To speak or not to speak, that is the question

“I wasn’t sure if it counted as assault”

“I was threatened”

“I tried talking about it to the police a year later but they turned me away and told me it wasn’t really rape because I didn’t fight him off the whole time, and there was no evidence to prove that he didn’t, meaning there wasn’t any physical leftovers of him on me by the time I got the courage to speak to someone.”

“My mother didn’t believe me. I told her and she acted as if she hadn’t heard me”

“I liked him and I wanted to kiss him, but then I wanted to stop. He pressured me to continue. I didn’t know I could stop after we had already started. I thought it was my fault and didn’t have the right to tell someone.”

“Because I didn’t think it would make a difference”

They really didn’t want anyone to know what they had been through, not while the assault was still fresh in their minds.  There were so many stories and so many reasons why they didn’t report their assailants, but underneath those reasons lies the icky sensation of shame.  

When I talked with these women about what made it so difficult for them to speak out about their sexual assault, that was the underlying and common theme.  Many women have a hard time even admitting to themselves that they were violated. Because that would mean that they failed in being able to protect themselves. It would mean that they would not be able to move on with their lives for fear that it could happen again. This contributes to the notion that it was somehow their fault.

Coming forward about sexual assault has never been easy for women. Many are pressured to keep quiet. Take Donald Trump, for example, who paid Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about their sexual activity. While their situation wasn’t considered an assault, it speaks to the idea of the lengths some people with power and money will go to, to keep their reputations intact.

How many girls have been coerced into silence to save the future of some douchebag jock who raped her? How many women were pressured to shut up, when after years of silence they finally find the courage to stand up for themselves. Then, after so many years of  living in secret shame, they are shamed again, guilted, and gaslighted by the lawyers of their assailants? Even if the facts are very obvious that the woman was forced into a sexual encounter, she may still be shamed by the other side. It’s no wonder women wait so long to speak out, if at all!

Shame is a garbage feeling. There is nothing good about it, and there seems to be no real usefulness for this feeling. Merriam Webster describes shame as a condition of humiliating disgrace or disrepute.

“Shame is the inner experience of being ‘not wanted’. It is feeling worthless, rejected, cast-out…. Shame is believing that one is bad. Shame is believing that one is not loved because one is not lovable. – Robert D. Caldwell, M.Div.

Shame is different from guilt. Guilt has a purpose. It helps us understand when our behavior is socially inappropriate. Perpetrators should be moved by their guilt to make amends. They should be the ones burdened with shame. Instead it’s the victims who carry both the guilt and the shame. How is this okay?

Can you imagine having someone violate you, take advantage of you and cause you physical and emotional pain. This person humiliates you and then goes about their merry way. Instead of being able to comfort yourself and think of ways to feel better, your brain begins to tell you that you are an awful person who probably deserved what you got. You begin to go through the events that led to the assault. You only find fault with yourself.

“Maybe my skirt was too short. Maybe I flirted too much. Maybe I shouldn’t have had that extra drink.” How then could you find the confidence to tell someone what happened? So many women who have reported molestation by fathers, brothers, uncles, babysitters, family friends, only to be turned away by their family and told that they are imagining things.

It takes an enormous amount of courage to report an assault. It also takes a tremendous amount of conviction to be able to articulate being infringed upon. Most of us women spend our entire lives trying to develop strong foundations of courage and confidence. We are often praised for being quiet, soft, and delicate. Many times we are looked down upon for being bossy, loud, and opinionated. Feminism is a fairly new concept that is less than 200 hundred years old. We have so much work ahead of us. Women are just not given enough support to feel like they can come forward. Most men, on the other hand, are groomed from the time they are born to become heirs of a legacy, be successful, be warriors, and be fearless. They are taught that the world is theirs for the taking. Women are often taught that they are the ones to be taken.

In the time of monarchies baby boys were revered, while baby girls were shunned, killed, or seen as a waste. Even in some cultures today, women are not appreciated, and men are overvalued. We’ve come a long way in the United States, especially in the past year with the #MeToo movement. Still, generations and generations of women are feeling like they have to fight to be seen and heard. Add to that feelings of intense shame and the way our society supports males. How could a woman think she has a chance to be believed?

It’s going to be difficult to combat the shame that is felt by victims of sexual aggression. It will require more than just urging those victims to come forward publicly to confront their aggressors.  We need to become educated about the different facets of sexual assault.

It is important to understand that sexual assault begins anytime the victim begins to feel discomfort in a sexual situation. If one person consents to physical contact and then at some point wants to stop, that’s allowed. If a girl wants to expose her cleavage and flirt with a guy, but then doesn’t want to go home with him, it’s allowed. Maybe she was considering sleeping with the guy, but then he said or did something stupid and she changed her mind. That’s not being a tease folks, that just means she’s paying attention to red flags. If a person wants to drink until they pass out, that is their prerogative and no one should touch them unless they need medical attention.

If you are sending pictures of your genitals to someone who did not specifically ask for them, that’s harassment. Giving a “love tap” on someone’s bum when they are not your partner, not okay. Neither is grabbing someone’s breasts or crotch without their permission.

How hard is it to get permission? You can feel good about yourself after you’ve slept with someone who probably didn’t want you but you can’t ask for permission? We shouldn’t have to be fighting for people to believe victims’ stories.

We should be fighting for people to be taught to be considerate, brave, and for everyone to ask for consent.

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