Full Dis­clo­sure

Re­port­ing sex­ual as­sault is about more than ex­pos­ing a crime

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Lau­ren Mck­eon

Last year, I did some­thing un­ex­pected: I wrote a story about my high-school rape. I had never wanted to share de­tails with fam­ily, my friends, or even other sur­vivors, and I cer­tainly did not want any­body to know how it broke me — an un­clean break­ing, not in half, but in chipped in­cre­ments. Even as an adult, fif­teen years later, fear and shame choked my words.

As a jour­nal­ist who of­ten writes about women’s is­sues, my si­lence was es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult dur­ing the out­rage over the Jian Ghome­shi sex­ual-as­sault trial. Then, a cou­ple weeks be­fore his ac­quit­tal, I had a meet­ing with a mag­a­zine editor in a down­town Toronto cof­fee shop. When our talk turned to the case, I lamented that the charged na­tional dis­cus­sion about the al­le­ga­tions meant women’s voices were of­ten muted. This was un­sur­pris­ing. Given the back­lash against Ghome­shi’s ac­cusers, few women wanted to come for­ward with their own ex­pe­ri­ences of as­sault.

And so when I heard my­self say­ing I’ll do it, it was as if some­one else had reached down my throat and scooped out an­other per­son’s war­bling voice. I knew that once I told, my story wouldn’t be mine any­more. Peo­ple could share it and dis­sect it. I would be ex­pected to ac­count for my actions: what I did at the time, why I waited so long to speak out, why I never re­ported it. We’ve seen this process in high-pro­file cases — with the evis­cer­a­tion of Ghome­shi’s ac­cusers, of course, but also with the women who accused Bill Cosby, Don­ald Trump, Roger Ailes, Bill O’reilly, and, this fall, Harvey Weinstein.

A few days be­fore my ar­ti­cle came out (in Toronto Life), I told my mother about my as­sault and what it did to me. The mo­ment was noth­ing like the one I’d con­structed for years in my head. Her com­pas­sion sur­prised me, even though it shouldn’t have. I also shouldn’t have been sur­prised that she knew some­thing of what I felt. It was in the same spirit of speaking out that the so­cial me­dia cam­paign #Metoo mush­roomed after news about Weinstein broke. In its first ten days, the hash­tag was tweeted nearly 2 mil­lion times in eighty-five coun­tries — peo­ple (mostly but not ex­clu­sively women) us­ing it to say that they, too, had been ha­rassed or as­saulted.

There is a per­sis­tent nar­ra­tive that if women di­vulge their ex­pe­ri­ences sooner and more of­ten, we’ll solve the prob­lem of rape and sex­ism at cor­re­spond­ing rates. We ask, “Why didn’t they come for­ward ear­lier?” We for­get that while we pay at­ten­tion to ac­cusers en masse, we tend to ig­nore them if they are alone — and even when we do pay at­ten­tion, our span is short. We for­get that be­fore there was #Metoo, there was #Been­raped­n­ev­er­re­ported and #Ye­sall­women. We for­get the re­port­ing process is bru­tal and con­vic­tion rates are dis­as­trously low.

It’s es­ti­mated that 35 per­cent of women, at most, re­port their rape to po­lice. At the same time, only six out of ev­ery 1,000 re­ported rapes will re­sult in in­car­cer­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to data from the Rape, Abuse & In­cest Na­tional Network in the US. Women who face ha­rass­ment in the work­place rarely fare bet­ter. A 2016 joint study be­tween the Uk-based Trade Union Congress and the Ev­ery­day Sex­ism Project, for ex­am­ple, found that more than half of the 1,533 women sur­veyed — and nearly two-thirds of those aged eigh­teen to

twen­ty­four — had ex­pe­ri­enced sex­ual ha­rass­ment in the work­place. The vast ma­jor­ity of re­spon­dents didn’t re­port it to their em­ploy­ers, and nearly three-quar­ters of those who did said that noth­ing changed. For 16 per­cent of women who did speak up, things ac­tu­ally got worse.

But “jus­tice” needn’t be the only point of telling. We tell to know we’re not alone. We tell to let other women know they’re not alone. We tell to re­mind our­selves that it hap­pened. We tell to di­min­ish self-blame. Many sur­vivors do, in the end, dis­close; there is a lack of com­pre­hen­sive data, but many stud­ies peg it to be­tween two-thirds and three-quar­ters. Dis­clo­sure is a broader act than re­port­ing: it can mean telling a friend or fam­ily mem­ber; it can mean tweet­ing #Metoo. Less than half of women who do tell dis­close within the first three days, and up to one-third wait a year or more. Aca­demic re­search has found that when dis­clo­sure is met with sup­port, it helps; when it is dis­missed or dis­dained, the harm is se­vere. As much as we may want to tell, we need oth­ers to lis­ten. No sur­vivor owes any­body their story.

Islept fit­fully in the nights be­fore my ar­ti­cle was pub­lished. I wor­ried about name-call­ing and back­lash. I wor­ried about how my col­leagues would re­act, how the fam­ily mem­bers and friends I hadn’t yet briefed would re­act, how this might de­fine me for any­body who could google. One morn­ing, I woke up to the flash­ing blue of my phone, alert­ing me to my first email about the story. Sub­ject: “Thank you.” I sat up slowly, hunched over my screen at 7:33 a.m. on a Satur­day. Be­cause, even though this email seemed promis­ing, I was scared. “[I] want to thank you for ar­tic­u­lat­ing so well a story that so many of us live and lie about,” the email opened. My heart thud­ded wildly. The writer, a wo­man, went on to say she was sure that shar­ing my story would be a way for oth­ers to fi­nally open up to friends and lovers about their own sto­ries, their “own past shame.”

In the fol­low­ing days, my email and Face­book in­boxes were flooded. One young wo­man in Aus­tralia booked her first-ever ther­apy ap­point­ment. An­other wo­man wrote that her shame was thirty years old — al­most as long as my en­tire life­time. Yet an­other wrote that after read­ing my piece, her own “per­sonal story and his­tory be­came very con­scious.” Ev­ery day, she thought about the fact that she couldn’t tell her two daugh­ters their fa­ther, her ex-hus­band, had once raped her.

I’d writ­ten the piece to tell those with no ex­pe­ri­ence of rape what it was like. I never thought it would give other women per­mis­sion to tell what had hap­pened to them.

Since my story was pub­lished, I’ve been fea­tured in a Na­ture of Things doc­u­men­tary about PTS D. I’ve been asked about my rape on live ra­dio, dur­ing guest lec­tures at uni­ver­si­ties, at par­ties, and at con­fer­ences — some­times, that’s what I’m there to talk about, but more of­ten it isn’t.

As much as I’ve found heal­ing in be­ing “the rape girl,” I still some­times yearn for what I gave up: my si­lence. Telling, I’ve learned, can gen­er­ate its own mo­men­tum, and once you’ve started, it’s some­thing you’re ex­pected to do over and over again. But that de­sire for si­lence is in the past — rest­ing with an­other ver­sion of me that al­lowed her­self to be de­fined by it. Ev­ery time I talk about my rape now, my voice feels like my own, the shame smaller. I hope, one day, this telling won’t have to be so pub­lic, that we won’t feel the need to prove that rape is real.

Some fem­i­nist schol­ars be­lieve the pub­lic is glut­tonous for women’s trauma. I think that’s part of what makes some­thing like #Metoo such a phe­nom­e­non. But women them­selves are also aching to see their own lives rep­re­sented and re­flected. They’re starv­ing for as­sur­ance that they can tell and that there will be a point in that telling, a heal­ing, a con­nec­tion — for them and those around them.

After the doc­u­men­tary aired, I heard from still more women. One wrote: “Please know that it re­ally is help­ing peo­ple. I hope that it helps you too.” It has. It does. Ev­ery day.

Ev­ery time I talk about my rape now, my voice feels like my own, the shame smaller.

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