Last Sunday, I published an op-ed in the Washington Post about the crisis of rape on college campuses, and how schools should be handling it. In the piece, I discuss my own experience of being sexually assaulted when I was in college. I’ve spoken about this experience in public before, so I knew what to expect: a barrage of emails, comments and blog posts from people who want me to Shut. Up. They call me a liar. They make crazy and false assumptions about what happened to me in order to shore up their beliefs about the world. They tell me I deserved it because I had been drinking, because I was at a party with men, because I dared to exist in the world. They tell me I must have wanted it and then had "buyer’s remorse," as if rape is a TV you really like but shouldn’t have splurged on. They compare me to a drunk driver, and to the Nazis.
I also knew to expect the opposite: an outpouring of support from survivors and/or anti-violence advocates, thanking me for speaking out. They gamely take on even the most hateful rape apologists, methodically dismantle the arguments mounted against my call to action, and help spread the word. And very often, they call me brave.
I have a special relationship with the word "brave." It’s tattooed on my left arm. I got the tattoo after leaving a long-term relationship with a really great guy — someone I loved very much — just because I could no longer ignore my gut feeling that the relationship wasn’t the right place for me to be anymore. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and certainly, in my opinion, the bravest. And it was totally the right decision. I got the ink to remind myself to listen to that voice inside me, even when it doesn’t seem to make sense, even when it’s terrifying to do so and so much easier to ignore it. The tattoo is aspirational. It’s there as a manifestation of my wish for myself: that when faced with a choice between what’s easy and what feels right to me, I should choose the latter as often as I can.
And that’s why, as grateful as I am for the support, I always secretly bristle a little when someone calls me brave for speaking about my assault. Thing is: it just doesn’t feel brave to me to tell that story. I’m talking about an experience in which I did nothing wrong. The guy who attacked me did. It’s honestly harder for me to keep my mouth shut about it.
Don’t get me wrong – I know it’s meant as a compliment, and I know why. Victims of sexual assault are taught to be ashamed of having been attacked – even before it happens. That’s one small part of how rape culture functions. All those clacking critics telling me what I should have, would have done differently if I really didn’t want to have my body violated are not only trying to shame me into silence, but also everyone who reads them. These are people who want rape to keep happening exactly as it does now. And one of the main ways they work on maintaining the violent status quo is by trying to scare victims into blaming themselves and feeling afraid and ashamed to speak out, as though being raped means something about a woman’s character and not just that she’s a woman who was unlucky enough to have wound up in the presence of a rapist.
Thing is, I rejected that trap a long, long time ago. I’m just not ashamed that some jackass violated me. I’d be ashamed if I didn’t speak up. I’d be ashamed if I didn’t use all the powers at my disposal to help other survivors reject the shame trap, too – and to help create a world in which there are a whole lot fewer survivors of rape to begin with. I’d be ashamed if I didn’t do anything to provoke those neanderthal rape apologists, because then I wouldn’t be doing much at all.
I also worry that every time we stress how brave a survivor has to be to speak up about what happened to her, we accidentally support the lie that survivors of sexual violence must feel ashamed. What would it take to create a counter-culture where the assumption is that survivors want to speak out about what happened to them, that none of us want to be silent? That it’s normal to talk about it? I know we don’t live in that world yet, and a lot of survivors do have to reject the shame they’ve been taught in order to speak. And that does take bravery. I don’t want to diminish that. I just wish there was a way to honor that kind of bravery without assuming that every survivor is overcoming mountains of fear and shame every time she speaks out. Because I know that’s not the case for me, and I’m sure I’m not the only one.
I’m super-grateful to everyone who came to my defense and/or gave me support for that article, and for the work I do in general. I won’t pretend it doesn’t make me emotional, having people say such horrible, false things about me so relentlessly and publicly, and knowing I don’t have to combat those lies alone is one of the things that makes it possible. But thanks to y’all, I’m not alone, and I’m not afraid. I do things I consider brave not infrequently. Going on new dates with new people feels brave after I’ve had my heart broken so many times. And being physically vulnerable with people feels brave, too, because I worry what they’ll think of my body, and because I always wonder whether this will be the time my judgement has failed and I’ll have chosen to expose myself to someone who wants to hurt me. But talking about something that was done to me against my will 18 years ago, as a way to advocating for a world in which that kind of thing won’t be done to anyone anymore? That’s just common sense to me.