In the Margins: A Perspective on Sexual Assault Conversations

Guest Author Bio: The author has chosen to publish anonymously due to the sensitive nature of this piece.  It has previously appeared in Manifesta Magazine.


Author’s Note:
1. This article deals explicitly with issues of both penetrative and non-penetrative sexual assault. It may be triggering for some readers.
2. While this is written from my own personal experiences, they still do not represent all kinds of sexual assault experiences. My article is meant to bring attention to other kinds of sexual assault and promote the inclusion of these experiences in assault conversations and survivor advocacy.

* * * * *

You know. You’re writing up something and realize you forgot to add a few words—so you stick them in the margins and draw an arrow pointing to where they belong. And then you move on. Sometimes when you read back what you’ve written, you forget to add in the words in the margins. But that’s all right, the gist is still there.

* * * * *

Forms of intimacy that are not penetrative or oral are just as legitimate as penetrative and oral sexual intimacy. But we don’t legitimize those other forms enough, and that’s where the problems begin. When asked, almost all advocates for survivors will agree that nonconsensual sexual touching and penetration are forms of sexual assault. But because we don’t legitimize non-penetrative and non-oral forms of intimacy, the “nonconsensual sexual touching” part is often overlooked in conversations about assault. Rather, it’s written in the margins.

When it comes to conversations on sexual assault and rape, I’m those words in the margins. Relevant, but the show will still go on without me.

You see, I’m not the typical survivor you hear about in the news or hear described in the vast majority of public conversations about assault. I wasn’t at a party. I wasn’t drunk. I wasn’t drugged. I wasn’t in a dark alley. It wasn’t a violent attack. I have no scars or bruises. And I wasn’t penetrated.

Wait, what? Why are you even writing this? It wasn’t a legitimate sexual assault, right? I started to believe it wasn’t, and sometimes I still doubt myself. But that’s not because it wasn’t a sexual assault; it’s because the people around me, the people who are supposed to be there for me, don’t believe it was — they don’t believe me.

The following is something a good friend recently said to me: “Molestation is only taken seriously—for the most part—when there is an underage party. It seems we as women are to expect being felt up, and expected to view it as a trifle, as a couple steps behind sexual assault.” Molestation is forcing any unwanted sexual behavior on another person, regardless of age. Moreover, when the act is sudden, short in duration, and/or is infrequent in occurrence, it is called sexual assault (and when it is the opposite of those three characteristics, it is called sexual abuse).

Despite this definition, which is recognized by advocacy groups everywhere, every conversation (there were only a handful) with a sexual assault and rape counselor or a health professional went something like this:

Me: *awkwardly say that I was sexually assaulted by someone I know, because honestly I don’t think there’s a way not to feel uncomfortable recounting such an experience*

Them: Do you think you could be pregnant? Do you need medical attention? Can I see and assess your injuries?

Me: No, I’m not pregnant. No, I don’t need medical attention. No, I don’t have physical injuries, because it wasn’t violent. And I wasn’t penetrated.

Them: *bewildered look* Huh? What happened then? Are you sure this happened? *suddenly doesn’t know what to say to help me*

As you can imagine, that’s a pretty uncomfortable position to be in. Because I wasn’t raped, people find it hard to understand why I was traumatized in the first place, why I still am. And it wasn’t limited to just the counselors and health professionals—friends and family questioned me, too. You could be making this whole thing up. Tell me EXACTLY what happened (so, you, with your “expertise,” can assess whether I should be traumatized, right? Regardless of what my peers think, the tears and screams of my breakdowns were perfectly founded). You weren’t even raped, and you’re reacting this way. Imagine if you had been raped. You need to talk to grown women who actually were raped; that’ll help you realize what happened to you isn’t so bad.

* * * * *

I don’t think any victim of a sexual assault or rape can “see it coming”. For me, what started as a consensual act suddenly turned nonconsensual for an extended period, and then back again before the encounter quickly ended. How does that even logically happen? I don’t know, but it did. While I lay there as it was happening, I remember thinking in my head, this must be what being sexually assaulted feels like. And it was what it felt like, because that’s exactly what was happening to me. And when I confided in friends afterwards, I got responses like ohhh girl, you need to talk to him about that, that’s not okay. And that was it. I tried to move on, and successfully did so for a couple of months. But moving on doesn’t mean ignoring what happened, pretending it wasn’t what it really was in order to protect yourself from the emotional, psychological pain. I had never fully understood the “nonconsensual sexual touching” part of sexual assault, because sexual assault conversations focus almost exclusively on the “penetration” part. I now understand loud and clear.

In case it’s not clear to anyone, nonconsensual sexual touching is sexual assault. Whether one is touching another with or without clothing, whether one is touching another’s genitals or any other part of their body—in any and every circumstance, it will never not be sexual assault. Sexual assaults and rapes are more common than we feel comfortable acknowledging.  Statistics provided by RAINN (Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network) show that in America, 1 of every 6 women and 1 of every 33 men is a survivor of an attempted or completed rape, ninety-seven percent of rapists will never spend a day in jail, and there are over 207,000 new survivors age 12 and older every year. Unsurprisingly, seventy-three percent of sexual assaults and 66% of rapes are perpetrated by someone the survivor knows. These facts are not as commonly known as they should be, but are necessary knowledge regardless of one’s own experiences.

* * * * *

So where does this all leave me? And people who have gone through similar experiences?

I don’t feel comfortable participating in survivor conversations, because I don’t feel like the ‘right kind’ of survivor. I don’t feel as though I can truly relate to other survivors with experiences different from my own, “worse” than my own. I even feel guilty, because, hey, what am I crying for? I wasn’t even raped.  

Yeah, I get it. It takes effort to extend dialogue to include as many people as possible. But we need to make that effort, in order to make it clear that penetrative sexual assault is not the only kind of sexual assault, and that one is not objectively less traumatizing than another. And not just as an addendum; this needs to be an important part of the conversation. People like me need to be important parts of these conversations, just like rape survivors are.

Not getting the attention and support that others get is daunting. Isolating. If anything, it’s made me more independent, more perseverant. I’ve learned to put myself first more often, to take care of myself. Everyone around me will move on. Everyone. It is and forever will be my experience, not theirs. It will also forever be his experience, regardless of how he chooses to interpret it. They can be sad, furious, or apathetic all they want. But every time it gets easier to talk about. Not because I’ve numbed myself, but because it’s a part of my healing process, learning how to make myself a little uncomfortable if that will educate others, or if that will make other survivors realize that they aren’t as alone as they thought (and that they did in fact ‘survive’ something).

We need to respect each other’s different experiences as legitimate. Once we do that, we’ll see that we’re more alike than we thought. Like I’m sure it does for many rape survivors, the incident still plays over and over in my head. I still figuratively kick myself when I think of what I should’ve done before, during, after. My hopeless pleading, No, please stop, please, will always haunt me. His responses (over the Internet) to an article I released, which was also based on this incident: Girl, sit down. All my brothers be careful, there are some manipulators out there, also haunt meSome of the most revolting of his opinions, which he also expressed online, make me sick: As unfortunate as something may seem, it happens for a reason. Think about benefits after something “unfortunate” happens and why God planned it.

* * * * *

It’s lonely in the margins. Not knowing when or if another margin-dweller will appear. Not knowing if they’ll be written too far away to reach.


Similar Posts (automatically generated):

About Guest Blogger

Guest Bloggers are most welcome to diversify the range of views and experiences presented on this blog. The opinions of Guest Bloggers do not necessarily represent other bloggers on Feministe: differing voices are important to us. Readers are cordially invited to follow our guidelines to submit a Guest Post pitch for consideration.
This entry was posted in Sexual Assault and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

31 Responses to In the Margins: A Perspective on Sexual Assault Conversations

  1. DragonBreath says:

    Ouch
    My daughter and I can relate to what you are saying. My daughter was molested by a family member. Her mother blew her off so while her mother and I were separated she told me. We were/are still not looked at in favorable eyes by some family members because well she was lying ,making it up, it was an accident, said member goes to church every Sunday etc. While in counseling I discovered what covert emotional incest is. Many people just say oh that is just all in your head but like you say tell that to that ickyness you are feeling. My daughter and I were lucky to find counselors who were qualified to help us and didn’t oh its no big deal.

  2. Red says:

    It happened to me, too. I told her it was okay to kiss me and then her hands were elsewhere and it all was happening and I stared at the ceiling tried to count to a hundred, then backwards from a hundred. She called me a “pillow princess” afterwards because I had been so unenthusiastic throughout it happening.

  3. PeterGM says:

    I think part of the reaction is because many people, perhaps close to -all- people will have experienced nonconsensual sexual touching, often without having been traumatized by it.

    So they end up thinking it’s no big deal – because to them it wasn’t. But every situation is different, and every person is different, so it’s entirely wrong to assume that experiencing something is no big deal for everyone, just because it wasn’t for them.

    I’ve been touched sexually without prior consent perhaps a dozen times. For example when dancing on a dance-floor I’ve had women deliberately grab my ass, or in one or two-three cases my penis. I’m not talking about women I was dancing with, but women who happened to dance close to me on a crowded dancefloor, but which had zero interaction with me prior to the grabbing. I expect women who like to dance on crowded dancefloors will experience the same thing a lot more often.

    I was annoyed at this, but not traumatized. Probably because I didn’t feel the situation, or the women, treathening, and they all refrained from making further advances when I didn’t respond.

    I agree that such behaviour is definitively sexual assault. It should stop. And yes, it’s very common.

    I think though, that it’s understandable that some might feel we’re making a big deal out of a detail, they might be thinking, everyone experiences that, but only some are traumatized by it, so surely the problem is with those people and they’re just being oversensitive.

    I don’t think so. I also think that more people are traumatized by such experiences than those who say so. In other words, this behaviour causes a lot more actual real life suffering than we tend to believe.

    • TomSims says:

      “I think part of the reaction is because many people, perhaps close to -all- people will have experienced nonconsensual sexual touching, often without having been traumatized by it.”

      I agree and I think it’s fair to say people react differently to like events. When I was a little boy, my Dad told to always be considerate of others.

  4. zaebos says:

    I’d like to add that another thing people need to stop doing is dissecting events and point out just how oh nonthreatening it really was. People really don’t need that shit.

    • Ashley says:

      Exactly. No one besides the person who was assaulted gets to decide how the experience actually went down or how she should feel about it.

  5. TimmyTwinkles says:

    I think as a society we need to ask ourselves why so many men get off on unwanted touching/grabbing/fondling/etc. Frankly, I just dont get it. I love to do these things, but only when the woman WANTS me too. Thats where I get my sexual gratification; knowing that she’s enjoying it just as I am. But as a man, I do my best to not just judge silently. You make a rape joke or brag about copping a questionable feel around me, youre ass is gonna get called out. Men that do these things arent men, they’re little boys with some very serious problems. And they need to be called out by other men, as well as women.

    • TimmyTwinkles says:

      *your, thats embarassing

    • Andie says:

      In my experience, little boys usually behave better than men. We need “hands to yourself” to extend past kindergarten.

      • TimmyTwinkles says:

        Touche

      • I used exactly those words (“Keep your hands to yourself”) to a man who put his hand on my back many years ago, the creepy BiL of a friend. He was all wounded afterward and wanted an apology – “Nobody’s spoken to me that way since my ex-wife!” Yeah, not hard to figure why she was your ex, slimeball.

        I should add that it didn’t strike me as sexual assault, but it was skin-crawling because he was an obnoxious, foul-mouthed, sexist creep. If he’d been a friend I wouldn’t have minded. The phrase just reminded me of this, so apologies if this constitutes a derail.

  6. My experiences with sexual assault are in my childhood.

    Most of my own abuse, at least that which I remember, was non-penetrative. Every time a major child molestation case like the Jerry Sandusky one is covered extensively by the media, I take note of how the abuse took place. I don’t want to jump to conclusions, but I would wager that most sexual assaults against children are probably non-penetrative.

    For every truly sadistic abuser who keeps his victims locked away in his own residence for years, there are always more who try to groom a child. That’s what happened to me. My boundaries were slowly violated more and more, to the point that I didn’t see it as wrong. There was some discomfort on my part, sure, but nothing like that which we define as rape and trauma.

    I wish I remembered more, but I assume my mind must have its own reasons for blocking out memories. What really helped me get over some of it was EMDR therapy. It’s expensive, but an unquiet mind like mine is now more at peace, less anxious, and less fearful.

  7. EG says:

    In case it’s not clear to anyone, nonconsensual sexual touching is sexual assault. Whether one is touching another with or without clothing, whether one is touching another’s genitals or any other part of their body—in any and every circumstance, it will never not be sexual assault.

    This…doesn’t work for me. I’ve had my ass grabbed. I didn’t like it. But it felt nothing like sexual assault as I’ve heard/read it described by survivors. It had nothing like the far-reaching effects that sexual assaults have had on the survivors I know. It had very little effect on me at all. The fifteen-year-old kid who smacked my ass as he rode by on a bike seven years ago…I was flustered and angry and humiliated…but I didn’t feel sexually assaulted. The friend who ran his finger up my spine when he wanted my attention…I didn’t like it. It felt creepy. But I didn’t feel sexually assaulted. I didn’t feel unsafe. My consensual sexual experiences have been far more traumatic.

    Anyway, I don’t think this works. I don’t think we get to say in one breath, “it’s sexual assault if it feels like sexual assault to the target/survivor/victim,” and in the next “this is always sexual assault.” What about my feelings that I wasn’t assaulted–not because I “deserved it” or the dude “had the right” to do what he did or I “owed” him anything–but because I didn’t feel assaulted? What about my right to define my experiences? Do those matter only when someone does feel that they’ve been sexually assaulted?

    Can we make room for sexual trauma that isn’t sexual assault? It’s my consensual experiences that have been the most traumatic to me, not because I couldn’t really give consent or I didn’t really give consent (I could and I did), but because I gave consent to sexual activities to somebody who did not have my best interests at heart and who used me and then treated me like shit. That wasn’t assault. But I literally used to have invasive flashbacks. I dissociated during the experiences and had a very hard time with any sexual contact for years afterwards. That felt like trauma to me.

    • TimmyTwinkles says:

      This makes alot of sense. Obviously it’s wrong to deny the experience of someone who is a victim of non-penetrative sexual assault by telling them it wasnt REALLY assault, or some other bullshit. But at the same time it doesnt do to turn around and try to define everyone’s experience by saying that if X happened to you, then you’re a victim of Y. Seems like the ideal would be to define one’s own experience while giving others the space to do the same.

    • Fat Steve says:

      This…doesn’t work for me. I’ve had my ass grabbed. I didn’t like it. But it felt nothing like sexual assault as I’ve heard/read it described by survivors. It had nothing like the far-reaching effects that sexual assaults have had on the survivors I know. It had very little effect on me at all. The fifteen-year-old kid who smacked my ass as he rode by on a bike seven years ago…I was flustered and angry and humiliated…but I didn’t feel sexually assaulted. The friend who ran his finger up my spine when he wanted my attention…I didn’t like it. It felt creepy. But I didn’t feel sexually assaulted. I didn’t feel unsafe.

      The OP didn’t define what ‘non-consensual sexual touching’ means, so perhaps she’s talking about some sort of crotch grabbing or breast grabbing or something that goes beyond what you describe (ass grab and back fingering,) but is not “penetrative or oral.”

      • Fat Steve says:

        ugh…screwed up my block quotes…and I’ve been so good at no doing that lately…sorry mods :( #embarrassed

        [mod elves feeling generous – leave out a bowl of milk for us tonight ;) ]

      • EG says:

        But that’s a serious problem with what she’s saying, then. “Sexual touching” can mean any number of things. Anyway, I do think she would include what I describe because of these lines:

        Molestation is forcing any unwanted sexual behavior on another person, regardless of age….Whether one is touching another with or without clothing, whether one is touching another’s genitals or any other part of their body—in any and every circumstance, it will never not be sexual assault.

        It would be hard to argue that this doesn’t include the experiences I describe.

        I’m also not a fan of “molestation is forcing any unwanted sexual behavior on someone.” Does that include someone dancing lewdly at a club when I’d rather not see them do that? What if they make eye contact and dance lewdly specifically at me? What if it’s a teenage couple making out in front of me on the subway? I mean, I’d rather not see it, but I wouldn’t call that “molestation.” “Behavior” covers even a wider spectrum than “touching.”

      • Fat Steve says:

        But that’s a serious problem with what she’s saying, then. “Sexual touching” can mean any number of things. Anyway, I do think she would include what I describe because of these lines:

        Molestation is forcing any unwanted sexual behavior on another person, regardless of age….Whether one is touching another with or without clothing, whether one is touching another’s genitals or any other part of their body—in any and every circumstance, it will never not be sexual assault.

        It would be hard to argue that this doesn’t include the experiences I describe.

        I’m also not a fan of “molestation is forcing any unwanted sexual behavior on someone.” Does that include someone dancing lewdly at a club when I’d rather not see them do that? What if they make eye contact and dance lewdly specifically at me? What if it’s a teenage couple making out in front of me on the subway? I mean, I’d rather not see it, but I wouldn’t call that “molestation.” “Behavior” covers even a wider spectrum than “touching.”

        I would agree if the OP were talking about police and prosecutors, but she’s talking about counselors, family, friends, and those people should treat your feelings as paramount.

      • EG says:

        Except she’s also making universal pronouncements about these things “never not being sexual assault.” That means she’s using her experiences to define other people’s as well. And that’s the problem.

      • tigtog says:

        Seems to me that there’s a large disconnect between what meets the legal definition of sexual assault and how people process their own experiences of what meets the legal definition of sexual assault. To me the OP is correct to label the behaviour she describes as meeting the legal definition of sexual assault, and note that even the professionals who are supposed to know this prefer to position unwanted sexual touching as ‘not really’ sexual assault even though it meets the legal definition.

        People do this with legal definition vs personal experience of behaviours all the time. It’s straighforward theft-theft when a stranger steals money from your wallet, but when it’s your sibling or your offspring or your partner? It takes a LOT for people to actually call the cops on behaviour that transparently meets the requirements for being charged with committing theft when they have an emotional connection with the perpetrator.

        People are not required to ring the cops on every behaviour they experience which breaches a law. But if/when they do take that step, it sucks pretty hard when the professionals who are supposed to enforce the law and/or offer counseling to victims of crime fail to treat the breach with seriousness, and it really sucks when one’s friends/family don’t want to even admit that the law has even been breached.

      • EG says:

        People do this with legal definition vs personal experience of behaviours all the time.

        I’m starting to feel frustrated, like I’m reading a section of the OP that nobody else can see.

        In case it’s not clear to anyone, nonconsensual sexual touching is sexual assault. Whether one is touching another with or without clothing, whether one is touching another’s genitals or any other part of their body—in any and every circumstance, it will never not be sexual assault.

        Molestation is forcing any unwanted sexual behavior on another person, regardless of age.

        I’m not disputing the OP’s definition of her experiences. I’m not disputing that it completely sucks that her counselors, family, and friends have not respected those experiences. I’m disputing the universalizing statements above that seek to legitimate her experiences by defining those of other people, including mine, by her yardstick and reactions. So Steve is telling me that it’s OK because she’s not using strict legal definitions, but personal ones, and tigtog is telling me that it’s OK because she is using strict legal definitions, and people let their nearest and dearest get away with what would be crimes by strict legal definitions anyway.

        What I am saying is that it is not OK for her to make these universalizing statements that define my experiences in ways that are fundamentally incorrect. It is no more OK for her to do so than it was for her friends, family, and counselors to do so.

    • It seems like the very purpose of having words like “molestation” and “sexual violence” is to acknowledge that there’s sexual trauma that doesn’t qualify as “sexual assault”. (And, I assume that “sexual assault” is being used synonymously with “rape” here, but perhaps I shouldn’t.)

      • EG says:

        My understanding is that in many usages, particularly legal, “rape” refers to sexual assault that involves penetration, while “sexual assault” covers other forms of sexual assault.

        Neither “molestation” nor “sexual violence” gets at what I’m talking about, though, as they both involve lack of consent and the latter explicitly involves violence.

        There seems to be this false equation that trauma only = absence of consent, and that the presence of consent means that there isn’t any patriarchy-inflicted trauma, and that’s just not my experience at all.

      • Just wanted to say I think your comments are bloody brilliant here, EG. I’ve experienced molestation that didn’t do a thing to me beyond piss me off, and much “milder” stuff that still haunts me. So yeah. I get what you’re saying.

  8. rox says:

    Hmmm. It’s a good conversation here. I think one problem is the equation of sexual assault as innately traumatic. What if sexual assault literally IS the forcing of unwanted sexual contact, wheras the trauma or lack thereof is the part that is personal?

    What I mean is, from the point of view of the attacker, forcing unwanted sexual contact should be assault right? I mean… what else is the definition?

    EG I’m curious what your definition is of sexual assault if it’s not forced unwanted sexual contact? I guess if want to layer it in “degrees” perhaps a first attempt at sexual contact that is easily rejected that includes touch might be considered harrasment rather than assault, whereas contact that persists after attempts to escape would be considered assault?

    It’s a pretty big deal that we know what assault is. I mean if we in feminist communities don’t even know what assault is, how can we teach people not to assault?

    • EG says:

      I don’t have an ironclad definition right now. But that doesn’t make the problems with what the OP wrote go away. It’s not just about the lack of trauma–it’s about me not feeling assaulted as they were happening, not hurt, not in any danger, not injured, not any feeling I would associate with assault, sexual or otherwise. Either those feelings matter or they don’t. If they matter, then no, OP doesn’t get to universalize those definitions of assault. If they don’t, then other people’s feelings are dismissable as well in the name of universal definitions.

      And it’s not just about familiarity with people, either. I’ve had men in bars put their hand on my thigh. And I didn’t want it. And sometimes I removed that hand and put it back on their own person. At no point did I feel assaulted.

  9. Pingback: In the Margins: A Perspective on Sexual Assault Conversations | thefeministblogproject

  10. Sam says:

    Trigger warning. Some people have compared sexual assault to being slapped on the ass, or a quick grope on the dance floor. Some people enjoy it. Some don’t. But that’s not anything like the kind of sexual assault I experienced. My experiences were more like –

    Don’t undress me. Don’t force me to touch you there. Don’t lick me like I’m your prey. Don’t use your body like a trap to hold me still, while your hand explores, while I shiver, waiting for you to judge me for the sin of my involuntary reactions…

    Please, don’t go to the trouble… I have already judged myself. Aren’t my tears proof enough of my innocence? Am I only my body to you?

    “You’re too easy to be worth raping.”

    Someone once said.

    But those words alone felt like being penetrated with a cold knife…

    And they remind me now, of my failure to protect myself…

    _________________

    Did it feel just like the rape that happened a few days after? No. But it felt like the beginning of one.

  11. Pingback: In the News… (Sept 28 – Oct 4) | Toward Healing & Justice

  12. Anon says:

    TW: I think this is the first article I’ve read that comes close to describing what happened to me. It was nothing that could be prosecuted, there were so many “grey area” issues for the police/court/even friends (boyfriend, started consensual, alcohol involved, pressure not physical force) but I had 2 years of flashbacks and sobbing fits and misery from it, and didn’t even realise until months in what had actually happened and that I could call it assault. Because he knew what he was doing, he knew I wouldn’t consent sober because I had said ‘no’ god knows how many times. It was deliberate and it hurt me, and if that’s not assault, then what the hell is?! But I also had the feelings of ‘I’m lucky it wasn’t rape’ and ‘does this count?’ ‘am I overreacting’ and ‘it was my fault anyway’ to contend with until I was actually brave enough to admit that what he did was wrong. Which I did in quite a spectacular style, quite drunk and sobbing on my new boyfriend, collapsed in the gutter, my first year of uni. I don’t remember getting there, I don’t remember getting home, but I remember feeling such a huge release of anger when I finally let everything out.
    Thank you, whoever you are, for making me feel like I’m not weak to react like I did, and I’m not the only one to feel this way about what happened.

  13. someone says:

    this comment is not intended to respond directly or exclusively to anyone. seriously. just vomiting out ideas based on this thread and OP.

    the place where I live, we call it sexual assault and that’s all. even on the news, you don’t know whether someone was groped or penetrated or kissed or what. they use sexual assault as the primary descriptor. so it seems perfectly intuitive to me that all non-consensual sexual contact is assault, whether you’re traumatized or not. it’s simply about the fact that you didn’t want it.

    which is useful because it erases a whole layer of greyness that primary functions to separate and cast survivors into a sea of doubtful, uncertain, paralyzing muck while their perpetrators neatly exit stage right. so to me, what counts as assault is pretty cut and dry: almost everything counts. even if you didn’t give that assault a second thought. just like it’s still sexual harassment for your boss to send you a dick pic even if you don’t particularly mind dick pics. (why am I talking about dick pics, jesus christ)

    but “survivor” – in the specific, intensely personal, subjective and mottled purple and green way I mean it – is a little different.

    to me, it means there was something that threatened you in some deep-seated emotional or physical place, something you had to not merely forget or brush off or push aside but survive. for me, that’s where trauma comes in. (you don’t have experience trauma to say you’re a survivor, but you won’t be the kind of survivor I’m currently talking about, which is fine.)

    the frustrating thing is, trauma never seems to be enough.

    an incredible percentage of traumatized survivors feel like they still can’t participate in survivor discussions because they don’t meet the gold standard in some way. (I didn’t say no, my body was aroused, I have mixed feelings about it, I’m still friends with my rapist, it wasn’t violent, I let it happen because I was too insecure to say no, it was sort of my fault, it was just penetrating my mouth, I said no because I was embarrassed and I actually wanted to say yes and they ignored my “no” anyway so does that count, it was just grabbing the outside of my body, my rapist wasn’t a man, etc etc etc.)

    as a survivor, speaking only for myself, I do not need to know how much or in what ways you deviate from the gold standard. it does not matter to me. who I connect with and can relate to, as a survivor, are other people who were victimized by and/or surviving a sexual trauma. there are no rules for what will traumatize you or what’s allowed to “count”. the thing that still gives me nightmares and makes me cry and disassociate after sex might very well be another woman’s “meh” sexual assault, if she counts it as non-consensual at all. I really don’t know or care.

    survivors have such wildly diverse experiences that any supposedly singular shared experience, barring trauma, is illusory anyway. boys sexually traumatized by parents. women of color sexually traumatized by military men. college girls sexually traumatized by their boyfriends right in their dorm rooms. sex workers sexually traumatized by johns. queer rape. corrective rape of trans women. people penetrated, grabbed, rubbed, choked. it’s a terrible kaleidoscope of violence and no two perspectives are the same. even amongst the gold standards. most survivors don’t even agree on things, like the role of the law, or police, or punishments, or healing. we’re heterogeneous as hell.

    and so policing the traumas that “count” doesn’t make sense to me or help me at all. if some sneaky or insensitive person is trying to falsely identify as a survivor, and some rigorous system of legitimacy weeds them out, I am still just as traumatized and alone as I was before. I gain nothing, except a tense narrow-eyed atmosphere of authenticity-policing. one that could turn on me, if I’m not gold enough.

    if you understand right down in your bones what it means to survive, if you share my terror of both experiencing more violence and my grim commitment to never become violent myself, I want you with me. I want us to look out for each other. it doesn’t matter to me how or where you were touched.

    from my own experience as a survivor, I fight uphill to hold onto my faith – by which I mean the belief in something I can’t technically prove – that I was assaulted. sometimes I still think I’m just hollowly convincing myself, despite the subsequent nightmares, the disassociation, the bouts of crying, the fear and the sadness and the way that sex has become an act that’s instantly steeped in grey, grey melancholy the moment my mind falls off whatever ledge it was standing precariously on when two seconds before when touch felt good.

    despite all this sometimes I doubt myself.

    it is a fundamentally fracturing experience to have your body and psyche mired in trauma while your mind is wavering on whether those wounds are legitimate. it’s like bleeding out of yawning bullet holes and you aren’t entirely confident they’re real. you want to scream for help, hail a cab, rush to a hospital – but you might be wrong, and wrong in a way that makes you so small, mean, manipulative and selfish.

    a lot of bystanders, too, will advise that you’re wrong. in case your doubts weren’t piling on like pancakes already.

    I don’t really know what I’m trying to say here, except that we survivors need to hold on to our narratives, tender and fraught as they feel, and watch out for each other. it’s a terrible room to find yourself in, but better here than locked outside pounding on the door.

    there is room for us all.

Comments are closed.