Victim-Blaming

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Sadly, victim-blaming is a huge part of every survivors narrative. Questions are asked of her and her behaviour and demeanour that are never asked of a victim of any other type of crime. Questions like:

‘What were you wearing?’

‘How much had you had to drink?’

‘Why were you there on your own?’

‘Did you lead him on?’

‘What did you expect?’

‘Boys will be boys.’

‘Why didn’t you just tell him to stop?’

‘Why didn’t you just fight him off?’

A woman’s previous sexual experience and the fact that men can’t really help themselves will be discussed in certain quarters. This puts the onus on women to accept responsibility for, not just their own behaviour, but that of men as well.

The bottom line is that victims of rape and sexual assault are blamed for what happened to them. As a result, a lot of victims blame themselves. This sort of victim-blaming is used particularly around young children to ensure that they stay quiet and don’t report the abuse because they are told that society, power, people in charge will not believe them – or will blame them for what happened to them.

Should a victim have the temerity, the audacity, and the courage to even attempt to seek some form of justice (there’s that word again!), they will find that those who take the side of their abusers will blame and bully the victim. For many (such as the members of my own immediate family), this helps them to avoid dealing with their own culpability, shame, and guilt around their own abuse of the victim. Or the fact that they allowed the abuse to continue by refusing to do anything to help the victim. Far, far, easier to blame the victim than to look in the mirror and take responsibility for how they made matters worse (or, at the very least, refused to make them better) for the victim.

 

 

 

 

 

Unsexy

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Here’s the thing about sexual abuse – it’s not sexy. In fact, it’s decidedly unsexy. For those of us who have lived through sexual abuse, sexual assault, or sexual harassment, one of the things that can be really difficult is disclosing to a (potential) sexual partner.

When survivors enter into new romantic/intimate relationships, the twin questions of when, and how, to disclose to this person can be difficult. Until you actually disclose, you can’t be sure how the other person will react – and, of course, you don’t want them to feel uncomfortable. Minimizing what you’ve been through might help the other person to feel less uncomfortable, but you’ll be doing yourself a dis-service. I would suggest discussing the approach you plan on taking with someone else; a trusted friend, relative, therapist or counsellor.

It’s never going to be easy to have the discussion, it’s never going to be easy to disclose (and, if you’re like me, you’ll resent having to every single time). After disclosure (which I always think feels like a ‘warning’), the unsexiness doesn’t end. There is the difficulty that every survivor encounters when they attempt to blossom as a sexual being. For many of us, the easiest thing is to exit the scene. By that I mean be sexually available to your partner, but unable to actually take part in the event. [Edit: I talk more about this here]. For many survivors of sexual assault, reclaiming their own sexuality is one of the hardest things they will ever have to do – not least because so few people understand, or appreciate,  the difficulties and complexities surrounding this reclamation. It’s decidedly unsexy.

Being a participant, rather than an observer, in your own sex-life, is the least we can expect. Getting there can, however, be decidedly unsexy.

Truth

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Keats would have us believe that ‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’. We all know how that feels. To be in the presence of the truth, knowing that what is being presented is authentic and honest and real.

 

The truth can be a very difficult thing to articulate. As Erik De Soir, the trauma and crisis specialist, said ‘There are certain traumas that cannot be spoken of’ because the person who was traumatised is so profoundly affected by the experience, that they either cannot, or dare not, speak of it. This is part of the reason why I write, and speak, of the uncomfortable truths that are mine: I am quite sure that my experiences, and reactions to them, are not unique to me.  In this, I have been proved correct time and again: Every time I publish something, I am contacted by people – usually complete strangers – to let me know that I have written something that applied to them, and that having read my words, they no longer feel alone.  That response is worth any amount of discomfort that I might feel about revealing intimate details of my life and experiences.

 

People, sadly, have an interesting relationship with the truth. My own family, for example, has been aware of the abuse I suffered – and at whose hands.  I disclosed to family members individually, over the years; and my truth was never denied by the perpetrators, nor questioned by the other members of the family. As long as I was prepared to keep it secret. Nearly seven years ago, in therapy, I realised that the my mental health problems stemmed entirely from the abuse I had suffered as a child, and the continuing abuse from my family members.

 

So I removed myself from the ‘family’ and – in a quest for justice (which I wrote about here)  – I started legal proceedings against the two brothers who had raped me. Since then, other members of my ‘family’ have adopted a revisionist approach to the truth. I have no insight into their motives for lying, but suspect that they are fearful of having to examine their own wilful interaction with highly abusive men. In a conversation I had with my ‘mother’ in October, she repeatedly said ‘It’s not my place to tell them’ – ‘them’ being the women in my brothers’ lives. These women know the truth of course, but refuse to accept the evidence in front of them. I was sure that the mother of the rapists confirming that I speak only the truth, would make a difference to these women, and inspire them to do something to help their own kids.

 

At this stage, all I can do is continue to tell the truth. Every time I am challenged by one of these abusive people, Anne Lamott’s quote (from Bird by Bird) floats into my brain:

‘You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.’

 

A few weeks ago, I spoke at an event. Afterwards, an older woman came up to me and called me a ‘truth teller’, and went on to say that I had chosen a hard path. She’s right; but what’s harder for me – what literally makes me sick – is denying the truth.

 

Statistics

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The SAVI – Sexual Abuse and Violence in Ireland –  report was published in 2002. It details the attitudes, beliefs and experiences of people with regard to sexual abuse in Ireland, and it makes for grim reading. Three thousand randomly-selected adults were surveyed for the report. Given the random-selection of participants, and the fact that the response rate was over 71%, it is safe to say that the findings can be extrapolated into the general population. Overall, almost one-third of women, and a quarter of men reported some level of sexual abuse in childhood. Attempted or actual penetrative sex was experienced by 7.6 per cent of girls, and 4.2 per cent of boys. Equivalent rape or attempted rape figures in adulthood (adults were defined as those aged 17 and over) were 7.4 per cent for women and 1.5 per cent for men.

 

The SAVI Report is now 14 years old, and I really do think it’s time we had another. We would like to think that attitudes towards sexual assault have changed in the (almost) decade and a half since the SAVI Report was published. Changed for the better, I mean. And I, for one, would like to know what the numbers currently are in Ireland. I’d like to think that revelations about institutions have made people more confident in speaking up. I’d like to think that some people being open about their experiences has made it easier for more people to be open about their experiences. And, yeah, I include myself in that.

 

The most recent statistics the Rape Crisis Network Ireland has are from 2013. A quick look at those numbers tells us that 2,467 people made 22,460 appointments for counselling and support. The Rape Crisis Network answered the phone 32,026 times to people who needed to talk. Horrifyingly, 61% of survivors who reported being abused as teenagers were raped. Of all the people who reported being sexually assaulted, 91% knew the person who attacked them.

 

These numbers are deeply disturbing, suggesting that sexual violence is still a part of everyday life for too many women, children, and men in our society. We need a consistent, sustained campaign to teach our nation about a variety of connected issues and to combat the persistent rape culture that permits and promotes the persistent sexual abuse of vulnerable people.

 

 

Quitting

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Quitting. Quitting everything – including life itself – is an attractive proposition to many people. To those of us who have survived sexual abuse, however, it can feel more attractive, more frequently, than it does to members of the general population. How often, and how strongly, you feel like quitting depends on a number of factors, but support is key to helping you get through the bad minutes, hours and days.

 

In this blog post, I am speaking directly to people who have been sexually assaulted, and who feel like quitting.

 

Sometimes, the first person you can turn to for support is yourself. Sometimes, the only person you can turn to for support is yourself. Before you consider quitting this life, please read this first:

  •  Please do not do anything to harm yourself today. Give it 24 hours, and remember that your record for getting through days like today is 100%.

 

  • Feeling suicidal is not a failing on your part. These feelings arise when the level of pain someone is feeling exceeds their ability to cope with that pain. You just need to figure out a way to either lessen the pain, or increase your coping mechanisms. Both are possible.

 

  • If your suicidal feelings are being caused by flashbacks, a useful thing to do is to ground yourself and remind yourself that even though you feel like you are living the experience again, you’re not. You are not being assaulted in this instant. What can be hugely helpful in these instances is to be aware of what is happening to you in this moment. Look around you. See who is in the room with you. Name them. Look at what you are wearing. Name it. Look at the room you are in. Name it. Describe things you can see in the room with you. Keep going until the flashback (or intrusive thought, whatever you want to call it) is gone. Repeat as often as necessary.

 

  • If the pain is too much for you to bear on your own, don’t even try. Reach out to someone who will understand you. That last bit is very important – very often, survivors reach out to people who are not supportive, or who appear to be supportive, but really aren’t. Call your local rape crisis centre. Call or text the Samaritans. They will not judge you, but they will help you. If you have a good relationship with a mental health professional or service, give them a ring and let them know how you are feeling. Ask for help. You are worth it.

 

  • When the suicidal feelings pass – and they will – don’t judge yourself for feeling like quitting. Be kind to yourself afterwards. Acknowledge that you were having a really hard time, and congratulate yourself for getting through it.

 

 

 

Public Property

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One of the most awful ‘side-effects’ of sexual abuse, for me, was the re-victimisation I was subjected to as a teenager, as a young adult, and even as an older adult. When you have been abused by several members of your immediate family, and then abused again by strangers and others, you do end up feeling a bit like public property. I wrote about that feeling when I was about sixteen, and am re-producing the text here:

 

Public Property

I am public property
You can own me, if you like
Anyone can own me.
All you have to do is ask.
Or drop a few subtle hints.
Or pretend you really want to.
Doesn’t make much difference.
At least, not to me.
I don’t care.
I am public property.

I am public property.
Whatever I have is yours.
I have no secrets, no dreams,
No hopes, no ambitions.
They all belong to you.
You wrested them from me.
I could not fight to keep them.
I have no right to them, really.
They’re not actually mine.
I have nothing.
I am public property.

I am public property.
You’re allowed to play with me.
Use me at your own discretion.
Tear me up, wear me out.
Grind me down – you’re allowed.
I won’t protest.
I don’t protest.
I can’t protest.
I am not allowed.
I am public property.