***Trigger warning, my dear.
The verdict was guilty at the Steubenville rape trial Sunday, March 17th. And thank God. This trial has affected me deeply and I could go on and on simply about the victim blaming, or the culture of male power and dominance in the town, and our overall culture of rape. I could, so can all these people, and better than I can. But I am compelled to speak to this case.
When I found out about this young girl, ready to have fun, irresponsible with alcohol, surrounded by people who don’t seem to care for her, vulnerable in the hands of people who don’t even see her humanity, dressed the way young girls dress when they’re young, and free and searching out their place, I saw a familiar face. Unfortunately I saw shockingly familiar faces in those of the rapists as well.
I was a thirteen year-old girl in a similar situation once. Only it was much more muddy than you could ever pretend this case was. I was never intoxicated, I arrived multiple times at the house of a “friend” where I would inevitably be met with physical and sexual abuse. Or was it abuse? Was it abusive if I was humiliated but consenting? In pain but willing to be in it? Is it consent if I’m afraid to lose the attention, even if it is the attention of a wiffle ball bat?
I was beaten, violated, humiliated, blamed (by myself and others), tormented (again, inside and out), my body was verbally dissected and mocked, and I didn't even begin to think of it as anything other than a mistake on my part for many years.
It gets murky. Over time, I've come to realize that in a very real way, I abused myself in that situation. I don’t mean in a victim-blaming way, I simply mean I allowed myself to be abused because I didn't know that I was able to not allow that sort of behavior. The bond between myself and my sexuality had been severed long ago by an uncaring hand. I was not fully aware of it at the time, but this behavior was familiar.
I was plagued by remorse for years afterwards. A few years of eating disorders, a foray into cutting, and some spectacular failures eventually brought me from honor roll student, and president of my sophomore class to a high school dropout preparing for my GED. I will readily admit there were more factors than this incident, and I went to college and now I’m awesome with an awesome husband, and awesome kids. So what’s the point? The point is this incident helped to change me in a very real way. It took away the very power I needed to get me through the years that were coming. It made me feel that I couldn't trust myself, and I was right. It made me feel I couldn't trust men, and so far that was right too. I felt used and disgusting. And that cost me years of appreciating how wonderful I am, and in this culture, that is a death sentence.
I doubt those boys (now men) ever think about it. And if they do, I bet they remember it as a fun summer. For them, those memories are true. They had a willing participant for their twisted games and juvenile fantasies. I was awake, speaking, moving, willing. They didn't know to respect me and I never thought to ask.
Because girls need to ask not to be treated like toys. Are you with me here? Girls need to say "No.” audibly and clearly for it to be ok for men not to assault them or use them for sexual gratification or comedy. We need to ask for temporary sovereignty over our own bodies because we don't own it already. Having to say "no" is the presumption that as long as women aren't fighting or strongly stating their disapproval, men can do with the female body what they like. And if a rape does go to trial, the goal seems to be to try and discern how likely it was that this girl had really said, “No.” Having to say "no" is the presumption that, under normal circumstance women's bodies already belong to men.
I tracked down one of the guys from my “fun summer.” He was the one my new teenage heart really liked. He had been appearing in a lot of dreams of mine with apologies. (Here’s where you see more of my “woo” side). I felt compelled, by my ever-bleedin’ heart, to find him and offer my forgiveness just in case there was the tiniest possibility that his soul was calling out to me to close out a contract. I take soul contacts really seriously. The forgiveness was real, and I already had it. I had nothing to lose. So, I facebooked him and offered up my forgiveness and wished him a happy life. It wasn't until he responded by saying, basically, “I don’t know what I did, but sorry, and thank you,” that I fully understood the forgiveness was real. It didn't bother me he didn't know, and you better believe I believe him. I'm sure in his mind he didn't do anything wrong because he just did what you do to girls, unless they hit you or tell you “No.” super loud. His failure in not knowing differently, is not his alone. In the same way my failure to say no is not mine alone.
Our children are born into a culture that teaches girls their bodies’ don’t belong to them and boys can do what they want with whoever they choose. Just knowing that, and reminding people that it’s not true, is a decent start. We clearly need to start here because none of the kids in Steubenville did anything but jeer and document the violation and humiliation this girl was unknowingly receiving. Presumably no one told them that it’s not the way to treat human beings. Clearly some of our young men seem incapable of imaging what they would feel like if it were them, naked, penetrated, photographed and mocked to such an extreme degree that the thought of having a "dead girl" to play around with sexually is hilarious. Hilarious. What have we done?
Think for one moment about what would have happened if one of those boys was beating a dog? Or penetrating a dog’s anus or vagina? What? It can’t say no. What sort of public outcry would there be? Would people rally around the terrified pups as we found out the boys of this town had been breeding dogs for this and treating them like this for years. That everyone was in on it. Imagine two teenage boys beating an unconscious dog.
Know that everything in our culture says that beating a dog (although, also horrifying) deserves more outrage than raping an unconscious 16 year old girl, and post photographs of her unknown humiliation for the world to see because she was unable to let someone know that this time she wanted to keep her body to herself. If you think this case is extreme, if you think this is rare, all you have to do is follow the media coverage of this case to see the way we feel about girls who "get raped." Dogs win.
When I see young girls who have already survived the ordeal of rape, or humiliation, or exploitation of some kind and then have to deal with the abuse of the media and the abuse of the internet and their town, and most times the legal system, I want to...well, I want to kill.
Not specific people. And maybe not even humans. Just a general, kill. I want to bomb buildings and tear down grafittied, barbed-wired walls with my bare hands. I want to break through something makes me bleed with the effort. I want to stand atop a mountain of rubble and scream myself hoarse with rage and fear and revenge. I want to terrify.
I want to defend that child who has more work to do than she can even imagine right now. I want to protect her while she heals, and mourns and grieves. I want her to understand the failure of those around her to help her is theirs, and that she is worth saving. I want to infuse her with the wisdom to know what is and is not within her control. I want her to love herself. I want her to know how beautiful she is. I want her to gather the strength and courage it takes to face the long journey toward wholeness. I want her to have the space and time to do that. I want her to look out her window and see the faces of love and protection looking back at her. And I sort of want to be there with in fatigues and a rifle to make sure no one else can get in. For as long as it takes.
I received no “justice.” There is no justice for being victimized because you didn't know you don't have to be. That’s just called being a girl. I am glad this girl got her legal justice. While the news channels go on and on about the “consequences of spending years in juvenile detention,” and the “promising future” that they've lost because of their time there, this girl is forgotten. But despite what consequences come from their actions (which generally is the pitiless goal of the legal system) this 16 year-old girl will be left with the mess. Because when you’re raped, the mess is very literally deposited inside of you. Rape often leaves a lifetime of work for your heart and body. These boys are punished, but they have the opportunity for freedom from this crime in a way she never will.
I do have some pity for these boys, however. It is a small pittance and I have to pull it through some barricades. But it is this: These kids just found out that you’re not allowed to do that to other humans. They ruined their lives for now. They violated and humiliated a young girl. They tormented and complicated the lives of hundreds of people. Now, they are going to jail because they didn't know their actions would do any of those things. And, in a way, they are not completely to blame. They have been failed by the adults in their lives and by the way our culture treats women and sex and men and power. They were behaving in a way they had every reason to believe was acceptable, and now they are going to jail for it. That is a harsh reality.
But, that’s what (should) happen if you rape someone. The bodies of young girls shouldn't be thrown under the learning curve of arrogant men and boys. For those people who find themselves feeling sympathy for what these young men have lost, I would ask that you (spend some of those thought to the victim) realize that we are capable of preventing this for both the victim and the offenders and all their bright futures. It starts by treating girls and women like humans. And telling children that girls and women are humans. By making sure our young men know that joking about rape or treating girls like toys makes you a scumbag. And by making sure we tell our girls that their bodies are their own, and boys who treat them like toys or think rape is funny are scumbags.
I have been unable to look away from this case in part because it feels like looking away from myself, but more because I know this girl can’t look away. She is choosing to stand bravely in the face of it and speak her truth in the hopes of justice. And I will not look away from her struggle. I won’t pretend it’s not there, or that it doesn't matter. I won’t tell myself “it’s happening all the time” to dull the pain. I won’t turn my back and keep my victories for myself because I don’t want to remember the torment. I won’t feel relieved I can hide this from the world, like I should, like it’s my shame to hide.
This kid has a road ahead of her, and I will send my love to her heart every time I think of her. And I will think of her, I'm sure. I think of them all, my sisters in struggle. My Wolf Pack. It is possible to break free from the pain of these things. It's true, I've seen it, but when you do, the choice presents itself: Do you leave it behind in the compost, consider it something that you've risen above, helped to shape you into the gorgeous woman you've become? Or do you put that sucker in a half-sunk cast iron bath tub in a sunny spot in the garden, plant roses, and honor it as a gift to those who are going to need those blooms. They are both wonderful choices. And they are reversible.
I can't seem to gather the means necessary to wage guerrilla warfare on thoughts, and I hope it will be some time before I get an opportunity to tear down walls with my hands in any meaningful way, so, I will simply stand atop my pretend bloody rubble mountain and shout out my story:
“Once, people thought my body belonged to them. And they took it from me. And then I took it back.”