SDS Womyn's Caucus Blog

It IS your sister, friend, classmate, partner: A Survivor’s Thoughts on the (In)visibility of Sexual Assault

Posted on: February 14, 2009

Written by: Nicole Davis, DC SDS

As a survivor and feminist involved in radical organizing, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the dissociation that occurs between our political analysis and actual practice. From an analytical standpoint, our collective liberation discourse often acknowledges the existence and prevalence of sexual assault as a mechanism of fear, part of the “power over” that exists in our society to maintain systems of domination, perpetuated by a system of patriarchy.

While patriarchy as a system of oppression has many more daily manifestations than just sexual assault (and while I acknowledge that there are many more male survivors than we may ever truly know), I would like to focus on sexual assault for the purposes of this piece. Furthermore, it is a causality of patriarchy that we talk about in a disconnected, academic way all too often for an issue that is deeply, deeply personal. So I am inspired to write this piece based on an idea that is often talked about in gender theory. I’m seeking to “make the personal political and in turn the political personal”.

One of the biggest problems as I see it, is that we live in a society where sexual assault is not an acceptable thing to talk about. For all our radical discourse and politics, we have failed to counter the status quo and create a culture where sexual assault is an acceptable lived experience to share in any forum. There are correct people, places, and times to talk about those things (such as on this blog, but perhaps not during an emotional check-in before a n organizing meeting of new members or acquaintances). There is an unspoken understanding that you don’t talk about those experiences with “just anyone”. And why is that? Because it will make people uncomfortable.

One of the ways to break down these barriers, this disconnect, is for survivors to talk openly about their experiences, so that the men (and womyn) we organize with understand that they DO know someone (most likely countless people) in their lives that have been assaulted. However, until we create a culture where it is not only acceptable but safe and encouraged to share your lived experiences, it would be unfair and re-wounding to expect survivors to come forward with their stories. To begin with, it is always an intensely personal choice to speak about one’s experiences and sexual assault is a very situated and individual experience, where healing and support takes different forms for each person. For myself, I have found it an important step towards my own transformative healing to be vocal about those experiences, to normalize them, and accept them as part of my life that I will always carry with me.

For this reason, I would like to start by including my own stories of survivorship, with the hopes that it will be the first of many forums and spaces where such story-telling can take place and we can start to put faces and names to experiences, to be followed through with a meaningful discussion on the support that must take place to make that visibility feel empowering and healing instead of re-victimizing.

My first understanding of survivorship did not come until almost 5 years after my first incident with abuse because I lived with deep fear and shame over as a result of the way our society talks about and treats rape. Although my feminist analysis always told me otherwise, there is still a prevalent misconception that perpetuates the myths that rape is a violent act, where one actively says no, and in no way ever wanted it. So it took me years of guilt before I realized that what I consented to at 13 was nothing less than a manipulation and exploitation of another’s power over me. When I was 13 I just thought I was a dirty little girl.. All I knew was that I was really fucked up. At the impressionable age of 13, I wanted nothing less than my own personal scandal, and found that in my sexual relationship with my middle school music teacher , Mr. Collins, who was then 52 (yes the math means that he was nearly 40 years older).

But I wanted it, I took initiative to keep it hidden so we could maintain that secret relationship, so how could that be sexual abuse? The few people I had confided in over the next few years never made me feel that I had any entitlement to survivorship and, thus, I continued to feel no sense of validity in the way the experience impacted me.

This story of sexual abuse “ends” so to speak (although I don’t feel there is really ever an end to these experiences because they are a part of my daily experience) when he was caught with another teenager while I was a student in college. I came forward with my testimony; I gave over every love letter, present, journal entry, email exchange I had kept with me through those years. And with that stack of hundreds and hundreds of papers I not only “put away” my perpetrator but I also started to slowly shed years of silence and guilt. I sought counseling at the DC Rape Crisis Center and my healing process feels more stable and manageable now.

But what saddens me most from that experience is the nearly dozen other nameless womyn who were exploited by that teacher- our perpetrator- who called the prosecutor’s office admitting they were abused by him but never felt safe enough to come forward on record. Because we don’t have a culture where survivors feel supported or encouraged to speak about “these issues” publicly. Furthermore, we don’t have the means to follow up these “supposed acts of courage” with tangible and meaningful support. So for every person who congratulated my “courage” for coming forward and telling my story, it did little to make me feel less vulnerable and I sympathize with the countless other womyn who were abused by Mr. Collins but didn’t feel they could muster up the emotional energy to put themselves through that public retelling and rewounding, only to feel rejected and alone.

My second experience with sexual assault came at the age of 19, while I was studying abroad in Spain. Right around this time, I was writing my Victim’s Impact Statement for the court proceeding going on back home in the US for Mr. Collin’s trial. I was out drinking one night with some “radical” friends we had met in Spain and had decided to go home with someone I met that night. We had clearly talked about wanting to have sex together and I had also clearly articulated the necessity of using protection. However, when we got back to his place it turned out he didn’t have protection but proceeded to insert himself in me, without my consent, and disregarded continued verbal demands that he stop since I was not comfortable having sex with a stranger in a foreign country without protection. Most of that experience is a blur. I was able to pull myself free of him before long and the whole encounter maybe lasted a few minutes at most. It was early in the morning at that point, and without having any idea of where I was and without any means of transportation at that hour, I was stuck in his apartment for the next three hours, where he forced me to perform oral sex on him since I “refused to have sex with him”. It was a degrading experience and I knew something was “off” about the night, but it wasn’t until a week later when confiding in my best friend that she helped me recognize it for what it was: rape.

At this point in my life, I was deeply engrossed in radical politics and feminist theory and knew that just because I said yes at one point in the night, did not make it okay for someone to force sex upon me when those parameters changed. Still, somehow it is an experience that remains clouded an ambiguous at times. It is an experience I am largely disconnected with, which is quite contrary to the Mr. Collins abuse which I have analyzed and dealt with extensively in terms of the ways its impacted my life and current sexual relationships. Inevitably, each experience that I have went through takes time and paves its own path toward healing and understanding. There is no way to rush that journey or skip to the “healing” part.

This is by no means a complete compilation of my thoughts on this topic but I hope that this piece can act as a springboard for further discussion. I would like to use this as a first step in exposing the problematic nature of the invisibility of sexual assault on a personal level. By telling my stories, I seek to personalize the experience and take our discourse out of the academic and theoretical. I want to start putting faces and names to experiences and hope that in starting this process people will start to realize that survivors aren’t some “other” person, they are their sisters, best friends, partners, “fellow comradicals”. They are the people we are organizing with to combat systems of oppression and we must recognize the hypocrisy in reinforcing a culture of silence around assault if we truly seek to fight for collective liberation. I hope that we can use this as a start of a process where we can create a culture where survivors can feel not only safe but supported in telling their stories. We need to support each other as survivors and support the friends and family who are searching for ways to offer support. We live in a world where we can’t expect answers about topics we are told to keep in closets, only to share with close friends in hushed whispers. It won’t be easy but I hope others will join me in finding ways to break down those walls, start speaking out, and looking for solutions together.


2 Responses to "It IS your sister, friend, classmate, partner: A Survivor’s Thoughts on the (In)visibility of Sexual Assault"

Nicole, I love this so much. Thank you for setting an example and taking the first step in sharing your personal experiences. You are really, really brave for so many reasons I never even knew.

I agree that it is essential that we all (especially survivors, when they feel they can) talk more openly about sexual assault. The other night, Tyneisha and I were talking about consent with Alex in his living room. We were talking about when we first learned about consent in a “radical” way. I said that learning about consent when I first joined SDS had led me to re-think my prior sexual experiences and realize that a lot of them were messy consent-wise. It is hard for me to categorize whether some were “consensual” or “non-consensual.” Alex didn’t really seem to get this (I mean, he’s a dude) and asked me to explain it more. At first I wasn’t sure if I could, but then I realized what it was: that prior to having a radical analysis of consent, I had accepted the social norm of our society that sex was about men’s pleasure, and that is was a woman’s job to ensure that the man was sexually satisfied. So while there were things I did of my own free will, they were often motivated by a sense of guilt that I was not being a good partner if I did not fulfill the man’s “needs” (especially when he actively made me feel guilty and/or was otherwise coercive). I would not consider doing things out of guilt consent, but I also wouldn’t necessarily consider it “assault”. At least, I consider them different than other experiences myself and my friends have had that are CLEARLY assault and that were much more traumatizing. What is a good word for those in-between experiences, though?

The feeling of partaking in sexual acts with a male partner (and I know if happens with non-male-identified folks too, but since almost all assaults both statistically (97%) and in my personal life have been by men, and because I think male socialization in patriarchy plays a huge role in creating this culture, I want to use men in this example) …anyway, the feeling of partaking in sexual acts with a male partner because either you or the partner feels it is necessary for the man’s sexual desires to be met, is something that I am realizing more and more women experience. It sounds like that is part of what happened with the man who raped you in Spain, that he felt entitled to get off using your body even if you were not also going to enjoy it. A week ago, a very close friend of mine was date-raped. She told me that she tried to pull away from him at one point and offer him a hand job, hoping that would satisfy him, but that he insisted on penetrative sex. It immediately brought me back to a hook-up in my own life where the guy I was with was pressuring me to have sex when I had made clear that I did not want to. To “compromise”, I gave him a hand job. After hearing my friend’s story, it suddenly occurred to me that women probably do that ALL the TIME. When men demand sexual stimulation and we want to avoid sex but feel we must get them off because they say so and/or it is part of our “duty” as women (thank you Cosmo!), we offer hand jobs and blow jobs! This realization made me sad for a few reasons. One was that I couldn’t believe I didn’t realize this until I was 23, and I wonder how many people will never think of this dynamic as fucked-up. Second, it made me sad for all the women who have used and will use this tactic to avoid penetrative sex, when they feel that they cannot just say “no” and have their answer be respected and accepted without a guilt trip or manipulation or coercion. And third, it made me really sad for all the men out there who stroke (ha!) their egos with the number of sexual encounters they’ve had, without realizing that their partners didn’t even really want to be doing those acts with them. What kind of shitty sex is that?

Well…I feel like I’ve practically written a whole other post in this comment, so I’ll wrap it up. I think there is SO much to talk about with this post in particular, though, so much to unpack, so I hope other people will comment too and we can continue this conversation. Love you Nico!!

[…] experiences of abusive behavior-how the hell should I do it? by Carly and It IS your sister, friend, classmate, partner: A Survivor’s Thoughts on the (In)visibility of Sex… by […]

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