Since professor Christine Blasey Ford wrote a confidential letter accusing Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault, I’ve heard a parade of the usual rape culture cliches: Why didn’t she report it to the police? Why didn’t she come forward earlier? And, after all, boys will be boys.
But the rhetoric that stands out most starkly to me as a survivor of an adolescent rape are arguments like that of former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer, who said on Fox News, “How much in society should any of us be held liable today when we lived a good life, an upstanding life by all accounts, and then something that maybe is an arguable issue took place in high school? Should that deny us chances later in life?”
Or, as New York Times opinion columnist Bari Weiss said on MSNBC, “Let’s say he did this exactly as she said. Should the fact that a 17-year-old presumably very drunk kid did this — should this be disqualifying?”
It’s the Brock Turner effect, the reverence for the sanctity of the perpetrator’s future, his great promise. There are many problems with this line of reasoning, but the one that sticks in my craw, as the survivor of a sexual assault as a teenager, is the way it ignores my pain, my stolen promise.
“I think it derailed me substantially for four or five years,” the professor, who goes by Christine Blasey professionally, told The Washington Post of her alleged assault, in which she says Kavanaugh pinned her down, groped her, covered her mouth and attempted to remove her clothing before she escaped.
Blasey said she later struggled academically and socially and was unable to have healthy relationships with men, describing the event as a “trauma with lasting impact on her life.”
I can relate.
Since I was raped by a group of teenage boys after school when I was 14 years old, I have struggled with substance abuse issues and sexual compulsivity issues. For nearly a decade after my assault, I cut myself off from processing and experiencing the overwhelming feelings associated with it. Instead, I dedicated myself to the business of self-destruction, numbing the brain-bending tidal wave of suppressed emotion with cocaine and alcohol.
According to the National Center for PTSD (Blasey and I were both diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder), rape survivors are “three to four times more likely to use marijuana, six times more likely to use cocaine, and 10 times more likely to use other major drugs.” I self-medicated at least in part to avoid confronting the pain of my assault.
I also repeatedly put myself into dangerous and degrading sexual situations, retraumatizing myself repeatedly in my brain’s misguided attempt to regain control of what happened to me.
At 25, I got sober and began the slow, painful work of recovery from my sexual assault in therapy. The feelings that finally began to surface during that process were nearly too painful to handle. I scoffed at the idea of “one day at a time,” when I was struggling to tolerate the immense grief and sorrow I felt for even a minute at a time. I spent those early years afraid of heights solely because I was terrified I might impulsively fling myself off of them.
According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 33 percent of women who are raped contemplate suicide and 13 percent of women attempt suicide. Like many survivors, I struggle with mental illness, in the forms of anxiety, depression and PTSD. But I am lucky. I am alive.
I am also lucky to have generally had access to treatment for my assault and its symptoms. But both the time and financial commitments have been overwhelming in scope ― countless hours of various types of often expensive therapy ― cognitive behavioral, 12 step, Gestalt, group, psychodrama workshops, emotionally focused therapy. If something seemed like it might help, I tried it. I have written letters to my inner child. I have gotten acupuncture. I have meditated. I am medicated.
Still, at 35 years old, 21 years after those boys decided their pleasure was more important than my humanity, I still struggle day by aching day to deal with the havoc they wreaked in my life. It still sometimes threatens to capsize me.
It has often struck me as unfair, the nature of trauma. How can the relatively short period of time in which my assault took place ― less than an hour ― have incalculably altered the comparative eons of time of the rest of my life? And yet that’s what trauma does. It’s like a glass of water spilled on a keyboard ― a split second of bad luck that works its way into your motherboard, corroding the very parts that allow you to function.
The damage can be treated, but it can never be undone. And when we talk about treating sexual assault, we are talking in terms of a lifetime. Rape is a long-term crime. I’ve spent decades of my life engaged in the hard, painful work of recovery from sexual assault. I have spent decades of my life in pain.
Just as I’ll never know who I could have been without my sexual assault, I’ll never know what I might have done with all the time I’ve spent recovering from it. That time was stolen from me.
My life wasn’t ruined by what was done to me, but it was irrevocably altered.
In our rush to spare rapists the pain of consequences, we ignore the sea of suffering they inflict. Why should perpetrators get to put their actions behind them when victims don’t? What makes their lives more important than ours?
So when pundits ask, “Must a sexual assault when he was a teenager follow him around for his whole life?” Remember: Christine Blasey Ford didn’t get a choice.
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