Monday, February 6, 2012

The Importance of Finding My Voice (Reason #2)

I recently started reading Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery, and I have to say, so far this book has been a very powerful source of information. My first inclination was to skip over chapters and move straight to the ones that appeared most in line with my personal experience (the book covers many areas of trauma); however, I decided to read it cover to cover, and I’m really glad I did because even the chapters that first appeared less applicable to my experience, have proven so far to have valuable information.

The first chapter of the book, “A Forgotten History,” covers the history of the study of psychological trauma. In discussing Freud’s comprehensive study of female victims of sexual abuse who displayed symptoms of hysteria (and his later retraction of his findings due to societal pressure), Herman provides a broad look into the conflict that frequently arises between victim and perpetrator following human-induced psychological trauma.

Herman (1997) notes that although victims of non-manmade traumatic events, such as natural disasters, often readily receive sympathy from bystanders, “when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in conflict between victim and perpetrator,” as it is “morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict” (p. 7). She elaborates that frequently the bystander leans toward the side of the perpetrator because doing so requires less mental and emotional energy; in addition, siding with the perpetrator does not require the bystander to take a stand on matters that society would prefer to push aside.

Herman (1997) argues:
It is very tempting to take the side of the perpetrator. All the perpetrator asks is that the bystander do nothing. He appeals to the universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil. The victim, on the contrary, asks the bystander to share the burden of pain. The victim demands action, engagement, and remembering. (pp. 7-8)

The point that Herman is making here is particularly applicable to the challenges that victims of acquaintance rape often face. In essence, before the perpetrator even commits the rape (or other form of sexual assault) Society has already put in place a nice, comfy support system that enables the perpetrator to avoid taking responsibility for his or her actions by playing into this “universal desire to see, hear, and speak no evil.”

I know that I, for one, have encountered this mentality in regard to my experience with date rape in the actions and remarks of even friends and family, not just strangers or mere acquaintances. After watching videos such as this one and reading numerous posts on support forums about the secondary wounding experiences of others, I am not hard pressed to say that other survivors have encountered the same thing.

Secondary wounding is a topic I have covered fairly extensively in my blog. Particularly, I have touched on the large role that it played in my tendency to repress the truth about what happened that night during my sophomore year of college and the pain that it caused me; however, rarely do I like to consider my own biases regarding date/acquaintance rape prior to December 2002 and the impact of such biases on how I processed being raped by a “friend.”

Herman’s discussion on the tendency of bystanders of human-induced psychological trauma to side with the perpetrator forced me to confront my own internal conflict with this notion. Prior to that night, would I have sided with the perpetrator or victim? I’m not talking about whether or not I would have made completely outlandish, insensitive remarks that clearly dismissed the emotional pain of the victim. When I see someone in pain, naturally, I feel sympathy for the individual (and, well, I at least like to think of myself as someone who knows when to keep her mouth shut). In fact, besides the occasional “foot in my mouth,” I often sway too far in the other direction (i.e., overly sympathizing, or even sympathizing in situations in which I shouldn’t). I can say with confidence that even before my rape, I would not have said any of the secondary wounding comments that impacted me the most, but can I say with equal confidence that I would not have sided with the perpetrator to some degree upon hearing the small snippets of my story that I initially provided to others?

The snippets I shared were peppered with plenty of ums…I think…if I remember correctly…I’m just so confused…I didn’t consent, but maybe there was a misunderstanding…I mean I was really drunk…maybe I dreamt it…and well, the list of self-deprecating and self-doubting comments goes on and on. Except in a handful of instances, I did not provide the most straightforward account of what took place that night – rape.

I’m being very honest in saying that my lack of support following my rape was the greatest contributing factor to my reluctance to openly and wholeheartedly address what happened; however, if I am going to be completely honest, then I must also acknowledge the role that my own previous biases played in my emotional recovery.

Immediately following that night, a part of me was dying to spew what happened to anyone who would listen – what stopped me?

Was it difficult to talk about because I couldn’t wrap my head around how a “friend” could knowingly violate me? Utilize my body with no regard for the person attached to it? Yes, absolutely.

Was it difficult to talk about because it was extremely traumatic for me? Yes, absolutely.

Was it difficult to talk about for fear that I would be judged? Yes, absolutely, but there – there you have it – Why? Why did I fear that I would be judged?! Even before I shared what happened with another person, I was nervous to tell – nervous that I wouldn’t be believed. Why? If I’m honest, if I’m truly honest with myself, it’s because I may not have believed my story if the tables were turned. Ugh, that is really difficult to admit and makes me sick on my stomach, but I know that it is the truth.

If a female had walked up to me before that night and had told me that the night before she had been walked home by a guy she was seeing when she was really drunk, and he had “penetrated me with his penis” though “I didn’t want him to,” I might have raised an eyebrow. Sure, I would have said, “Wow, that really sucks, I’m so sorry,” or something along those lines, but I would have been completely clueless as to the magnitude of what her words – the experience she was attempting to describe – meant. I’m not even completely convinced that I would have understood “non-consensual sex” and “rape” as one in the same (which they are – no.matter.what!).

Prior to my own experience, I might have even questioned whether or not the female actually wanted it to occur at the time, and but then later awoke with regret – after all, if she hadn’t wanted it at that time, there would have been at least a small window of opportunity for her to stop it from occurring, right?! Sure, he could have been a sleazy guy, but then how could she have overlooked such an important fact while dating him? His actions were wrong, but her decision to drink likely led to whatever took place, right?!

Nothing a victim has done leads to rape; only the actions of a rapist lead to rape.

The answers to these hypothetical questions all seem plain as day now, but saying that the truth would have been equally apparent to me before I experienced it for myself would be lying. Even if I would have recognized rape, I would not have come close to understanding what rape meant for the victim. Not by a long shot.

This leads me to “The Importance of Finding My Voice: Reason #2”: 
  • It is important for us as survivors to share our stories so that others will understand the emotional and psychological implications of sexual assault. 
The more we get our stories out there, the louder our cause will become. The harder it will be for Society to believe rape myths and pretend that those we least expect are not capable of purposefully violating others in terrible ways. 

The more we get our stories out there, the more skilled others will become in seeing through our “um”s and “maybe I brought it on myself”s to the truth – yes, we are confused as much as we are hurt because it doesn’t make sense to us either that someone would knowingly utilize our bodies against our will. Others need to know that when this occurs, we are not okay – we need support, A LOT of it – even if we smile, say everything is okay, or act in bizarre ways that are even strange to us.

As Herman (1997) conveys below, our perpetrators utilize our silence to promote their cause with the rest of Society:

In order to escape accountability for his crimes, the perpetrator does everything in his power to promote forgetting. Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens. To this end, he marshals an impressive array of arguments, from the most blatant denial to the most sophisticated and elegant rationalization. After every atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: it never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it upon herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator, the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail. (p. 8)

We need to speak up and share our stories to take the power of our silence away from our perpetrators – to turn the tables of this conflict (i.e., the bystander’s tendency to side with the perpetrator over the victim) in our favor.

Indeed, sexual assault is an evil worth speaking about.


  1. It most certainly is human nature to pick sides. Unfortunately we often pic the side that requires the least amount of work (like you mentioned).

    I think there's also another reason why we often side with the perpetrator. We hate to feel like victims, and when we empathize with someone we generally put ourselves in their shoes. In the circumstance of perpetrator vs victim, we have trouble empathizing FULLY (beyond surface empathy) with the victim because we don't want to feel like a victim.

    Also I think when it come to acquaintance rape, mutual friends are slow to to pick sides because often it is a he said, she said situation. I think one of the last things people want to do is be part of accusing or blaming someone for something that is based often entirely off of a he said, she said burden of proof.

    I think people need to be better educated as to what a sexual assault really is, and in addition be able to stay objective and not jump to conclusions of which one of the "he said, she said" is telling the truth. All the while being the friend we need each other to be.

    I'm probably not making much sense, I need some sleep. LOL

  2. Hi Jaime, thanks for reading and commenting! Your thoughts made sense, sleep or no sleep :)

    "I think there's also another reason why we often side with the perpetrator. We hate to feel like victims, and when we empathize with someone we generally put ourselves in their shoes. In the circumstance of perpetrator vs victim, we have trouble empathizing FULLY (beyond surface empathy) with the victim because we don't want to feel like a victim." - Nice point! I've noticed that I even often take the side of the perpetrator even in interpreting my own experience with rape. I'm sure the reasoning behind this tendency is fairly complex; however, I definitely think that part of the reason why I sometimes partially side with my perpetrator is due to the point that you are making here. Putting the blame on myself provides some alleviation from that terrible victim feeling, even if the relief is superficial and short lived.

    Thanks for providing your thoughts! xxx