Reporting sexual assault is about more than exposing a crime
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.