You’re dirty. You’re disgusting. No one is going to want you now. It’s your fault. You shouldn’t have been there in the first place. You’re an idiot. Why didn’t you fight back? Maybe it wasn’t as bad as you think. Whatever you do, don’t tell anyone what happened.
No matter how difficult it may be to read those words, I really need you to hear me—in fact, my life, or the life of someone you love, depends on it. When I was 12 years old, I was raped by two young men in a ravine. The attack took place in the light of the afternoon, right in the middle of a big city. I’m no longer that 12-year-old boy. I am now a middle-aged man, but those thoughts and those feelings continue to echo inside of me.
Whether we’re talking about sexual assault, sexual abuse, rape, or date rape, it’s important we don’t get caught up in the semantics or the nuances of the language we choose. Let’s agree to cut through all the crap and call it what it is—a heinous violation that can rip the heart and soul out of another human being; an act of power and control that leaves its fingerprints on the lives of its victims long after the physical and emotional evidence starts to fade.
Pause for a second, and notice how I began this article by using the pronoun “you” and not “I”. One of the less discussed consequences of sexual assault is that in order to shield someone from the trauma of the event, the brain literally ‘fractures’ at the time of the assault, and what you are left with is a ‘victim’ and a ‘survivor’. It’s as if the brain cannot process the trauma without first gaining a safe distance by projecting a different personality—that of ‘the victim’.
I know from my own experience, and from my discussions with other survivors of sexual assault, that one part of the healing process, and I would venture to say the most important step, is to reach a place where we see these two fractured pieces of us—victim and survivor, reunite as one. I am slowly learning, and let me stress that word, ‘slowly’, that whenever I align myself with, or identify myself solely as a ‘victim’ or as a ‘survivor’, my mental well-being is in jeopardy.
I’ve begun to see rape as a ‘cancer’. You can knock it into remission by treating it with therapy, psychiatry, and medication (self-prescribed or that prescribed by a physician), but the dis-ease keeps coming back and rearing its ugly head. The only cure for this societal disease is to break the silence, to flood as much light on the issue as humanly possible.
But here in lies the most challenging issue we face as a community—The sad reality is that for many survivors of sexual assault, the ‘cure’ is quite often worse than the ‘disease’. As I’ve already mentioned, the fingerprints of sexual assault appear to have an infinite shelf life, as they insidiously twist their way into every part of a survivor’s life.
When I read the news stories about the accusations against Bill Cosby and Jian Ghomeshi, I shudder at the fact that for many of us, our first reaction is to dismiss, or question, the assertions brought forth by the ‘alleged’ victims who after years of isolation and devastation, have finally arrived at a place where they feel they can speak out. I am reminded of a quote by the Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference.” I think we can all agree that love is a nurturing emotion; while hate is a destructive emotion. They are but opposite sides of the same coin, forged of intensity.
Indifference is strikingly different in that it is a complete absence of connection, emotion, or intensity. When it comes to the cruelest forms of torture or punishment, we can’t help but be reminded that the ultimate punishment we as a society can inflict is depriving someone of his or her humanness, and this is meted out through segregation or isolation.
If we are serious about putting an end to ‘rape culture’, objectification, and sexual exploitation in our communities, then the answer most certainly lies in dialogue not in indifference and isolation. The statistics of sexual violence in our society are not only alarming but also horrifying. It turns out, the simplest solution to this problem may in fact be the hardest for us to put into practice—the willingness to listen.