For millions of people who have experienced unwanted sexual innuendo, touching, groping, or other sexual violence, this is an emotionally charged time. These past weeks with the Kavanaugh hearings, as well as the preceeding year since the revelations about Harvey Weinstein and the subsequent revival of the #MeToo movement, have been both difficult and liberating for many victims, especially women. Weighing whether to disclose one’s own story along with the wave of those speaking out is difficult. While there is strength and safety in numbers, one is left to deal with the fallout of such disclosures in one’s life individually.
What is taken from a person when they are violated in such ways is their sense of safety and security, their self-confidence, and their right to choose. As was the case with Weinstein’s victims and as is the case with anyone who survives such events, one usually moves on and finds work and has relationships and constructs a life. But the life one constructs is shaped by those experiences. The choices one makes are indelibly marked by having been groped, battered, or otherwise had one’s bodily integrity violated. This is also true of the subtler but no less insidious innuendo of dominance and fear conveyed through sexual innuendo in supposedly safe places such as church, school, and work. In many ways, despite therapy, myriad successes, relative health, and subsequent loving relationships, these traumas are etched into one’s life and limbs and soul in ways that can never be undone. Being taunted, threatened, or violated because of one’s identity – or having one’s genitalia be the focus of a battery – is a uniquely painful form of torture in a society where its very structures are built upon ideas of gender-based dominance and subservience. The manifestations of such trauma are varied and infuse every aspect of one’s life and relationships.
If you’ve managed to move on to enjoy those relative successes despite these painful experiences, you may not be quick to disclose these past circumstances. Though your assailant of years past was unconcerned with the depth and scope of the pain they were inflicting, you are keenly aware of its reach. You already know that it touches every aspect of your life and, by extension, the lives of everyone around you to some degree. You interact with others as you do in part because of these past experiences. If you never disclosed what happened to friends and family, to do so now might be traumatizing to them, as well. You don’t know how your loved ones will react, both to knowledge of the trauma and to the awareness that you withheld it from them. The current social environment is more supportive than it has ever been, U.S. Senate hijinks notwithstanding. Still, the dynamics of your relationships with friends and family are unique; disclosure is not appropriate for everyone.
Confronting the truth
I recently decided to make a general disclosure of the ways in which I have been harassed, assaulted, and battered because of my identity. From childhood molestation, to rape, to hoots and hollers in the workplace, to intimate partner violence, to workplace discrimination, I offered a broad disclosure of the way these things impacted my life and made me an unwitting participant in my own degradation. I do not name names or offer intricate details of occurrences, partly because I choose to withhold them and partly because my memory is limited. We human beings are amazing creatures whose will to survive is so strong that our minds will sometimes block information that might lead us to self-harm. My own memories have many blanks that correspond with the worst of these experiences. I was once frustrated by this but am now grateful, recognizing the opportunity that this protection offers me to move on with my life.
As I made this disclosure and shared it via this blog and my social media accounts, I was disappointed by the response. No one was rude or directly dismissive. Rather, there was a resounding silence. Not a single like, save for two women in a Facebook group of other survivors with whom I shared. My friends and family? Nothing. Silence. Some of them already know most of my story, but no one has heard it in its totality. I was hurt by this silence. I had expected some acknowledgement, especially since I released it during the week of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony during the Senate confirmation hearing of Judge Brett Kavanaugh. It seemed that everyone’s stories were swirling and being met with much support. Mine met with silence.
Silence is the opposite of my hoped-for response. I suppose it’s preferable to the hateful responses that were possible, the extreme versions of which were foisted upon Dr. Ford and the other accusers who came forward with similar stories of Judge Kavanaugh’s past conduct. Still, spiteful commentary would have been an acknowledgment of my disclosure, a validation of sorts. It is hard to know how to interpret silence. It feels a lot like the degradation and humiliation I lived with all those years for something that was not my fault. It feels like not being believed. While my intellect tells me it is likely not about me at all but about the mental and emotional state of those others and their capacity to respond in light of their own issues, I still feel hurt and disappointed at the lack of acknowledgement and support. I have not done so well at reconciling my desire to be heard and validated with the needs of others to respond in ways that are best for them.
I really screwed up with one friend. Admittedly, I had expectations of her that, in hindsight, were unfair. I thought she would hear me and we would discuss the blog post, as we do with everything else that comes up for discussion between us. I shared it with her and asked her to read it, and she said she would. After not hearing anything about it from her for about a week, I asked if she had yet had time to read it. She responded by telling me that she had not, that she does not read many such stories because they bring up her own difficult memories of similar abuse, which she briefly described. She had never told me of this abuse before and I thanked her for sharing it with me. I said I understood why it might be hard for her to read my disclosure.
Then, it was like a switch flipped. All the frustration and disappointment I had been feeling because of the relative silence around my disclosure came bubbling to the surface and discharged like a weapon toward her. She tried to tell me why she found it difficult to read other women’s stories of rape and sexual harassment. I measured her actions by my own experiences and suggested that she was just trying to avoid her own pain rather than deal with it, because that’s what I had done. I very smugly told her she had an absolute right to ‘avoidance’ if that was her preference. I contrasted her silence with my own efforts to speak out and suggested that silence perpetuates harm to others. Then I went for the jugular and said that her unwillingness to read my disclosure was a betrayal of our friendship and was typical of those who support the status quo. Oh yes, I did that. Sadly, my pain continued to leach out of me for a bit longer, saying more hurtful things.
I took a huge step in disclosing my past publicly. I did not get the supportive response for which I longed from anyone. Instead of recognizing my disappointment and facing it, I bottled it up as I had the pain of my past. Though it did not fester for long, it gushed out of me with surprising force, perhaps because it was fused to that deeply etched pain from my past. The recipient of this spewing of my anger and disappointment was not deserving of it in any way. She is a friend and a fellow survivor who had just in that moment disclosed her history to me, and I not only failed to respond to her in a supportive way – the very thing that I had wanted from her – but I shamed her by saying that her refusal to read my story meant she wasn’t doing this whole survivor thing correctly. I know, right? I behaved despicably.
I have no excuse for my behavior. I can understand it, in hindsight, as a slipping into old defensive behaviors in response to pain, that old fight mechanism rearing its ugly head. Years in therapy have supposedly equipped me to see that kind of crazy coming and respond differently. Yet, there I was, acting the ass and hurting someone I care about because I was hurting. I guess it takes a longer time to overcome these trauma-related behaviors than I had hoped.
My friend copes with her past traumas by compartmentalizing them, protecting family members from the harsh realities of her past. I choose to disclose my past as a way of freeing myself and encouraging others. These are just two ways to cope with the indelible wounds of sexual trauma. As my friend said when trying to reason with me during my angry outburst, if you want to stand with your sisters you have to stand with them in all their decisions, including nondisclosure.
I hope that she will give me a chance to make it right.