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Saturday, 12 July 2014

Rape, Rape Culture, and Recovery - 3 Years Out

By Liberate Zealot
*Content Warning - Discussions of rape, rape culture, and PTSD*

Let me begin by saying these are my own personal experiences and in no way meant to reflect the experiences of all victims/survivors.  Even victims/survivors with similar experiences of sexual violence might experience very different effects and have very different roads of recovery.

The one thing I think the vast majority of us share is that recovery is not an absolute, it is a constant journey of progress and triggers and backsliding and unlikely to fully ever end.

I know sometimes I have thought I've reached, or nearly reached, the end of my recovery.  Months have passed since I've thought of him, or that night.  Since I've felt that knot of anxiety in my stomach, or that strange mental disconnect where my brain seems to float partially separated from my body.  Since that dizzy, rushing feeling overtakes my ears, eyes, brain, and body.
Sometimes months pass, but then something happens.  His name shows up on my Facebook feed, I see someone who looks like him when I'm out and about, I hear about another woman's rape which is similar enough to mine that I cannot disconnect my own experiences from hers.  Perhaps I hear a rape joke, am watching some movie or TV show that features a rape (these are worst when I cannot prepare for them).  Perhaps I just surprisingly dream in some way of that night and awaken, shaking.

In many ways I have been both lucky and privileged, about the rape itself, and my experiences and recovery after the rape.

It was both luck and privilege that gave me a grounding in feminism and rape culture well before I was sexually assaulted.  I had already internalized the idea that rape is never the victims fault and so when I was raped, while I had other emotional struggles, at no point did I think I had done anything to "lead him on" or "make" him rape me.

I was lucky in that the rape itself was non-violent.  I was terrified and betrayed, but I wasn't physically injured.  In fact I was able to halt the penetrative part of the rape, but I felt obligated to offer some other type of sexual satisfaction as I had a nearly black out intense fear that some violent penetrative rape was imminent if I angered him in any way. After all, I had made it exceedingly clear I wouldn't agree to penetrative sex, and he ignored that enough to begin the very type of sex I had unequivocally stated I wouldn't consent to. Why should I trust he wouldn't continue if I angered him?
But I was lucky in that it wasn't violent.  I was also lucky in there was no resulting pregnancy or STIs.

But despite my previous luck and privilege I have not been so lucky as to avoid being among the 1/3 of sexual violence victims/survivors who have PTSD.  And I was not so privileged in my feminist and rape culture knowledge to fully avoid the internalization of rape culture.

The internalization of rape culture was immediate.  During the rape I felt intense fear and violation, however in my mind I was terrified it would turn into a rape, and that he would hurt me.  Because of our cultural ideas of what rape is, because even though I *know* better, I have still internalized those ideas, and I was not able to acknowledge what was happening was a rape.  It took me two weeks to be able to name it as sexual assault, and a year before I felt any comfort with calling it a rape.  To this day I struggle to name what was done to me as rape, as opposed to a sexual assault or some form a sexual violence.

This is because according to rape culture what happened was a miscommunication.  He wasn't violent, and I was able to stop the penetrative aspect of the rape. Therefore many people wouldn't see it as one, and I have often struggled to see it as a rape myself.  Until the last several years, legally it was unlikely to be seen as a rape either.
It was a rape, but even earlier today I struggled to call it that. What I name it as still changes on a day to day basis.  And again, I have the privilege to know the laws and studies about rape.  Logically I know I was raped.  But emotionally I can't help but feel like I don't deserve to call it rape.  It wasn't the type of rape I was warned about when younger. It could have been so much worse.  Am I taking away from other victims/survivors experiences to call what happened to me rape?

And also I do not want the treatment that rape victim/survivors meet.  To people who know me in the "real world" I have never been able to name it as rape.  To one person (my ex-boyfriend) I was able to fully explain what happened.  To other's I merely state that he was creepy and kind-of "rapey."   I don't want to see the look on their faces if they learn that I was raped, even though I trust them to be supportive and believe me, I don't want to risk the chance of them seeing me differently.

Another way I have internalized rape culture, and another reason I do not want to tell people that I was raped, is that while I do not blame myself for the actual rape I cannot help but feel I should have been able to avoid it. Part of being a feminist who is well educated in rape culture means I knew the warning signs of someone who does not care about active consent.  Over the course of our month of dating he tried to pressure me several times into having the type of sex I had clearly said I didn't want to have.  In hindsight this was a serious red-flag.  And I can't help but blame myself for not noticing that sooner, for not cutting off the relationship before he had time to rape me.

Likewise I blame myself for not naming him as a rapist.  I know legally nothing would come of it except me likely being more traumatized.  And the 2-3% chance he would be convicted is just not worth it, especially as I know the facts of the case mean the police probably wouldn't bother with it in the first place.  I know all this, but I still feel like if I was the ardent feminist I see myself as that I could have tried.  I still feel guilt that he's walking around the city and no one knows he's a rapist. I never blame other women for not naming their rapists, but I cannot extend the same compassion to myself.  And this again is a sign of internalized rape culture.

And the feelings of guilt and blame ebb and flow, just as the PTSD does as well.  In the first year I could sometimes go days without being able to get the rape out of my mind.  I'd be in a constant state of anxiety, with a knot of it in my stomach so intense I couldn't eat, sometimes feeling I was going to shake right out of my skin.  I was scared to go out into the neighborhood incase I ran into him, I avoided certain shops and restaurants that I knew he liked. For days I'd want to curl into myself, hide under the covers, and any touch (especially of a sexual nature) was unbearable. Luckily I stayed functional, but that sometimes required intense compartmentalization and disassociation that in the long term isn't healthy.

Since then it has gotten better.  Even the worst episodes last less than a day, and I've very unlikely to be spontaneously triggered.  As said before, sometimes I can go months without thinking about him or that night.  The fact that I am a victim/survivor of rape doesn't constantly hang in the back of my mind waiting to awaken my PTSD.  And should my PTSD be triggered from a rape joke or movie, some internet encounter with him, or hearing about a rape too similar to my own, at worst I experience an hour or two of anxiety and a fogginess in my mind.  I don't have to disassociate to get through my day.

I still feel a sense of defeat when these attacks happen.  Sometimes I blame myself for not being a better/stronger survivor.  I can't help but tell myself that it wasn't that bad and that there's no reason to feel this anxiety, this shaking dread, this foggy disconnect.  That other people have experienced worse and don't have this lingering PTSD.

The recovery and internalized rape culture is a cycle. For a while everything's clear sailing.  I'm teaching my students, hanging with my friends, dating, discussing feminism and rape culture on line and everything is fine.  I'm recovering.  And suddenly, out of the blue, I'm not. It's like slamming into a glass door.  You know they exist, but you didn't expect one to be in the way right then.  You weren't paying attention an now your hurt and also embarrassed for not being better prepared.
I know I sometimes get triggered by hearing about other people's rape, what made me think I could participate in that trigger hashtag and not feel anxiety?  I know a lot of comedians make rape jokes, why did I watch the stand up of a comedian I know does not?  I know women who are actively feminists and speak about rape culture on line will get rape threats, I've gotten them plenty of times,  I wasn't I better prepared for this one?
And so right right on the heels of the anxiety and disconnect comes the blame and guilt.  And then guilt for feeling the guilt, because I'm a feminist and know better than to blame myself.   Eventually my logic wins out, and the guilt and shame fades away for another few months.

Now that the PTSD isn't so bad I wish I could stop blaming myself for having it.  I wish I didn't feel guilt for not being more recovered.  I really wish I could stop feeling like I'm not a proper survivor, or rape victim. But I don't think that's ever going to happen.  I grew up in a rape culture and even though I've unlearned a lot,  I don't think I (or any other victim/survivor) will ever fully recover until our culture recovers from its damaging ideas about rape and attitudes to victims/survivors. 

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