Content Warning(s): Homicide, Suicide, Rape, Bodily Injury
Day four! April is Sexual Assault Survivor Month! This post will contain sensitive material; please exercise caution if you see a topic that could be upsetting to you. A final caveat: these are written from my limited perspective as a bi woman who was raped. I don't have all the answers and I'm still working through my own journey. There are many other kinds of sexual assault and abuse that are relevant this month. Take time to consider the needs of your diverse fellow survivors. Speak up for them when they can't speak up for themselves, but don't speak over them. Thank you!
Often when we hear about survivorship in the news, it's someone being a "victim" of rape; the term "victim-blaming" reflects that very idea. I think that the continuation of the label "victim" tends to proliferate the view of the "victim" as "someone to which the terrible thing happened"--which is acceptable when the someone is badly injured or dead, as in a homicide. However, in the case of rape, as I described yesterday, the public is still ready to jump to conclusions based on phrasing and not take it as seriously as other crimes. Rape "victims" are "someone to which the terrible thing happened" with the implication that they might have stopped the terrible thing that happened had they acted or dressed differently. This is unhelpful, as those of us who know that telling "victims" to not get raped won't lead to their not getting raped. The important issue in these semantics is that "victim" seems to imply either someone to be blamed, or "dead." Certainly with the way the media treats these cases, it may feel as though the "victim" is dead--some have to endure lengthy and unpleasant trial proceedings, some are shamelessly mocked for their art project as a message that rape occurs anywhere, their lives entirely changed and diminished due to public opinion.
Rather than "victim," I make a conscious effort to use the term "survivor" when I speak about people who have been affected by assault/abuse. Because unless our case included homicide, we do survive it. (There are some who later lose their lives to suicide as a result of what happened to them, though I would argue that in that case, the crime is still on the rapist for having taken that person's will to live as a result of the rape.)
Some of our scars are physical; some people require treatment for bodily injury. I remember about a year ago I watched a film about troubled kids where one teenage boy wouldn't cut his hair or take off his hat until his release day. When the counselor shaved his hair, he started patting his head in disbelief because there were no bumps there. No marks of the trauma of abuse he'd endured from his previous family. Nothing to prove that it had happened and was still with him many years later. When I saw that scene, I thought of how I sort of wish I had taken photos of my body after it happened. Instead, I consciously didn't document or address the bruises or lacerations that occurred during the rape; I didn't think it would be enough, I didn't think that even with photographic evidence, anyone would believe me, and to this day I still hold some regret. Physical scars may fade, but when you can't forget what put them there, it can seem a little invalidating not to still see the evidence on your skin.
About two weeks after it happened, I got a few mosquito bites at a party where I knew my rapist would be, but I attended anyway. I scratched them, as one tends to do; they turned into scabs, which I picked out of compulsion (see: preexisting dermatillomania). I kept picking. I kept picking. Suddenly whenever I was at rest, I felt the compulsion to keep scratching at these bites until the result was my entire lower right leg and parts of my left leg being covered in often unsightly wounds. I covered them with bandaids. I covered them with neosporin (and developed an allergy to it, which exacerbated the wound healing process). I tried eczema solutions, went to multiple urgent care centers, and nothing helped. It wasn't until about eight months later that I acknowledged my trauma was fueling this wound and I needed actual help instead of homemade remedies. My mother helped me get to a dermatologist, who took mere minutes to tell me that I had a staph infection. What began as mosquito bites in a time of anxiety had turned into a shameful medical crisis. With antibiotics, ointment, time, and other coping methods, my wounds did close and heal, but if you look in the light when I'm not wearing tanner to cover it up, you'll notice the skin changes and some of the deeper scar marks. I'm lucky that I can mostly disguise my physical scars of post-trauma survival. Even in what I went through, I still feel a bit of lingering guilt that I got away with scars on my leg that weren't even from my attacker, but from the psychological trauma afterward. I can't forget that others have suffered much worse, but I need to acknowledge what happened to me is valid because there will be others like me, too.
All survivors have mental scars of some kind as well. Things may trigger us unexpectedly, we may be aversive to certain places or calendar dates, we may have had to hide what happened to us for so long that it changed who we are and how we interact with the world fundamentally. We can never totally let go of what happened to us, and it wouldn't make sense if we did. Even if you can't tell your story yet, even if you need more help to be okay right now, you're not alone and it wasn't your fault. With time and professional help as well as support of friends and family, these wounds can heal and become scars just like physical ones. That is to say, it won't hurt so much when you poke at them, but you'll still remember how they got there if someone points them out. You may not show anyone these scars, but acknowledging they exist can help you process what happened to you.
Let's continue to call ourselves survivors. Let's see if we can change the culture of victim-blaming so we don't have to associate ourselves with graves of those who suffered before us anymore.Thanks for reading! Tomorrow's topic will be about "the friend zone" and its harmful effect on the community.
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