I don't like the phrase, "Things happen for a reason." Enough terrible things have happened to me and my family in my short time on Earth to resent the idea.
I much prefer, "Things happen." Because they do. Things happen constantly, and yes, some people experience worse than others. And you can't exactly choose how you respond to these things. You can't control experiencing fear, or sorrow, or anger, but you can conquer it once it's already there.
And once you've done that, you can decide what you want to do with the experiences you've had.
That's why I joined the RAINN Speaker's Bureau.
I've talked about it before on this blog, a couple of times. But let me tell you, that is a far cry from what it's actually like to stand in front of a room full of people and actually tell your story. Not just any story, the events leading up to and including the worst you've ever known.
But it's not just sharing the story. It's giving it a broader context. Using it as a tool to teach.
A few weeks ago, I was invited to speak at a high school, for 120 high school juniors and seniors. Their teacher is a remarkable educator. He invented an advanced health class that teaches students about health and sexuality, with all the uncomfortable conversations that entails. Students are only allowed in by teacher referral, and only upperclassmen in good standing.
Each year for the last eleven, the students in this class do a mock date rape trial. Students are given roles, from medical examiner to judge to defendant. This class is one of those formative experiences. One of his former students went on to go into law, crediting this experience solely as her motivation.
For the first time in the eleven years this class has existed, all four sections' mock trial juries came back with a "not guilty" verdict.
And for the first time, the teacher reached out to the RAINN Speaker's Bureau to have a survivor, of events nearly exactly like the story he constructed for his students, come to speak to his class. For forty five minutes. For four separate groups of students.
And that person was me.
There's something you experience every time you talk about sexual assault. It's a certainty that somebody is going to call you a liar. To deny your story, to tell you that if events happened as you described, you are still to blame.
Walking into a room of teenagers who found a date-rapist not guilty is that experience under a magnifying glass. Already, this group of teenagers- a notoriously judgmental and self assured group- has decided that the assailant, in a case nearly identical to yours, was not at fault.
What can you possibly say to explain the truth?
The day before the presentation, I lost my voice. Completely lost it. I spent a whole day chugging hot tea, avoiding raising my voice, and swallowing spoonfuls of honey. But when I showed up I was still hoarse and quiet.
As I stood and started to speak, the students stilled themselves to perfect silence. It might have been the only way to hear me. And while I spoke, my hands shook.
But with every word, as they stared and listened, my voice got a little stronger. After twenty minutes, my hands had stopped shaking.
I didn't just tell my story. I told the kids they had been right to choose a not guilty verdict. That rapists nearly always get off scot free, that victims are usually blamed and hushed and ignored or made to disappear. And I told them about the notorious Reddit thread where rapists confessed, and provided us with a rare glimpse into what really goes on in the mind of someone who commits sexual assault.
And I talked about rape culture- I explained that the ideas they had about a girl "asking for it" because she was drinking were wrong. I explained that everything about the way our culture addresses sex and sexual assault comes from the fundamental idea that it's a woman's job to avoid being raped, as though rapists are phantoms, or weather patterns.
I talked about consent, what it is and what it isn't.
The kids asked questions, and I was shocked and impressed by the depth and candor of their questions. I was amazed by their insight. And I answered them as honestly and candidly as I could, no matter how painful.
I spoke for three hours, and it got a little easier as it went on. After each class a few students came by to ask more questions, privately, to say thank you, or to engage in a quick conversation about rape culture.
And I was floored.
By the time I got home my voice was worse than gone, and I felt exhausted in a bone deep, emotional way.
But I felt like maybe, just maybe, I had really done something that made a difference.
I told those kids that what had been missing from their trial, and from all rape trials like it, was somebody who could stand up in court and say, "He knew, without a doubt, the victim didn't consent." I told them that now everyone in that class had the ability to be that person, because everyone in that class could explain to their friends, their siblings, their parents what is and what isn't consent. So everyone in that class had the power within themselves to prevent sexual assaults from happening, by preventing rapists from becoming rapists.
I think it hit home for many of them. I hope it did.
And as for me? I feel empowered. And perversely enough, I feel fortunate. This is something I could do for the rest of my life. With my life.
Things happen. And I'm glad I've found a way to give them meaning.