Content Note/Trigger Warning: cisgender perspectives, heteronormative interactions, sexual assault, sexual violence, rape, rage, survivor
The following article centers the personal experience of a cisgender South Asian woman navigating her rage about rape she endured, and her thoughts in the aftermath of the #metoo campaign. While survivors of any gender may identify with some of the experiences she outlines, the piece largely centers the author’s personal cisgender perspective and her experience with assault in a heteronormative context.
Sometimes I have so much rage in me that it feels like rage is all that I am made of.
We talk about women’s sadness after rape, dissociation after assault, the helplessness of it. But do we ever talk about the switchblade knife tongue way of it? Do we ever talk about the kill-every-man-that-crosses-me feeling of it? I am not this way all the time.
Most of the time, nowadays, the fact that I was raped is a bad experience, a memory in the past — and usually just as bad as any other bad memory like food poisoning, breaking a bone, whatever.
I don’t identify as a survivor most of the time except on the nights where I feel forced to identify as one, where I’m reminded that the world largely sees this as a salient part of my identity — nights like now, this week, the past few days when the #metoo campaign took over the internet.
But who knows; maybe being a survivor is a salient part of my identity. Maybe it has to be in the way being a racialized other is a salient part of my life because of racism. Maybe surviving rape is a salient part of my identity because existing in a world that perpetuates rape culture so consistently, so continuously, so hammer-to-the-bone unceasingly, makes it a real part of my life that somehow has to impact me.
I don’t know if I’m allowed to be a woman living my life who happened to experience rape. Is that a thing? I always hear Survivor with a capital S, like a name. I feel it as a thing that defines how I am read, like how I feel brownness in my skin setting me apart from society. I think about how racism constructs race as an identity. I think about how rape culture creates survivors — not just through the act of rape or sexual assault, but through the creation of an identity: Survivor.
Identities are always co-created; brownness isn’t just defined by racists but by people who experience racism. And being a Survivor isn’t just defined by rape culture, rapists, cisheteropatriarchy, but by people who experience rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, and abuse. But increasingly, I wonder if Survivor is something I can choose for myself as an identity or name, or whether it is something I feel coerced into identifying with. Sometimes, I’m reminded by nonsense like #metoo that I’m just not allowed to transcend what happened to me — that being raped is something I will have to be reminded of over and over again.
Someone I love(d) once told me “To be content, all you have to bring to people is a sense of neutrality.” He meant in the context of romantic relationships, but it helped a lot to think of my interactions with people as completely neutral, or at least, generating in me, a response of near-total neutrality. His words helped in relegating these monstrous events of my past to more or less a position of neutrality.
In psychology, when your face is blank, natural, with no real emotional state, it is known as neutral affect. It’s that blank wall stare on the subway on your way to work. It’s that stupid nursery rhyme stuck on repeat in your ear. Transcending my rage would mean I could just feel that way — completely neutral — about having been raped. Feeling neutral about it is an incredibly empowering experience for me because on days I feel neutral, I feel content.
But I don’t feel neutral tonight. I have not transcended my rage tonight. The days it takes me over, rage is all that I am.
Where can I put it down? I ask myself helplessly, and furious that my rage is a helpless rage, and helpless that my rage is so very impotent. In Ann Carson’s series of poems in The Glass Essay, she wrote: “You remember too much/my mother said to me recently./ Why hold onto all that? And I said, /Where can I put it down? /She shifted to a question about airports.”
There is nowhere to put it down. I want to be in an airport. I want to change planes. I want to shift gears. But nights like this don’t let me.
I called a helpline once for survivors of assault, on a night similar to tonight. “I’m angry,” I said.
“Ok, I will listen,” she said.
I let loose with my angry thoughts. I described how I wanted to violently lash out at men who stepped to me on the street. I described how much I hated men and what they deserved in vicious detail. She was a little stunned. “Mhmm,” she finally said.
“It’s fine,” I snapped. “It’s ok, you don’t have to ‘active listen’ me — if you’re uncomfortable hearing this, just say that.”
“You sound very angry,” she said.
“Yes, yes I am. Where the fuck do I put it down. What do I do with it.” These are not questions. Read them with a flat tone of voice because that’s how I said them. Read them exasperatedly because that’s how I felt. Read them mundanely, because it is like old wallpaper in a room that no one really sees anymore.
I don’t blame the phone counselor; Christ, anybody would be uncomfortable if confronted with the possibilities, the depths of rage that I shared that night. Pushed far enough, all people can hit this level of rage. We normally see this rage in toxic masculinity — all the “gender and rage” articles seem to be written for men and masculine experiences. They cope by calming down. They cope by recognizing their anger is unjustified. They transcend anger by understanding misogyny, repenting, whatever the hell else they do in those “Men learning to be better men” classes. While I care sometimes about how men become better and what their process are, I don’t tonight. I don’t care because all I care for is me. All my care is self-care tonight.
Understanding toxic masculinity makes me angrier; it is not a self-help class for me to better understand the world I live in. Unlike men who find peace in understanding that their anger is unjustified, I know my anger at how men treat women is justified. So understanding how my kindness to men has been shat on makes me angrier. Understanding cisheteropatriarchal culture — how it wounds me, how it benefits men temporarily, how it wounds them in the long term — enrages me. If I cannot transcend my anger by thinking more about my interactions with men, then what the hell do I do with justified rage?
No wonder counsellors couldn’t help me and women like me — the ones with so many words to name everything that happened. No wonder the best we can hope for is to move on, to transcend what happened, to make other parts salient in our identities, to imagine and bring into being a world outside of pain.
A part of this process is talking about it. Part of it is owning what happened. So I get why #metoo was empowering for so many survivors because it let them speak and own what has happened in their lives as their experiences. I know certain survivors who have never written about their experiences with assault felt empowered to write, speak, and share through the campaign. I know certain survivors who have written before felt more empowered being able to take space again.
Cognitively, I know how the experience of participating in #metoo was empowering to many people. I know it was an accessible campaign in some ways that let many people speak about being harassed without politicizing it as a feminist issue, which could be important for many who were assaulted, don’t identify as feminists, and had no previous mass outlet. I also know that #metoo was not accessible in some ways as the space centered primarily cisgender women’s experiences, while trans and nonbinary people, who are at much higher risk for experiencing sexual violence, were left out of this conversation.
I know survivors are at different stages of their healing, and for some this was hugely empowering. I know this deeply in the way I know I needed to speak about what happened to me at another point in my life. But I, like many other survivors, also don’t care. Ok that’s a lie: I care often about how survivors navigate their process, the different stages they are at, where they see themselves going, solidarity, all of it yes, god, I care often, but I don’t care tonight. I can’t care tonight because tonight all I care for is me. All my care is self-care tonight. It sounds selfish right?
And I am selfish these days. I am selfish in the way I imagine men are allowed to be, in the ways white people are allowed to be. I am selfish in that my life is the centrepoint of my whole goddamn world. I am selfish in that I do not want to be reminded of the fact that I was raped and is that so much to ask. Is it so much to ask to not be triggered while on social media. No, I no longer dissociate, no I no longer see him in my mind’s eye. No, I’m not afraid, but I was never really afraid. Though it always seems more socially acceptable for people who have lived through rape to be afraid of men, than to be viscerally angry at men.
Look, the rage in me would kill a man — easily. It would. It could — I could. I would, if push came to shove, and it would end with a knife-blade in him and I know it. My rage is that intense, it is that overwhelming, it is that powerful. And even though my rage is an adrenaline response to danger, it is toxic to me from the inside out because there is no real outlet for this kind of rage — it is a high-stress cortisol rush that I have to endure.
It is also, I recognize belatedly, a hugely helpful response in case I’m ever in a situation where I need to defend myself. I hope it kicks in then, because body is a strange unpredictable machine, and while I might rage on facebook in response to #metoo, I might also freeze the next time a man is about to rape me. But the rage I had these past few days was not useful to my healing and my journey.
My rage these past few days was not empowering for me. It just wasn’t.
I wonder about the value of this campaign, and its predecessors #beenrapedneverreported and #yesallwomen. I wonder how many times we have to say “this happens.” The original tag-line of #metoo was, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Was that the point of this campaign awareness-raising? Accountability and witnessing? Don’t people know by now? Give me a break, people know by now.
Let me spell it out for those who don’t know: every woman has been assaulted or harassed. People have awareness about sexual assault. They do. But this campaign reminded me that once again, women have to sit there explaining this happens, sharing that this happens, because we just aren’t believed the first time around.
This campaign reminded me that I am unbelievable. This campaign reminded me that I must bare my soul and lay it out, disclose my assault and rape in an awareness outreach campaign. What is the value of my pain? Education! What is the value of my rage? Nothing! Because rage never educates after all.
I feel insane writing this, in the literal sense of how crazy-making assault and retraumatization are. I don’t say ‘insane’ lightly; I am speaking to years of mental health issues including generalized anxiety disorder, depression, complex post traumatic stress disorder, and dissociation, symptoms of which are retriggered on nights like this. Feeling crazy and helpless are common symptoms in survivors of rape and sexual assault, and #metoo seriously risked retriggering survivors with flashbacks and episodes of dissociation.
In response to hundreds of people writing #metoo, I saw men posting accounts of allyship and confessionals citing how they harmed people in their lives, being rewarded for it in ways that women are never rewarded for when speaking up, and then predictably forgetting all about it in a day or two. In a week or two, when this blows over, people not affected will congratulate themselves for their social-media activism.
And some survivors will feel empowered.
I’m just not one of those.
So, where is the space for people like me? I don’t need another #metoo, or another day of survivors baring their souls and vulnerabilities in hopes that the disgusting culture of cisheteropatriarchy and toxic masculinity will change with virtually no input from men other than, “Oh! I had no idea! But I do now!” Rinse, recycle, repeat.
I need a world where that change has already happened. I need to feel I can have hope for the future, an imagined reality outside my painful past, not anger in response to my painful past. I need my writing and my thoughts to reflect the qualities I brought to my writing as a child, writings that were imbued with the imagination of the things I wanted, the dreams I had and still have — not the stark and brutal reality of what I have endured.
But maybe this imagining, and bringing this imagining into a reality, is my space. My life is my space. My life is not the internet and it’s not one hashtag campaign that took a lot out of me. I look around me, my apartment, my pets, my community, my amazing friends, my superstar life where I’m doing a million things, holding down a million stellar jobs, working in a field I love, pursuing higher education, doing whatever the eff I want.
These days I do not identify as a survivor. And I do not identify as a victim. I am not reducible to a role in society or a singular identity. I am not an “am.” I increasingly define myself by what I do and find that has been the most empowering step for me. Owning all my decisions, my path, my journey has been hugely gratifying. Things don’t happen to me in my life anymore; I happen in my life. I am the mover, the dreamer, the doer in my life.
I do whatever I want that benefits me and my communities to the very best of my abilities. And I love myself.
I do. Maybe that will have to be enough on days like #MeToo — remembering instead, me. Just me. All of me.
Women’s College Hospital: Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Care Centre (24/7 service)
Planned Parenthood Toronto: Counselling and Case Coordination
Barbra Schlifer Clinic: Counselling and Legal Services
Toronto Rape Crisis Centre/Multicultural Women Against Rape: Counselling services and Crisis Line (24/7)
Assaulted Women’s Helpline: 24/7 Crisis Line
LGBT Youth Line: Text, Chat, Phone
METRAC: Legal Inforamtion/Youth Leadership/Community Capacity building
Ontario Network of Sexual Assault: Sexual Assault Centres across Ontario
The Gatehouse: Child Sexual Assault Resources/Investigation Support/Art Therapy
Toronto General Hospital: Women’s Mental Health Program