After years of researching and teaching on the topic of sexual violence, I have heard the majority of the societal stereotypes that silence survivors’ stories and minimize the depth of these traumatic experiences.
Our national denial of the prevalence of this interpersonal trauma creates a false sense of safety that we use like a shield to cover our ultimate insecurity—which is that sexual violence can happen to any of us.
The unwillingness to face the reality of our fear is not shocking, there are many days I wish I could buffer my brain from images that lurk just beneath the humble courage of this self-identified survivor.
If we are lucky, we learn over a lifetime how to establish internal grounding with the support of healing modalities that develop our confidence to practice, allowing our full range of feelings to emerge and move out of us.
Whether trauma surfaces through emotions, subtle and not-so-subtle physical sensations or dreams, we can eventually re-direct our pain into the life-force that cultivates the healing of a heart that is equally supple and strong.
That inner power can feel like a flickering flame on a cool summer night—occasionally bold, extending upwards with the single purpose of enlightening the surrounding space. Often though, the flame wavers, until the wind settles and it expands into its original fullness. That kind, quieting of the weather ushers in the next wave of relief.
Despite years of focused attention on my recovery, I received an email referring to a sexual assault within the college community where I live that caught me by surprise and sent me spinning.
“While this terrible incident did not take place on our campus or involve any of our students, it is important to remind you that attacks by strangers are extremely rare. I also want to remind you of several ways you can be safer on and off campus:
* If possible, walk in groups of two or more, especially at night
* Be aware of your surroundings
* Have 911 ready to dial when you are in areas of concern
* Have your keys in hand on your way to your destination
* Always look in your car before entering it
* Plan your activities so that others know where you are supposed to be, and when
* Campus Public Safety will provide escorts on campus, if requested.”
Where do I begin with why this hurt so badly?
Primarily, learning that another precious life has been harmed breaks your heart and then stirs up your memories.
Secondly, it reifies an unjust notion that survivors alone must shoulder the responsibility and psychic burden of preventing sexual violence when we should instead question a culture constructed upon the terrifying foundation of dominance, destruction and disconnection.
Thirdly, it reminded me, which I felt sharply in my gut, that when I was raped—I was doing everything wrong.
* I was running alone in a park—a moving meditation that I cherished since discovering as a teenager how long distance running soothed me. My relationship to running has completely changed. Now it is a survival skill to maintain muscular strength in my legs and elasticity in my lungs should I ever need to run again to save my life.
This message cautioned about the night, should I have then been safe at 11am with the sun blazing down and the great wilderness totally illuminated?
* I was not vigilant of what was around me—at all. When I ran in this magnificent forest, I would get lost in the beauty of wild horses, soaring hawks, snow-capped volcanoes, the swaying of eucalyptus trees and the perfection of the moment.
Letting go of my mind was the intention of that dedicated time and that was what made it so transcendent.
* I wasn’t prepared to call the police. I didn’t even own a cell phone! Was I running in an “area of concern”? And how does one disseminate that specific space? Living in a culture with intersecting systems of oppression—racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia that force upon so many, a conscious and unconscious self-policing for survival. I ran to express my freedom, to move my body and nourish my spirit.
I was oblivious to the fact that I was being stalked like prey. When this person made their move, I did not stand a chance against that much rage, that much entitlement, that kind of shutting down of the soul.
* I was so far from my destination that the keys on my shoelace were forgotten, save the occasional moment between songs when I would hear their rhythmic jingle and be re-assured I wouldn’t have to climb into my apartment through the window again, having lost my gamble with cotton, motion and gravity.
* There was no back seat to check while holding my breath with the hope it is empty because no one gave me the safety tip for what to do next. Was I expected to run backwards? Should I have never left home in the first place?
* I changed my plans and didn’t tell anyone. My friends thought I was going home to practice yoga before meeting for lunch. I decided on a whim that on this crisp sunny day my psyche was better served by heading outside and savoring the yoga of nature.
* I didn’t require an escort to move around. One of the amazing benefits of running is the gift of experiencing our own self-direction—a kind of embodied self-realization. I was simply exercising that day—both my body, and my right to witness the splendor of my environment.
In my prevention education workshops, I critique these aforementioned “safety tips” very much geared towards stranger attacks since over 80% of assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. They support mythology that keeps most people ignorant about the nature of sexual violence and prevents us from having survivor-centered responses when someone discloses.
I also critique them because I refuse to ask certain populations (women and girls, people of color, LGBTQ identified folks and more) to conform to a bigoted society constructed around fear and power inequity.
Not to forget the many male survivors whose abuses have been insidiously flipped by the patriarchy into glorious conquests of their supposed insatiable sexuality—while the preciousness of their own right to decide how, when, and with whom, is stolen and replaced by the mandatory guise of a sexually aggressive masculinity.
Yet underneath all of that, here is what broke my heart for the millionth time. Upon reading that message I heard a voice inside my head say, “The rape myth is your reality.”
I was attacked by a weapon-wielding stranger who jumped out from behind a tree.
That “safety” message struck in a deeply personal way that I don’t normally entertain while presenting to a group of college students whose sole education around sexual violence comes from the highly sensationalized depictions on SVU. While many survivors of non-stranger assaults feel erased by a culture that never portrays their story or in a twisted manner blames them for the perpetrator’s decision—those of us who were assaulted by strangers are often triggered by the parallels between the facts of our lives and the fiction on the screen.
Does the supposed “rarity” of stranger attacks make them less important? Is the incidence of 15% – 20% of sexual assaults being committed by a stranger truly rare given current statistics and research about the prevalence in this country?
Politically and socially I recognize the importance of emphasizing the numbers around acquaintance, family, friend, partner and other trusted person sexual assault. To this day, survivors of that kind of sexual violence are not seen as victims—they are not believed, they receive less empathy and people question them.
We will convince ourselves of anything to avoid dealing with the real problem: an institutionalized belief about the ownership of other people’s bodies and the right to control and silence those bodies through violence. Few have the courage to acknowledge and the skill to respond to the horror that humans commit such indescribably brutal acts upon people we know and love.
Instead, we bury that cruel realization beneath victim blaming and turn our faces away from those whose wounds magnify our fear.
My history is a composite of these harsh sexual violence statistics. Not including (yet not discounting) the impossible to quantify experiences of sexual harassment, I have 4 significant incidences of sexual violence and all but 1 of the perpetrators was known to me: a gym teacher, a crush, an ex-boyfriend—and one stranger.
Two out of the four assaults involved copious amounts of alcohol. It breaks my heart that I didn’t have the language to describe what these incidences were, and therefore did not know how to express my hurt, nor did I understand why I reacted so intensely.
I wondered why I felt shame around my body and sexuality and didn’t dare ask for help.
No one talked about sexual violence—not like the way it had happened to me.
The “stranger danger” script conveniently confuses the majority of victims, creates self-doubt and drives us to thinking something is terribly wrong with us—since as far as society has taught, nothing “violent” occurred. Then returns the boomerang of doubt: maybe it was my fault—for misbehaving in class, for flirting too much, for getting so drunk—followed by the impossible efforts to squash our pain.
It wasn’t until being attacked by a stranger that the memories of the multiple times my body had previously lived through this came rushing back.
I share this because we cannot quantify the impact of sexual violence along a scale of less-bad to worst.
Sexual violence in any form is a breaking of trust, a violation of the body and a splintering of the self, which can require a lifetime to repair. I grieve for my fellow survivors who were abused 1 time or 100 times—by someone they loved, someone they went to bed with, a classmate that came over to study, their favorite coach, or someone whose face they never saw.
I long for the day when sexual violence is no longer a cultural phenomenon that we expect for some populations on this planet.
I believe this day will come.
Until then, I want every survivor to know: you are resilient beyond what you have endured.
It is never too late to embark on your healing journey. Trust in your own process as there is no one way to heal, nor is there a timeline for healing. Recovery is a non-linear journey and while there will be breakdowns, there will be just as many breakthroughs.
It was not your fault.
Whatever you did to live through it was part of the miracle of the human system to bolster our chances at survival when faced with the life-threatening event of sexual violence.
You are not alone. There is a vast community of survivors, advocates, activists and healers aligned in hopeful solidarity with you. We believe in your capacity to transcend trauma. We believe in you.
Love elephant and want to go steady?
Apprentice Editor: Jess Sheppard/Editor: Renée Picard