Monthly Archives: October 2012

Breaking the Mold: Project Unbreakable

(Trigger Warning for discussion of rape … but it’s largely about healing.)

I first stumbled upon Project Unbreakable this past spring, and I was immediately stricken by its rawness and beauty and capacity to make a profound difference in people’s lives.

If you’re not already familiar with the initiative, it’s an art project focused on healing from sexual abuse, in which survivors are photographed (by Grace Brown, the project’s founder) holding posters that expose a quote from their attacker as a means of reclaiming the power of the words that were once used against them.

Around the same time that I first watched this video, I was on the Take Back the Night planning committee for my university’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month. It was the first time I had done any advocacy for this particular cause, and I hadn’t yet come out publicly as a survivor of sexual assault.

And the more that I thought about that, the more I started to suspect that I was being a bit of a hypocrite, working on an event that was meant to encourage survivors to “shatter the silence,” when I hadn’t even shattered my own.

So on April 18th, the three year anniversary of the day I lost my virginity to my attacker, I published a poem I’d written a year and a half prior (in the immediate aftermath of the abuse), hoping that — while I felt thoroughly embarrassed and ashamed and knew not what to expect in response to such a disclosure — my candor would make a difference somehow, to someone, somewhere.

And then an interesting thing happened. I found that releasing that haunting secret felt like coming up to the surface finally for a gulp of fresh air. I wanted more of what I’d just felt.

It’s as if I was literally dying for it.

So I decided to make my own amateur submission to Project Unbreakable, in further preparation for the week of events planned for Take Back the Night, and I made that public as well. If you’ve read my survivor story, you’re probably already familiar with this image, but here is what it looked like:

“You had an extreme sexual experience & you can be proud of it.”

The quote came from a written message I had received from my attacker, in response to a cry for help that I had made to him when I was first struggling to make sense of what he’d done to me.

And then Take Back the Night happened. The rally happened. The speak-out happened. And the waves of relief that crashed over me, every time I spoke out, were so overwhelming that I literally could not stop.

Four months later, I started this blog. I shared my story about the years of abuse I had suffered. And the response that I received was so extraordinary, I’m still speechless.

And I’m realizing how much more manageable this burden is to bear, now that I have so much support around me — and so few secrets bottled up inside me.

So I decided to make an appointment with Grace Brown when she came through Chicago this September on her tour. I figured I’d finally replace my unprofessional submission with a proper one, using the same quote and everything, because I knew it would be powerful, and I hadn’t seen any quote quite like it come out of the project yet.

But then I realized something. On my way to the location where I was to meet Grace, it occurred to me that I had already reclaimed the power of those words. I had released them. They no longer haunted me the way that they used to. Whereas before, when I recalled that venomous declaration of his, I felt only shame and inadequacy … now, I felt nothing but satisfaction. Satisfaction that I had come so far in my understanding of sexual assault that I could look at that image of myself with those words and think: He was so mistaken. These words have no power left over me.

I began to panic a little bit. I was mere minutes away from meeting Grace, and suddenly I didn’t know what to write. I closed my eyes and tried to really get in touch with my pain. I recalled the suggestion that Grace made in an e-mail attachment she sent out to the survivors she had scheduled to photograph. She said: Think of what you want to let go of the most.

The deeper I delved into my thoughts, the clearer it became to me. There was something buried deep down that I still needed to dig up and get out. Words that stripped me of my very basic right to say NO. Even more so than his actions did, because he could only restrain me for so long by force. His words continued resonating for long after.

Even after all the progress I had made in recovery over the past year, he was still controlling my behavior, my mind. The words were there with me — whenever I was alone with a man, I was never really alone. These words continued to echo around the room, paralyzing me, choking me as if they were his hands around my throat.

Why is it that I still find it so hard to say NO when I mean NO?, I wondered. Why is it that the thought of saying NO makes me feel so ashamed? So inadequate? So small and unwanted? So disappointing and unworthy of another person’s time?

I remember him trapping me with his body. I remember him not heeding my shouts or my palms against his chest. I remember him leaving me laying there, such hostility in his face as he yelled into mine.

All I said was “Stop!”

This is what he said.

“Why do you always have to ruin the sex??”

Thank you, Grace, for giving me yet another opportunity to liberate myself. I have a long way to go, but I’ve also come so far. And it’s projects like yours that allow people like me to keep going.

******

(If you can, do browse through the other photos from the project HERE. Biggest trigger warning ever, though. These images are intense. And if you think you might want to participate in the project yourself, you can find more information about how to do that HERE.)

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To Douche or Not to Douche?

(SPOILER: NOT to douche!)

In this post, I’m going to regale you with some cold, hard facts about a little product known as The Douche.

The word “douche” comes from the French word doucher, meaning “to shower,” but in modern parlance, it has come to be a conventional insult — and rightly so, because quite frankly, the concept that women need to douche in order to be considered healthy is insulting ... and just plain erroneous.

That nozzle thing, by the way, needs to be pulled up before insertion, meaning it’s actually twice that length you see there when it goes in. It’s more invasive than it appears.

My relationship with the douche runs very deep. (Haha, deep.) In my first-hand account of surviving an abusive relationship, I mentioned that my ex-boyfriend informed me that he would not reciprocate oral sex unless I started douching (a practice which, according to him, all women were supposed to perform weekly). I began to douche compulsively — everyday, despite the label’s instructions — and in the end, it didn’t even matter to him. As it turned out, this was nothing more than yet another ploy in which he managed to assume control over my behavior, my appearance, and my self-image.

Even after I broke up with him, I continued douching out of shame and insecurity. I found myself becoming paralyzed by fear of ever having to open up my legs in front of another human being — all because a man I had been intimate with convinced me my vagina was somehow inadequate.

Now first, allow me to explain to you how the vagina works.

The vagina produces mucous naturally that allows it to clean itself. It also harbors all different kinds of bacteria that create a healthy pH balance that, if disturbed (by something like douching, for example, but also by any kind of deodorizing sprays), can result in vaginal irritation, yeast infections, bacterial vaginosis, sexually-transmitted infections, or pelvic inflammatory disease (the latter three of which can lead to complications during pregnancy).

Ironic then, isn’t it, that the douche has been historically marketed to clean the vagina and to prevent STIs. The fact remains that it does neither, and at best, it does absolutely nothing at all (neither harmful nor helpful).**

Originally, the douche was misappropriated as a birth-control device, and also as a popular method of rinsing out menstrual blood during or following a woman’s period. In reality, using a douche in this manner can be counterproductive, as it runs the risk of pushing unwanted fluids farther into the body.

In recent history, the douche has had one marketable purpose, and that is to eradicate “vaginal odor,” aka: the way a vagina smells when it’s actually, y’know, working.

So you see, the war on women did not start with Rep. Todd Akin’s inflammatory remarks two months ago about “legitimate rape” not being able to lead to pregnancy. And it didn’t start with Rep. Lisa Brown being banned from speaking on the floor of the State House in Michigan this past June for saying the word “vagina.” And it also didn’t start with states all over the country cutting funds to Planned Parenthood starting back in May either.

It’s been going on for a lot longer than that.

After oral contraceptives became available to women all across America in the 1970s, medical studies began to show the danger of the douche, and since then, it’s been common knowledge.

At least among doctors everywhere.

Because of my own personal experiences, and since engaging others in conversations about douching, it seems as though the knowledge of the potential harm that douching has on vaginal health is not actually so common. In fact, many of my peers (my ex-boyfriend included) seem to think that douching is a hygienic practice, while others simply are unaware as to what douching even is.

Well, allow me to enlighten you. The douche is an antiquated emblem of patriarchal oppression that takes something as incredible and awe-inspiring as the vagina and transforms it into something shameful, repulsive, and altogether misunderstood.

The vagina is supposed to smell like pussy, people. Not like a can of Lysol.

In conclusion, if you’ve come this far, and you still think women should douche, then congratulations — you’re a douche! 🙂

******

**N.B. — If, however, you do suspect you might actually have a problem, see your gynecologist for counsel. Don’t take a person with a penis’s word for it. (Unless, of course, your gynecologist has a penis, in which case … carry on.)

On “Proving It” (or Being A Survivor in the Skeptical Movement)

(Trigger Warning for discussion of rape [not explicit].)

I was a skeptic long before I was a victim of rape.

Well, I guess to say “long before” is a tad disingenuous of me. I became a skeptic just about a year before. But it was definitely one of my defining attributes at the time.

Just before venturing off to college, I found myself immersed in the online atheist/skeptic community, and the solace that I found there was the biggest driving force behind my decision to co-found my university’s Secular Student Alliance a year later.

But something happened in the meantime. And it was … well, I guess I’ve already told you all about that. Needless to say, as soon as I made sense of what had actually happened to me, that replaced everything else as my predominant marker, my new most defining attribute. I was a rape survivor. A feminist. An advocate of sexual assault awareness.

Oh, and I was also a skeptic. An atheist. And I had been for a while.

Something I’ve noticed recently, though, since embracing my newfound identity as a feminist and survivor of sexual assault (and everything unpleasant that comes along with that), is that the skeptical community is largely comprised of straight, white, educated, cisgendered men.

What’s wrong with that, you may ask? Well, nothing inherently. But I’ll tell you what happens.

All five of those prevailing characteristics carry with them what is referred to as privilege. (Eek! It’s a buzzword, I know. Please keep reading anyway, despite your desire to:  (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻. I will be arriving at the point in a mere moment.) When a person has privilege, it means they experience the world unlike others who lack their respective privilege — and in a good way. It’s not their fault that they’re privileged. But it does mean that they have a responsibility to be aware of their privilege and to, in turn, lend more of an ear to the experiences of others who have not been endowed with said privilege, rather than relying on their own perceptions of the world to determine all of their worldly perspectives.

That might sound vague, so allow me to illustrate what I mean.

A person who has never been the victim of sexual violence has privilege over those of us who have.* They don’t have to live with the post-traumatic effects of sexual violence. They don’t have to have their lives disrupted by triggers or flashbacks or incapacitating fear of repeated abuse. They don’t have to even necessarily think about sexual assault at any point as they go from one day to the next. It’s just not a presence in their lives. It is so far removed from them, that when they hear about it, they have no bearing on it as a concrete event, only as a concept.

And with mere conceptions, naturally, come misconceptions.

Oftentimes, you’ll hear a skeptic (usually a man, I’ve found) say, in response to the subject of sexual assault and/or harassment, something like, “If we’re an evidence-based community, that should go for all things.” Or perhaps, “Until we have all the facts, we can’t come to any logical conclusion.” Or even, “Anecdotal evidence is not evidence.”

All of which, by the way, are statements that, given any other context, I would wholeheartedly agree with.

But here’s the problem. The realities of rape are severe. And they’re just that: realities. We’re not talking about reports of supernatural activity. We’re not talking about UFO sightings or near-death experiences or ghosts. We’re not talking about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence. We’re talking about rape. And rape is real.

Now, you might be thinking, “but cassy! that’s not very skepticism of u!” and you may be right. But I’m not going to throw a bunch of statistics at you right now, because they’re all outdated and probably wrong anyway (I’ve never heard a rape statistic that I didn’t think was guilty of actually understating the problem, given what I know about the experiences of those who have opened up around me), and besides, you’ve heard it all before. (But just in case you haven’t, HERE. Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

What I am going to say is this: Rape happens so much more frequently than you think. There are — without a doubt — women (and men) in your life who have been sexually assaulted, and more often than not, have left you in the dark about it, because we live in a vicious society where victims are blamed for circumstances out of their control and no one is properly taught about consent or what to expect from a healthy relationship. And no, they cannot provide you with proof. What proof do you think they will have at their disposal? Do you think they thought to take video of it with their iPhones? Do you think the perpetrator will actually come forward and confess upon being asked if the events happened “as alleged”? Do you think there’s some sort of test that can be performed in a lab somewhere that will demonstrate exactly how the Raped party screamed “No!” but the Rapist didn’t listen? What is it that you want? What is it that you think you’ll find if you investigate the claim to its “logical conclusion”?

When it comes to rape, all you have is anecdotal evidence. And you know what else? No matter how much doubt you have about the events described, I guarantee you that the victim of the assault is experiencing those doubts inside his/her head on a level wholly unimaginable to you. And they’re blaming themselves. And they feel certain that no one is going to believe them.

And when they finally do tell someone, maybe that someone does nothing else but simply live up to those expectations, so that their newfound confidante just drives them back into their vacuous pit of doubt and self-loathing — only even farther this time, because the more that those doubts are validated, the more likely the person suffering for them is not going to make it back out of that darkness the next time.

And that’s a fact, by the way, since facts are what you so fervently require.

“What about rape kits?” you might ask. Well, I don’t know if you heard about the rape kit backlog fiasco that’s been going on for decades, but that’s taken a major toll on the system’s credibility, and people are still rallying nationwide to push for the end of the backlog.

Secondly, the rape cases that these kits would predominantly bring to justice are those rapes perpetrated by strangers (due to the fact that in all other cases, the perpetrator is already identifiable), which, if you know the first thing about sexual assault, is among the least common realizations of rape.

And lastly, due to the rape culture in which we live, victims of sexual assault often struggle to come to terms with the fact that they have been, in fact, assaulted — their first instinct is not so much to call the police or a rape crisis hotline, as much as it is to stay paralyzed for weeks, months, or even years, stun-stained with shame and shock and fear — and above all else, doubt. Particularly when it’s an instance of acquaintance rape because — as you might be able to imagine — it’s especially challenging to try to wrap your brain around the fact that someone you know, someone you trust, someone you may even love, has violated you so consummately.

And that’s why our current system of testing, investigating, and prosecuting is so unreliable.

Yes, I understand that false rape allegations are also problematic and destructive. They can ruin lives as well. The number that is often trotted out as the rate of false rape reporting (and this is just out of the rapes that actually get reported, which is the minority of all the rapes that actually occur, so just let that sink in for a bit there) is 8% … But what does “false” mean, in this context?

When you hear people cite a rape allegation as “false,” they are many times unwittingly referring to the cases that are merely “unfounded” — which, if you’re unfamiliar with the lingo, generally means neither proven nor disproven.

In other words, “a report of rape might be classified as unfounded (rather than as forcible rape) if the alleged victim did not try to fight off the suspect, if the alleged perpetrator did not use physical force or a weapon of some sort, if the alleged victim did not sustain any physical injuries, or if the alleged victim and the accused had a prior sexual relationship.”

That last one is the real stinger for me. By the FBI’s standards, my rape would have been tossed aside as “unfounded” had I reported it. And with our justice system the way it is, can you really blame me for having not?

This is not to say that false reports never occur. Surely, they must. But given how grossly underreported rape is, and how the fear of being disbelieved and/or blamed is one of the key contributors to that problem, and how damaging those attitudes can be to a survivor’s mental health … I’d say that the most logical thing to do in this scenario would be to suspend your skepticism. Just for long enough to believe for one minute that there might actually be something real that’s beyond your understanding.

It happened to me.

And it shouldn’t have to be my burden to “prove it.”

******

*Re: privilege — someone noted on Reddit in response to this post that “Not being raped isn’t a privilege, it’s a right.” AGREED!