Trying to Make Sense of Cinema Sexual Assault Allegations from a Rape Survivor and Film Journalist

Alamo Drafthouse-Winchester via Google Images

If I had a dime for every time I’ve written this piece and deleted everything to start over, I’d never have to wait by a mailbox for a freelance check ever again.

Many of you reading this were probably entranced by the title but don’t actually know who I am. Hi. I’m BJ, it’s short for Brittney-Jade, (my parents don’t think things through) and I’ve been writing professionally about film since I was 18 years old. Not that it matters, but for some credibility, my bylines have been seen on Bloody-Disgusting, Icons of Fright, Fangoria, Bitch Flicks, Birth.Movies.Death, Blumhouse.com, and Playboy.

I’m also a very open and candid rape survivor.

This has been professionally and personally one of the most emotionally draining months of my life, and I’m a cancer patient. Shortly after speaking about my experiences as a rape survivor (click that link above), the film world imploded. Cinefamily is no more and the Eden of cinephiles, the Alamo Drafthouse, is amidst one of the biggest controversies of recent memory. In both of these situations, the center of the turmoil lies with allegations of sexual assault, silencing victims, misogyny in the film industry, and rape culture. As you can imagine, this has brought up a lot of emotions for myself and many of my comrades.

Note: I will recite some statements I have tweeted throughout this piece. I’m not plagiarizing myself, I’m expanding on more than 140 characters.

I feel like some disclosure is needed to truly understand why I have the perspective that I do. For those who know me on twitter, this is old news, but for those that do not…it’s about to get a little heavy, and very complicated.

When I was 15 years old, I was brutally assaulted by my ex-boyfriend and some of his friends at a party. I’ll spare the graphic details because I don’t think it’s important to this discussion, but if you can imagine the absolute worst episode of Law & Order: SVU you’ve ever seen, you’re on the right track. I’ve privileged to have been able to seek counseling almost immediately, and I’m fully aware that this is an opportunity that many survivors are not able to pursue. I never pressed legal charges because I knew I wasn’t strong enough to go through a trial, but somehow, I was fashioned with the right combination of nature and nurture to be able to get past this horrific experience and be able to comfortably talk about it without it hindering my recovery process. This isn’t to say that I still don’t have days where I feel like I cannot leave my room or days where I have to count the breaths I take because I’m afraid of a group of people. This isn’t to say that I don’t still sometimes flinch when I’m intimate with a new partner and it surely isn’t to say that I’m “over it.” When you’ve been sexually assaulted, you’re never “over it,” you just find a way to live in spite of having endured it.

But nothing could ever prepare me for the constant barrage of hatred and harassment I’d experience as a woman in the film journalism industry. For the last nine years, I’ve been threatened to be raped and murdered. I’ve been stalked. I’ve had my personal information leaked. I’ve been sent more unsolicited dick pics than I could keep count. And many of this began before I was old enough to legally purchase alcohol or before I’d cast my first vote.

And it fucked me up. Horrifically.

I was not yet at a place with my own assault recovery to responsibly deal with the level of harassment I was facing. I started outing my attackers every chance I got. I made blog posts shaming people who sent me inappropriate messages while simultaneously flirting with other “industry professionals” thinking that the only way I’d ever get ahead in life is by seducing other people. I was filled with so much anger and rage and hatred and fire that I’m amazed I never exploded. I lived this way for a decade and made a name for myself as this ultra “feminist killjoy” (a name I still don’t think is a bad thing) and stood at the front lines to burn the patriarchy to the ground with as much fire and brimstone as I could muster.

And then, at the age of 25, on a Blue Line platform in Chicago…I ran into my rapist.

You know that feeling when you were a little kid and you tried to jump off of the swing set and ended up flat backed on grass that always felt way harder than it logistically should have and all of the wind is sucked out of your body? Imagine that times a thousand.

Do I run away? Do I cry? Do I talk to him? Do I scream? Do I throw him in front of the tracks? Do I grab a gun from any of the number of people packing heat on this station and enact my own form of justice? What do I do? What do I do? WHAT THE FUCK DO I DO?

And then, he saw me. We locked eyes. And my body made a decision for me. I don’t know what compelled me, but I silenced every screaming voice in my head and walked right up to him. I never broke eye contact. I weaved effortlessly between passengers and stared him down the way he did ten years earlier. The train pulled up. The one we both were waiting on, and left without us.

“How have you been?”

He didn’t say a word. He fell to my feet and began crying harder than I’d ever seen another person cry.

“I will die before I forgive myself for what I did to you.”

I walked him to a bench and sat down with him. For the first time in my life, I wanted to listen. Not because I felt he deserved the time to speak, but because after ten years of screaming inside my own head, I felt I deserved a few moments of something different. I knew what I was risking by letting my guard down and allowing this interaction to occur. I was leaving myself vulnerable. I was allowing a familiar cancer back into my life. And I would never, ever, EVER recommend another survivor to do what I had done. But I know myself. And I knew that this was something I needed and that years of harassment online had left me with skin thick enough to withstand a speeding bullet. So I let him talk.

Emphasis on “let.” I was in control now. If he wanted to talk, it was only because I allowed it to happen.

Since we had last seen each other, he met a woman (now his wife) and fell madly in love with her. The two had begun dating and when it came time to have sex for the first time, she broke. She confessed to him that she had been assaulted by a former boyfriend and it has tortured her for years. She was sorry for wincing when he tried to kiss her shoulder. She was sorry for crying when he saw her naked for the first time. Mostly, she was just sorry for being the way she was, but that this is who she is, and she hoped he would love her anyway.

And there it was. The same way people don’t realize they smell bad because they’re used to their own scent…it’s difficult for monsters to see themselves for what they are until they see the same act with themselves pulled out of the equation. He never realized what he did to me was wrong because he possessed the inherent bias of “she was my girlfriend, if she didn’t want it she would have fought back.” I think we get so caught up on how awful the patriarchy is to women, that we forget that it hurts both sides in a very different way. He was raised to think he was owed something from women and literally everything around him was encouraging and perpetuating the idea.

Does this excuse his actions? Absolutely not. But it does offer an insight to a mindset that none of us ever want to try to understand. And it’s complicated. And it’s heavy. And it’s frustrating because no two perpetrators are the same and no two victims will respond the same way.

I was discussing this with a friend, and she brought up points (that I will paraphrase) that I absolutely agree with. That due to the current societal structure, some men feel safe in hurting women because they know in some sense, they can get away with it, especially when they rarely see repercussions. This means that many of them are able to bury their bad behavior, and assume, usually correctly, that it won't somehow come back and bite them in the ass. We both agreed that many men seem to soften up when they have daughters or marry women they “actually” care about, and that their wokeness only comes at the expense of having done something in the past they didn't confront at the time.

It’s the real life and horrifically devastating truth of the manic-pixie-dream-girl trope where a man learns about himself at the expense of a woman that doesn’t deserve a back story because it’s not about her, but rather what she represents. And sometimes I feel sick to my stomach knowing that for my rapist to understand that rape is wrong, he had to rape someone and then fall in love with a survivor of the same crime, but one he didn’t commit.

And I want to be mad at him. I want to hate him. I want to tell him he’s a piece of shit that would be better suited as fertilizer, but I can’t. No matter how hard I try, I can’t. Because I don’t believe that to be true. The man who cried at my feet and apologized to me was not the man who committed a heinous crime a decade earlier. Not by a long shot. Do I believe all who commit assault are capable of change? No. I don’t. Some people are broken beyond repair and will always be monsters. But if we refuse to accept that rehabilitation, recovery, and redemption are within the realm of possibility…we will NEVER stop hurting.

So what does this have to do with the recent events?

In the last 48 hours, I’ve been asked by multiple news outlets to “comment” on what’s happening. While I’m sure the intentions are with the kindest of hearts, it’s really difficult to be a film critic living in Cleveland who has never been to the Cinefamily or the Alamo Drafthouse to make a comment about a sex scandal without feeling like they’re looking for a token “rape girl” to add some legitimacy to their writing. Everyone wants me to be at the front of the line with fire and brimstone, and the fact that I’m not…is making people very, very fucking upset. I am not your Mockingjay, I’m a human being. If I’ve realized anything in the last 48 hours, it’s this:

People don’t actually care about rape victims unless we’re symbols for their narrative & not our own.

My way of dealing is just as valid as the desire to burn someone alive. I’m not telling people how to respond, I’m offering an alternative and letting you know that feeling anything but fire is still okay. There is no wrong way to be a survivor and if anyone tells you otherwise, they are not your ally. I know firsthand what it’s like to have a group of people surrounding me, lusting with the desire to destroy and deny me any sense of humanity. And I absolutely refuse to stand in their place and look down on another person and do the same.

Rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power. And I will never try to overpower another person because it feels justified. We are not entitled to denying a person humanity. Part of that humanity is accepting possible redemption. Denying it perpetuates unhealthy narratives about those who assault…but also survivors. Because if I expect people to see me as more than a rape victim, I need to at least ATTEMPT to see my rapist as more than that too. I truly and sincerely believe that if people see acceptance of a person who has changed, that it will help others acknowledge their own mistakes, and hold themselves accountable. But if all people who change continue to get railroaded, it makes change unattractive to those who need to change. It keeps victims quiet. And it keeps perpetrators in the dark.

Statistically, 1 out of every 3 women you meet have been assaulted. Which means there’s a whole lot of people out there doing the assaulting. We need to support victims and help them find strength and recovery, but we also need to change the factors that prevent people from understanding that assaulting women is wrong, and how we deal with those that commit these heinous crimes.

And I get it. It’s complicated. It’s hard. And there’s no approach that will satisfy everyone. I am NOT saying that everyone who assaults is to be forgiven. What I am saying, is that allowing hate a home in your heart accomplishes nothing. All feelings are valid, but what we do with those feelings determine our character. If you want to spit venom, so be it. That is your right. But to expect others, especially those who have survived sexual assault to join you in burning someone at the stake, is repulsive.

I’m not telling you not to be angry. I want you to feel the way you feel and process however works best for you. But I need you to understand and accept that not everyone responds with anger and hatred. We’re fighting with each other for not responding the way we “expect” people to respond and the problem is that no two people are going to respond the same way. And I know that this article is going to piss off a lot of people. I know my opinion is not going to be universally agreed upon and I’m going to be flooded with outcries of being “problematic.” And it’s going to suck. And it’s going to hurt. But I’m going to love those people just the same.

More than ever, we need to be a community. And we’re not. We’re eating each other alive. I understand the desire to commiserate online, I do. There’s a sense of solidarity to be able to reach out and scream alongside someone miles away from you. It makes you feel less alone. I constantly do it myself. But this is not how real change occurs. The internet learned of the situation at Cinefamily and Drafthouse and screamed as loudly as possible. And sure, things did change. Cinefamily is no more, the Drafthouse let go of their infamous “problem child,” and a prominent member of the Fantastic Fest staff has stepped down. So in some regard, change has happened.

So now what? Where do we go from here? If we want change to happen, real and tangible change, we have to work together. We have to lift up the voices of victims. We have to educate one another on the multitude of ways to process assault. We have to listen to women and stop damning the ones who dare to speak. We have to include transparency and accountability as a core value for ourselves as a community. But more importantly…we have to retain what separates us from the monsters we love to watch on screen. Humanity.

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