Saturday, September 10, 2005

"How long did it take you to get over it?"

I was 14 years old when I was bound and raped by my boyfriend, Matt, in the basement of his suburban home. I can’t remember the actual event in movie reel form, although still frames of the abuse still plague my dreams some 8 years later. I was not repeatedly abused, in fact, my abuse lasted no more than 10 minutes, and yet those 10 minutes have caused me extreme psychic and physical pain that have only increased with time. Although I can’t recall my rape itself that clearly, I remember exactly what happened when it was all over. I walked home, and lay motionless in the bathtub for hours. I couldn’t even find it within myself to cry. I remember pulling the plug and watching as the water swirled round and round, eventually falling down the drain. And I guess I just thought that if I stayed there long enough, that the pain and utter anguish that I felt would rush down the drain too. But what I either didn’t realize, or didn’t comprehend at that time was that the real pain was what was left once the water had drained.

My rape affected how I viewed my body, and I continuously battle with issues surrounding my weight which I can attribute to a desperate attempt to take back a sense of control over my body, which I felt robbed of after my rape. It affected the way I viewed men, and in particular my sexual relationships with men. But most detrimental was that my rape affected the way I viewed myself, my worth, as a person, and as a woman. But it wasn’t until I entered college that I was able to stop viewing rape as violent sex but as sexualized violence, rape isn’t a heinous act that occurs against an individual woman, it’s an act that’s a hate crime against a gender! I came to understand that I am part of a statistic, part of the estimated 683,000 women who are raped in the United States every year (Fact Sheet on Gender Violence, UNIFEM). I am a woman living in a society that has taught me to be meek, and gentle while teaching my brothers to be aggressive and to hide their emotions. I have been taught to fear potential sexual violence and therefore fear my sexuality. I am a woman living in a society that condemns women for being sexual, yet still denounces them if they’re not sexual, a society where women are either “loose, unprincipled, whores” or “uptight, rigid, cockteases” (Frye, 50). I am a woman growing up in a time where rape is viewed as the “tragedy of youth” for 32% of all rapes occur to women who are between the ages of 11 of 17 (Pipher 1994). I am a woman who is trying to understand how my rape can be considered a personal problem when 2.5 million individuals have experienced the same “personal” problem.

We teach our daughters to fear the possibility of rape occurring at the hands of strangers which oftentimes leads to their reluctance to report rape at the hands of their fathers, male family members, teachers, and boyfriends. We teach our daughters that rape is about sexual oppression when it should be viewed as GENDER oppression. We preach the “potentially lethal lie that if you don’t do anything wrong, if you’re just careful enough, you’ll be safe.”

This is a short excerpt from a paper that I was invited to read at a small conference in Georgia earlier this summer. I was speaking about my experience there with a colleague of mine over drinks last night, she was very interested in the comments that people made after hearing my piece. I explained that the overwhelming majority of audience gave positive comments after I read my paper and I noticed a few of the women crying softly as I shared what details I could remember from my rape. However, there were a few hostile toned individuals who said that “liberal” women like myself were “teaching young girls to be fearful of all men”, and even a few who swore up and down that the majority of women ARE in fact raped by strangers, in dark alleys, when they’re walking home alone, and there were no statistics that I could offer that would prove otherwise in their eyes. I felt that I did well in handling what was thrown at me, considering it was the first time I was speaking in public about an issue that is so personal to me, however one comment that was thrown at me from one of the males in the room threw me off guard:

“How long did it take you to get over it [your rape].” He asked. I asked him to clarify what he meant by this, to which he only responded: “You know…. How long until you were able to move on?”

I responded that if I gave the impression that I was “over it” at any point that I sincerely apologize. That there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about my rape, there’s not a time that I don’t hold my pepper spray when I walk home alone at night, there isn’t a moment where I can walk towards a man on the sidewalk and not feel my body tense up until he passes. Asking me when I’ll be “over it” is like asking a victim of the hurricane when they’ll be over the anguish that they’re experiencing right now, like asking a mother when she will be over the loss of a child. You can try to forget; you can build a new house after the storm, have another baby to fill the cradle, and start engaging in sexual relationships with other partners, but is this “moving on”? And is attempting to cope with the tragedy considered “getting over it”? It’s amazing how short a period of time 10 minutes is in the scheme of things, and yet how easily the mind can continuously remind you of that time, in the brilliant words of John Irving “your memory is a monster. You forget, it doesn’t. It just files things away; it keeps things from you, and brings them to your recall at a will of its own. You think you have a memory, but it has you.”

There have been a few points over the last 8 years, when I’ve uttered the words “yeah it was horrible, but I’m OK now” while confiding in friends about my abuse. There are points when I don’t think about him, when I think that I have finally thought about those 10 minutes for long enough that I can put them behind me. But a woman’s memory is a tricky place, and just as quickly as those feelings of utter relief come, they are gone again, and I'm left to mourn the loss of something that I can never get back, and I don't even know what that something is. There are times when I'm surrounded by the people I love, when I'm in a healthy relationship, when I can celebrate academic accomplishments, when I'm surrounded by water, that I think maybe I can move on, maybe I can "get over it". Yet there always comes a time when the plug is pulled, and I find myself alone, to face what's left, once the water drains.