Dear Survivor

This guest post was written by a UMBC community member who has asked to remain anonymous to allow for privacy while sharing this important experience. 

***Content Note: This post contains detailed descriptions of physical threats and sexual violence, and mentions of suicidal ideation. Please practice self-care while reading.*** 

Dear Survivor,

I would like to tell you my story of survival. I think that maybe, just maybe, it could provide you with something that will be helpful. I hope that it will. As a survivor myself, I know that lots of people have reacted to me in ways that minimized my experience, or, in contrast, made my experience into the thing that defined me. Both felt like shit. Both made me feel trapped.

I don’t want to do that to you. Instead, I want to show you a path to a future in which your survival matters, but the specific things you have survived are just a distant footnote in your memory.

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Dear Survivor letters created at UMBC’s Take Back the Night offer messages of solidarity.

I want to tell you some details about my story. It happened 25 years ago.

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The Importance of Critiquing What We Love: An Alumni Post

We’re excited to share our very first alumni post! The reflection below was written by Cassandra Morales (UMBC Class of 2013) who worked in the Women’s Center from 2012-2013.

Binge-watching Netflix is a favorite college past-time that I carried into my post-undergraduate life. There is nothing like the satisfaction of finishing all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or the excitement of the addition of a new season of Call the Midwife. When the third season of Scandal was added, I happily started it. However, out of all the twists and turns, there was one that stood out to me, and one that I continue to think on; when Mellie is raped by her father-in-law, it may not be the most shocking twist, but it is one I feel is worth critique.

For most, the actual experience of rape is not like a bad day at work, but it’s treated in the same light: many of the characters are impacted for a few days and then get over it quickly. The event happens in a vacuum, dealt with and dispensed in only a few episodes. To me, this seems like a highly unrealistic representation and indicative of the fact that it’s not about the victim, but for the story or other characters. The viewer does grasp how far Mellie is willing to go to further her husband’s political career (and therefore her own). What is not explained is how Mellie copes with the trauma, and, much like real-life cases, the focus is not the impact on the victim, but the impact on everyone else.

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While writing this, I realized what might be the most frustrating part is that I can say this is not the most shocking twist in Scandal. Inadequate representations of rape are highly prevalent in TV shows nowadays (American Horror Story, Game of Thrones, and The Walking Dead to name a few). While I do think TV shows are a good platform to discuss rape and sexual assault, it does not seem right that it is only portrayed in one way. Sexual assault happens in so many different ways, impacts the victim in different ways*, and that should be reflected in what we watch. I begin to wonder if people who are most able to write about that experience, women specifically, are not well represented among the writers of these shows.

I will not stop watching Scandal, nor for that matter will I stop binge-watching TV on Netflix. However, what I will take away from this experience is the importance of being a conscious consumer. Critiquing a show that you love (or a store, or a sport) does not inherently mean that you must write it off. In fact, it means the opposite. I love watching TV and I am deeply invested in what I watch. As a woman, as well as a feminist, I must ask that my experiences, and the experiences of my peers, be valued in my TV shows because I value them. By critiquing them, I am more aware of what is lacking in my favorite shows. As a result, I am able to create what I want to see in the world. I encounter problematic issues in the places I shop, the music I listen to, and even the books that I read. It is impossible to be without a problematic aspect in your life. Ignoring these issues solves nothing. With my power as a consumer, I am obligated to reflect and critique and ask for more.

 

*If you know someone who has been sexually assaulted, here’s some important ways you can respond and support. UMBC community members can also receive support and resources through UMBC’s Voices Against Violence Program and offices like the Women’s Center. For more information on resources, visit the Women’s Center website. 

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.

 

On double standards and women. A guest post by a Women’s Center community member.

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It was nighttime when I pulled out my favorite dress to wear. There was no special occasion; it just made me feel gorgeous. Nevertheless, I was experiencing an all too familiar nagging feeling as I examined the material. The dress was cut so as to expose the back, and was short in length. Years of training myself to fight against rape culture and slut shaming, and my vivid remembrances of being sexually assaulted no matter what I wore did not stop me from putting the dress back and choosing something else to put on.

Let’s clarify for a moment here: clothes don’t cause rape; rapists do, and they search for vulnerability. I know this. However, the messages I, as well as I believe many other women are taught are the former message instead of the latter truth. At least for me, that conditioning stuck. Also, not only is the societal standard against women putting on certain types of clothes considered as revealing by some associated with rape culture, but it is also connected with other parts of women’s lives. The advice given to women by one law firm was an implication that their cleavage should not be shown due to their attire as this would lead to less significance being placed upon what they say. Even women who work in a place associated with prestige, then, find themselves combating a restriction that places more emphasis on what they wear rather than the job they do.

So, why is it that women choosing to cover their bodies find themselves facing consternation as well? Women who want to wear a burka find themselves unable to do so as this type of clothing has been banned in various regions.

Women are thereby taught that they should reveal their bodies, but only by a specific amount that is, at the same, not clearly defined. There is no way to fulfill such a contradictory and fluid expectation, so women become chastised no matter what they wear.

The double standards don’t end there. Women are told to put on makeup that makes them look more like what society considers as natural, such as a “nude” concealer that assumes that the humans are always white, or skin illuminators, which make people appear lighter. Nevertheless, if women wear green lipstick to actually express themselves, their makeup may be considered as odd. Also, bodily matters aside, women are advised not to speak in certain settings such as church, as seen in an depiction of Google searches. Then, women are critiqued for not raising their voices and letting their needs be heard in the workplace.

Clearly, this contradictory regulation towards women needs to change — the rules certainly aren’t helping women; they’re hindering them.

What double standards have you seen applied to women?

Domestic Violence: Why women stay. A guest post by a Women’s Center community member.

This anonymous guest post was written by a member of the Women’s Center community.

Yes, this is a very complicated and broad topic for a blog, perhaps not so ideal for a short blog since this topic delves deep inside the psychological interplay of the domestic relationship. However, I’d like to share my two cents, how I feel and what I know. It’s very unusual for people to spend the time and energy seeking to be in love with people who will abuse them–psychologically, physically and even verbally. For example, when the good times happened, we were on Cloud 9! Never had I found myself waiting, in anticipation, for bad times. Not just rough times, I mean BAD times. Am I just naive to think my partner would never want to hurt me? After all the love we shared and experienced together, was I not valuable in his eyes? I thought we were creating a relationship built on trust, an investment for the future.

One always poses the question: why (did I) stay for so long? I absolutely loved him and I thought he would change. I thought love would heal all things (a delusion?). I believed him when he said he was sorry and would never hurt me again. After some time, I grew silent and succumbed to the notion that he was right and I was not. Strictly avoidance behavior. Avoiding the beatings, the yelling, the trauma. I was under his spell. He broke me.

Like a mother to an over-grown toddler, I put up with his tantrums, his tirades, and his anxiety, which was usually the culprit which threw him into a rage. I did the best I could to understand this man. I thought that’s what any good lover would do. I lost much materialistically, as he desperately (as if there was no other means of communication) destroyed my possessions on a whim, to intimidate and/or put me in my place. I allowed this behavior to continue for a while, still patiently hoping for the best. It never came. I became his outlet for all his pent up anger towards the world. He was fiercely protective of his reputation while he enjoyed leading the oppressed people of the world into “enlightenment” with the help of his medicinal cocktail of psychedelics. Sounds strange, right? Here is a man that speaks to the world with a mouth like Jesus Christ. He exudes an air of understanding, compassion, equality and genuine concern for those oppressed. Yet, in his inner world, to the people closest to him, he plays the role of the oppressor.

In the name of cognitive dissonance, this dance spun my head into confusion. How could this person actually behave like this? As an innocent, well-meaning person who simply got caught in a spider’s web, today, I would call this pronounced deception. Sometimes it helps me to think of him as a person with antisocial personality disorder. With the help and therapy from The House of Ruth, I’m clear now on the characteristics of an abuser/predator. Supported by empirical evidence, there is actually a list of criteria and a well-defined persona pertaining to this category. Women have been in oppressive domestic violence situations for eons. As the research has been collected, especially since the dawn of the women’s lib movement, more education, awareness and prevention has been applied to the general public.

It is meaningless to blame the victim when intentions for happiness apply to one’s decisions in staying in toxic relations with another. Until one can truly understand, define and communicate the process (of the relationship) by which one is caught up in, one is respectfully innocent. There are predators in any society looking to prey upon the innocent. There is no shame in falling into a violent intimate relationship . This can happen to anyone. The important part of the journey is to recognize the symptoms of an oppressive relationship, such as alienation, low-self-esteem, and general anxiety. There is a way out. There is a way to peace, safety and satisfaction.

My Body and Me: The Original Arranged Marriage. A guest post by Ashley Sweet.

This was originally posted on Unruly Bodies a group blog for UMBC’s Gender and Women’s Studies course, Unruly Bodies. 

As long as I’ve been alive, I’ve been some version of overweight. I was my mom’s biggest baby. There was the “baby fat” phase (which I tried to ride to middle school, much to my embarrassment); the “I’m gaining weight because of puberty but it hasn’t decided where to live yet” phase of middle and early high school; the “I may not actually be overweight but I’m so disgusted with that tiny bit of belly fat that I’m pretty sure I’m obese” phase that seems pretty rampant in American high schools; the “shit, now I really AM overweight because I decided to take birth control and I put on 50 pounds in 3 months” phase of panic, terror and depression; the “I’ve stopped trying to stop gaining weight” phase where I saw numbers over 200; the “I had a baby and despite gaining hardly any weight with pregnancy I’ve managed to get even bigger postpartum” phase that’s pretty popular with new moms; and my personal favorite, the “oh my god, this is the biggest I’ve ever been ever in my life and I’m completely freaking out” phase of morbid obesity that has consumed my adult life.

Basically. Though my scale isn’t this clever. And I have better toes.

Basically. Though my scale isn’t this clever. And I have better toes.

Sensing a trend? My image, my self-esteem, my worth, my life, has always been wrapped around fat and weight. And don’t think that a comment of “there’s more to life than that” will magically change the way I’ve always thought about myself. Despite my Gender and Women’s studies major that’s been diligently trying to help me see myself as more than “fat”, I regularly struggle with seeing beyond my size. And that’s just how I see myself. We haven’t even begun thinking about how other people see me, how they’ve always seen me. And so, allow me to demonstrate where the idea that my identity is a number came from.

As a toddler, the clothes that didn’t fit were pretty popular topics of conversation; I was the “third-born” that didn’t get hand-me-downs because I wasn’t the same size my sisters had been. By middle school, how I was supposed to look (THIN) and how I looked (immensely curvy by 12) was a constant source of inner turmoil, fueled by the boys that didn’t like me (hello, I looked like a woman, not a kid) and my family who, for whatever reasons, couldn’t help themselves from talking about my weight. There were lots of ways my body showed up in conversations; “you’re fat” from my sisters when they were angry; “do you really need that bowl of ice cream?” from my step-dad who convinced himself that shame was a parenting tool; my personal favorite was the time my dad took me out for ice cream and bought me this monstrous sundae and, half way through, began a lecture about how “concerned” he was that I’d put on MORE weight. I’ve never since consumed ice cream that tasted as badly as that shame-sundae that I finished, teary-eyed, because I’d been taught not to be wasteful.

Oh yeah, because that’s the only definition of healthy.

Oh yeah, because that’s the only definition of healthy.

By high school, there was a lot of self-loathing. Most assuredly my body, that had somehow taken on a life of her own (she showed up in conversations that didn’t mention “Ashley” and she’d somehow gained priority in all of my relationships), was the primary root of my self-hatred. I hated her; not necessarily me- my depression, however intense, never morphed into a desire to have no life, just the desire to have someone else’s. I was sure that she made it to every interaction before me; that my “first” impressions were always snagged by her rolls and chubby cheeks and heavy breasts and voluminous thighs. She was what people knew about me. I was “that fat girl,” “Oh, the one with the big tits,” and “her face is OK.” When I somehow found the logic to see myself beyond “her,” I knew I was smart, I was passionate, I was considerate, I was helpful, I could sing, I could write, and I was funny. But that wasn’t what people saw. Because you really can’t see those things, you see bodies. And I resented being “seen” as nothing more than a body.

We didn’t get along, my body and I. I would cut her when I was consumed by pain or loneliness or hatred. Sometimes (often) I overfed her in sorrow, sometimes I starved her in despair. I hid her in clothes that made me look bigger, and when high school taught me that grown men, at least, saw her as sexy, I subjected her to a lot of physical contact that neither of us liked. And as much as I thought all of those things would make me feel better, they didn’t. We were disconnected.

Um… yes.

Um… yes.

By now, I’m sure I’ve made you sad. Fat stories are, by nature, really really depressing. And I want to console you (because I’m also kind) by telling you that I sporadically found some amazing body acceptance lying around. But I didn’t, not entirely. What happened was harder: I married the first man thatconvinced me I was beautiful (and to be clear, I love him more than I could ever express, but my self-esteem must be credited for at least part of why I married so soon). I spent a time disconnected from my body, believing that no one could like me if they didn’t like her. And how could I test her likability? By pimping her out to guys that said she was sexy (again, to be clear, my maturation since then has confirmed that that was a really bad idea). I blamed her for my sadness, my pain, and my failures. After all, she was the root of it all. She was all the credit I ever got and I kid you not, year by year she EXPANDED.

As an adult, my family STILL talked about her, but it was different. Adulthood had meant that I could pass the overt criticisms and painful remarks about my size and instead could skip right to passive aggressive “concern for my health” and sarcastic jokes that no one “really meant.” Now my fat-shaming (oh yeah, adulthood taught me that my every interaction could be summed into an experiential phrase) came in forms like moving me to the back of a picture, worry that I’d die by 30, and the time my step-dad’s mom just KNEW I’d have gestational diabetes (hey, I’m obese, how could I not?)

Alright, alright, let’s show some respect. This body is having an apple.

Alright, alright, let’s show some respect. This body is having an apple.

There was never a moment when something, a conversation with a real friend, an article too logical to ignore, my husband’s insistent adoration, convinced me that I wasn’t my body (or maybe, I wasn’t just my body, I’m still not sure). I just got older. I got smarter. I grew up. I began to think like the adult I’d been posing as for years. And after a while, I began to see things differently. It’s been a slow, oh painfully slow, transition. Most days my body is my body and mybody. We are both one thing and separate things. I am her and somehow more than her. And the parts of me that aren’t her, the smart, funny, caring Ashley I mentioned before, they’ve become increasingly more significant to my identity. She’s still important. She is a bigger concern in having another baby than my mental stability, finances or two-bedroom house. She’s sometimes the reason I don’t have the courage to go out. She’s at least 75% of why I don’t like school, when I don’t like school (those tiny desks). She is sometimes the reason I cry.

Our relationship has been slowly progressing; sometimes I love her. Sometimes those rolls (oh my goodness there are so many) and stretch marks are just “character”. Sometimes my now enormous breasts are actually pretty incredible. Sometimes I’m pretty impressed with how well she’s survived the years of abuse, torture and hatred I’ve dumped on her when no one else was there to help me out. Oh yes, part of my maturation has been taking responsibility for what she’s become, the role I’ve played in making her the monster I’ve been afraid of. And my developing love for her has helped me take an interest in self-care that’s healthy. I’m not interested in starving her or leaving her to rot or abusing her anymore. Adulthood has given me the gift of knowing that this body is the only one I get, and if I keep being mean to her, she might quit on me.

And now I know.

And now I know.

It’s like a marriage, the relationship we have with our bodies. Some people see it as “oneness,” as two halves of a whole; sometimes it’s just two pieces, separate but interdependent. I think of my marriage as arranged; I may not have chosen this body, had I a choice, with a genetic predisposition to obesity, as my “partner for life.” But we’re in this thing. I’ve spent too long hating her, pushing her away, rejecting her; we’ve been in couple’s therapy for a while now. Sometimes I still say mean things to her. Arranged or not, we’re married. For better or worse we’re committed. And I like to think of this “turning of a new leaf” as a kind of vow renewal. I vow to be nicer to you, body, if you vow not to quit on me until I’m treating you with the respect you’ve been missing. And hey, since this is a marriage, give us some gifts. We like cake and pedicures.

To read more about bodies and what they do and refuse to do, how they are represented and how they represent, the ways they are disciplined and the ways they resist – in other words – the political, social, and economic lives of bodies, visit Unruly Bodies.