Monday, September 21, 2009

Uncertainty, Doubt, and the Search for Validation

I wrote two short pieces for the Speak Out event this past February. Here is one about guilt, uncertainty, and "was it really rape":

“Hand over the money.” You're being mugged. Maybe you see a weapon, maybe you don't. You freeze. You hand over the money, maybe even a watch or necklace. If you're lucky, you get away safely. When you get home, everyone is relieved you're okay, and no one questions your cooperation with the mugger. If you choose to go to the police, they'll probably support your decision to not fight back, too. It's all pretty clear-cut. You were the victim of a crime. You didn't ask for it. Nobody doubts your story, and you don't spend the next few years blaming yourself for having a wallet.

The instinctive act of freezing is called tonic immobility. It is a common, normal, even adaptive, response to threat. It's okay to freeze during a mugging, and it's okay to freeze when confronted by a rapist. It’s still a mugging and it's still rape. You are a survivor, and the mugger and the rapist are entirely to blame. Not fighting back or screaming during an assault does not mean you wanted or deserved it in any way.

I was raped almost a year ago, and I still struggle to believe this on bad days. Sometimes it feels like all the stories I hear are about women who fought tooth and nail against their attacker. I think about how I just froze, and I feel so small and unsure about myself. Once he started getting too close to me, I went numb. He knew I didn't want it, I knew I didn't want it, but my mind shut down and I couldn't speak up. I honestly cannot say if I had any conscious sense of fear; I just couldn't feel anything. It was only when I felt pain that I could free myself from that debilitating numbness and say no. To this day, I still wonder what would have happened if he hadn't been careless and hurt me suddenly. I don't know if I would have broken out of my dissociated state and said no at all. That uncertainty has been unwanted company through endless days and long, painful nights.

Having struggled with that kind of guilt, this is something I need to say. Not putting up an epic struggle does not make you any less a victim and survivor. It's still rape even if he didn't hold you down and muffle your screams. Contrary to what textbook-definitions of trauma seem to require, not everyone's terror has to come from immediate, conscious recognition of threat to their life. It certainly didn't go through my mind; I don't think he would have physically harmed or killed me had I struggled, but the aftermath of my assault still hurt. Coercion has many faces, and threat has many forms.

I wrote this for all the survivors who ask themselves if it was really rape. When I was raped, I wish someone had told me this, loud and clear, because I needed to hear it. Your pain is legitimate, and hard enough to bear already without having to struggle with self-doubt. Sometimes it feels like every story but yours is clear-cut; sometimes it feels like there's no definition of rape to cover what happened to you. But it is rape, it is real, and you are not alone.

This was one of the first pieces I ever wrote about my experience.

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