I am shocked when I hear people telling sexual assault survivors to “just get over it.”
I don’t understand how someone can categorize sexual assault as a singular act; as though it is just the event that happened without any further reach. Because nothing that has to do with sex is a singular, inconsequential event. Our society, and frankly our biology, has made sure of that. When the sexual event is violent–and by violent I mean non-consensual, not just forceful–it is a violation of our bodily autonomy. That alone is bad enough, but for women it is much more complicated.
This world is so confused about how it feels about female sexuality. Female sexuality is at once a symbol of purity and rejuvenation, while also a source of sin, temptation, and destruction. Historically (and even today in some especially draconian parts of the world) women and girls have been killed for being raped, their value so diminished by the symbolic theft of their purity they are believed to no longer deserve to want to live. Even where these practices are no longer in place, we are still bound to that history. Sexual violation becomes a way of robbing women and girls not just of autonomy for a moment in time, but also of worth for her lifetime–at least that is the intended effect. This is why wartime rape is so prevalent; women’s bodies are more than just bodies. They are symbols.
As much as we try, our bodies can’t just be our own.
Beyond the psycho-social implications of male-female sexual violence, there is also the biological dangers that accompany rape–pregnancy, which has been politicized due to the abortion debate; disease, which takes months to detect, so that even rape victims who walk away biologically unscathed must go through a period of anxiety. Often there are other injuries that can take weeks or months to heal; especially rough attacks can lead to chronic pain. Even in instances where there is no physical injury whatsoever, however, the psychological pain persists.
Sexual assault has such a long legacy of torment and shame in our culture that I truly cannot understand how anyone with half a brain could ever tell someone to “just get over it.” But they do. It happens.
Sexual Violence Lasts Far Longer Than The Act
There’s a game going around Facebook in which people ask their followers to post a gif that describes how others perceive the inside of their brain. My responses were a toddler running in a loop, a woman holding a gleaming knife, and a woman screaming endlessly. Those are all pretty accurate–well not so much the gleaming knife anymore, but the scream and the toddler certainly–but the way I would describe my own mind is this:
Think about a time when you have experienced physical pain for a long period of time. Unrelenting pain. It lasted longer than your natural opioids could protect you from it; it lasted far longer than you could bear. When you’re experiencing that kind of pain, it’s accompanied by a nagging feeling of just wanting it to stop. Not the mere thought “I want this to stop,” but an intense, bodily feeling of wanting and needing the pain to stop. A yearning, coupled with an expectation that grows ever pressing as it goes unfulfilled…for the pain to finally end.
That’s the feeling in my brain, without the pain. And without that pain, I have no idea what it is that I want to stop.
The Aftermath Of Sexual Assault Is An Enduring, Intangible Pain
You can’t cure a pain you only feel as absence. There’s nothing to target, and no sensation to combat. The pain of being sexually violated–once all the physical pains have healed–is an impossible, untouchable pain. A pain marked by absence. A pain that is closer to grief than anything else, but is its very own thing. Some vital, ineffable part of the human life experience has been taken, and can never be replaced. Maybe it’s trust. Maybe it’s hope. But I think it’s more than that. It robs you of the ability to feel that your soul or essence or whatever can be safe in your body, and you spend the rest of your time in that body terrified, scrambling to get the fuck out. At least that’s what it’s like for me.
Sexual Violence Touches More Than The Direct Victims Of Sexual Violence
We are all victims of living as part of a species that commits sexual violence. All genders feel the symptoms of this, if in different ways. What a terrible thing, to know that you are capable of being raped, of committing rape; that “rape” is a thing that your fellow humans do and have done to them. What an appalling thing to realize. How do we come to terms with that?
When I was very young, before I was ever raped or molested or physically abused, I was taught that I did not matter and should not exist. I had an older brother who hated me because of what I was–it never mattered who I was or how I was, what I was became forever enough to condemn me. And that terrible thing that I was–am–is a bastard. The product of my father’s affair with my mom. He was and remained married to my siblings’ mother until she died of cancer when I was eight years old.
Whenever we were alone, my brother would tell me, “You are a mistake that should never have been born.”
That was the first way our culture of sexual violence hurt me. By creating a boy who could be so filled with rage at a family dynamic he did not understand that instead of being angry at his cheating dad, he was mad at the woman his father had used and the daughter she birthed as a result.
How Has Sexual Violence Affected You?
What was that first thing for you, that you remember? What was the first way rage against women’s bodies and female sexuality touched you? If you think about it, I believe you’ll find it had nothing to do with the first time a man catcalled you, or groped you, or raped you. If you think back, I believe it will be something small that crept it’s way into your soul the way my brother’s accusation did mine, chipping at your ability to feel safe in your body; eroding your desire to inhabit your body at all.