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Of all the challenges I deal with personally and professionally, none requires more sensitivity than sexual assault. For most survivors just saying the term, or the more common word, rape, sets in motion a physiological chain reaction that often feels like someone’s fingers are probing around in our guts. In survivors, this subject can trigger feelings of threat, of vulnerability, of shame, and – at the same time – of agency, of empowerment, and of triumph. We can be terrified and in one and the same moment have the courage to speak out in order to honour our determination to heal and to support others in their healing. We can rage against those who would blame us for the criminal acts of others and at the same time be calm enough to speak our truth, end the silence around these vicious crimes, and create community with others who feel vulnerable and ashamed and at the same time empowered to speak out against sexual predation and its coverups.
Sexual assault is in the air for me because of a new film, The Hunting Ground, produced by Amy Ziering and directed by Kirby Dick, that is being shown at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. This team’s previous film, The Invisible War, gives voice to women and men in the military who have not only suffered the trauma of sexual assault, but have been further assaulted by military coverups and victim blaming. If you haven’t yet viewed this powerful film, please do so, and visit http://www.notinvisible.org/ to learn of programs that have been put in place for sexual assault survivors since the film’s release in 2012.
Because the filmmakers were approached by innumerable sexual assault survivors on college campuses after they aired The Invisible War, Ziering and Dick began to understand that similar blame-the-victim attitudes and cover-ups of sexual assault exist on college campuses, all in the name of “brand protection” or, less euphemistically, reputation whitewashing. The horror of sexual assault is hinted at in survivors’ conversations about its legacy of shame, terror, and perhaps the worst after effect, self doubt. More horrifyingly, the physical and psychological consequences of sexual assault are compounded by the military, academic, corporate, and family cultures that care more about institutional reputation than about the safety and healing of sexual assault survivors.
According to current statistics, one in every 3 girls and women experiences sexual assault. These survivors live the reality that sexual assault doesn’t end once the rape kit is put away or the thousandth bath is drawn to dissolve what cannot be dissolved. Since telling our experiences in safe and supportive surroundings – getting it out into the world at a time and place of our choosing – is a stop on every survivor’s healing path, I will not write of others’ experiences. I will write, as much as I am able on this lovely sunshine-filled day, of my own first sexual assault.
It happened when I was a preschooler of three going on four. I was old enough to be in my grandmother’s garden on my own while she ironed in the kitchen, windows and doors open to the summer temperatures, not more than twenty feet away. Her back garden was my favourite place to play because it was filled with the fairy magic of her stories and songs. I made dolls out of clothes pins and hollyhock blossoms, and I looked for toads and snakes to befriend in her black-earth flower gardens. She had emigrated from England in the early part of the twentieth century and brought with her the English love of formal flower gardens and the secret lore of garden fairies. Her flower beds were a spectacular display of colour and texture, each offering a different show for every season from early spring to late fall.
There were two gates in the rectangle of fencing enclosing her gardens, the back gate leading to the lane behind the houses with its latch far too high for me to reach, and the side gate leading to the street, a much easier latch for me to operate because of its position just above my eye level. I had an adventurous spirit and had to be told to stay put. On this warm August day, I didn’t unlatch the side gate because my grandmother told me to play in the garden until she finished her ironing. If I was obedient, she promised a walk to a nearby store for ice cream.
I was absorbed in my play when suddenly one of the boys who lived next door stood before me. At least a foot taller than I, this neighbour was still not tall enough to be seen from the kitchen unless my grandmother abandoned her ironing to come to one of its two large windows to peer out. He’d entered silently and just as silently put a hand over my mouth, lifting me into the small dark garden shed where my grandmother kept her tools and flowerpots. Without a word he closed the door on the windowless shed, locking us inside in a dark beyond darkness. I was too frightened to make a sound.
He spent the next five minutes exploring my almost-four-year-old anatomy with his free hand, the other clamped over my silent mouth. After he’d yanked my dress up and my underpants down, he undid his jeans and rubbed something against me as he grunted and moaned. When he was finished he pulled up my underpants, smoothed down my dress, and whispered, “Don’t tell,” before opening the door to my familiar world of sunshine and flowers. He left silently by the side gate.
When I was sure he was gone, I went inside and began to shake and cry. My grandmother left her ironing and lifted me to her lap, asking “What is it? What is it?” In broken sentences I told her as much as I could about this mysterious event. She began to cry, held me ferociously while she crooned for at least a minute, and then flew out the back door and through the side gate to the house next door. I could hear her shouts of accusation and and the deep voiced laughter of the father of the boy who had violated me. When she returned she said with dreadful calm, “Stay away from them. They are uncivilized.”
She put me in the bathtub, told me the boy had learned to be dangerous from his dangerous father, and that this was not my fault. I adored my grandmother and felt loved and protected as I sat in that bath and listened to her very sophisticated response to the frightening events of the afternoon, but I continued to feel his hands on me and his desperation to get something from me that I didn’t understand. Unreasonably, I felt the shame of my vulnerability. I had let him catch me unawares when he’d taken me into that shed, a place I feared as a source of unnameable terrors because it was so dark. That single incident influenced my play for the rest of my childhood, prompting me to experiment with ritualized sexual play in order to understand what had happened to me and why. Later, at university, I learned terms like “sexualized” and “predation” and applied them to my own experience, and while my mind understood, my body still felt that dirty, urgent hand and that ruthless penis do their work.
To this day, when I hear of sexual assaults on children and adults, the body memory of that boy’s furtive, violent interest in my body has the power to make me feel sick and frightened. It also strengthens my sense of sisterhood with every child and adult who has endured the terrors of sexual predation. This body memory is also one of the reasons why tapping has become one of my daily wellness habits.
My feelings of disgust and terror are soothed by a Karate Chop (KC) script such as, “Even though a part of me remembers that terrifying experience as if it is still happening, I know I am okay. Even though a part of me can still smell his dirty hand and feel the terror of being in that small dark space, the rest of me is mature, articulate, and entirely healed. Even though a part of me hates that boy with a white hot hatred, a compassionate part of me knows he too was sexualized at an early age, and perhaps had no one to give him baths and tell him it was not okay that people abused him in that way.”
Following this or a similar setup statement, when tapping through the points I concentrate on the negative feelings and sensations that trouble me: “That hand, his dirty hand over my mouth, his other hand pushing and prodding and probing, the terrifying sound of his zipper, I didn’t want him to do that to me, I didn’t want to be there and didn’t know how to get away, that terrifying feeling of being captured, that helplessness.”
I use the above script or something similar to reduce the physical revulsion of remembering, and then, once I feel calm and present, I introduce the empowerment that has resulted from that and other sexual assault experiences.
As I tap through the points in this part of the process I say something like, “That first sexual assault, I was not much more than a toddler, he shouldn’t have done it, he was doing what had been done to him, I hate his father for doing that to him, I hate everyone who does this, I hate that vulnerability that makes predators think they can take what they want, that makes them think they can hurt us, that we are nothing more than sex toys or objects to destroy. It’s okay for me to hate, I don’t hate very often, but when I do, it’s okay. It’s just a feeling. Sometimes it energizes me to write something about being hurt in this terrifying way. He told me not to tell, but I can tell. I can write. I can support others to tell their stories and feel their feelings. We’re not alone. We stand together against sexual assault and sexual predators. Maybe we’re assaulted, but we’re not victims. We’re survivors. We live to tell. We live to make change. We live to hold predators accountable. We live to support each other. We live to stop this sexual violence.”
If you are a survivor of sexual violence, please don’t try to deal with it alone. Find or form a support group, or develop a relationship with a trusted counselor or coach to help you to reclaim your power and discover your indomitable spirit. The body remembers trauma, and it can be empowered to shake trauma off in much the same way other species shake off terrifying events and move on. You are not alone. If, in reading this blog, you feel I might be someone you can trust to help you move through the aftermath of sexual assault, please reach out.
Until next week
Jane Buchan, MA, AAMET Advanced Practitioner, firstname.lastname@example.org, 802-533-9277