Part II: Acceptance and understanding

By Ryan Hussey

Edited by Jenna Rutsky

His transition from inappropriate to illegal is gradual. It starts with him in the bathtub, asking for you to fetch him a towel. It develops into something that will define you, if you let it.

Your stepfather is handsome — maybe not traditionally, but what do you know? You’re not even six years old yet. He is kind and financially stable enough for your mom — and you — to have fallen in love with him, and that’s what matters.

They are married, so you call him “dad” now. You and your mom have even taken his surname, which is something you will wear as a badge, then as a label, then as a cape.

When mom goes out, you get nervous. You hear dad’s voice in your head, remembering all of the things he’ll nitpick about — Have you done your chores? Your homework? Are you wearing your slippers? Slippers? — then you hear his voice for real.

Trembling, you make your way to the bathroom, or to the living room, or to wherever daddy needs you this time. He’s in his bedroom, with those four teal walls that drown you in feelings that make you want to vomit.

Teal is green and blue. Teal is the monster under your bed. Teal is even darker once the lights go off. Teal is a decade of sexual abuse. If nightmares had a color, they’d be teal blue. It’s everything you hate in this world.

You wonder, Do all of my friends’ daddies treat their daughters like this?

You know they don’t, but you also know it’s because you’re special. He tells you how special you are. Special is a status until it resembles something more of a prison sentence. You no longer want to be special.

You know nothing is wrong with your friends, and you’d never accuse your dad of anything because all he did was notice how special you are. If there is a problem, you think it must be with you.

By the time you’re a teenager, you wonder if you’re some kind of magnet for sexual abuse. Years later, you’ll find out every woman in your family — your great aunt, your aunt, even your mother, and now you — had been a victim of rape or sexual abuse, almost as if you’d inherited it like an eye color or a sum of money.

(Illustration/Louise LoBello)

Last week, we learned that we are all survivors. When we are young, we learn that we are “special.” When something bad happens to us, we learn that we are victims.

But these are all just labels.

We create labels to categorize, as a shortcut for classification purposes. Labels go hand-in-hand with stereotypes. We use them to sort individuals into groups — disregarding any bit of uniqueness people might have, lumping them into a group familiar to us.

Because it’s human nature to be terrified of the unknown. Gray areas scare us.

In her piece published in Human Parts, Liz Furl shares an experience of hers and raises the question: Was it rape?

Her story involves a drunken sexual encounter with a college acquaintance, during which she “[woke] up to being fucked.” Liz explains that when you look at her story from a logical perspective, there is only one conclusion: yes, it was rape. But she also explains that when emotions come into play, “the situation is muddier.”

The author takes a heavy amount of responsibility for this experience — perhaps more than she should. She paints a detailed picture of her night, breaking down the date of the incident, the purpose of the party, the party’s theme, what she was wearing, what she remembers drinking, and what she said to the young man before things escalated.

According to the author’s account, she paused the sex multiple times to vomit because of how drunk she was. The young man — whom she last saw the night of the incident — gave her seven hickies on her neck. She also describes a large wound on her back the next morning, from the rough threads of the mattress once the fitted sheet had slipped off during intercourse.

The pain that stays with us, however, is psychological.

“The only thing I can truly say I know is that rape is always sex without consent, and sex without consent may not always be rape, but the gray area, the lack of easy categorization, does not mean it doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong. And it doesn’t mean that it’s my fault.”

Sexual assault or repeated sexual abuse can take its toll physically, sure. But victims who have survived the experience know that rape’s worst damage is what it does to the mind.

Sometimes, we make excuses for the way others behave. Other times, we make excuses for ourselves. Sometimes, we hold ourselves to too high of a standard; other times, that standard is not high enough.

That’s just the way things are.

This is one of the biggest lies we tell ourselves — convincing ourselves that we can’t change how it is, that we don’t have the power to do anything about it, that we cannot fix this broken system. Not trying to change the status quo does just as much harm as actively perpetuating rape culture. Ignoring the problem is a problem in and of itself.

Another lie is the front we put up to pretend everything’s okay. We, again, convince ourselves that something is true when it isn’t — that we must stay strong to avoid being labeled a victim, to avoid being branded as weak.

We can only pretend for so long.

In another article — also from Human Parts — a young woman named Brynna May describes a familiar scenario: college party, binge drinking, waking up during intercourse, “the lines of consent blurred with alcohol.” Her piece is titled “I Didn’t Know I Was Raped: A Confession (Three Years Late),” and she displays just how much weight an experience like this holds.

Brynna explains how difficult this confession is for her, how she’s hardly told anyone and how this young man didn’t necessarily do anything to hurt her. She admits: “It’s hard to confess this when I don’t feel like a victim (or want to identify as one)… It’s hard because I fear people will let this unwanted event define me.”

That fear of losing who we are, or who we were prior to the experience — that is what prevents so many victims from telling their stories. We don’t want others to think less of us, nor do we want to think less of ourselves. So we bottle it up until the pressure becomes too much.

Though it is unfair to compare the two stories, Liz and Brynna approach their experiences differently. Liz shoulders most of the responsibility for the incident, while Brynna is not willing to take blame herself nor place blame on the young man involved. Instead, she recognizes that rape culture is a societal issue — everyone’s problem.

“It was the fault of the world we’re in.”

Out of the lies we tell ourselves, accepting full blame is perhaps the most damaging. While we should take responsibility for the things we can control, there are simply some things we cannot. Understanding this concept is the only way to get past It’s my fault.

Ideas like victim blaming, however, make progress a challenge. When we condemn a victim, we make him/her feel responsible for the experience. We shouldn’t assign fault for circumstances that are out of a person’s control. Shaming is a major part of this — when we actively humiliate an individual, s/he associates the experience with embarrassment.

How can we progress with these roadblocks?

We can start by changing the words we use. “Special.” Victim. Survivor. Identifying individuals with these words opens the door for stereotypes, which could be why we associate victims with being weak.

Labels allow victim blaming to exist. Sometimes, we categorize each other; other times, we categorize ourselves. But regardless of how or why we create them, labels don’t need to define us — and understanding this idea is the first step toward progress.

Click below to read Part III.

This is Part II of a four-part series, based on an in-depth conversation Jenna and Ryan had with Maureen Richards, a witness and victim of rape and sexual abuse, and a survivor of much more. The informal interview took place on March 28, 2015.

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