Victim-shaming Should Never Be Up For Debate
I had been circling the depths of deep, cold water for some time. The water had begun to feel like a second skin, so I didn’t realize it when I sank deeper. I had been there so long, I didn’t even know I was submerged at sea.
Three decades in, something sharpened into view through the murky blacks and blues, and I realized I’d been unconsciously trying to avoid it. It was right there on the ocean floor, a splintered wreck that used to be whole and hopeful. It had been beneath me all this time, but I didn’t want to find it.
Once I knew it was there, I glanced at it often but looked quickly away. In moments of bravery, I swooped closer to get a better look and hovered, bobbing unsteadily. Currents tugged at me. Sometimes, I drifted higher where there was more light. Sometimes, I plunged so low that I was swimming through complete blackness. It felt safer there.
Then, all at once like a stab to the heart, I was lassoed and found myself anchored to the wreck. I could not get away, and I was forced to take it all in–every detail–of the cavernous holes and broken masts. Rusty chains encircled my wrists and ankles, and I free-floated as high as they’d allow above the gaping maw. Strange creatures with menacing eyes stared back at me, as I tried to make sense of what I was seeing.
Just as suddenly as I was chained, I was set loose and forcefully ejected. I broke the water’s surface and lay, gasping, in a new world where I had no idea how to breathe.
That wreck in the water was just one in a series. I couldn’t look at it directly for 30 years, because I had submerged much of myself along with it and was interminably intwined with it. I’m talking about sexual violations that occurred when I was very young, between six and eight years of age. The aggressor was a male trusted by my family, and older than me.
I couldn’t look at it until I neared forty years of age. A similar incident shot me right back, and anchored me there. Only then was I forced to take in the ugly truth of the behemoth I’d been suppressing.
When I allowed myself to fully remember, I was not surprised. The fleeting glimpses that had remained fully in my consciousness unfolded painfully into memory. Suddenly, I understood so much.
In an instant, struggles I had carried with me for thirty years made perfect sense.
When you have no voice, you can’t speak up.
With all the sexual allegations against powerful people recently, the public debate has gelled into politicized, polarized camps. One side is fiercely defending the accused and is lobbing grenades at the victims to keep them quiet. The other side has taken in the accusers and is demanding justice from the people in power.
I wrote this piece because someone I thought I could trust announced that she did not believe anyone who claimed assault so many years later. This was a fallout from a conversation we had on social media about the Washington Post article where four women were profiled as having deflected advances from Roy Moore nearly 30 years ago. One was 14 at the time and, as the youngest, had the unfortunate distinction of going the furthest until she cut it off.
Announcing that she doesn’t “trust anyone who comes forward with a claim how many years later,” this person who used to be a refuge for me virtually shackled my ankles and forced me back to the wreckage that has underlined my life. Accusing me of cherrypicking my sources for political reasons, she took stubborn pride in her own ability to move on after harassment. She judged me as a victim. She shamed me as a victim.
Shaming the victim should never be up for debate, especially when you have a shared history.
When you are young–especially a young female–growing up in a religious culture that embraces a fierce father-figure authoritarian hierarchy, you have no voice. And when you have no voice, you can’t speak up. Often, you will convince yourself that any aberration in your life is your own fault. As a result, you keep quiet and you learn to swim in the depths where you will not be noticed. You stay there so long that you may not ever find your way to the surface again.
Everyone who has lived this story has varied experiences that contribute to the question of if or when or how they eventually tell that story. Everyone’s is different. For those who never experienced it, calling someone’s experience into question is distasteful at best. For those who have a shared history and still choose to call others’ experience out as lies, fake news or cries for attention is disgusting. Every time a victim is forced to defend their history, they are shackled to the most grotesque parts of what happened. In forcing them to defend, the victim again descends to the depths to circle their own wrecks, reliving them. It takes a feat of strength to gather your courage, unshackle your chains and charge for the light at the surface once again.
Grab their hands and help them to shore, instead of chaining them to the wrecks of their pasts.
There are many among us who will never break the surface of the water, who will remain submerged in murky depths. There are some who are in the process of emerging from the deep, who need encouraging words and kind actions. There are others–like me–who have charged the light in one way or another, and are learning how to breathe in a world with a different shape.
Applying political motivations to such personal violations seems to be the new normal. I feel less safe in this world, since Trump became president. The white evangelical women I grew up among managed to overlook his sordid history with women and elect him. The election was one year after the incident that shot me back to the wreckage in the deep, and I had just started to swim to the surface. Last November, I found myself back down in the murk staring at the bones of my pain.
A year on, I’m moving forward again. The woman who shamed me, a family member who used to have my trust, has firmly planted her position and decided to fight for a party’s ideals that she has internalized, along with the authoritarian structure we both grew up in. The rest of my female relatives are silent—a complicity in the current rancorous debate that I don’t understand. But, maybe, they are trying to charge the light in the only way they know how to themselves.
I want to live in a world where we are helping each other emerge. I will stand with the victims and encourage accountability. It matters. It matters for all of us who have been chained to the depths of our own experiences, but it matters most for those yet to come. When we learn how to breathe, we can swim safely to rescue those who ascend after us.
Politics aside, this is a question of humanity. When it comes to such painful personal histories, shaming the victims of assault should never be up for debate.