Today is Day 6 in our annual blog series, brought to you by Chloe Hart. Chloe is a feminist, a teacher, and a student. This is her first Vagina Monologues production and she is very excited to be involved
Trigger warning regarding sexual assault
I Rise to End the Shaming of Women
I was 19 when I was assaulted. My story has many elements that are common among the stories that have been creating a national conversation about sexual assault over the last several years - I had spent the night boozing it up with friends at a few fraternity parties and, by the end of the night, become very drunk. Late into the night I ran into G, a former flame with whom I’d had a one night stand and remained cordial.
In the sweaty haze of the fraternity basement, we latched on to one another and, as the party began to wind down, moved upstairs to his room. Very quickly we were having sex, consensually. But he didn’t want to just have sex – G seemed to be after a greater conquest of some kind. It began with his insistence on having anal sex, which I repeatedly refused. Once I’d made it clear that that was off limits, he tried to experiment on my body in other ways – to force his fist into my vagina, to shove a shampoo bottle inside of me, and to have sex with the door open in front of his fraternity brothers. When I proved unwilling to participate in any of these activities, he stormed out of the room abruptly, and shaken, I left the house.
The encounter left me physically swollen and bruised, but my body was resilient, and in a few days’ time I had healed. Yet as my body mended, a cloak of shame settled over my psyche. G had essentially treated me as a collection of orifices, and the fact that I could be seen this way made me feel that I was unequivocally a slut. I blamed myself for not leaving the situation at the first signs of disrespect, for trying to play it cool, for being too drunk to stand up for myself. The semester was drawing to a close, and fraught with emotion, I left campus for the last few weeks of school to finish my studies at home. I curled up in the arms of my incredibly supportive mother and cried every day for a week until the worst of it was over.
It’s been four years since my identity was so roughly torn apart through this encounter, but I still experience an upwelling of emotion when I think back to it. I am angry at G for treating me like a body, rather than a person, and I am angry at the Greek life system at my university for creating a culture in which the emphasis on sexual conquests displaced considerations of consent and respect. But more than anything, I am troubled that it was my instinct, after experiencing the assault, to blame and shame myself. Sexual assault is a unique form of attack on the body because of the cocktail of horrible emotions that come along with the physical pain, and I think that in considering how to tackle sexual assault, it is important to understand the meaning that the assault carries for its victims.
Women have come a long way toward reaching gender equality, but one area in which they continue to lack power is in defining their sexual reputations. The sexual double standard, in which sexually active women are often labeled “sluts” while no such derogatory word is even available to describe promiscuous men, is alive and well. It’s hard to pinpoint when and why some women are branded with this term, but from my observations of heterosexual hookups in college, it seemed to come down to the way a man viewed his female partner. If he remained friendly or desirous of her after a hookup, the encounter might leave her unscathed, but if he treated her with disinterest or scorn, labels like “slut” started to stick. In the context where a consensual sexual encounter can sometimes leave a woman feeling that her reputation is compromised, a nonconsensual encounter becomes a direct attack on her sexual respectability: for a woman to be treated with so much disrespect not only after but during sex is to imply that respect is something that she is not worthy of. This was the assumption that I came to about myself when I was assaulted.
Much of the focus on curbing sexual assault thus far has been in considering how to define consent and in how to change the micro-cultures which encourage assault. Truly, these are important steps. Yet I think that closer to the root of the problem is the shame that is cast on women who are assaulted. At present, women's sexual identities seem to be defined by their male partners. We need a paradigm shift in which women who have sex, especially with men who lack respect for them, are not considered inherently degraded. We need a culture where women are not defined by what they do, or what is done, to their bodies. This might not take care of the problem of sexual assault itself, but it could spare its victims the identity crisis that goes hand in hand with such an attack. So this Valentine's Day I rise to re-claim the identities of women who have been assaulted: not as victims, not as ruined things, but as strong, powerful women