There’s been a recent shift in terms of people being more willing to talk about sexual violence occurring outside the US. While I agree, we must talk about trafficking and sexual abuse in other countries, we also need to address the realities of the country we live in. Based on “reported” statistics,1 in 3 women and 1 in 33 men become the victims of sexual violence at some point in their lives – most of the many cases of I’ve heard first hand (between my own community and the people who’ve messaged me from other countries as a result of my nonprofit work) never reported the assault. You do the math.
So that’s a pretty haunting statistic, isn’t it? Sexual violence affects millions of people firsthand, and therefore, affects virtually all of us, because if it’s not us, it’s our friend, spouse, relative, loved one, etc. Given that, do we need to behave awkwardly when we hear a word like “rape” or “abuse” because this is uncomfortable, or can we finally mature as a civilization, and talk about this when it comes up? Or should we just become complacent and say, “whatever, we live in a “rape culture” – or “oh hey, did you hear that funny joke about the rape van?”
So now you say, well, what am I supposed to do about this? Not much, I promise. I just want to change the way you think about this – just a teensy little bit. At the moment, I actually just want to look at one small issue within the issue.
This past weekend, I had the opportunity to spend a few moments with a dear friend who is grieving the recent loss of a beloved family member – and experience watching a community swarm to surround her with love and support. It felt very much like the sentiment amongst our group of friends was: RUN don’t walk – let’s refuel this person with love however we can.
We didn’t feel bad/put out/uncomfortable to see this girl show emotion – quite to the contrary, we were relieved to see the moment she shifted from being strong to breaking down in tears, because we know what she is feeling now is terrible and we know that letting that out is better than keeping it in. We know it’s all going to come out eventually. And we know she’ll be okay when all is said and done.
Movies have been made about this – and a lot of us have seen it first hand. If grief is not processed, especially if it’s ignored or stifled, it’s gonna come out; it could even be years later – and it probably won’t be convenient. And when that person in our social network is down and out, or they have finally let themselves cry a year or even five years after a death of a loved one, we are still happy to give them a hug, or our time, and we don’t look at them and wonder what happened to their loved one – or ask awkward questions based on our lack of understanding. We just want them to feel better.
This is beautiful to see, but not surprising. Thankfully, this is (more or less) what happens in any healthy community. And when grief comes up again – cause that is what grief does – it’s also met with support – we understand and expect that memories come up – anniversary of loss, or just “I wish __ could be there at ___ event” or just the intense missing of someone you’ve lost that comes flooding back at any random time…
There is no statute of limitations on grief. As far as I can understand at this moment in my life – it is not really an optional process – it’s more like a mandated reaction to loss – and the way our culture has articulated the process of healing from it is pretty articulate. It is a process – and there are many stages – but typically we use the Kubler-Ross model and say that they are: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.
What I think we forget or don’t realize about grief is that it does not only apply to the death of a loved one. It is actually what happens when we experience any significant loss.
When I was 11, I lost a part of my childhood, a part of myself, and a part of what I thought about the world. I was a victim of sexual abuse at the hands of a peer, a few years older than myself. This happened repeatedly over three years. A few years later, I lost another part of myself, finding myself in a similar situation, as well as a year after that. This certainly affected the way I feel about the world, about myself, and impacted my life in a way I don’t know if I will ever fully express.
Yesterday I found myself in the backseat of a friends car on a long drive – my two friends in the front were deep in discussion while I sat silent. This never happens, guys. But I had literally lost my voice – laryngitis from overuse. But man, did I want to participate in this discussion. Without being able to use my gift of gab, I simply listened intently, and felt myself get pulled into an emotional current I couldn’t control. That also never happens to me. While I am an emotional person, I don’t make a habit out of losing it when anyone is around. I don’t think the two girls in the front were remotely surprised to see this happen, particularly after being provoked by the particular topic they were discussing.
So my sudden burst of emotion sparked a conversation and I had just enough scratchy ability to speak to get out the words I needed. I told the girls I was afraid if I started crying – I might not be able to stop; That I have worked to process the emotions I feel about this and I know I’m not done. That’s really scary. And it’s scarier to admit. It’s scary to work and work to “deal” with something and have it come back, have it punch you in the face whenever it feels like it, and it’s scariest to spend most of your energy just trying to make sure no one knows this is happening to you. That’s a big one for me. Even greater than my initial silence as an 11 year old victim is the victimization of spending the better part of two decades trying to suppress the grief-like feelings that do sometimes come up.
I am thankful to be in community with a lot of people who have expressed that it’s more than ok for me to have emotions – even you know, the ones I don’t want to have – the ones that make me cry, the ones that make me push almost everyone in my life away. I worry about the people who might reject me for this, but I am working on that – and I am at the point where I can confidently say, I deserve better than those people and won’t allow them in my life.
But I worry for the women (and men) who haven’t learned this. And God, there are SO many. And that is why I speak – even though I don’t know if I will feel as “ready” to speak as I someday believed I would be. I believe in a revolution I have not yet seen – a world where we don’t live in a “Rape Culture” – where rape is not some funny topic to my improv class, where we don’t shrug off the sexual abuse cases on the news saying it’d never happen on our block.
It’s pretty hard to completely rid the world of a serious crime committed so often. I’m not a cop. I’m not a judge – what power do I really have?
But as much as the actual violence/abuse is a huge problem, what I believe perpetuates this problem is the aftermath. When we have a crime we don’t talk about, how can we be surprised to see it happen all the time? I can’t fault the victims who choose to stay silent – I wish I had a better story of what happened when I initially broken my silence, but quite to the contrary – at age 12, when I finally came forward, I was accused of slander – a word not even in my vocabulary, same as abuse, which is why it had taken a year to report it. How do we report something we cannot name? And when we can name it, what if we don’t have the support to survive it? It’s complicated – and that’s unfortunate. So I propose that we make this less complicated.
How do we do that? We decide that it is wrong.
“Duh, Bonnie,” some of you are thinking – “Of COURSE it’s wrong.”
But sorry, I have to call shenanigans – because we don’t currently live in a world where it’s safe to grieve openly – and that needs to happen. So I’m proposing we don’t behave like rape and abuse are funny. We need to stop asking what the victim was wearing or if she asked for it. We need to stop feeling entitled to details of the assault. We need to drop our timeline of how long we believe it takes to “get over” abuse and accept that maybe the words “get over” were never appropriate at all. (Do you “get over” the death of a parent, sibling or spouse?)
And when a survivor of abuse is going through a similar grief process to the one people go through when a loved one has died, we need to support them the same way as we support the people who are missing someone they’ll never get to see again. And maybe then, those of us who grieve the loss of who we used to be will begin to believe we are “survivors” as some choose to call us.
So you choose what kind of a world you want to live in. How do you react when someone tells you about their story? For me, the word “grief” brings up memories of being a teen and struggling to find something to do with all the emotions and to start to process what I had lost. But this isn’t about my specific story, or about my friend with her more “typical” grief story after losing her brother. This is about what it means to be a human. We smile. We breathe. We lose things. We hurt. We decide what to do after that. And I say “we” on purpose – a new lesson in my life as I have always been someone who tried to do everything alone. None of us can do this alone – we weren’t created to live that way. So let’s rebuild the bridges we tore down when we stopped believing we were one human race. I believe in a world where we realize how connected we are. And maybe that world is not all rainbows and butterflies, but there is less room for violence, and that is a step forward from where we are now.