these things came from people I care about, and who presumably care about me. Recently, I was shocked to hear someone I love tell me that unless I learned how to defend myself, I would always be a victim.

I cannot describe the pain these statements cause. Would you tell someone who was hit by a drunk driver that she should have gotten out of the way faster? Would you tell her that she shouldn't have been driving on that particular road at that particular time? Would you tell her that if she had been in a bigger, sturdier car, she wouldn't have been hurt? Would you tell her that if she had learned defensive driving, she wouldn't have been hit? Then why in the world would you tell someone who has been raped that she should have done more to protect herself, that she shouldn't have been where she was, wearing what she wore, or that if she only knew how to fight everything would have been okay?

People who have been sexually assaulted or abused by intimate partners already carry enough guilt, pain, and confusion to last a lifetime. No one has the right to make any survivor's situation worse by blaming them for the assault, questioning how they handled it, or telling them what they did wrong. Bottom line - those of us who were once victims of assault have had enough trauma. We don't need anyone making it worse.

I live, work, and pray for the day when sexual assault and intimate partner violence and the attitudes that support and engender these crimes will be a distant memory. I long for a time when women are truly accepted as equals of men - not better than men, but just equal. I hope for a better future for my daughters and for everyone who is affected by rape, abuse, and domestic violence. Until that day comes, I will keep on talking.