As you stand at your locker, you notice today is different. You feel heavier — not because you had a big breakfast or because you’re holding a bunch of textbooks, but because something else is weighing you down.
Like gravity’s force has tripled overnight. Like you are dragging an 18-wheeler through the halls. Like the weight of a thousand nightmares has suddenly collapsed on top of you, on the verge of forcing your feet through the ground.
You find the strength to walk away from your locker and past your homeroom. If you were playing hooky, you’d scan the area for teachers. Instead, your eyes remain focused on the door.
“Step out that door, young lady, and you’ll be suspended.” A nun sees what you’re doing and tries to stop you. Perhaps if she knew why, she’d rethink. Perhaps if you knew why, you’d turn around and go to class.
You can only pretend for so long.
Cheeks dampened and eyes straight ahead, you walk out of school without looking back. This is the second most important choice you’ll make today. You head for your aunt’s house.
The world you knew is no more. You feel branded, and though a weight should have been lifted from your shoulders, gravity remains unflinching like it’s holding a grudge.
As you pack up some clothes to stay at your aunt’s place, Mom says some things she will regret — or at least some things you hope she will.
You spend some nights under your parents’ roof and some under your aunt’s, bouncing back and forth for months at a time, over a span of years.
What began as physical has manifested itself as psychological abuse. Your stepfather has become a man you barely know, yet one you recognize all too well. He routinely follows you when you leave the house, a stalking habit that grows stranger, sadder, and scarier with age.
He sometimes punishes you for reasons he makes up on the spot, to prevent you from going out with friends. This becomes a running joke in your friend group, but it’s never funny. You seem more and more predictable each time you need to cancel plans. There are dishes to wash and laundry to fold. Your friends eventually stop calling.
It takes seven years for your mom to divorce him. You don’t go to college and that is your biggest regret, but not your only one.
One of the last times you speak to your stepfather is at your grandmother’s funeral. He tells you to take care of your mother.
The last chance you have to see him is at another funeral — his. You take the day off from work but decide not to go. It is then that you realize you’ll never get the one thing you want from him: a genuine apology.
You remember that feeling you had years back, the feeling that you are a magnet for abuse. You have a daughter of your own now, and as hereditary as sexual assault seems in your family, you vow to do everything in your power to make sure its lineage stops with you.
Every choice has consequences. Regardless of how trivial a decision may seem, everything we do — both consciously and unconsciously — produces repercussions. When we make a choice, we are usually prepared to face the consequences that come with it.
With regard to rape and sexual abuse survivors, this isn’t always true. How can they prepare for the fallout?
Yes, there are consequences when victims share their experiences, but those consequences usually aren’t as clear-cut as in other scenarios. Again, there is a gray area that makes it terrifying to even consider.
It is much easier to make a decision when we can predict most — if not all — of the possible outcomes. But when a victim is wrestling with the idea of telling his/her story, that fear of the unknown comes into play. This unpredictability makes it difficult to prepare for the consequences, measure the weight of the decision, and take full ownership of it.
Ownership involves confidence. It involves not only speaking the words you believe need to be said, but saying them with conviction. Ownership involves a heavy amount of responsibility, which we discussed in detail in Part I of this series.
With regard to rape culture, these ideas of ownership and responsibility are just as important. Time and time again, brands and public figures make headlines for controversial ads, quotes, and behavior.
Bud Light recently caught flak for a slogan used on its bottles. The label copy was a part of the company’s #UpForWhatever campaign, which some Twitter critics accused of being rapey:
“The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”
When asked about the slogan, a spokesperson for Bud Light told freelance writer Aaron Taube, “This was a mistake that shouldn’t have happened.” According to Taube’s article on Medium, copywriters from BBDO — Bud’s advertising agency — came up with over a hundred slogans and brand representatives seemed to like the one that was eventually chosen. The questionable line made it past advertising executives at BBDO, suits at Anheuser-Busch, and the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.
Of course, Bud Light swiftly apologized for the potentially offensive content on the labels and has promised that no more of these bottles will be sold.
Much like Rolling Stone’s article about the UVA campus rape, this was a failure on multiple levels. But one positive we can draw from both scenarios is that — by Rolling Stone and Bud Light taking responsibility for their actions — we are learning from our mistakes.
If we are learning from experience as a society, then we must do the same on an individual level. But, like with most things, progress doesn’t just happen overnight. We must first recognize our mistakes and be open to change. We must work for the progress we know we deserve.
One of the most dangerous choices we can make as individuals is relying on others for closure — or perhaps assuming we will get the closure we seek in the first place. By worrying about events outside of our control, we open ourselves up to disappointment and anger.
Consider the introductory story of this article. A young woman has grown up a victim of sexual abuse, and one day she decides to tell somebody about it. She knows there will be consequences, but she doesn’t fully understand the scope of her actions. When she learns of her stepfather’s death years later, she realizes she’ll never get the closure she wants.
The woman in the story — and the stories featured in the first two installments of this series — is Maureen Richards. Maureen was brave enough to share her experiences with us, to help us ignite a necessary conversation about rape, rape culture, and sexual abuse.
Even when she had started her own family and was raising her daughter, Maureen was convinced a simple apology would provide her the closure she needed. But when her stepfather died, she knew she’d never get the one thing she wanted — a sincere I’m sorry from the person who burdened her.
During our conversation, Maureen shared an anecdote about her daughter. The story involved a concerned mother going out of her way to make sure her daughter acted in a responsible manner, promoting the habit of taking ownership of one’s decisions. In doing this, Maureen was also able to help provide closure for her daughter’s situation — perhaps the closure she knew she’d never receive herself.
While there may not be closure in some situations, the most productive thing we can do is take what we’ve learned from the experience and pass it on to others.
Pass on ideas of responsibility and ownership, acceptance and understanding. Pass on ways to be patient with how people think and mindful of how people feel. Pass on techniques for letting go and moving on, rather than waiting on somebody else to step up.
Again, active solutions are more effective than passive ones.
This is Part III 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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