Self-Care: How to Survive Finals Week (and Life in General)

Burnt-out. Stressed. Overwhelmed. Anxious. Tired. Worried. If you talk to any college student during the month of May and ask them how they’re feeling, you’re likely to hear one at least one of these adjectives. (Or perhaps it’s more likely that you already are a college student who knows these emotions very well.) With finals (and graduation for some) on the horizon, the last few weeks of the semester are an especially challenging time for students who are overburdened with final exams, papers, and culminating projects. It’s a wonder that we’re able to survive this month semester after semester.

But how exactly do we manage to make it out of finals week alive? If you’re anything like me, you might complain to all of your friends and family members every waking minute of the day and end up spending more time worrying than actually studying. If I had a quarter for every time I tell someone how stressed I feel during finals week, I’d probably be able to buy a whole semester’s worth of textbooks! However, throughout the past four years that I have spent at UMBC, I’ve come to realize the importance of doing something about that stress.

The answer is simple: self-care. Continue reading

The Cognitive Dissonance of Internalized Victim-Blaming

This is a guest post that the author asked to be posted anonymously to allow for privacy while still sharing an important experience.

**Trigger warning for extensive discussion of sexual assault and victim-blaming**

I’m an ardent anti-sexual violence activist. I’ve read the feminist literature and participated in consciousness-raising activities. I’ve attended awareness rallies  and signed petitions. I advocate on behalf of survivors and I adamantly oppose victim-blaming myths, language, and practices. My position on the issue is pretty well summed up by the quintessential Take Back the Night chant, “Whatever we wear, wherever we go, ‘yes’ means yes and ‘no’ means no.”

But I have a confession.

I know a rape survivor. And I sometimes blame her for what happened. I feel like a horrible feminist, activist, and human being for even thinking it. But sometimes I blame her.

I think about how she had been going out to bars so much lately and how she’d had so many close calls already. Why didn’t she just stay home that night instead of acting like a stereotypical party girl?

I can’t believe she pre-gamed so hard and so fast just to save a little money and calm her social anxiety before going out. She always overdoes it and never learns her lesson.

I wonder why she went to that club where the bouncers were infamous for predatory behavior toward women. She should have known they wouldn’t help her if she needed it.

I ask myself repeatedly why she smiled and chatted politely with that obnoxious self-proclaimed “military stud.” I know he was pretty forceful and she didn’t want to be rude, but she really should have just told him to leave her alone from the start. Maybe then he wouldn’t have dragged her body like a rag doll onto the dance floor.

I really wish she would have watched her drinks better. If she had then maybe she would have been able to keep her eyes open and she would’ve been able to get her tongue to form words. I know her arms felt like jelly, I know he was literally holding her upright to keep her from slumping onto the floor, I know she tried everything she could to push him off of her, but couldn’t she have just, I don’t know, tried harder?

I feel nauseated when I think about how he hugged her afterward while using the pretense of friendly affection to get his hands all over her one last time. The image plays over in my head and I want to scream, “Do something! Make him stop!” Yes, I know, jelly arms. But come on! Who needs upper body strength and basic motor function when you have resolve? And she did have resolve, right?

I cringe when I think about how she still sometimes worries that photos will someday show up online, publicly documenting her violation while framing her as some sort of carefree and tipsy exhibitionist. But who is she kidding if she thinks she lives in a world where women can make mistakes and not fear public shaming?

I feel angry when I remember how for months after that night, instead of going sober altogether she kept up with the habits that had gotten her into that situation in the first place because she figured, well, what did it matter now. And how could she have the nerve to be upset just a few weeks later when she very narrowly avoided an even worse incident but by the benevolent intervention of a few strangers? She should have known that literal unconsciousness would be interpreted by some as fair game.

And I can’t forgive her for just turning and walking away when she saw him again a couple months later, outside that same club, chatting up some other young woman. I know it’s not her fault and his actions that night and any other are his responsibility alone. But I still can’t forgive her.

It makes me sick inside to think it, but every time I try to shut it out it just creeps up again. I know all about how rape culture minimizes violence and shifts blame from sexual predators onto victims. I know it’s bullshit.  And yet I still hear that tiny voice in the back of my mind.  If only she had…If only she hadn’t…If only, if only, if only. If only she’d just not gotten herself raped.

I told you it was a horrible confession. Do you think I’m a sufficiently terrible person yet? A failure as a feminist and an even worse advocate for survivors? What about when I tell you that the rape survivor I’m talking about, the one I just can’t stop blaming, the one I just can’t seem to forgive — is me?

I am the survivor.

She is me and I just can’t manage to stop blaming her for what happened. Me. I can’t stop blaming myself.

And that is the truly toxic nature of rape culture. As a feminist activist, I vehemently and wholeheartedly deconstruct and combat victim-blaming myths and language, all while still struggling with its hold over me. There’s an almost painful cognitive dissonance to it, really. That’s why I’m so outraged when I see rape culture being constantly perpetuated in the media, the justice system, or in my own life. Regardless of the intent, I know all too well how much damage is done by blame-shifting rape apologia. Because there’s no condescending admonishment that survivors haven’t already heard in their own minds over and over again as they try to push through the guilt, shame, and trauma and find their way toward self-forgiveness.

This internal struggle is part of what motivates me to advocate for survivors of sexual assault. To support and empower them to overcome their own internalized victim-blaming. To help them see past their “if onlys” and realize that the only “if only” that matters is “if only the perpetrator hadn’t decided to assault them.”

I fully reject victim-blaming and I say honestly to other survivors that no matter what they were doing or what they were wearing or how much they were drinking that what happened to them was not their fault and they did not deserve it. Absolutely, one-hundred percent, bottom line. And I hope that one day I can say that same thing to myself and believe it just as much as I believe it when I say it about survivors of sexual violence.

 

Rebuilding Manhood to Reduce Sexual Assault

Rebuilding Manhood, the weekly discussion group for male-identified students at UMBC, focuses on a wide array of topics that relate to manhood and masculinity in our society.  The topic of sexual assault, and the role that rape culture plays in perpetuating sexual violence, is one such topic.  The issue of sexual violence is often framed as ‘a women’s issue,’ but violence against women, as author and activist Jackson Katz notes in his book The Macho Paradox, is more about men and their issues, as men are the ones committing the vast majority of violence, and the ones “whom women have been conditioned to fear.”  This is why the topics of sexual assault and rape culture are an important aspect of Rebuilding Manhood.   If we are serious about reducing sexual assault in our communities, it is critical that men understand the role that they can play in helping facilitate this process.

The importance of getting men involved in sexual assault prevention was reaffirmed to me after our campus’ annual Take Back the Night event.  For well over an hour, brave individuals shared their stories of sexual assault with the crowd of 200 people that were gathered together to support this important cause.  What really struck me, as I thought back on the stories told throughout the evening, was that not a single person victimized by someone they did not know, and quite frequently it was by someone they fully trusted.  Whether it was a parent, a significant other, or a friend, none of the attackers were strangers.  This is disturbing for many reasons, but understanding why men feel that they have the right to take advantage of someone who cares about them, and someone who trusts them, is what relates most to the work we do in Rebuilding Manhood.

The fact is that most men are not rapists, and would not consider committing sexual violence against someone else.  The problem comes when men are told in subtle ways, and women in not so subtle ways, that all men are potential rapists.  It is ironic that people think that feminists believe this to be true, when it is actually our larger culture that tells men to be overtly sexual beings, that teaches women strategies to be constantly on guard against the possibility of male violence, and that argues that women are to blame for sexual assault because they were wearing the wrong thing or were in the wrong place or were at a party and should have known better.  These beliefs and these arguments are telling men that they are unbridled sexual beings whose default setting is apparently that of a rapist, because all it takes for such a thing to occur is for someone to come along showing too much skin, or to simply exist in a space where they are around men.

As a man, these beliefs offend me to my very core.  Men are not debased animals, controlled by primal urges which somehow override their ability to ask for consent, or to respect the decisions that are made by their fellow human beings.  In Rebuilding Manhood, we examine the thoughts behind these types of beliefs, and how these are reinforced  on a daily basis, whether it is through rape jokes, ignoring the catcalls that women face on a daily basis, or by the constant repetition of phrases like “boys will be boys” and “that’s just how men are.”  Rebuilding Manhood believes that men can be so much more, and that they can be allies to women and to other men.  Women are not the enemy, any more than men are the enemy, and the cultural ideals about manhood and masculinity need to be rebuilt if the amount of sexual assault and violence against women is ever going to be reduced.

Clothesline Project at UMBC

The Clothesline Project is a program that started back in 1990 and has been established “to address the issue of violence against women. It is a vehicle for women affected by violence to express their emotions by decorating a shirt.” Here at UMBC we do this project twice a year – in October for Relationship Violence Awareness Month and in April for Sexual Assault Awareness Month. Survivors of sexual violence are welcome to decorate a shirt with their feelings and message. Then the shirts are anonymously hanged on a clothesline display, shoulder to shoulder in Commons Main Street “to be viewed by others as testimony to the problem of violence against [anyone].”

For the past three years that I have been part of UMBC community I have seen this project and its strong impact on the community. This is a great chance for anyone who has experienced violence to share their stories in a safe setting, and also practice self-care. Making these shirts is an act of therapy in its own way. Last semester for the first time, I made my own shirt. I shared my story with many people without putting my name out there. I was able to take a story out of my chest and feel so much lighter immediately.

As a student staff member at the Women’s Center and a Resident Assistant, I had the privilege of being involved with this project more closely. Last semester with the help of the Women’s Center and some of my Resident Assistant co-workers, we were able to hold another t-shirt-making event in the residential area. This event has happened before in the residential halls, but seeing the work in person was such a powerful experience. Seeing people coming in, making shirts, and sharing their stories shows how they trust us, which challenges us to provide the best support we can as Resident Assistants and Women’s Center community members.

I personally believe having this project on campus is a great opportunity for our UMBC community members to express their feelings about their experiences with sexual and gender-based violence.

There will be a Clothesline Project display on Wednesday, April 30th from 5:15-7:15 in the Harbor Hall court yard.  Shirts and supplies will be available for any survivors who wish to create a shirt that tells their own story. Shirt-making for the Clothesline Project is also available year-round in the Women’s Center.