June 7, 2011

"It Wasn't My Fault"

Picture ©Michael Courier, with thanks!
I have been struggling to write this post for days now.  And not just in the sense that I have very little writing time on a good day, that my personal life has been a little crazy, that I've had house guests, or that my daughters are cutting new (and very sharp!) teeth.  It isn't that I've been experimenting with date and rose créme brulée or having long conversations with my best friends about adopting cats and upcoming nuptials.

I've sat down and stared at my blank monitor, trying to drag up the right words to start the conversation.  And that pretty much sums up the whole problem I want to discuss.

SlutWalk Chicago, 6/4/2011
I'd like to sit here and write to you, my lovely readers, about simply talking about sexual assault.  About how many people you know are victims, and about how many people you love are survivors.  About how you don't have to be afraid, or ashamed, and that you can have this conversation.

Obviously, I'm not doing a very good job.  And for this I tend to blame my mother.

Don't get me wrong, I adore my mother.  I think that not only did she do a fantastic job raising me, but that she was a wonderful role model, an incredible human being, and a person whose mastery of calm when faced with chaos is something that I continue to aspire towards.  I don't often blame either of my parents for my own personal failings.  Another sign that I think they did a good job.

However, she did not prepare me for this.

She never really talked to me about sexual assault.  Not until it was, I'm sorry to say, too late.  And even then, we only ever skirted it.  Even after I wrote this post, we didn't really talk about it.  We just sort of skirted around.  I didn't talk to my father about it either.  It's a hard conversation to have.

So, like most of the people on this earth, I never learned to talk about sexual assault in a serious and open manner.  I never learned not to be uncomfortable simply talking about a specific something that is genuinely important.  To all of us.
Teaching the right lessons

There is a nearly universal problem that women face.  One that, once you break it down into a simple statement is so ludicrously obvious and painful that it shocks me to think that it's true.  And that problem is this...

We teach our girls how not to get raped.  That's where our focus is.  Universities hand out guides to college life telling female students not accept strange beverages from strangers, to travel in packs, to avoid binge drinking, to dress conservatively.  We teach them that the weight of not getting raped is on them.

We don't put that sort of energy into teaching anybody not to rape people.

We just assume that it's a lesson learned a priori.  We assume that only bad people must commit sexual assault.  That nobody we know is going to do something that horrific and evil.  That people we know are good people, who would never, "press their advantage," as Victorian writers might have said.

I think that it's a very poor assumption.

The boy who assaulted me in high school?  We share Facebook friends.  And I still feel shame and fear and repulsion even thinking about pointing this out to those old high school acquaintances who invite me to his concerts.

I think about the girl who was kicked off her cheerleading squad for refusing to cheer for the boy who raped her, and I feel for that girl.  Her school has basically told her to get over it and move on, because that's what everyone else did.  That's not how you treat a victim, that's how you treat a screw-up.  But she didn't screw up.  She was assaulted, and she stood her ground and demanded a modicum of justice.  While her fellow students cheer for the boy who performed a violent act of selfish blindness, who's cheering for her?
"Not an invitation."

But it's worse than simply misappropriating the burden of education and awareness.  There is a pervasive attitude that, because it is a woman's job not to GET raped in the first place, that if she IS raped she must have somehow been, "asking for it."  Particularly since the sexual revolution freed women to dress essentially however they pleased.  If you dress in such a way as to get male attention, you deserve any variety of male attention that you get.

In fact, that's what police officers scattered across North America keep saying.  In Toronto, a police spokesman said, "Women should avoid dressing like sluts in order not to be victimized."  Here in Chicago, a prostitute was raped by two police officers and the attitude has largely been to shrug off the assault, because the woman was a prostitute.

And I'm sorry, but regardless of how many people you've had sex with or why, no matter how you dress or where you are, the only thing that makes sex anything BUT rape is mutual consent.  And if there isn't mutual consent, it is rape.  Pretty black and white.

We need to stop making excuses for people who force themselves sexually on other people.

That's why this weekend, I took part in the Chicago SlutWalk.  I threw my toddler daughters in my overheating minivan and trundled them off downtown, and in the 95º heat, 70% humidity, and blazing sun I marched around pushing that stroller surrounded by women, men, and children baring signs and slogans to end the victim blaming.  To start the conversation.

I hadn't expected it to effect me so strongly, but it really did.  The whole day made me realize how much energy I put, daily, "...in order not to be victimized."  How much of typical female life is a tightrope we walk between trying to live up to expectations of beauty and sexuality, while still not attracting too much attention.  Looking appropriately beautiful, but not slutty.

Pre-SlutWalk Picnic
When I picked up fruit at the market for our pre-march picnic in the park, an elderly Orthodox nun GLARED at me pointedly.  I was showing a lot of cleavage.  How dare I.  What a whore I must be.  I was just asking for it.

At the park, I felt myself getting tense about cleaning up the strawberries smooshed into my chest.  And the fact that at least once I found myself holding a GIANT banana in my mouth while I wrangled my children.  Pretty provocative stuff.  I was making a spectacle.

Once we reached the protest. I cried.  I cried as I marched, as I read people's signs, and as chants erupted around me.  Every few minutes, a fellow SlutWalker would stop to take a picture of my motley crew (one of my friends was carrying a "Knitters for the Flying Spaghetti Monster" sign), or tell me what a Good Thing I had done by bringing my kids, and I desperately wanted to tell them exactly what had happened to me and how grateful I was to be there.  And that I had never really talked to my mom about it.  And that I want to talk about it with my children.  I kept reciting a poem I wrote last year in my head, over and over, wanting to shout it out loud.  To stop walking and perform it in the street.

Instead I just cried.

I cried because I finally had a way to start the conversation.  It was already started.  I was there.  If my children had been more verbal, we could have talked about why we were there, and that it is not their job not to get raped.  And that means that it's not their fault if they are.

Becoming SuperMommy and Friends at the Chicago SlutWalk
And there it is.  The big breakthrough that we need to have.

If it's not your job to avoid being assaulted, it's not your fault if it happens.

It's so ingrained, this idea that it's our job as women to protect ourselves.  And there are all of these statistics that back up the fear.   Every two minutes somebody is sexually assaulted, fifteen out of sixteen rapists never spend a day in jail, one out of three women in the United States is sexually assaulted during her lifetime.

Do you have daughters?  Sisters?  A wife?  Female friends?  Ever asked them, point blank, if they've been the one in three?  Terrifying prospect, isn't it?

So with that many women being assaulted, of course it becomes our job to defend ourselves.  But who's out there raping all of those women?  I promise you, it isn't one dude with a jet pack and an inexhaustible libido.  There are over 680,000 sexual assaults in the United States each year.  I think it's probably safe to assume there are half as many rapists.  And that's basically a full percent of the US population.

I do not believe that all men, or even that only men, commit these acts.  But I do think that a great many men, and some women, do not understand that what they're doing IS rape.  That because a girl said, "yes," once, she agreed to any future encounter.  Or that she was hinting that she was interested, or that by saying nothing at all she had given her consent.  Or that she won't care or remember anyway.

I can also promise you this, both of the men who assaulted me genuinely don't believe they did anything wrong.  The fact that they wanted to have sex with me was just more important to them than any opinion I might have had in the matter.

© Flickr User Gozamos
Although I never went to the police the first time, the second time I was told that by letting a man I was dating into my apartment at night, I had been, "asking for it."  All of my fears that I had failed in my most important task as a woman, not getting raped, confirmed.  That I should have known better.

So let's have this extremely uncomfortable, painful conversation with our children and with each other.  Let's talk about sex as something wonderful that only ever gets to happen if both parties are explicit in their intentions to say YES.  Let's stop putting all the pressure to stop rape on the victims.

And I for one am going to make the title of this post my personal healing mantra, because despite the fact that it was thirteen years ago and I was a fourteen year old playing at being older and cooler, it was not my job to make sure I didn't get raped.

And if it was not my job to avoid being raped, it wasn't my fault that I was.


  1. Beyond words great post. As someone who's been through the same experience, it is phenomenal to read it put in this way - I've never seen it done before and yet it is so simple. Thanks for a great read!

  2. Congratulatiions on having the courage to Slutwalk, and with your daughters no less. Thank you for the post. I think I still have to teach my daughter and son how not to get raped -- I don't see a way around that. I think what you're saying is that I should also teach them not to rape anyone, and I think that's right. I'd assumed that if you say, "Respect others. Be nice. Don't harm others. Ask before taking," you're covered. You've made me realize that more specific messages are in order. Thanks again.

  3. Thank you for having the courage to start this conversation and write this amazing post. Thank you for speaking from your heart and baring your beautiful soul to us. You are a strong woman.

    I heard about the upcoming Slut Walk in NYC--I wish it would spread like herpes across the country. I'd go...

    Fabulous post.


  4. Here's to you for having the courage to participate in the walk and for sharing this with us. You are a very strong woman and I am personally very proud of your strength. Better yet, your strength will reach the next generation in your daughters.

  5. I too shared your experience and was raped twice before I was 15 years old. I never told anyone for 25 years and now I have told my family - they don't talk to me anymore. Their attitude was the same - you got yourself raped. I will teach my daughter not to blame herself and she and I will be on the London Slutwalk as if we want to prevent rape - we need to reeducate the rapists, not the raped. After all, they're the ones that are breaking the law. Congratulations on coming out!!

  6. AMEN! Rape is not about sex or sexual desire or love. Rape is about control and power and dominance. Until we stop letting men think that they deserve to dominate women, we are in trouble. Until we stop teaching our daughters that they need to be demure and submissive and yield to men so as not to hurt their feelings or sense of manhood, we are in trouble. Until we can begin having these conversations and getting in the face of those who are afraid to see our bodies, we will get nowhere. Thank you for this. I, for one, am committed to continuing this conversation.

  7. Greetings, fellow slut! SheWrites sister and LA SlutWalker here - and I am so proud of you, of US, of all the women and men who are standing up and calling bullshit on the LIE that sexual assault is the victim's fault.

    I posted on my LA SlutWalk experiences here
    Slut Means We Choose and will eventually get around to posting my own assault experiences. Isn't it horrible that so many of us HAVE such stories?

    I hope for your kids it'll be different.

  8. "How much of typical female life is a tightrope we walk between trying to live up to expectations of beauty and sexuality, while still not attracting too much attention. Looking appropriately beautiful, but not slutty."

    This is so aptly put. I remember when I first had this realization, at, roughly age 22, and I felt completely trapped and helpless... women are forced to live the ultimate damned if you do, damned if you don't scenario.

  9. Tears are literally rolling down my cheeks as I type these letters out.

    Thank you for this. You've touched me on a very deep level. It's hard to put it into words right now. But thank you.

  10. Simply amazing post.

  11. Very nice and honest post. I think you are so right though that our mothers - no matter how great they are - never talked about this issue. I know my own mother never spoke or rape or sexual assault. And I do think she's in the mindset that it's not something to talk openly about; it's something to deal with privately. Reinforcing the shame. Maybe it's a generational thing. But I'm with you and hope to teach my daughter differently.

  12. Bolstered by your courage, words, the depth of layers here. Loved an undergrad class I took at UC Davis with self-defense instructor Karla Grant, who started her class with a lecture on where the wound lodges itself, the psychological, by naming and addressing "the way self-preservation is systematically trained out of women" in our society.

    I remember being so crippled with shame it was hard to practice any of the moves. So it has been a lifetime of restoring confidence and welcoming back parts of self that fled. I'm also committed to raising an aware daughter. It is the least I can do. Thanks again for your post.

  13. Great post - I came here from SheWrites. I especially loved the phrase "it was not my job to avoid being raped, it wasn't my fault that I was."

    In my case I change it a bit "it was not my job to avoid being abused, it wasn't my fault that I was."

    And yes that includes sexual abuse with all the underlying shame issues shared with any survivor of sexual assault.

    Thank you for writing that, reading it releases peace and healing.

  14. Great post, I'm attending the SlutWalk in Minneapolis this summer.

    I stumbled you, my post is http://beautegras.blogspot.com/2011/06/no-fear-swimsuit-shopping.html

  15. Thank you for posting this... I just cried while reading it. You know my history. I really wish I could have been there for the slut walk, and hope that they'll continue doing it for years to come so that I can bring my daughter.

  16. Tears in my eyes.

    Very powerfully written, and I agree, so extremely obvious. Why does it seem that this issue is not often, ever, phrased this way?



  17. AWESOME. I am glad you were brave enough to write this post, and share this event with your kids!

  18. Wonderful, powerful post. Thank you.

  19. The most common outfit of rape victims is jeans and a t-shirt or sweatshirt! How you dress is -not- the problem.

    The fault is never with the victim of sexual assault.
    We need to teach our children not to attack.

  20. Wow. You had me in tears. I have 3 daughters who probably think I'm over pretective but I know how a lot of guys are. Sometimes I'm almost ashamed to be male.

  21. Wonderful post, truly touched me. I was never truly raped, but still violated, and the hurt is the same. I was also made feel I was asking for it and should have just said no and that I should just get over it. So your post means a lot, thank you for that. It feels good to think it wasn't my fault either.

  22. Thank you, thank you,a million times, thank you. I was raped at 16. For many many years, I thought it was my fault. I was drinking at a party and got drunk. Really drunk. I allowed a good (so I thought) friend to take me upstairs to pass out. I woke up later to find him on top of me, IN me, with me powerless to even come to enough to stop him.

    There was a livingroom below filled with teens, and I was incapacitated enough to be incapable of screaming, fighting, helping myself. Like you, I fell prey to the idea that I deserved it because I had failed to protect myself. The shame I carried, compounded by the knowledge that that livingroom full of teens all thought I'd consented to sex, lasted well into my 20s.

  23. Beautiful post and you made me cry. No only are you a super mommy but a super woman too ((Hugs))


  24. You are brave, your words ring clear like clarions, and I thank you. As a survivor myself I used to feel shame, too, until I allowed myself to understand that I had no fault in the matter and that it was cultural messages about women's sexuality that were affecting my reaction, rather than my true feelings.
    You are absolutely right about the way we teach people sexual assault acceptance. In a recent incident, I was groped and told by grown-ass people that I couldn't be too surprised by it, since I was in a bar dressed the way I was. Women are still treated like property to be inspected when we we are out in public, whether or not we wish to be objectified or touched. And yes, every single person needs to understand what "consent" means -- it's not trying something and hoping she doesn't complain about it afterwards.

  25. This post was wonderful! Very well said. I wish more cities had walks like these. The pictures were powerful as well. Its such an encouragement to read things like this- I was 4 when I was sexually assaulted- and no besides my husband knows. But its so good for people to be aware.

  26. Thank you so much for posting this beautiful and heartfelt blog. I really appreciate you and your words. I cried during the SlutWalk as well. Such an affirming safe space and walk for us all. I'm getting goosebumps now thinking of it! Your blog helps me in the now, too, because I just wrote my grandparents "coming out" as a survivor of sexual assault, because I really do believe in a society, a community that discusses REAL LIFE situations: experiences that make others uncomfortable but affect us in reality... every single day. I want to contribute to creating that society and you're doing that too! thank you again. I wish you all the best!

  27. What a wonderful post!

    I to wonder why the discussion is never to the men telling them that it's never their right to have sex and it's not cute or acceptable or cool to have sex with a woman that doesn't want it.

    I stumbled you. My post is http://booksyourkidswilllove.blogspot.com/2011/06/young-adult-books-too-dark.html

  28. Fantastic post! I agree with you that there needs to be way more focus on teaching people not to rape. Sex ed classes should include information on what consent is and isn't. Parents should teach their kids how to make sure that they never do something sexual to another person that the other person doesn't want. I think there's a significant number of people, guys especially, out there who genuinely don't understand what is and isn't consent, and that needs to change.

  29. Thank you for this.

  30. You held me rapt as I read this. This post is amazing, thank you for sharing yourself with the world.

  31. "The boy who assaulted me in high school? We share Facebook friends..."
    This is one of the most helpful things I have heard since I left my abusive boyfriend of two years. We still share a wider social group, and one can only hear 'what? He couldn't have beaten you, he was the nicest guy around' so many times without feeling like it was all one's own fault. I agree wholeheartedly with you...and I thank you for being strong enough to write it all down.

  32. Thanks, you are so strong. I'm so upset right now that I can't formulate myself. But thank you, you bring me one step closer to sharing my pain with my family.

  33. @Vanny Vanny, that's really, really hard. One of the most helpful things a psychologist ever said to me after I very first got away from my violent EX-husband was, "People with anger and violence problems want love and companionship, too, so they get very, very good at hiding their violent tendencies in order to trick someone into getting close." Do you see what I mean? This guy who abused you, he works hard at seeming to be a nice guy, a great guy. He's very good at fooling people. Naturally it's hard to see through that. BUT YOU GOT AWAY, AND YOU ARE LIVING ON. I wish for you some friends who will support you and understand this new point of view. All the best to you and all other survivors,

  34. Wow... just, wow. I am in awe of the courage it must have taken you to write this post.

    I was in a physically and sexually abusive relationship as a teen, with the guy I lost my virginity to. I was so embarrassed, and I never talked about it with my parents, because I felt incredibly ashamed. I always felt it was my fault for not running for the hills when I first sensed that he might be trouble. I always thought that if I had just left him, nothing would have happened, and therefore it was my own fault.

    Of course as an adult now I know better. But I still don't use my real name on my Facebook page because of this guy, and just seeing a picture of him is enough to send my stomach into flip-flops.
    It's amazing how it continues to affect you, years and years later.

    Thank you for having the courage to write your post. I am sure it has helped a lot of women, including myself.

    My original purpose for dropping by today was actually to give you the Stylish Blogger Award! But then I had to comment on your amazing post! Click below to claim your award!

    Claim your Award!

    Smiles, Jenn

  35. After reading this post the other day saw this picture in a friends FB and needed to pass it on to you, I think you may like it-

  36. @The Traveler That is fabulous! THAT'S what they need to hand out on college campuses!

  37. [thunderous applause]Thank you! Thank You! Thank you! I am definietly having this conversation with my daughter this weekend.

    Thank you!

  38. Thank you for having the courage to compose this wonderful post.

    Stumbled you.

  39. Now and then on a lefty/feminist blog I see a guy propose treating rape just like any other crime. I think this is a great idea. That means that, as soon as a woman reports being raped, we presume (absent strong evidence to the contrary, by which I do not mean the reputation, demeanor, dress, profession, financial status, or social standing of the victim or the accused) that indeed a rape took place. We don't ask, "Are you sure? Were you drinking? How were you dressed? Was anyone else there? Did you come on to him/them? Was it late at night? What were you doing there/why did you let him in?" or any other slut-shaming question to get at the question, "How was it your fault?"

    Now and then I also see one of these guys say, "But why aren't you willing to ______________ (insert sensible precaution here) to avoid being raped?" not getting that, hello, we do most of those things, most of the time, and they will never keep us entirely safe, and that's not our fault. (Hey, nice watch. Can I have it? No? You shouldn't wear it in public, then. Especially with a short-sleeved shirt.)

    And we have to teach our children, sons and daughters both, that silence <> yes, drunkenness <> yes, anything other than yes <> yes.

    I haven't been raped, but I have been assaulted. I am highly skeptical of that one in three. I would bet it's at least one in two.

  40. You are an amazing woman, and I have mad, mad love for you! Bravo and Amen to everything you have so beautifully said!

  41. Wonderful post! Thank you for having the courage to share your story with others and the initiative to take part in efforts to raise awareness. You are such a woman warrior. I applaud you!

  42. Incredible post. Linking this to my facebook because everyone needs to read this.

    Thank you for being brave.

  43. I'm so glad you found me. This is incredibly well-written and honest. I haven't been to a slutwalk yet, but I was really active with Eve Ensler V-Day stuff and it changed my life. One of the questions you brought up, how to teach people to not rape people instead of teaching woman not to get raped- that is so near and dear to my heart. As a teacher, I'm searching for ways to reach the boys in my classroom and give them a list of dos instead of don'ts, ways to be good men and to change the world.
    Thank you so much for sharing. I can't wait to read more.

  44. Thank you for being brave enough to share your story - for being brave enough to challenge our culture's unhealthy, wrong visions of sexuality and sexual assault. Thank you for being a counter-cultural revolutionary, while carrying your children in tow, while showing magnificent cleavage, while wearing comfortable shoes. You rock (the boat).

  45. Thank you for being brave enough to share your story - for being brave enough to challenge our culture's unhealthy, wrong visions of sexuality and sexual assault. Thank you for being a counter-cultural revolutionary, while carrying your children in tow, while showing magnificent cleavage, while wearing comfortable shoes. You rock (the boat).

  46. The best one I read so far this day. Great advocacy.



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