Most Assault Victims Are Boring
When I began to question my sexuality as a teenager, I began where many nerds do: The library. Most of my early impressions regarding sex, from Holden Caulfield crying in front of a prostitute to Sylvia Plath’s bloody description of a woman’s first time (with a stranger), came from books.
The Marquis de Sade offered “kinky” classics. Justine is a ridiculously violent novella. There’s torture, there’s abuse, there’s violence, but through each trial, our heroin Justine emerges somehow more beautiful. She is unscathed after rapes and burns, healthy despite being an orphaned vagabond. She is abused repeatedly by men who are supposed to look after her (holy men, husbands), and then she heals . . . like a goddess, or a cartoon. Eventually, she is sentenced to death (for failing to get with the program, seemingly, and remaining a victim instead of becoming vicious herself).
She is innocent, sane, and good to the very end.
I think about this book sometimes when I think about my own history and the histories my fellow women bring forth. There’s a kind of incredulity surrounding a successful woman who has been abused.
How can she go through something like that and still seem fine?
I see people struggle with this concept and ignore facts to go with their “gut.” They need to believe that rape is a life-ending or at the very least, a life-changing event. The fact that someone can continue surviving, and, in fact, thrive and retain their innocence and goodwill, is a shocking concept to people who deny how prevalent assault is.
Trauma can be a part of you. It will take time to get through. But assault victims don’t “look” different. Like rapists, you can’t tell by looking at someone if they have been assaulted. Assault doesn’t necessarily change someone permanently like dropping red dye into pure water.
Like Justine, maybe we are not believed because we are still too “pretty” and too “pure.” Can a victim later enjoy sex? Have children? Fall in love?
Yes, yes, and yes.
Like goddesses (or cartoons) we heal. We spring back.
We do not question broken bones that are now healed, or crooked teeth that are now straight. But we question a healed trauma survivor. Were they ever even hurt to begin with?
We have been assaulted. We have and will heal. We are not permanently marked or stained. We walk by you and judge you if you talk about rape victims harshly. We file you away as someone we cannot talk to, and move on with our day.
We do laundry. We brush our teeth. We put on lipstick. We go on diets because we still want to look nice and we are still, on some level, buying into notions that being fat is somehow shameful. We look at which school districts are the best for our kids. We have annoying conversations with our parents about why we aren’t married. We consider going back to school. We laugh at memes. We fall in love. We have flings. We worry about hitting our deductibles. We budget. We get excited for our online dates. Our genitals may even look and act the same (oh no! You can’t tell!).
We are still innocent, unscathed.
Perhaps we are too used to the image of the rape victim who shaves their head and loses their mind. They become suicidal. They take drugs. Perhaps many people think that’s what happens, or that’s what is supposed to happen, if the rape is “real.”
We haven’t looked at the Justines: the ones who are everywhere, who seem totally fine, who are then condemned because they retained their innocence instead of turning vicious or mad.
So first, we had to accept that assault was common. And now, that most assault victims are, well, boring. While some may have a clear period of recovery, victims can also appear just fine.
It’s the time your girlfriend canceled on you or drastically moved from her apartment, and you only find out after a few years after she confides in you. It’s the “remember the time I left the bar early on my own birthday?” story. It’s the “remember how I used to take that shortcut to school?” story.
Classics teach a lesson. Justine was a book that taught me that I could survive anything. . . and I would have to do it without getting credit. I would have to congratulate my own spirit for enduring. No one else would believe what I had been through because of how well I healed and how much ass I kicked.
For the survivors: I’d like to congratulate you for surviving. You did so much just to be “normal.” You did so much just to have what you have now. The mental gymnastics to get out of bed. To finish your degree. To raise your family. To get to work. To protect those you love from knowing how hurt you were. To have the right to be boring. I recognize your ability to survive . . . with your innocence intact. I recognize you, too, Justine.