This week, I was lucky enough to see a comedy special taping unlike any other I’d been privy to before. In recent years, comics like Tig Notaro and Ali Wong have spoken frankly and funnily about health issues and serious loss. Comics, predominantly men, have been called out for making rape jokes regularly and consistently in a way they weren’t before. This week, I saw Isabeau Dornevil speak honestly about sexual assault and the way society handles it by policing women instead of demanding change. As an educator and someone who is not yet able reveal myself as Dornevil did, I appreciated this show in more ways than one.
Let me begin by saying that Dornevil is supremely funny. Her jokes are on point each and every time, even as she takes on this task of speaking about her experience with assault and the aftermath. The humor level falls during that portion of the talk, because as she put it, “I couldn’t think of a way to make this funny.” She’s right, it isn’t funny. Some of the comments made to women and survivors can be ridiculed as a way to cope, but the experience of assault if you’ve been through it or understand it, just isn’t.
One of the ways that I and other peer educators go into sessions about healthy relationships and sexuality on a college campus is to open up to the students in front of us. We don’t share an entire narrative, but rather we show a little bit of vulnerability. We are willing to be vulnerable to you, so please be willing to participate in this discussion and the information we are sharing. We make the space safe, and we test that safety by exposing ourselves.
Dornevil’s show was moving, succinct, and poignant. It was genuine emotion mixed with honest conflict that happens in the mind of every survivor about their experience. The pain and trauma of that ordeal is not as much of the struggle as what follows: the decision about whether to tell anyone, the things those people ask or suggest, and the expectation that recovery will look like what other people imagine. So little of that process caters to the survivor’s needs. While there is a spectrum of disregard for survivors that hinges on their racial, class, or other privilege statuses, most recoveries are the last battle following all the bureaucratic and systematic barriers to aid.
There are a few things I will take from this show and remember as I begin the next year of peer education and my last year as a college student. I am going to continue to be more vulnerable and possibly uncomfortable. I am going to try to remember that there is no linear path, and my experience is not incorrect just because it doesn’t always get better, some days it is much worse. That is okay. There is not only one way to recover, and there is also a plethora of ways to experience assault, and none of them are lesser or “don’t count.” Those things are hard to remember, but if Dornevil is willing to explore them onstage, I think we can all try to incorporate them into our worldviews. If you are a survivor, seek help as you need it and be gentle with yourself as much as you can. If you are an ally, just be there to listen— usually all anyone wants is to be heard and to be believed.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a traumatic experience or needs any assistance, the number for the National Sexual Assault Hotline (RAINN) is (800) 656-4673 and the online hotline is online.rainn.org. The telephone hotline will connect you to a local provider, and the online hotline will allow you to instant message with a volunteer.