by Mira El Hussein
If you haven’t guessed by the title, this is going to be about sexual assault (surprise!). Much like the rest of my life, it’ll probably be quite messy and emotional at times- and since the only way I can cope with difficult topics is through a series of poorly timed jokes, this will also be full of those.
I’ve always been pretty quiet about my own experiences with this topic. Of course, I did my duty of sharing articles, talking about stats, denouncing asshole judges that say troubling shit. Publicly, I was an ally to the cause, I was doing my feminist duty by raising awareness for a cause that would ultimately affect one in four North American women, one in 33 men, where 91% of cases would go unreported. These facts are ones that are thrown around at pretty much every talk about consent- they’re repetitive, they’re dry, and despite illustrating the scope of the problem, they do a disservice in my opinion in that they make survivors of sexual assault feel like statistics. In a world in which crimes like this are, not only pervasive, but largely stigmatized and riddled with shame, I think it’s important that we start humanizing those who experience this kind of violence and start having actual conversations about it. Yeah, I said it. Conversations. It’s ok. Sexual assault is not a dirty word. We can in fact have conversations about meaningful solutions by centring the voices of survivors and not just looking at them with pity and murmuring some half assed apology that none of us really care to hear anymore. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself here.
Stats are important facts, but here are some other morsels of truth; three years ago I was sexually assaulted by a friend of a friend who I had really liked and had hung out with on previous occasions. It wasn’t in an alley or public bathroom. It wasn’t a stranger who I had never met. It wasn’t at all what you would picture when thinking of a scenario in which someone is assaulted. Which brings me to this- the threat of being assaulted is usually not that of a creepy man with a goatee and a receding hairline hiding in the back seat of your car. Do I need to repeat that one more time? Reread it. Then reread it again. One more time, just in case. More often than not, it’s the person sitting next to you in lecture, a friend of a friend, maybe your own friend or family member, even your partner. There’s this really fucked up narrative that almost only makes rape a bad thing if the person doing it to you, or the situation in which it’s being done, is akin to the subject of an old wive’s tale or a cautionary story about walking home alone at night. That’s not to say that the archetypal situation that I described isn’t valid, it is, but it isn’t nearly as common as one might think.
With all that said, I think it’s important to understand just how many people have been affected by this. I recently made a post in a Facebook group that I manage about how I was struggling to cope with this, I was feeling very confused and isolated, and I needed some support. Within three hours of making the post, six of my friends who were in the group came forward to tell me about their own stories. Six people within my immediate circle of friends, from the fraction of my friends are even in that group to begin with. Think about the fact that one person knows at least six people who have experienced sexual assault. Now think about how many people you might know, or how many people you already know- myself included now, I guess. Not only are these numbers ridiculous, they’ve also been almost accepted as a super sad and upsetting reality that none of us can change because boo hoo, everything sucks and none of us can do anything!! I’m really tired of living with this sentiment. I’m really tired of a culture of silence, shame, and humiliation.
I shouldn’t be embarrassed that someone literally committed a crime against me. It shouldn’t have taken me three years to be able to talk about it because I was too ashamed. I shouldn’t have been one of the first people my friends had ever told. None of us should ever be made to feel this ashamed because let me tell you, the people who did it are probably having a grand old time, free of panic attacks at parties or appointments with therapists. We never really question what someone did to provoke being murdered, we don’t ask a victim of a mugging why they didn’t take the earlier train home, we don’t ask someone who got punched in the face outside of a bar why they decided to go to a bar when they know it’ll be rowdy, so why do we ask survivors of sexual assault what they did to deserve this? Or what they did to stop it? Or what they didn’t do to stop it? The rhetoric that implies that the onus is on me to avoid being assaulted is tired, outdated, and fucking ridiculous. “Why didn’t you do anything?” yeah, you’re totally right, if my vagina could grow teeth then I definitely wouldn’t be in this mess- evolution has failed me again! There is only one factor to be considered in cases of sexual assault. Just one. The assailant.
There’s no such thing as someone being to blame for being sexually assaulted. I know this is a controversial statement (which it really shouldn’t be), but the concept of consent is simple. It’s either actively and enthusiastically given without coercion or force and is given with the understanding that it can be revoked at any time, or it isn’t consent. I’m not sure why people find this so hard to understand. I’m sure you’ve all seen the video where consent is explained using the analogy of tea? As much as I appreciate it, I sort of wonder what kind of fucking neanderthals we have walking this Earth if “hey, don’t have sex or do sexual things with someone when they don’t say yes” isn’t enough. At the same time, I’m not surprised that we’ve had to come up with so many analogies riddled with innuendo to explain consent. One of the United States presidential candidates (surprise, it’s Trump!) has literally made comments encouraging and actively bragging about being predatory, and people are still going to vote for him because “it’s just locker room talk.” A judge in a sexual assault case in Calgary asked the accuser why she “couldn’t just keep her knees together.” The judge in the Jian Ghomeshi case talked about how the verdict illustrated the “equally dangerous false assumption that sexual assault complainants are always truthful.” Every single time things like this happen, every time this rhetoric is spewed from people who are supposed to protect us, another survivor is made to feel ashamed of what happened to them. Every single person who has ever been sexually assaulted is reminded of the fact that people will not believe them, and that this is a result of their own wrongdoings. These narratives are a fundamental part of the problem and they’re what help perpetuate a culture of impunity and silence.
So how do we prevent experiences of sexual assault from being a set of statistics that we’re all too afraid to interact with? How can we stop failing survivors of sexual assault as their friends, family, colleagues, and partners? Remember the “locker room talk” that I mentioned re: Trump? We need to burn down the locker room. We need to gather around it, coat the floor with kerosene, light the fucker up, and watch it burn to the ground. But Mira! The locker room is just a metaphor! What can we actually do?!
First things first, stop being so afraid when someone close to you tells you they’ve been assaulted. More than anything, I don’t want to hear “I’m so sorry,” as much as I want to hear “what can I do to help? How can I make spaces safe for you? Is there anything you might need that I can help with?” Accept that people will need support in different ways, whether someone wants you to comfort them and just be an emotional companion, or wants you to help them write about their experiences, or go to a boxing class with them, or bake cookies, or just listen, or just pretend like nothing ever happened and move on with everyday life- do it. Everyone copes with trauma differently, policing the way people manage their emotions is not productive, it can be incredibly harmful, especially when this person feels as though they need to fit into your idea of what a survivor of sexual assault ought to look or act like. On the note of policing, for fuck’s sake, don’t ask why we don’t/didn’t report if we choose not to. The aforementioned examples should be enough proof as to why many people aren’t comfortable reporting, or don’t have confidence in the ability of the justice system to do its job. I for one, felt really ashamed, I wanted to forget what happened, and I didn’t want to relive the experience over and over in front of a room full of strangers. If I wanted to publicize my private life to that extent I’d just start blogging. On the other hand, many survivors feel that reporting is empowering, freeing, a necessary means to recovering and gaining closure, and an important step to moving on. You might not understand these choices, but that doesn’t matter.
Another thing that’s pretty important to ask yourself is where you really stand on this subject. Do you make rape jokes? Do you make trigger jokes? Do you laugh at them? Do you stay quiet and ignore them when they come up? Are you one of the shitlords who supported Brock Turner or Jian Ghomeshi, or who is now minimizing the effects of Donald Trump’s words? Upon finding out about someone’s assault, do you find yourself asking questions about the survivor’s behaviour? These things don’t just act as an implicit acceptance of sexual assault as an approved behaviour, they’re also part of the mechanisms that make feelings of shame and humiliation run rampant among survivors of assault. Above all, engaging in these behaviours is indicative of the fact that you’re part of the problem. Changing these little things isn’t and shouldn’t be hard. The more people start doing this, the more people stand up against tasteless “jokes,” the more people start talking and creating spaces where survivors feel safe to speak openly about their experiences, the more progress we make- not only within our respective communities- but throughout the broader societies to which we belong. It starts with one person setting an example. That’s all it takes. Just the one.
Stop talking about sexual assault in hushed whispers. This isn’t to say that some survivors will prefer to avoid engaging in discussions, this isn’t to say that you should be discussing other people’s traumas with your friends in their absence, and this is not to say that all survivors will be ready to or want to have these conversations with people. This is only to say that when one decides that they’re going to start coming forward about their experiences, you listen. You don’t try to change the subject. You don’t get embarrassed and avoid eye contact. You see these experiences as legitimate and not shameful, and you act accordingly. Reactions that verify the shame that survivors feel are not empathic or productive, they’re problematic and backwards. Instead of “wow, I wish I never asked,” start saying “I’m glad you’re coming forward. What can I do to help?”
If you’ve ever been assaulted and you need someone to listen, I’m here. If you need someone to understand, I’m here. I know the world seems cold and isolated and it feels like no one understands, but more people understand than you could ever imagine, as sad as that is to say.
For everyone reading this; times have changed. Our habits need to, too. We need to do better. We need to think more. We need to make it clear that our communities do not welcome abusers or those who say and do harmful things. We can’t just stand idly by. There is a problem. It’s real. It’s here. And the proof is everywhere.
Until next time,
by Mira El Hussein