While I think the conversation of sexual assault must involve everyone, not just survivors (and that it shouldn’t take a choir of voices for each story to be heard), I’m relieved that a space has opened up, even if just a little, for those of us saying, “me too.” Scroll through your social media feeds or surround yourself with a group of women and chances are you’ll encounter several firsthand accounts of sexual assault. Of course, this form of violence is not exclusive to women, but it happens to a staggering one in every six of us, according to RAINN. So when MyDomaine editors got together to discuss how we were feeling about Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey’s New York Times report on Harvey Weinstein, the air was taut with things felt but unsaid. With such a pervasive, overwhelming epidemic that extends far beyond the most recent round of headlines, how do we begin?
There’s no one right way to respond to any kind of violence, but I and the rest of the MyDomaine editorial team think this is important to address. I'll begin with what I know, which for me is the physical sensation. When I read the personal accounts of assault in a New Yorker piece by Ronan Farrow, my mind was clear, but my body reminded me how trauma tends to shapeshift and echo unexpectedly. First it felt like a tight band around my chest, and later it settled in my throat and eyelids as a dull, liquid ache. Right now it’s a stubborn but barely there lightness that I can’t quite access. And before you keep reading, just know that my story has sensitive content that might be triggering.
It made me think of the time I was walking to the gym inside my previous apartment building when a resident cornered and groped me. I went to the security offices downstairs, watched the video footage, and filed a report that day. In some ways, the detachment of watching it happen through a camera echoed the freezing out-of-body sensation that had overcame me during the actual experience. It also seems to vindicate it—this was not my fault. The detectives on the case called me for days, but I stopped answering once the man was evicted.
After a previous, much more traumatizing sexual assault, I had also chosen not to seek legal retribution. In a world where rapists often don’t even think of themselves as rapists, I was afraid no one would believe me, that he’d return, or worse, that I was making a huge deal of nothing. Was I a coward for not pressing charges? No. I’ve never known anything more certainly than I know there is no right or wrong response to what happened, but what I feel isn’t always the same as what I know. I’ve had to learn to recognize my shame for what it is: another thing I did not ask for.
I also know that there are not always clear answers in what feels like an unhealable event. But there is a duty to bear witness to these events and combat the actions and words that enable or normalize them. To start reshaping the conversation around sexual assault and become more compassionate victim advocates, we created a list of some problematic everyday sayings and mindsets to call out when you hear them, or to consider challenging if you hear yourself using them.
Why didn't she fight back?
There are real, scientific reasons many survivors do not physically or sometimes even verbally fight during a high-stress situation. As James Hopper, Ph.D., of the Harvard Medical School explains, “In states of high stress, fear, or terror like combat and sexual assault, the prefrontal cortex is impaired—sometimes even effectively shut down—by a surge of stress chemicals. Most of us have probably had the experience of being suddenly confronted by an emergency, one that demands some kind of clear thinking, and finding that precisely when we need our brain to work at its best, it seems to become bogged down and unresponsive.” To be clear, though each state defines it differently, dissent is not always an overt, physical act of resistance, nor is it always verbally communicated with a “no.” It needs to be given enthusiastically and continuously in a state of mental clarity.
Why did it take so long to come forward?
There is not a normal or right way to respond in the aftermath of a sexual assault, and there isn’t necessarily a distinct moment of clarity directly following the crisis, nor is the healing process a linear one. The reverberations of trauma are vast and varied, often impacting the way we both experience and recall an event in its aftermath. There are various reasons someone would not come forward at all or would wait to come forward after some time has passed.
One reason, as Judith Herman, Ph.D., explains in Trauma and Recovery, is memory, and “people who have survived atrocities often tell their stories in a highly emotional, contradictory, and fragmented manner that undermines their credibility.” As Hopper described to Time, “When the executive center of our brain goes offline, we are less able to willfully control what we pay attention to, less able to make sense of what we are experiencing, and therefore less able to recall our experience in an orderly way.” That does not mean they are untrustworthy accounts or uncredible victims.
They're such a nice person…
It can be hard to confront the reality that many powerful systems and organizations are more compassionate toward rapists than they are to the person who has been violated. For example, Brock Turner’s father gave a statement saying his son’s “life will never be the one that he dreamed about and worked so hard to achieve,” calling it “a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20-plus years of life.” For those who aren’t familiar with the case, Turner is the former Stanford swimmer who made headlines in 2015 after raping a classmate. But if we continue to be active in this conversation and insist on defining rape as a crime rather than a mistake that anyone can make, perhaps things will begin to change.
It's complicated when the lines are blurred…
“You can call him a perpetrator and her a victim, but in my mind, it’s more complicated than that.” This quote comes from the defense attorney in the Owen Labrie rape that occurred at St. Paul’s boarding school. The phraseology of the encounter as “more complicated” relies on the damaging myth that there’s a distinction between “real rape” and non-consensual sex. If we don’t leave room for ambiguity, then our judicial system will better protect, support, and serve all survivors equally while also setting a new standard of behavior, hopefully preventing other cases of assault.
They did X, and they were asking for it.
Sexual assault is not a miscommunication nor a misunderstanding. Under no circumstances is assault a victim’s fault, and in general, we need to start paying more attention to the assailant’s behavior rather than the survivor’s. For example, a piece of evidence examined in the Labrie trial was a text message from Labrie’s friend following the alleged assault: “How’d it go from no to bone?” To which Labrie responded, “I just pulled all the tricks in the book.” Labrie’s friend expressed that the accuser verbalized non-consent, while Labrie himself even implied coercion, but the defense built its entire case around the fact that the victim messaged him before the assault took place. Meanwhile, their blatantly sexist language and interpretation of sex as a conquest were overlooked. Again, this is why education is so key to prevention.
They had a relationship and consented on a separate occasion, so how can we believe them?
As Jia Tolentino wrote for The New Yorker, “When you are treated like an object, things about you that you cannot change are reframed. If a man interprets your youth as sexual vulnerability, he can make it seem that you have no choice but to be sexually vulnerable … and so you might conclude that you need to redeem the encounter within a narrative that you may not like but in which you can at least actively participate. This might mean engaging in consensual sex afterward, to make you feel like you wanted it the first time, though you know you didn’t. Or staying friendly with the man in the hopes that you’ll find out that he actually did value you, and he wasn’t just hoping for access to your body. Or even trying to get something out of the transaction, whatever you can. This looks like weakness, but it’s an attempt to gain control.” That is just one of the reasons we can and should believe them.
It's their word against theirs.
Statistically speaking, false allegations of sexual assault and harassment are the exception, not the rule. Sexual assault still isn’t okay when it happens once, and every story is deserving of our attention, whether it was carried out by a repeat offender or not, a public figure or not, and so on. In Her Body and Other Parties, author Carmen Maria Machado puts it simply: “There are true things in this world observed by a single set of eyes.”
If you have experienced sexual assault or harassment and are seeking support, guidance, or more information, the resources below are a great place to start: