I spent decades recovering from being raped by a stranger I met in a bar when I was nineteen years old. The rape happened right at the moment I was beginning to face childhood sexual abuse at the hands of a beloved family friend.
When I say I spent decades recovering, I mean surviving first and then, slowly, recovering.
Surviving looked like this — living a life of just barely contained self-hatred.
Surviving was about traveling in a deep, dark pit of self-loathing. And sometimes that loathing extended to all women because I saw us all as victims. And I hated being a victim. So instead, I made myself the bad guy. Being the bad guy is much more powerful than being a victim.
Surviving involved hundreds of hours in a therapist’s office, trying to learn ways to internalize that I did not have to be a victim or a bad person, when everything in my life was indicating otherwise.
And weirdly, surviving — in some ways more than anything else — was about learning to consciously accept that some men who are otherwise seemingly normal, who people even treat as deserving of special respect and honor, can be monsters when people are not looking, if they can get away with it.
Wrapping my head around this simple fact made the difference between living with constant cognitive dissonance that resulted in self hatred, and having a life where I felt safe (enough) and where I no longer needed to shame myself.
I had to understand that it was nothing I did. And that it was not just me. Many women and girls have had the same experience. And it was not our fault. It was the fault of the perpetrators. It was them. Regardless of how much the world held these men up as men of honor, worthy of praise or high regard, they were the people that deserved the blame.
It’s not my fault that I have breasts and, as Trump puts it, a pussy. And it’s not my fault that I have less upper body strength than the typical man. And those facts do not mean that I should automatically be at the mercy of all the men in the world who feel inclined to act like monsters.
But in many ways, I am at their mercy. And it is this simple fact that helps remind us that all sexual abuse and rape is about power, not sex. It is a horrible fact of life. And I am not going to pretend otherwise.
Finally, in my mid-forties, because I did the necessary psychological work and because I persisted — and survived — I experience myself as vulnerable in the ways that people who are smaller than the average male, or who have less upper body strength than the majority of men, are inherently vulnerable. And now, instead of that vulnerability being a fact that is invested with self-loathing and gender loathing, it is just a simple fact. I don’t have to avoid it. I am safer and happier if I don’t pretend it isn’t true or doesn’t matter.
I feel strong in my female-ness. I appreciate my own worth. I appreciate my body and the ways that I am different from men. I don’t feel like a piece of meat, and I don’t feel like my self-worth is in question.
This is what recovery looks like — as opposed to mere survival: I feel like the person I was born to be, instead of the person I became in response to being treated like an object.
I nonetheless sometimes find myself feeling triggered by news stories of hostility against women, or worse yet, assault and rape. It can appear to be a constant in our culture. And especially during this election, with Donald Trump in the spotlight. Almost every election story involving him needs a trigger warning.
At least part of Trump’s appeal is that he is saying things out loud that other people are thinking but don’t feel they can say. He is exposing something in our culture that I have to admit, I am strangely grateful for right now.
Okay, a part of myself is resentful that it takes a man to say it for people to hear it and believe it.
A man in my family tells me that this is how men talk in private, and that this is the reality. Ha! Really? You don’t say?!
Tell that to the women who have been treated like sexual objects their whole lives. Tell that to the women who have been raped and never reported it, because either they blamed themselves or they didn’t think anyone would believe them, or they felt so deeply ashamed. Or — possibly worse — they knew people wouldn’t believe them because they had witnesses who did not intervene.
Women who have been raped, or sexually assaulted and harassed, have been having this conversation about men’s private behavior verses their public persona with their therapists, internally, or with their closest friends, for a long time. Maybe throughout all of history.
And now our country is having the conversation. We are finally talking about the fact that men in private, with no one to witness them (or only complicit people) will do and say horrible things that take advantage of the basic fact that women generally have less physical upper body strength than them. This is the way it is.
Now we have a man standing up to act in public the way men act in private all the time, and now — now — you guys get it.
Now you get it! Now you understand. Maybe?
Yes — this is how men often act. This is how many men in power, even men who we would otherwise see as good, or reasonable, or respectable men, will often behave.
Men who consider themselves allies and who care about the safety of the women in their lives or in the world in general, must fight rape culture.
Without the culture that tells men and boys that it is okay to treat women like objects, this part of our world can become less and less robust. It can drop away from our world and become a thing of the past.
We have the power to change our culture.
I do not believe that men are inherently sexually aggressive. I know so many men who do not participate in rape culture and who speak up against it — who recognize it in video games and movies, and who stand up and say, “This is wrong.”
Men can lead the fight against rape culture. And we can teach our children to recognize it when they see it, and speak out against it. We can teach them and they can do things differently from the ways we have done things.
I believe the value of having Trump on the world stage, acting out his every hostile and aggressively perturbed nastiness against women, is that he is exposing rape culture that women — especially women who have been victims of rape and sexual assault — have been trying to expose forever. And now we have a man doing it for us.
If we will only collectively agree to put a stop to something when a man finally says what women have been saying forever, then so be it. I don’t care. I am more interested in the solutions, than how we get to the solutions.
What I care about is that rape culture is no longer viewed as acceptable, regardless of whether it happens in private or in public.
Accepting that it is normal and inevitable behavior for men to talk or act sexually aggressively toward women, ends here. It ends here. And we have Trump to thank for this.