Ever since the launch of Brave & Reckless, I have posted raw and intense writing about sexual trauma, shame, rage, symptoms of PTSD, and survival. Many of these pieces were not easy to write, and I assume that they have not always been easy to read. However, I owed it to myself to exorcise those demons and it has been incredibly liberating and healing to break the silence.
In early October of 2016, I wrote a very long Facebook post in reaction to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s infamous statement, “Grab them by the pussy.” The bones of this essay had been taking shape in the back of my head for some time. However, that Saturday morning in October, after watching the video footage, a fire ignited in my belly and I could not rest until I had articulated everything I had been thinking about Trump, American rape culture, our casual acceptance of this culture, and my rage and grief that I was, in turn, was forced to teach my own children, the next generation, how to protect themselves in such a culture. This piece, What Every Woman Knows*, surprisingly resonated for many and I received a number of requests to post it somewhere more public for others to read and share. With that encouragement, Brave & Reckless was born on October 8, 2016.
What Ever Woman Knows remains one of the best personal essays that I have ever written. A large part of its power is that it made the unseen seen at a time when the #MeToo movement had not yet exploded and our consciousness raised. I personally have many good men in my life, but until reading that piece, even my own husband had not realized how pervasive and entrenched this rape culture is and how profoundly it affects the lives of women and girls in this country on a daily basis. I think that this essay and the many others like it that came out around that time served an invaluable purpose in changing the national dialogue about rape culture. Suddenly everyone was talking about what every girl and woman already knew.
It is incredibly moving to me to know that sharing What Every Woman Knows inspired other women in my orbit—and possibly beyond my immediate orbit- to publicly share their experiences with sexual harssment, sexual abuse, and rape. These stories must be heard, the unseen must be seen, for the culture to change. The sheer volume of these stories, the universality of these experiences must be known. As a culture, we need to start making the connections between the subtle ways we socialize our children from a young age (‘oh, he just hit you because he likes you,’ ‘be polite and kiss great Aunt Marge,’ ‘I know you think you’re hungry, but I know you aren’t,’ ‘she didn’t really mean that’) and the messages they are receiving about trusting their instincts, bodily integrity, setting and enforcing personal boundaries, and consent.
I have been very impressed and at times awed over the last three and a half years with the sheer volume of women- and men- who have shared their deeply personal stories about sexual abuse, incest, rape, and sexual harassment on social media and in print. Many have told their stories for the first time after decades of silence. I have witnessed incredible courage and incredible compassion displayed through this storytelling. I am proud and honored to have served as a contributor and an editor on the groundbreaking We Will Not Be Silenced: The Lived Experience of Sexual Harassment and Sexual Assault Told Powerfully Through Poetry, Prose, Essay, and Art an anthology of 166 pieces of writing and art from 95 contributors around the globe.
I want each and every person who reads one of these pieces on Brave & Reckless or in WWNBS to think, to feel. I want you to understand on a gut level, on a heart level, on a soul level what it is like to carry a history of sexual trauma. Sexual trauma makes our very bodies a battlefield, territory that we must fight to reclaim and learn to make peace with. Sometimes over and over again. It impacts every intimate relationship we will ever have, from those with our romantic partners to how we will interact with our children. It gets written into our skin, our blood, our neurons. Survivors already know this. But we need the rest of you to know this too.
To live with a history of sexual trauma—whether it is a single, catastrophic incident or a lifetime of small episodes where our bodily integrity is threatened and/or our boundaries not respected— is to inherit a visceral legacy. No matter how well adjusted a survivor is, no matter how effective the treatment they receive, there is no statute of limitations on unpredictable flashbacks, on intense feelings of shame, on episodes of deep rage, directed inwards or outwards. Sexual trauma lives on not only in our heads, not only in our hearts, not only in our souls but it literally lives on in our bodies.
When a woman, or man, or girl, or a boy that you care about tells you their story of sexual trauma you will be affected. You should be affected. Those of you who have your own histories may be triggered. You may be ready and able to offer your empathy and compassion or you may need to be self-protective and to tend to your own feelings. Do what you need to do.
Those of you who do not have a history of sexual trauma may want to do something, anything, because being active is more comfortable than feeling helpless. There will be circumstances where people’s immediate physical or emotional safety is an issue or legal charges need to be considered. If that is case, by all means ask, “What can I do for you? What do you need from me?” Educate yourself about resources. Let your loved one know that you are there for them.
The reality; however, is that many if not most of these disclosures come days, weeks, months, often years after the trauma. Someone who discloses their truth to you months or years after a trauma is not asking you to fix anything. They are not asking for advice (unless they tell you otherwise) and they are definitely not asking for platitudes. They are asking you to bear witness. They are asking you to listen, to hear, to be with them in holding whatever feelings this disclosure brings up for them, to help them sit with and carry these feelings. Not to judge them, not to try to fix them. They aren’t broken. Some days are harder than others, but survivors are incredibly resilient and they deserve your awe and respect. Your job is to feel honored that they chose to disclose to you, to understand that your relationship with them is important enough to trust you with this piece of them and your job is to listen more than you talk.
Let me repeat that: your job is to listen more than you talk. And then say thank you and tell them how honored you feel that they trusted you with their truth.
And then later, when you are alone, your job is stay uncomfortable, to start thinking about your place in this culture, and what you can do to confront it, to change it, starting in your own home, and then out in the world. Help me, help us, rewrite this legacy.
*The most current version of What Every Woman Knows can be found here