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.

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