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It was supposed to be the trip of a lifetime – and it was – but for all the wrong reasons.
While in Romania celebrating her 21st birthday, my friend T was forced into a dance club restroom and raped.
There are no words to wholly express the scars an experience like this leaves on a woman – even if she does her best to hide them.
After all, that’s what we are supposed to do.
We are encouraged to “be strong”, but strength is often given a false equivalency to silence.
If she’s not talking about it, the theory goes, she must be over it.
This weekend the subject of sexual assault was elevated to the level of national dialogue and, after an election season that has tested the limits of human decency, it’s a valid question to wonder why a presidential candidate’s offhand comment about groping women was the last straw for so many.
Perhaps the answer is simple math.
I care deeply about the struggles of black Americans, for instance, but it’s one thing to know in my heart that racism is unjust and quite another to be stopped and frisked on the street. And since only 23 percent of the US population count themselves as black or mixed, this means that – as much as we can (and should) try to understand the issues facing African Americans in this country – it’s hard to know what it feels like to walk around in someone else’s skin.
Women, on the other hand, make up 50.8 percent of the US population and a heartbreaking number of us have personal stories to tell about being on the receiving end of sexual behavior that ranges from inappropriately suggestive to outright predatory.
That’s a true tipping point – and silence doesn’t mean we’ve gotten over it.
This is a personal subject for me.
In addition to my friend above (and, frankly, many others) I also have two sisters who have both been sexually assaulted. One has managed to claw her way to a relatively normal life and the other has gone down the very dark spiral of addiction.
There’s no way of knowing whether her assault directly led to using drugs to numb her pain but, then again, there’s no way of knowing it didn’t. Regardless, I “lost” a sister and four children lost their mother. I use quotation marks because she’s still living – if you can call it that.
These are the worst stories and the ones that consume our attention for their shock value; however, there are also more subtle forms of attack happening to women each and every day.
As an example, I’ve been publicly groped three times, hit on by a married boss once, had a stranger reveal himself to me on a public street, and was told by a manager in college that it was my “lucky day” because I could suck his d*ck.
Yes, that really happened.
Even so, nothing I’ve been through even remotely compares to the experiences of my sisters and friends – but comparison isn’t the point. Awareness is.
Like so many women in the first-person stories I’ve been reading all weekend, I ignored or laughed off these incidents, believing that the healthiest response was one of avoidance.
But as philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti once said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
For all its flaws, at times I’ve been oddly grateful to this election for lifting the rock on our society and exposing what crawls underneath. I genuinely believe this is a good thing – despite how unsettling it may feel in the moment.
To heal we have to understand the problem, and to understand the problem we have to first acknowledge that it exists.
As individuals and as a collective, my hope is that we will eventually lose our appetite for ignoring or excusing the kind of demeaning “locker room” talk that turns human beings into an “it” – usually the first step towards justifying violence against them – and be present to the inherent dignity in everyone.
T, my sisters, the generation of women here now, and the generations who come after deserve much better.