THE MESSY BUSINESS OF SURVIVING – how to be an ally to survivors of sexual violence
*TW* Recently, I found myself in stark stage lights, with five cameras directed at me, telling an audience of 1200 how I'd been raped when I was sixteen years old. Next to me on the stage was Tom, who raped me after a dance at our high-school. Together, we gave a TED talk that summarised a 20 year long process, whereby Tom shouldered responsibility for his actions and the way they impacted our lives. It was viewed nearly 2 million times in the first week and the overwhelming reaction was positive and supportive.
In the talk, I described the violence Tom subjected me to, how I spent years wanting nothing more than to hurt him back, how I found a way to part with the anger that nearly cost me my life, as well as rid myself of blame that I – like so many other survivors – wrongfully shouldered. In reality, the only people capable of preventing rapes are those who commit them, and yet we're told from an early age that we can prevent perpetrators from raping us by dressing and behaving in a certain way. This culture of victim-blaming also fosters the idea that there is a 'right' way to react to violence. Had the survivor only worn something else, not smiled so widely, taken another route home, not gotten drunk, fought back (more), screamed (louder), not showered after the attack, gone straight to the police, not feared their attackers' retaliation – if they'd only done that, everything would've worked out differently. Victim-blaming deepens the shame that many survivors feel and lessens the likelihood that they speak up about their experiences.
In reality, very few survivors have a clean-cut story in which they went straight to the authorities after being assaulted, put the blame squarely on the perpetrator's shoulders, healed their wounds and moved on. For most of us, life after violence is a messy ordeal. We don't go to the police because we're too confused, scared or doubtful that we'll get help. We blame ourselves and obsess about things we could've done differently. We numb ourselves by binging on alcohol/drugs/sex, or we turn to self-harm to relieve the emotional pain. We sleep with our perpetrators in the hope that this time, it will feel consensual. We continue to see our abusers and pretend that nothing happened, because facing the truth is overwhelming. We develop PTSD and mental illness. We stay silent about what happened out of fear that we'll not be believed, or worse, blamed for it because we did something 'wrong'.
The reality is that there is no 'right' reaction to having your life ripped apart by violence. I knew that collaborating with my perpetrator would be controversial, and the reactions of internet trolls didn't surprise me. But I am concerned with how quick some people, who work within movements that claim to fight against sexual violence, were to judge the 'wrong' way in which I worked through my experience. It was 'disgusting' and 'harmful', I wasn't 'angry/traumatised enough', I should've pressed charges, I was setting a 'dangerous precedent', I should be 'ashamed'. Although I made it clear that my forgiveness wasn't for my perpetrator but for myself and that without it, I wouldn't be alive, I was still told that I should not have forgiven. The underlying message seems to be that I would've been of more use to the fight against sexual violence had I simply died.
I was prepared for a wide range of responses (the majority of which was humbling), I've had therapeutic help to deal with the abuse I endured and I have a strong support network that stands 100% behind me. However, many survivors are not as privileged as I am, and they're at risk of internalising the misconception that there is a standard reaction to sexual violence, with the conclusion that they didn't react in the 'right' way. To you, I want to say that you did nothing wrong. The way in which you carried on with your life may not have been clean-cut, it may have been bloody messy and incomprehensible to those who don't share your experience, but it was your way to survive a trauma. It's as unique as you are. Nobody has the right to tell you how to handle your deepest pain. Not then, not now, not ever.
To those who want to be allies to survivors, I ask you to please help uproot the victim-blaming notion that there's a right or wrong way to react to a traumatic experience like sexual violence. You may not like or even understand how someone processes their experiences, but as an ally, you not only respect their right to do so – you help them defend it.
(If you're wondering what the hell the fuss is about, here's the TED talk this article is born out of.)