Over the last few months, it is almost as though the air has changed. Once upon a time, I worked with victims of sexual and domestic violence. I also provided community trainings to other helping agencies. I’ve never felt the urgency or the desire to speak up for victims of sexual harassment, assault, and rape the way I do now. It’s difficult. It’s messy. It changes your relationships with the people in your life. It can take a toll on your faith in God, the Church, and in people.
Over the holidays, we visited family. I was cleaning up a dinner mess one night when part of a discussion in the next room caught my attention. Someone made a comment about recent allegations in the entertainment industry and someone else concurred. I tried to stay out of it. I was going to be the lone dissenter. The only one willing to side with the victims. I knew it would not be a fruitful conversation. I managed to busy myself for a few minutes longer, but then I heard a tween speak up in agreement. I couldn’t stay silent. The urgency was overwhelming.
Those adults defending the reputations of men they’d never met wanted proof. They wanted evidence of intimacy crimes that often doesn’t exist. They wanted to be able to rely on the magic of rape kits (which didn’t always exist) to bring justice for all. It was easy enough to concede that maybe in some cases sexual assault or rape was a criminal offense, but the blame lays with the victims for not reporting. (Assuming those in authority cared.) As I tried to explain there are (perhaps seemingly trivial) behaviors that lead to us normalizing sexual violence (cat calling, harassment, etc.) the debate exploded.
I gave examples of how I have normalized harassing behavior by glossing over it in my own life. I told them how one of the first nights I was getting to know my now spouse I was faced with the decision to trust that he, a man I barely knew through a trusted friend, was more safe than the man following me around the party so he could repeatedly grab my ass. This wasn’t a good example I was told, because men get their asses grabbed also.
I was asked for examples of harassment that are wrong but not necessarily illegal. Once again, my own experience came to mind quickly.
I told my loved ones about the Thanksgiving night when I was home from college, catching up with one of my two male best friends. I was telling him happily about the guy I had just started seeing, and how I could not wait to get back to see him again. My closest and dearest friend, someone I had never once felt unsafe with and often ran to in times of crisis, took this as an opportunity to climb on top of me. No matter how hard I struggled, no matter how many times his lips met my “No.” “Stop.” he pressed on.
My loved ones’ response? “Did you report it?” I could only ask “Report what?" I wasn’t raped. He didn’t need to take off my jeans or my sweater to fondle me. “Report it to who?” There is no evidence. Who would care?
“You should have told his mother.”
In this moment, I remembered why I would remind my clients to be sure the person they chose to disclose trauma to was a safe person. In this moment, I realized the last few months had unknowingly opened a wound I did not know was there. As I walked away, I heard the child say again, “Those women should have spoken up sooner.”
I sat in the downstairs room alone. I wondered if I had mentioned his mother did not speak English, would it matter? If I had told them I begged my dad to take me back to school early, would they see the hurt? If I had told them that I had called our other best friend once I was back at school to confide in him and that he told me he was sure it did not happen the way I had described it, would that help them to see my point? If I marched back up the stairs and explained how the worst twenty minutes of my life up to that point meant I lost both of my best friends, would they understand?
I stayed downstairs. One by one, my young children came down. One by one, I tucked them in, vowing to be the safe person in their lives.
Speaking up hurts, but it is important work.