TW: sexual assault and mention of other traumatic experiences
guest post by Eliza Campbell
The ringtone is jarring; jarring because it is turned all the way up, the better to make sure I don’t miss a call to this phone, and nerve-racking, because I don’t know who’s going to call, or when. Provided to me by Provo’s women’s shelter, this phone is on my person during my 48-hour monthly shift on the rape crisis team, when I am responsible, with a partner, to answer the crisis line calls and respond to them. Sometimes we counsel someone over the phone, or help them figure out what to do in the wake of an act of sexual violence; more often than not, it means I have to drive to the local hospital while they subject themselves to an evidence-collection kit and police questioning. The phone usually sits next to my personal cell-phone, the two nestled on my side like unpredictable children. The ringtone is also terrifying; a bright, clanky melody which sounds morbid in the context of its message. Its song fills me with dread and deep sadness, because a call to this phone means that part of someone’s life, in a small or permanent way, is ending.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. My school, notorious for its conservative and stubborn attitude toward addressing “women’s” issues, has signs up across campus announcing awareness activities. This is the first time I remember this issue being publicly addressed at this school, maybe ever. But maybe that’s not true, maybe I don’t remember correctly. What did I forget? Was I thinking clearly? Was I aware of it? Have I ever been aware of anything? In activist circles, we often talk about “awareness-raising.” I congratulate myself; I am aware, because I said so! But am I, if I constantly forget? If I contradict my words with my actions? I ask myself these questions a lot these days, now that I think of myself as someone who has been sexually assaulted. My sense of memory and definition have been permanently altered; I have contracted a terrible kind of self-doubt.
If I’ve been a staunch feminist since childhood, if I participated in clubs against sexual violence in high school, if I counseled rape victims throughout college, do I really count as a victim? I tell myself that I am lucky, I am safe, I have recovered. I am healthy. If anything, what happened is my fault because I didn’t say anything. Is my story real, even if it didn’t happen at night, in the bushes, at the point of a knife? Was I aware of what was happening to me, of the slow violence that was taking place? I wasn’t. I wasn’t. I am not.
I’m not going to qualify my words with any statistics, or mentions to larger trends, all of that which we think of as “awareness-raising” in the traditional sense. Too often, stories people tell about their own experiences with sexual violence are layered with facts and citations, as if the fact of our own experience is a ridiculous hypothesis we have to prove over the course of a careful study, legitimizing what happened with someone else’s story, or a large, juicy percentage. I’m not going to explain how or why I found myself in the situation of having an intimate partner assault me. I will say this, though: when I experienced abusive behavior multiple times, I could never say it out loud to myself: “This isn’t right. This doesn’t feel right.” My body yelled at me that it was confused, hurt, nervous, felt silenced and unsafe, but I managed to ignore those feelings. Why? That question keeps me anxiously awake at night, sometimes, like the threat of a jarring hotline phone that might ring.
I am endlessly aware of the stories I have heard. I remember many, many slow and grueling encounters in the hospital with victims, angry fathers, indifferent cops. I remember blank, empty eyes, eyes that were exhausted and had no tears left, or the way someone’s fingers shook as they reached for a pen, or my roommate’s nervous smile as she told me why the boy at the door could not be let inside. These things will stay with me; I am aware of them, no matter where I go. But in multiple situations in which I was being hurt, there was no awareness to speak of, or so it seems. I picture myself staring through a plate-glass window, fogging it with my breath, watching myself inside and reflected, multiple visions casting guilt, doubt, responsibility, and silence.
It seems like the ultimate irony, especially to those of us who were raised to believe that romantic love transcends and yet somehow encompasses all ethics. It is a truth that hurts, for anyone nurturing a religious, personal, or familial faith: someone who loves you can also hurt you, in ways that are unacceptable and undeserved. Someone who genuinely loves you, who truly cares for you, can also be the reason for your feeling of deep loss and fear. It certainly made no sense to me; I had never been loved by someone who also irreparably hurt me. The two, in my mind, did not go together. When I finally got the courage to break up with him, I was immediately ashamed of how broken I felt, how ruined.
A few months later, a different experience. I was trying to date someone new, having taken the patterns and lessons of my old relationship to his apartment. We were kissing one night and he started doing something to my body I didn’t want. I broke away and looked him in the eye and said, in a way that was more direct than I’d ever been with a boy: “Please don’t do that. Can you not do that?” He laughed, lazily, and kept doing it. Suddenly I was so tired, more tired than I’d ever been, tired unto death. It didn’t matter! It didn’t matter what I wanted, even if I said it clearly and loudly in the dark. I didn’t care anymore, so I let my body go limp and let him do what he wanted. This, here, is one of the places where the lines of consent and awareness get blurry. If someone is heartbroken into silence, does it count as a “yes”?
I consider myself lucky, incredibly lucky. I’ve had supportive parents, helpful friends, access to therapy and health services, and the ability to relocate. I’ve been in gender equality clubs and study societies and Facebook support groups. But ultimately, none of it mattered; I had still experienced what I experienced, and I still needed time. Healing defies your stubborn will, trickling down only in the steady, ebbing passage of days and weeks and months and years. I’ve found immense peace in sharing my story, in admitting it – first to myself, then to my parents, then to others. I’ve found hope in tiny glimpses of love from people around me. I try to speak up, and on more than one occasion, my frankness about my experiences has encouraged someone around me to tell me their story, to clutch my hand and say something hard and painful to say, to lighten their own burden. To me, this is at the heart of my faith: I wish for a world where we can carry each other’s burdens, listen to each other’s stories, and act as physicians to our brothers and sisters.
A dear friend of mine writes and sings songs. A few days ago, she played one for me that is in progress. “I feel like a lot of people will need to hear it,” she said, smiling. She played a few warm stanzas, the refrain of which was: “Someone will be kind/someone will be kind.” I listened to those words and believed them.
It’s been said before, but I’ll say it again, a thousand times: my story matters, and so does yours. Tinesha, Hannah, Grace, Dani, Amber, Dinah and many others have written beautifully here about their own experiences, and I applaud them for knowing that their stories are important. There are so many forms and types of abusive behavior, so many people, so many stories. They all matter. Sexual violence will end when we start believing that each other’s stories, bodies, and minds matter, that we deserve to be kind to ourselves and others. This month, try to be aware and kind of the people who need help around you, including yourself. I envision a better, healthier future, where we can speak up and ask for things and be gentle to ourselves. We’ll know that it matters.
For more information on Sexual Assault Awareness month, including access to information about resources for victims, visit http://www.nsvrc.org/saam.
Eliza Campbell is a recent BYU graduate with degrees in political science and women’s studies. She speaks Arabic, Bulgarian, and Spanish, and will pursue a career in international human rights law, focusing on policy related to refugees and asylum-seekers. Follow her on Twitter: @elizaecampbell