In the last couple of weeks, the “Me Too” campaign has prompted lots and lots of women to start speaking up about experiences they’ve had being raped, sexually abused and sexually harassed. With just two little words, a couple of women let the world know, that it had happened to them, too. Some famous women posted it, and then more women posted it — all kinds of women — some you wouldn’t have expected. So I posted and a bunch of others posted and this led to even more women coming forward too.
We all knew that these shitty events were terrible and all too common. I confess, though, I didn’t realize that SO much crap happened to SO many women — like just about every woman I know.
I was at a small conference just for women a couple weeks ago that was not about abuse, per se, but while we were there, the dam happened to break in our awareness of sexual assault and abuse. One by one, we began to share openly with one another what had happened to us, and all the pain and confusion we still had. And the more I heard other women’s experiences, the more I remembered Yep, that happened to me too.
It wasn’t like I forgot. I had a couple incidents of major abuse that are in my “official” memory but then there were some weird odds and ends of experience that I considered harassment-but-not-a-pattern, creepy-but-not-rape dates, demeaning-but-not-reportable bosses — all seemingly minor and unrelated until, talking about them, they all fall into a shape and the shape begins to flash and it’s a pattern. The pattern is: I was silent.
With a sense of unconditional love, my women friends and I have been considering how this could have kept happening. Some of us have focused on perps. Others of us have focused on our silence.
I’m more in the latter group because I don’t think perps will change if silence doesn’t change. So the question for me has been: Why were we silent? Why is it that we can still be victimized — even as strong women, even as adults with rights, even when the perp did not used physical force, even when we knew better and could have (in theory) steered our lives away from danger?
First, sexual victimization is especially common for those of us who had a crappy childhood. It’s often why youth was crappy in the first place, but it’s also way more common for us as adults. This is the insidious fog of sexual abuse at work. It’s as if a poison has entered our system, altering our cognition, emotions, identities — even our endocrine and immune systems.
The fog advances with each incidence of abuse, and changes the course of our lives. When danger appears again, we go blank inside, advancing toward trouble as if in a dream. One harm soon begets another. Since (maybe) we could have prevented the harm, we think we’d best hide what happened. Anyway, we’re not seeing clearly, and maybe we’re wrong. Maybe our wrong accusation could get the perp in trouble, or cause him to retaliate against us. Or maybe saying something — even if we are clearly a victim — will make us disgusting or pitiful to others, which would make us alone, and still more vulnerable to abuse.
Or maybe we did tell someone. This often backfires, with both men and women thinking we are hostile, narcissistic, litigious, crazy or had it coming. For example, when I was 21 I told my mother a relative had molested me when I was a kid. She was a feminist, an early childhood education specialist, a champion of the downtrodden, so I thought I’d at last get the love and support I’d missed as a child. But she was angry, and threw me out of the house. We never spoke of it again. In my thirties, when I worked for a major women’s organization, a male superior had tried to push his way into my hotel room at a conference at midnight, insisting we have a “marketing meeting.” I locked him out and reported the incident to my boss the next day. She laughed at me. “You really think everyone is attracted to you, don’t you,” she marvled. And again, it was forever buried. I feared I’d lose her respect, or the job itself, so I silently agreed to be silent.
There was this PSA spot in the 90s about sexual harassment, where a man in an office walks up and says something sleazy to a woman, and when she grocks what he’s just said, she suddenly grows about 30% smaller, standing frozen with an incredulous look on her face, saying nothing. That is exactly what it’s like.
For me the silence mostly came from a lack of clarity about what, if anything, I’d done wrong. This is part of the abuse cycle, but also part life. As we mature, we are meant to understand this line better — what’s my responsibility, and what is not. This is where confidence originates. Abuse disrupts this lesson. So too does the distorted message that we as women never play a role in our own abuse. We already know we sometimes make destructive choices and have even put ourselves in danger. So to say we are always, only victims is to take away our agency, and to diminish all compassion toward victims as, well, just a little non-credible. What we crave is just to see things as they are.
Since I gathered enough courage last year to start this blog and share my stories with whomever may be reading (strangers, clients, family members, trolls…) the little snowball of openness has been growing into a big snowball, and it’s still getting bigger. Just as victimization can beget more victimization, speaking up can beget more speaking up. Sometimes I can’t sleep I’m so freaked out about the things I’ve honestly expressed to friends or groups or (gulp) the public online. Being mindful of courtesy and sensitivity to others, I’ve been saying more of what I really think, including opinions that are unpopular, and experiences about which I’m not proud. I’ve lost some clients as a result, and offended some people. But on the whole several wonderful things have happened.
First, I feel more connecting with people. Hiding who you really are may help avoid offending anyone, but it never leads to closeness. Being close to people is the most important thing in my life.
Second, my outspokenness has had the unexpected result of liberating my intellect, which had some thick gooey fog on it from years of not saying what I think, which happens to be undemanding, intellectually. Speaking up requires that I am knowledgable, open-minded, and conversant on positions I take that others may want to challenge. These discussions in turn liberate my intellect even more!
Third, I feel more alive and capable of making choices. I no longer have the feeling that life is passing me by. I am able to be genuinely helpful to people more of the time. So my life has meaning, and this makes me still more willing to speak up.
Finally, I don’t take abuse anymore. A fellow blogger who goes by “E” coined the terrific word “unfuctwith” to describe something free and pure, within its element. Well I’ve come to feel “unfucwith-able.” I may be vulnerable life’s hardships and tragedies; everyone is. But I don’t respond to abuse by turning in on myself. I talk back. It scares me sometimes how fierce my new voice sounds.