on this day, of all days
how to speak our sexual violence after the verdict
TW: sexual violence, abusive language, traumatic experience
Sometimes my life feels like a popcorn string of sexual assaults.
The worst part is that my experience is so common.
Friends, family, partners, lovers. We can know that the perpetrators of sexual violence are often those closest to us. We can admit it in ourselves. And yet it happens again. And again.
Everyone is capable and culpable. Some much more than others, of course. There are powers that allow some to trespass, allow some to get away with it. The systems of accountability are built to uphold some, while keeping the rest of us in the shadows. Under threat of further violence, of more struggle, of greater alienation and isolation. Under threat of cruelty. So the rest of us remain without clear access to our own bodies, to our own boundaries, to our own selves.
The streets themselves are not built for us.
Once, just over a year ago, I walked down the street and felt safe. I took the opportunity to go out dancing and I felt safe. For just a moment, I went to sleep in my own bed and I felt safe.
And then it happened again.
There is a path in the woods that should not be there.
There are those who can overcome the protective tall grasses and webs. Those who do not recognize that the underbrush, grown since the last trespass, says, ‘Do not tread here again.’ Instead they see, ‘You have found this place and it is special.’ They see, ‘You are able to make your way here and be safe.’ They see, ‘The heart of this forest is open to you. Take all you need.’ They see, ‘Leave footprints so those who come after you will know the way.’ They do not see the damage they do.
I am assaulted and it is about power. I am assaulted and it is about objectification. I am assaulted and it is about possession. I am assaulted and it is about connection. I am assaulted and it is about love.
Sexual violence — whether we are the perpetrator, the victim, the survivor — is intimately linked with emotional violence, addiction and intoxication, distress and madness. Sexual violence is intimately linked to revictimization, to retraumatization. Once our boundaries are violated, it is that much easier for them to be crossed again. There is a path in the woods that should not be there.
I’ve spent a lot of time trying to chicken-or-the-egg myself out of my trauma. If only I can find the founding moment, some Freudian original, I’ll be able to gather the troops to properly defend myself again.
“We’re just playing!” 13-yr-old family friend. 11 years old. “You’re pretty cool, you know.” 30-yr-old crush. 16 years old. “I just wanted to show you how much I love you.” Boyfriend. 17 years old. “I honestly was so drunk, I had no idea.” Another boyfriend. 21 years old. “So we’re going to keep this between us, right?” Acquaintance. 25 years old. “Thank you.” Ex-Boyfriend. 29 years old.
These are the boundary crossings that dig the deepest. The casual assaults — what a thing to have to type — that happen any time a vulnerable body goes out in public are another constant altogether. Getting groped on the dancefloor is to be expected. Being rubbed up against on public transit is inevitable. Street harassment is part of our landscape.
Each trespass feels like it sets me back to zero. All the growth of primary succession, lost. Leftover treeroots recovered with moss. Low-hanging vines grasping to parched bark. Grass enough to hide field mice from hawks. Gone.
It feels like that, but I know it’s not true. My nerves may be shot again, jumping at knocks on my door, panicking when I leave the house. But that is the easy stuff. I know that I am more capable than before of processing the violence, of holding myself strong, of knowing what I need from my support network, of rebuilding my boundaries, of healing.
For me, the first step is always articulation. There’s the experience, and the articulation of the experience. To articulate violence is to remake the world in recognition. The articulation necessary for healing can be simply to ourselves, to our Gods, to our pillows. Maybe to a friend, lover, to try to reaffirm trust, to feel love, but it’s okay if we can’t, yet. I’m not telling anyone to speak to their abuser, but I respect those who have the power to do so.
All the games at every level are rigged against us. I spoke about my assault at 16 and got assaulted again for speaking about it. This is a case that forms my experience. We become trained in these ways. These ways are both defensive and protective. It’s hard to know the difference. We find our own ways to heal.
When we love our abusers, our healing is often wrapped up in theirs. Often an impossible situation when those who abuse us cannot or do not recognize they need healing themselves. When they are also addicts, alcoholics, victims and survivors of their own circumstance. When they are drowning in their own mental and emotional trauma. Of course, none of these experiences excuse violence, but they do make it more complicated to navigate. I still don’t know how to deal with this, though I’ve read all about forgiveness and acceptance, the pros and cons of various coping strategies, of distancing and detachment. There is so much more work to do.
I told myself I’d stay off social media today, the day of the Ghomeshi verdict, because I have a counselling appointment at the sexual assault centre at 4pm and I thought I should focus on my issues. But instead, here I am, because while my abuser’s healing is wrapped up in my own, so is the healing of countless others. And while it’s important to articulate our own trauma, it’s also important to listen.