Surviving Sexual Abuse: A Tribute to the Quietly Amazing Victims In Our Lives

This piece was written on August 5th, 2011.   I intended to post it on Tisha B’Av, but the week before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement [and Reckoning] will have to do instead.   I have changed only a few words here and there, to clarify a few statements.   My awe and respect haven’t changed an iota.

A recent conversation with someone who is probably not reading this got me thinking about strong women, femininity, and what it takes to face abuse.

I did promise a response [to Christina] on DSK and the rape case, especially regarding the role of Judaism in France as a political AND ethnic identity, but the more I think about it, the less interested I am in writing it down.  You’ll have to catch me in person if you want to know more about my thoughts on that.

Rather than “picking a side” and accusing either DSK or his accusers, Nafissatou Diallo (New York) and Tristane Banon (France), of any crime, local or international, legal or moral, I would rather talk about what we as a society can do to support victims of sexual and domestic abuse. Now, I am not trained as a rape victim’s advocate nor do I particularly want to be.  I am an activist by passion and vocation, but fighting rape on the front lines is not what I do best, nor what I want to get better at doing as a career.   Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t want to talk about it as a feminist and as a moral human being.

Before I begin rambling:

  • The National Domestic Abuse Hotline

1-800-799-SAFE (7233)

1-800-787-3224 (TTY)

http://www.thehotline.org/

  • The National Sexual Assault Hotline

1.800.656.HOPE

https://ohl.rainn.org/online/

  • The Trevor Project

1-866-488-7386

http://www.thetrevorproject.org/dear-trevor/youth

  • National Jewish resources seem to vary state by state.  Please Google for them!

 Please, please, please call for help if you need it, or you think someone in your life does.   If you don’t know what kind of advice or support that person needs — or how to give it — call these numbers and ask.

If you take anything away from this post, please know this:

YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

And so many people around the world, from all backgrounds, care so much about YOU.   Yes, really.

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According to Emmy, a few days ago there was a trending hashtag on twitter called #reasonstobeatyourgirlfriend.   I’ll go ahead and excerpt our gchat conversation here.  [Emmy, tell me if you want me to take this down and I will.]

EXCERPT EXCERPT EXCERPT.

***

One of my neighbors (in my building; it’s a very friendly floor) told me recently that his mother is finally divorcing his no-good father, to which I responded “Congratulations!” and “Jack” replied “yes, but she should have done it 15 years ago.”   We then tangent-ed into a discussion about how you can’t ever tell your mother what to do, even if you think you know best.   Jack later said that he ran away from home in order to get away from his father (no specifics), but that he returned some years for his mom.  He is excited to help her get started on her new life, as soon as the divorce papers go through.

I am blessed to have literally no idea what Jack, his mother, and his brother must have gone through over the years.  I’d peg Jack as in his late 30s, although I am absolutely terrible at reading adults’ ages.

****

On soap operas, teen dramas, and primetime television, sexual plot lines often seem to emphasize the melodramatic and underplay all the “normal, boring” relationships.  For the record,  I don’t watch Gossip Girl (I read ONE book before the show started airing and decided I had got the point), dislike Sex and the City (please don’t try to convince me otherwise; I know many women found it empowering during the late ’90s), and Degrassi never sustains my interest for more than 30 minutes at a time (since I don’t have cable and also don’t torrent, this means I rarely watch it).

Yes, television, books, and movies seek out the lurid, the headline-worthy, and the exaggerated around which to create drama.  Yes, this gets tiring, and Law and Order: SVU is completely troll-worthy by now.  Emma Thompson said* that when she was adapting Sense and Sensibility into its 1995 acclaimed movie version, she left out the duel scene between Colonel Brandon and Willoughby because “nobody would believe [that Austen wrote] it.”

On the other hand, Going the Distance (2010) with Drew Barrymore and Justin Long involved “normal, boring problems” for a straight, white, upper-middle-class couple, and most reviewers seemed to think it was, in fact, boring.  (I liked it.)

*If you liked her version — and who didn’t? — then I recommend you read Emma’s filming diaries .  There’s lots of friendly, endearing gossip about Hugh Grant, Hugh Laurie, Alan Rickman, and everyone else in the film.  Did you know that she eventually married Greg Wise, the guy who played Whillowby?  Sucks for you, Kenneth Branaugh.

Anyway, yes, there is way too much melodrama on television and too little thoughtful exploration of sexual politics and their moral/social consequences.   On the other hand:

Due to the amazing women who have put their confidence in me, I can say that I know the following to be true among my (now-international) circle of friends:

  • 2 women whose first lovers A) broke their hearts shortly after their first sexual encounter and then B) ended the relationships soon after.  (One of whom arguably manipulated her into having sex in the first place.)
  • 1 woman whose partner lied about and then gave her an incurable STD.
  • 1 woman who had a secret abortion during college.  Her [separately-]despicable ex wanted to keep the baby, but she rightly kept him out of that decision.
  • 2 women who have confirmed that they have suffered from eating disorders.  (Another has all but admitted it to me.)
  • 1 woman who was seriously stalked by an ex.
  • 1 woman who was married and divorced right out of college. She never mentions him, but I sometimes wonder if he was abusive.
  • 1 woman who was sexually assaulted by a stranger in a city far away from home.
  • 2 women who were cheated on and then lied to by their sexual partners.
  • 1 woman whose long-term partner died of a tragic, sudden illness.

These women are some of the strongest, proudest, loudest feminists I’ve ever met. 

They haven’t let the physical, psychological, emotional, social trauma that they’ve faced stop them from being their fullest selves.  None of them “soapbox” about sexual abuse in public and a few of them even occasionally joke about the topic.  Some of them are recovering from recent events and some of them have long since put the events in their past.  Some of them will undoubtedly suffer flashbacks later in life, when they least expect it.  I can only hope that they know they can call me to talk about it, any time.  I don’t always know what to say (rarely, for this kind of stuff), but I always listen.

If something awful happens to you, please call me if you need a nonjudgmental and caring person to listen.  Email me if you don’t have my phone number, and I’ll get back to you ASAP.  I work hard to be good at the phone for my friends.  (And my best friends are good at the phone for me.)

These women are all among my close friends, even if I don’t talk to some of them more than twice a year.  If you went to my collegiate alma mater, you MIGHT only know half of them.   If you went to my high school alma mater, you MIGHT know one or two.  Some of these women MIGHT read this, and I hope you don’t feel the need to identify yourself here, as that is not my point.

[For the record, I did not include any males on this list because I do not encourage my male friends to share details of their sexual lives with me.  Please don’t take this as an invitation to start, dudes.  I only go so far.  As for my trans friends, well, I don’t know any of them well enough yet.]

I am very fortunate and blessed in that my religious observances and my generally homebody/prudish lifestyle have prevented me from entering situations that might have resulted in some of the above awful consequences.

Nevertheless, only wise advice from an older woman prevented me from entering a potential relationship with a guy who wasn’t worth it.  This was a few years ago, and time and witnesses proved that he would definitely have tried to push me past my sexual boundaries and possibly even cheated on me.  I am very, very glad that we are no longer in touch.

I also have been (verbally) sexually harassed in public at least twice — both times, I was traveling by myself and wearing clothing that not even the Toronto police department could describe as “asking for it”.   Yes, I am now fine.  ETA:  You can read more about a few of my stories on Christina’s excellent post, “Sex and the City”.  I expect them to continue happening as long as I go out in the urban public.

You know what?

Maybe Degrassi isn’t so far off after all.

I appreciate all respectful comments.   

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8 thoughts on “Surviving Sexual Abuse: A Tribute to the Quietly Amazing Victims In Our Lives

  1. Christina says:

    Thanks for writing about such an important topic, LadyG. One question:

    You say, “They haven’t let the physical, psychological, emotional, social trauma that they’ve faced stop them from being their fullest selves. None of them “soapbox” about sexual abuse in public and a few of them even occasionally joke about the topic. ”

    I’m a little disturbed by this. Are we valorizing those women who are too ‘strong’ to talk about their experiences, or perhaps use the sharing of their experiences to effect change? Are we demonizing the ‘personal is the political’ ethos by praising women who keep them separate? What, exactly, is wrong with soap boxing, or not wanting to joke about sexual abuse?

    • LadyG says:

      “Soapboxing” is a common accusation made by anti-activists. While soapboxing is important and often a positive, my point is that activism is broader and more self-aware than its accusers claim.

      Same goes for the humor issue. There’s a Grand Canyon between making a rape joke (Donald Glover) and being able to find the humor in the offensive (Tig Notaro).

      I hoped that my post would read as doing the OPPOSITE of demonizing. Praising one group isn’t the same as demonizing others.

      Everyone takes their own paths in life, for better and for worse. I wish only future health and peace of mind to all victims of abuse and assault, no matter what their circumstances and response.

    • Cookie Monster says:

      I think, in this case, LadyG’s point is well-taken with regard to how victims interact with the topic of abuse. There’s definitely a stereotype of abuse victims that they either become crusaders or hermits who constantly shy away from anything related to their experience. Even though both are valid responses, it’s an important message to abuse victims that they do not need to take either path – they can continue their lives as they choose.

      On an unrelated note, I would add that sexual abuse does not have to involve some major traumatic consequence or aftermath. As you started out noting, most sexual abuse takes more mundane forms – being pushed past your stated boundaries during moments of intimacy, teased or taunted by a partner or friends, harassed on the street or on the subway, forced into moments of unwanted intimacy… Although less dramatic to talk about and certainly paling in comparison to the experiences of some women, these actions are no less abusive and often very painful for the women involved. Perhaps more importantly, there is significantly less space for women to express themselves or their issues resulting from these kinds of incidents.

  2. Emmy says:

    I echo Chana’s reservation about your use of soapboxing. Even if you do not intend for it to demonize, and even if you phrase your rationale for it in response as “praising one group isn’t the same as demonizing others,” praising one group for not doing something is in fact casting that something in a negative light, and thus casts the group that does it in a negative light. Hence, if I say, “x is great because x does not eat chicken with a spoon,” it implies that not eating chicken with a spoon somehow is a condition for being “great.”

    I also must question your attribution of your lack of these horrible experiences to your particular religious lifestyle. “I am very fortunate and blessed in that my religious observances and my generally homebody/prudish lifestyle have prevented me from entering situations that might have resulted in some of the above awful consequences” kind of comes off as slight victim-blaming, which although you probably did not consciously intend to do, can definitely be read that way.

    All of the situations you mention that happened to people you know have happened to deeply religious women all over the world as well (and I’d venture to guess many of the people in this list of examples are religious). Therefore, I would hope that you’d attribute your fortunate lack of these awful things in your life to other factors, like maybe luck, or the help of other people, rather than implying that religious observance and a particular lifestyle like yours prevents these awful things for anyone.

    • LadyG says:

      One of the most interesting things about blogging is the feedback you get!

      I did not intend for my words to upset you or others and I apologize that they did.
      I had hoped that my words would be a testament to my admiration of the courage that those individuals have, although I see that I didn’t choose my words carefully enough.

      Without going into the issues of religious sexual ethics and prude..ity?, I’ll just say that every situation in life carries risk. I believe it is a combination of luck, divine blessing, and caution that has protected me from harm.

      Abuse within the religious world is still abuse, of course. I don’t think any ethical himan being could support it.

  3. Emmy says:

    Additionally, I am wary of using examples of people’s very personal experiences of this severity in a public forum without first clearing it with them, even if you do not use names or delve into specifics. These are very personal experiences, and sometimes having someone else even describe what you’ve been through in words not your own can be very alienating and hurtful.

  4. Queer Jewish Dandy says:

    I’d like to thank Lady Godiva for sharing on this immensely complicated issue. There is a culture of silence about sexual and domestic violence on both the personal and public levels. Persons of all genders find talking about experiences of abuse difficult. Providing links and a general picture of the frequency of even young women who have experienced sexual abuse helps break the silence without breaching confidentiality. I find the placement of specific descriptions below the cut to be a protection in the Lady’s post against triggering.

    In addition, I agree with Lady Godiva that there aren’t enough interesting portrayals of functional relationships (romantic or otherwise) in literature or in the media.

  5. chortlevork says:

    Emmy, if saying X is virtuous means not-X is not-virtuous, then clearly we have to pick between the two instead of just being open to everyone’s own techniques of self-healing.

    The zeitgeist seems to be that we don’t have to pick between the two. But if we do, I think Not Choosing To Talk About It is both a moral right and a perfectly valid way of dealing with trauma.

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