Speaking Up at Take Back the Night RPI
I was honored to be invited to speak at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Take Back the Night event this year. For confidentiality, there is only this audio recording but I've posted the full text of my speech below. The beginning is a little quiet as the organizer introduces me and there's some paper rustling throughout but hopefully you get the idea.
Why We Don’t Report
Thank you for being here tonight. We are always better together. Thank you. Thank you.
These are important times right now. Situations that have always existed are being brought to light and we’re finally allowed to talk about them and do something to change things we’d taken as the norm that were never normal or okay. Things that our political officials have been doing over the past couple of years have opened up some new conversations and brought us this, new, important hashtag Why I Didn’t Report. This is a conversation we’ve been waiting to have. It gives us the chance to show the world what rape really looks like and what reporting actually involves. The telling isn’t so simple. You may have heard some of the reasons being shared, where survivors aren’t believed or are shamed for this thing that happened TO THEM. However, survivor of sexual assault may not even know the reason themselves that holds them back from telling. There is a whole emotional component involved that overrides the logic of the situation. Getting to a point where you can tell your story, is an emotional journey, and it doesn’t always happen in an easy time frame that allows attackers to be prosecuted.
When I was 25, I went on a date with a man who ended our evening together by raping me. At the time, I had just moved across the country from NY to California. I had just finished my master’s degree and I had a job teaching Special Ed. At that time, I considered myself smart, capable, and pretty bold to make a move so far from everything I’d known. When I started dating in California, I had the goal of getting a boyfriend. So when I met this nice guy, clean cut, educated, had a job in Silicon Valley as a graphic designer. I thought he was safe. I wasn’t even thinking that I had to protect myself around him. He took me to his brightly lit apartment. I knew his name. And that night, I thought that I had control over the decision of whether or not we’d have sex. I didn’t realize that this man considered rape an acceptable work around for a girl who way saying no. I didn’t report. I didn’t report.
At first, I didn’t even realize that I’d been raped. That might sound unbelievable but it’s sadly more common than you think. The picture that had been painted for me of what rape looked like was that you get jumped by a stranger in a dark alley, or if it’s date rape, then there are somehow drugs or alcohol involved. So, I wasn’t looking for what actually happened to me. And to add to that, right after I’d fought him off, using my legs to launch him off me, yelling, “I told you to stop!” he turns around and goes, “oh come on! Why did you do that?” He’s angry that I had stopped him. And for that moment, I questioned which one of us was in the wrong. Maybe I had been so rude to deny him what he wanted. I’d clearly hurt his feelings. And I’d been taught to be a nice girl, don’t hurt people’s feelings. Maybe I hadn’t been a nice girl. So I didn’t know to report. Because it didn’t look like the kind of rape I’d been taught to keep an eye out for and I left thinking that maybe I had done something wrong.
And the next day, I call my best friend and I’m still trying to work through in my head what had happened. I call her for advice and tell her about this strange experience and I’m looking for some sympathy, some commiseration. I want her to agree with me that this guy was the jerk and instead she sighs and says, “oh Rebecca! You give it up so easily.” So instead of getting confirmation that I had been wronged, I get confirmation that I’d been a slut, from another woman. So I didn’t report or tell anyone else because I didn’t want anyone else thinking that I was a slut.
Months later when I finally figure out what happened, it was because I remembered how I’d said no again and again throughout the evening, probably 20 times or more and he still pushed forward with having sex with me. When I remembered how I’d had to struggle and fight with him to get him to stop, I realized that this was not sex I’d consented to and was actively trying to prevent, then I had the right word for it: Rape. I hadn’t been a slut, I’d been raped.
And then I was really faced with the decision to report or not. When I’d heard about this happening to other women, I’d thought that if this ever happened to me, I’d bring the house down around my attacker. I’d make sure that he was punished. And now that it was me, I found this decision to be more confusing than I’d ever imagined. I could picture what would happen if I went to the police and the questions I knew they’d ask. “Why did you go home with him?” “Why did you kiss him?” “Are you sure you were raped?” And then if it went to court, I could even picture his surprised face to realize that I’d even consider what he’d done rape. I knew he didn’t think it was rape. He would have considered it just what a guy has to do to get laid. And it had happened months ago, I had no proof. No one would believe me. And by that time, I had found the boyfriend I’d been looking for. He was a nice guy, called himself a feminist, an activist. And when I’d figured out what had happened, he told me that he didn’t want to hear my story because it would make him angry. So, I didn’t know where to take my story. I didn’t know who would want to hear it.
I felt like there was nothing I could do about it so it was best to forget about it and I worked hard to diminish it in my mind and tell myself it didn’t matter. And I tried to push it away for about a decade. But it always came back to me. I couldn’t push it away, and I shouldn’t have had to.
The one thing that the health class pamphlets had gotten right about my situation was that I had said “No” and I clung to that to understand what had happened to me. But sometimes you don’t get the chance to say no. And it’s hard to understand how this is not your fault. If I’d heard more stories that looked like mine at the time, then maybe I would have figured out what had happened sooner and understood my options. But even if I had, I can’t say that I would have handled it any differently. Even after 15 years, and having done lots of healing work around my experience, it’s still a hard story to tell.
Rape is already trauma, and then telling can be a whole other kind of trauma. And the possibility of being shamed or not believed is only one possible outcome of telling. There are so many more factors that make this hard, not just as a physical trauma but as an emotional one.
As humans, we’re not always so good at handling strong emotions. Ironically, this is what we do that makes us human: We feel things. But still, so often, people will do whatever they can to avoid facing emotional stress, whether it is telling a hard story, or having to hear a hard story. So when you tell your story, you might find that the listener will try and make their discomfort over hearing your story, easier on themselves, by making your pain harder for you. They’re not bad people, it’s not that they don’t care about you. They’re just trying to manage their own discomfort. We’re not naturally great listeners. This is a skill that we all need to cultivate.
You might find well-meaning people saying things to diminish or deflect your experience, like, “oh, it’s not that bad. It happens to a lot of people.” Or they’ll try and become the hero of your experience and dispense advice, “Buck up! The sun will come out tomorrow! You’ll get through this!” They may even try and relate their own experience which sounds nice, but can still take away from you getting to tell yours. Or they might ignore that you said anything and change the subject. Telling is so hard because the listening can be hard too.
For myself, after I’d done a lot of healing, and knew as deep as I could understand it, that this was not my fault, this was NOT something I’d chosen, it was then pity that I was afraid of. Pity feels like a heavy, wet, dirty blanket. I can’t stand pity. And the idea that I might be pitied kept me from telling for most of my quiet time. I thought I’d be in the box where I’d now be seen as broken, flawed somehow, weak. As if I’d always been this person and getting raped was the inevitable consequence of being me. Pity felt like there was something wrong with me. It wasn’t true of course, but when someone responds to your story with pity, that’s what it can feel like. And the way something feels trumps any rationalizing we do in our head to tell ourselves what the truth actually is. The feeling is always stronger than the logic.
So, keeping quiet can feel like the safer option for so many reasons. You were already hurt once. Why would you risk opening your mouth to possibly be hurt again? Getting to a point emotionally where you can tell your story is a huge milestone in healing because we’re taking another kind of risk to be that vulnerable.
We spend our lives trying to appear strong to others. In the end, it’s when we are vulnerable that we show our true strength, and the secrets are what kept us weak. We are all human, having human emotions, doing confusing, human things, hurting the way humans do, and when we admit our humanness, other people get to relax and sigh with us, that, oh, we’re human too. We hurt too.
Vulnerability requires great bravery and strength because it requires you to be exposed, you allow yourself to be seen. To be vulnerable, you need to be real. And in order for the cultural phenomenon of rape to change, we need more real people, strong enough to be vulnerable. And when people get to know you, they have more reasons to love you.
If you’re on the listeners’ side, hearing someone open up about their experience, there are a few things you can do to support. Don’t push them to tell. Keep in mind that there are two traumas you’re witnessing here: the original traumatic event, and then everything this person had to go through to get to a point where they could tell their story. You’re witnessing a miracle. This person has sat in the uncomfortableness of pain and shame and fear and pushed past all that to talk about it. And your job as the listener is just to listen. There is nothing here to be fixed. This person wants to be heard and you honor them enough by bearing witness to their brave vulnerability and raw humanness. And when they’re done, you can say, “thank you for sharing.”
And if you’re struggling with telling your story, that’s okay. It takes the time it takes. I thought for a long time that I would take mine to the grave, but here I am.
I wish this was easy. I wish this was a perfect world where we could go to the cops, be believed and have telling be a comfortable, simple experience that doesn’t heap upon us a new trauma over the original one. I wish that this was a perfect world where rape didn’t happen at all. And I believe that we start to create that world when we tell our stories. Sexual Assault stops when we keep painting the pictures of what it looked like for us so that others know the different faces that it can wear. So that everyone will know that trying to convince or coerce someone to do something that they don’t want to do is just as much rape as is jumping someone in a dark alley. That is the true power of our stories, the end of rape. That is your power, when you’re ready for it.
For myself, I am compelled to talk. I got to a point in my healing where telling became the natural result of my experience and I knew that I could no longer stay quiet and be happy with my life. Eventually, my rage over the fact that rape happens to anyone, let alone that it happened to me, finally outweighed the fear that had kept me quiet.
I am terrified to be up here and telling this story. However, I believe in using my gifts to affect the world. My gift is my voice. I can talk about the hard things. I want to talk about the hard things so it’s easier for others.
You don’t have to be in the same place as me, there are not so many people who want to speak in front of crowds about anything, let alone their personal trauma, but my hope for you is that you can get to a place where you can tell someone. Find someone who feels safe, and let yourself be seen. You deserve to be seen and loved. And in the meantime, as you work your way through to the point where you’re ready to talk, just know that we’ll be here for you, we want to hear your story, we love you already, and you are not alone.