may we only keep moving forward
CW: sexual violence, trauma, descriptions of violence, self-harm, eating disorders, suicide
I crumbled during morning meditation a few days ago. It was an all too familiar experience—one I’d written about in publications, trained practitioners on, and had affirmed for many survivors I’ve met with over the last several years. Flashbacks and traumatic memories are not something I’m a stranger to, but they are something not nearly as commonplace for me as they once have been.
Dealing with trauma comes in waves. You can go periods of time seemingly having your shit together and then in what feels like a split second, the overwhelming realization that you are a different version of your former self can feel almost unbearable. The amount of times I've asked myself, "what would I be like if this wouldn't have happened to me?" ...the amount of times other survivors have sat with me—sometimes stoic, sometimes in tears— and asked the same question of themselves— it is core-shaking. Scents, phrases, and certain times of year can be triggers for flashbacks. Sometimes a memory pops up on its own. A feeling, a fear, a piece of what happened that is so prominent that you can't shake it. It can hit you like a brick and leave you confused, hopeless, or mad as hell that you’re still dealing with this.
I sat quietly, eyes wide open next to my partner as he sat meditating. I was angry that a ritual that has been so grounding and sacred no longer felt safe. Fighting back tears, I worked to calm my breathing. I told myself I didn’t want to interrupt him. I also knew that I wasn’t sure I could talk about what I was experiencing. I tried to close my eyes once again, but immediately was taken back to that tiny room in the chain-brand spa in concourse c of the Atlanta airport. My mind kept churning over the phrase the massage therapist whispered as he violated my body. I wanted to throw up. I wanted to escape my own skin. I opened my eyes and scanned my surroundings. I tried to focus on my favorite spot in the living room—a sweet altar I built, full of my dearest treasures, bright fabrics, earth findings, and oils. I cried harder when I realized this didn’t bring me peace. I tried to think about something else—anything to distract myself from feeling flooded. I did many of the things I routinely recommend to folks I work with—
I don’t mean to make light of these coping tactics, but on that day last week, they felt useless. I was angry. I was embarrassed. I had silent tears rolling down my cheeks. God, I hate crying. The memory of what happened sits in my bones, is felt in my flesh, and rests in little pockets in my brain that are still trying to make sense of what happened. This is trauma.
Nearly every man I know who has learned of the work I do has eventually asked if I’ve experienced sexual violence. It’s not something I tend to lead with, but I respond truthfully. Some are quick to say how sorry they are and share that they know other women who have experienced it too. Others act shocked and say awkward things like, “Man, I didn’t know that really happens” as they appear overwhelmed with this newfound knowledge. Sometimes I minimize or deflect—not something I’m proud of, but it is an effort to shift the conversation to a place of greater comfort for both of us. Call it self-protection, call it ‘I don’t have the time or energy to do this today’—owning one’s survivorship while also maintaining the terms by which it is talked about can be a fine line to walk.
When I talk or write about my own experiences with sexual violence I often have a pit in my stomach that slows me down and can only be described as immense self-doubt coupled with an fierceness that knows my worthiness and my wholeness is and has always been unwavering. The reality is, existing as a survivor while being a professional in this field is a mixed bag. We applaud those who speak out and disclose the violence they’ve experienced who have transformed their struggle into something good and noble, but we are terrified of the discomfort we feel when survivors share the rage, hopelessness, and pain they feel and we are quick to dismiss or pathologize. If the problem is them, not us, we’re off the hook, right?
The real deal is that those of us who have experienced trauma earlier in life are more likely to experience it in some form or another again. Those of us who are believed and supported when we share about our experiences are more likely to have a healing trajectory that is positive. Those of us who are disbelieved or not supported are likely to experience more barriers to healing. And truth be told, figuring out how to work through trauma often feels hit or miss for a lot of us-- those who are highly supported and those who are not.
Healing after trauma is complicated. It’s why when we talk about ‘trauma’ we often refer to one’s experience of an event or events as opposed to solely the event itself. The way our bodies and minds experience, process, and assign meaning to what has happened is just as meaningful if not more than the event itself. It’s also why we talk about ‘retraumatization’ –meaning the experience many victims feel after they’ve disclosed and are challenged, disbelieved, are made to feel shame, or forced to recount their experience/s.
I want to write that I am surprised that at 28 I was sexually assaulted by a massage therapist at an airport spa—a spa I decided to go to on a whim because my shoulders were sore from carrying heavy bags and I had a little time to kill before my flight was taking off. I want to write that as someone who has worked for a decade in the anti-sexual violence field, I’ve figured out some way to dodge rape culture in one of its fullest manifestations. I want to write that my experience with sexual violence ended as a teen and that this thing at 28 was just another unfortunate happening. The thing is, those are all pieces of a made-up story, parts of a narrative we cling to as possible because it’s easier to wrap our heads around than an uglier reality. The truth is—being a girl and eventually a woman has made some variation of this story all too familiar for me across my lifespan: from forced intimacy to forced kisses to forced body parts—it’s all an evolution of the same. We’ve done a wholly inadequate job at addressing the root causes of gender-based violence; we shame those who talk about it, fail to hold those who commit it accountable, and we’ve done a subpar job challenging the social norms we all play into that allow it to continue. Whether I play back my own stories from early teen years to present day or recall the stories of the hundreds of women who I’ve worked with, been friends with, supported, or read about, they’re all too similar.
I asked him to come over to watch a movie. I was good with making out, but suddenly he got irritated when I told him I didn’t want to have sex. He was like, “Why did you even invite me over?”
He asked me to meet him in the basement of a community building in our hometown. When I got there he was waiting with his older brother. He told me I could only be his girlfriend if I lifted up my shirt and flashed his brother. I was twelve.
I was just dancing with friends. I don’t know what I did to make him think it was ok to walk by and stick his hand up my skirt.
I was into him, but not ready to sleep with him. I told him I would spend the night but that I just wanted to snuggle. I woke up to his hands up my shirt. I tried to push his hands away but he was too strong. I confronted him about it later and he said he was sleeping and has no recollection of doing it.
He said he wanted to watch a movie. He was someone I really looked up to and kind of saw as a mentor. I didn’t want to do anything with him, but I completely froze when he started touching me. I could only keep saying “wait” but he didn’t listen. Why did he think I wanted that?
I thought I was being polite. I let him in my apartment because he’d walked me home and said he needed to use the bathroom. I stood by the door waiting for him to leave, but he pushed me against the wall and started kissing me. I tried to turn my head but he grabbed my face.
I didn’t want to have sex with him unless we were dating exclusively. I told him that one night after he made it clear he wanted to have sex. I trusted him when he said we were on the same page. We slept together and after I went home the following day, he began avoiding me and eventually stopped talking to me.
He kept trying to pull down my pants, but I kept saying “no.” Eventually I started crying. He got out his penis and said the least I could do was give him a blow job.
I usually dress pretty casually at work, but I had a big meeting so I put on a dress and was feeling really good about the day. I walked into work and a co-worker said “I didn’t realize how smokin’ your body was.” I immediately felt mortified. In my place of work I had been minimized to my body’s appearance and my co-worker’s sexual attraction to me.
I woke up on the sleeper train to find the man directly across from me jerking off while staring at me. He saw me notice him and just smiled.
Having sex was fine, I wanted to do that, but I’d never had anal sex and we’d never talked about it. It’s like he just forced it. I started freaking out and crying. I felt so violated. He just kept telling me to stop crying and that I was fine.
It makes me feel so gross to think about it. It was my friend’s uncle. I was probably only eleven. He would make comments on my “curvy body” and would always try to rest his hand on my inner thigh when he visited.
He was my boss. I never would’ve thought I had to worry that he’d come on to me or that I wouldn’t be safe with him.
I think he thinks because he’s been my boyfriend for years that he’s just entitled to it. He knows sometimes its hard form me because I can be triggered so easily, but it’s like he doesn’t care. He will be so relentless and makes me feel guilty ‘til I just give up.
*Excerpts are representations of real life experiences. No singular story is represented in each segment unless it is my own or used with permission of the person who has shared it with me.
Talking about actual instances and contexts of violence is something I hesitate to do, but I’m not sure how we move through this moment in time without doing so and affirming that each of these instances is its own form of violence that builds fear and a sense of mistrust and lack of safety in one's body and in the world. As long as we believe that there is some singular ‘valid’ narrative about what constitutes sexual violence and continue to disconnect the ‘smaller’ or more covert acts from the full picture, we’re going to keep failing at making any sustainable change. Some of these examples may not reach the threshold of a crime according to law, but they absolutely contribute to a culture where manipulation, power over, and coercion are normalized and even celebrated. These are all too common of experiences that we cannot minimize or try to justify. Articles like the recent piece in the Atlantic by journalist Caitlin Flanagan in response to the report of sexual violence that names actor Aziz Ansari are dangerous and make our work even harder. By making claims that the recent influx in women coming forward about sexual violence is about disillusionment, “revenge,” or regret, Flanagan undermines victims who have found the courage to speak out and name what has happened to them. I won’t link to her article because I don’t want a single person to read that trash if they haven’t already, but I will say that her commentary is irresponsible and simply put, wrong. We have no time for arguments that call for us to take a step back in time, to accept that men are likely to attempt to 'behave badly,' and that suggest that as women our strength and value is in knowing how to keep ourselves safe given this said inevitability. Despite Flanagan’s claims, I’m not sure those tactics worked previously, unless ‘working’ meant complacency, victim-blaming, and pretending that gender-based violence didn’t exist. Caitlin, I’m sorry that was once your reality. May we only keep moving forward.
I believe we are capable of living in a world where people are equally valued and respected—where wants and boundaries are discussed and honored—where fear of harm and reprisal is not at the forefront of any woman’s mind when interacting with men. Where we openly talk about sex and have stripped it of any connotation with manipulation and coercion, but rather recognize it as an opportunity for pleasure and connection between mutually interested people. I believe we are capable of living in a world where the energy that fuels men’s fear of being falsely accused of sexual violence is instead put into the care and consideration taken with partners they are interested in having sex with.
I want men to practice more humility—to recognize their unearned privilege and power and take a step back. To throw out all of the garbage they’ve learned about what it means to be a man, including what they think they are entitled to, and sit with the awareness that they too have been sold a raw deal when taught that their wants and desires are any more worthy than anyone else’s. I want men to know that their unlearning and consequent engagement and action are intrinsic parts of fixing this. I want women to no longer be able to pull from any handful of past experiences to remind themselves that it is safer to shut up and wait for it to be over than to expect and demand freedom from harm. I want women to no longer believe that sexual violence, in all of its forms, is inevitable.
If you’re feeling angry at the circumstances we exist in, you should. Sexual violence is about entitlement. It’s a massage therapist playing on the vulnerability of a disrobed client with little recourse. It’s an acquaintance pushing boundaries without asking or caring how the other person feels first. It’s demanding someone share their body with you because you’re turned on/have previously been intimate/ because you started making out and now want more/ [insert any other illegitimate excuse here]. It’s commenting on someone’s body as though you have some right to it. It’s an adult or person of power taking advantage of a child or someone more vulnerable. Be angry because it’s worth being angry about.
National campaigns like #metoo and Time's Up, their missteps and all (can we please talk about how they tried to leave out Tarana Burke in #metoo's most recent revival?), have brought needed attention to conversations about sexual violence and have empowered some folks to talk about their experiences, but we need to do better than just recognize that there are many more survivors than the average person may have imagined because the stakes are high and not lessening. Experiencing sexual violence makes one more likely to self-harm, use alcohol and drugs to cope, have chronic illnesses, struggle with mental health issues like anxiety and depression, develop eating disorders, and attempt suicide. It interferes with learning, development, relationships, school and work, spirituality, one’s relationship with their body, their self-worth-- the list goes on and on.
We start making change when we realize we’re on the hook for it. We will not reduce the numbers of people who experience rape and other forms of sexual violence unless people stop committing sexual violence. We can be a more compassionate community, we can act with more awareness of the impact of trauma on the lives of those we care about, and we can believe survivors when they come forward. But this isn’t enough.
We need to recognize that sexual violence permeates all aspects of our culture and community. Those who commit sexual violence are our friends, family, teachers, coaches, co-workers, and neighbors—all of whom we interact with and have influence. It’s far too late to wait until a moment like sending a child off to college worry about their potential exposure to sexual violence. It's also far too late to assume that a first-year college student will know how to navigate sex, boundaries, and communication if they've never had honest conversations about bodies, autonomy, pleasure, and respect. We need to ask ourselves how we will model equality and respect, boundaries and bodily autonomy, and empathy and connection at all stages of life and with all of our relationships and interactions. If you want to read more on prevention, check out this NPR article, this piece on talking with children, and this more extensive guide.
And if reading this made you feel like you might want to connect with someone for support, check out what resource might be right for you here. To find more info about holistic healing practitioners in your community, check out the Breathe Network.
To the brilliant and fierce community of survivors, advocates, activists, healers, and changemakers, thank you for all of the ways you continually fill me up.
In love and solidarity,
*Sexual violence directly impacts folks of all genders, sexual orientations, races, ethnicities, religions, abilities, and ages. This piece focuses almost exclusively on women's experiences with sexual violence committed by cis men, in large part because that is reflective of my own story, but is not intended to silence or dismiss of the experiences of survivors who have stories unlike my own. I see you. I hear you. And I stand with you.
© kelly wilt