**trigger warning, darling.
In 1999, I was a sophomore in college in Boston. I was young, outspoken, and slightly combative. Basically, I was 19. I had taken all these qualities and formed a women’s organization at my college, W.A.I.L. (ah...that stands for “Women for Action Integrity and Learning). It was sort of bogus, I’ll admit it, I didn’t really know what I was doing, I had a lot of abrasive ideas that weren’t necessarily rubbing the right people. But I tried, truly I did, and I did the best with what I knew. We gave out a scholarship to a freshman woman, once or twice. Funded some gallery shows, and performances. My heart wanted to be in the right place, and at the time it was, I just didn’t know it was going to move somewhere clearer, later.
I would cringe at sharing the awesome name of my College Feminist Union if I wasn’t about to share something even more embarrassing. One of the things I loved doing the most was writing for and “designing” a newsletter called....Abigail Can Wail (a shout-out to our intelligent founding fore mothers , this newsletter was basically a “zine” (remember those days?) that I made and were paid for by the student government. It was pretty awesome.
I am often grateful that my youth narrowly escaped the documentation revolution. It was embarrassing and beautiful, and I’m glad it’s all been recycled. But, I have a box in the attic, it’s purple and has suns all over it, it sits above my hallway ceiling and I know, buried in that box is something terrible, a monster. A secret. One copy, perhaps the only one that exists, that documents my advocacy for rape culture.
It is an “article” about my experience at a Boston University Take Back the Night rally entitled, Take Back Your Power. Along the way, as my views changed and as I healed my own hurts, I remembered the article. I knew I had a copy and I could remember the way the rally had made me feel. I knew I would have written things that would pain me to read.
But all this coverage of the Steubenville rape trial, which seems to be a haters-hating Mardi Gras, I felt like it was time to take a look. I brought the box down from the attic and sat at the top of the stairs with it next to me. My kids were all excited, but this is a college box, you hear? I told them to hurry along. I sifted through some bad poetry, rants, and artwork, I found some old show flyers that made me smile and a few great pictures of friends. Then I saw it. It is the only copy of this newsletter I appear to have kept. I ran that thing monthly for two years or something. And somehow the only one I have left is the one that I believed to document my shame.
I pulled it out, heart pounding, and began to read. I outline the night, first I went to a talk by a date rape survivor. She told her story of date rape and implored the audience to do what they can to stop rape, don’t rape people, tell people your story. I describe her as weak and terrified. I wrote that she talked about her attacker like he was still plaguing her. I wrote that I felt like “she was being raped by him every time she gave her talk.” I cannot look at these observations objectively. Maybe she was, maybe she wasn't. There's no way to tell. But I do know this: at the time I was unaware of the power and strength that comes from standing in your vulnerability and fear and still telling your story. I went on to describe going outside for a rally where a woman from NOW spoke and women came up to the mic to tell their stories in traditional fashion. I wrote that I was dismayed at the lack of emphasis on empowering women. Then we marched all through the campus, had a moment of screaming instead of silence and ended with hot cocoa. I left dismayed, feeling like more women would feel more vulnerable, more powerless after that experience.
The rest of the article goes on to talk about “avoidable and unavoidable” rape, teaching women how to honor and protect their bodies by not using “bad judgement,” and I don’t want to tell you how many times I use the example of a drunk woman. At one point I even offer as a preventative that a woman could “not get as drunk.”
...hold on while I get my hairshit...
I do say a bunch of times that rape is wrong, that there’s never an excuse, never a good reason, it is never, ever a woman’s fault. But I can't seem to reconcile the facts that it’s not a woman's fault, but she still is required to protect herself from an unchecked threat. I did it clumsily and defensively, but to be honest, I still have a hard time reconciling those facts. Now, I just have a much broader understanding of the why’s and how's.
However, the demeaning language I used, and the disparaging comments about why women are raped, and an emphasis on the “bad judgments” of women, has everything to do with how I felt about myself and my experiences at the time. But if I look back on myself kindly (which I make a practice to do), I see a girl, who just a few years before had been through something traumatic, and she still wasn't sure what to do with it. At this point, she was believing she had been a fool, someone who felt worthless, and allowed this behavior to happen because she wasn't strong enough. At that point, the way I was fighting it was by making myself better than that shit. These women were not, in my mind, doing that. They were reveling in it, I thought, calling themselves “victims.” It made me feel sick to my stomach. If this made you a victim....and the thought never got much further than that before I lashed out in the kindest, most academic way I knew how. By pandering to both sides with a little unexpected self-hatred in the form of controversy.
I was called out by one person. A woman in my class. I asked her what she thought and she looked so disappointed, she said simply, “You hardly gave an instance of rape that didn't involve a woman being drunk.” I felt it, but pushed passed, unwilling to look at what that might mean for what I believed about rape or myself.
“Rape Culture” is just “Our Culture.” Everyone is touched by it, whether you care to see it or not. I needed to believe that it was my mistake that made that happen and not something done to me so I could believe I could prevent it next time. I needed to not feel so weak and vulnerable. I was “manning up,” “shaking it off,” I was playing by the rules. I inadvertently enforced the rape culture I was trying to make myself strong enough to defend myself against. In my silence, self-blame, and anger, I was unable to see the strength in a heart broken open.
I am truly sickened by the way the media covers rape trials and by the way they treat rape victims, but after I stop spitting blood, I take a moment to remember a time when I was not strong enough to witness the pain and strength that comes in the aftermath of being violated. A time when I would have rather distanced myself from those able to be in that pain and courage, by way of blame and cruelty, than face my own doubts and fears. I believe that is what is behind some of the ways people (and those in the media) choose their words. It was true for me. It’s not an excuse, and it’s not a reason to let people say hurtful things unchecked, but it is another reason for compassion.
I wonder sometimes if I hurt anyone with that article. There would really be no way to tell. I’m not even sure if people read it. If I did, I am truly sorry. I was scared, and I was a fool. I see you, Sister. I am standing with you.