Monthly Archives: February 2014

How Sexually Violent Language Perpetrates Rape Culture and What You Can Do About It, via Everyday Feminism

Have you ever noticed how violent our language is? Even when we aren’t even talking about anything inherently violent itself?

We tell people to “go f*ck themselves” when we’re angry. We’ll “tear you a new one” when we’re insulting. We “force ourselves” to do a myriad of tasks, “hit on someone” when we flirt, and tell (mostly) women to “suck it” when their power is threatening to us.

That’s a lot of violence right there.

You’ve probably also noticed that that’s a lot of sexual violence.

This language might, on the surface, seem unimportant or coincidental, but as any linguist (or feminist) knows, our language shapes the way we see our world.

When we consider the fact that 1-in-3 women and 1-in-6 men will be victims of sexual violence, it’s not surprising that it is a massive focal point in our speech.

It’s not surprising that threatening sexual assault is the primary way that we engage in verbal warfare.

This language is so normalized, it’s probably part of your vocabulary, too. In fact,not using sexual violent language is almost impossible because of how ingrained it has become.

We don’t even realize what we are actually saying because we don’t question it.

If you’re reading this article, it’s likely that you want to end rape culture and sexual violence. You probably don’t want to be normalizing rape through your language.

So how can every one of us work to stop using language derived from sexual violation?

Stop Using It

This might seem like a pretty obvious answer, but really, we have to stop using it.

Every time we use this kind of language, we are a part of the problem.

We have to stop normalizing it in our own lives and call ourselves out when we use it. We have to hold ourselves accountable when we do.

A good way to stop a habit is first to understand it.

Try writing down or keeping tally for a few days every time you use one of these words or phrases.

Then, observe: What patterns do you see? Are you prone to using any specific phrases? Do you use them the most when you’re angry or upset? Do you use them more with people that you’re close to or strangers?

Once you understand your use of this language, you can begin to create an action plan to break this habit.

Notice certain people that tend to trigger this language? Revaluate your relationship, or at the very least, ask them to hold you accountable for what you say.

Do you tend to use this language when you’re angry or hurt? Next time you feel this way, pay attention.

Do you notice yourself leaving comments online filled with this language? Reconsider the way you interact on the web.

The point is to get out of old habits and into new ones.

It takes on average 66 days to make or break a habit. Be patient with yourself, but also stay on track.

Help Others Understand

Along with changing yourself, you also probably want to change other people’s use of sexually violent language, too. After all, isn’t that what activism is all about?

Just like with the previous step, forming an action plan is going to help you with this. Preparation does pay off.

Think about a time when someone said or did something that was problematic and you did nothing. How did it make you feel and why didn’t you intervene?

It’s likely that you were taken off guard and didn’t know how to react. I know I’ve been in plenty of situations like this myself, and I would spend days thinking of witty responses that I should have used.

Don’t get caught in this situation.

Prepare a response that you can use when you encounter this kind of language.

Even if you don’t feel comfortable speaking up, there are other ways to intervene.

You could pull the responsible person aside after a group conversation and explain to them why that kind of language makes you uncomfortable. You could even Facebook message with the person about it, if you don’t want to speak face-to-face.

If you want to avoid this altogether, maybe consider telling your close friends and/or family about your quest to eliminate sexually violent language from your speech and ask them not to use it in your presence.

There are a lot of ways that you can do this! Just make sure that your action plan is something you can actually carry out.

Like anything new, navigating this is going to take some practice.

It’s always a good idea to first start with people who are close to you. Maybe talk about it with your feminist friends about this first!

We all know approaching strangers is hard and violates a lot of social norms. That means we have to start where it’s easiest, or else this action may never come to fruition.

Think About Sex in New Ways

Have you ever noticed that a lot of the ways we talk about sex are dangerous?

The jury is definitely in on this one. There’s a very real connection between how we as a society discuss sexuality and the prevalence of sexual violence.

Collectively, we use the commodity model to understand sex.

This model comes from an economic model of scarcity, which advocates the idea that women’s worth is directly related to how much sex she’s had and that virginity is the most “valuable” status.

Men’s sexuality is, inversely, more valuable the more sex partner’s he’s had.

This is where the idea that men want sex and women want love, and that it’s women’s job to be the “gatekeepers” of sexuality.

When she has sex, her worth decreases. When he has sex, his worth increases.

This model is obviously sexist.

It also enforces stereotypes and defines sexuality based on propriety. This is precisely where “he’s a stud and she’s a slut” originates.

This is also where rape myths come into play.

Since women’s sexuality is based on a value judgment of her worth, and certain types of women are worth more than others, victims of rape are often blamed for the crimes committed against them.

Since men are encouraged to have many partners, and are thought to have uncontrollable “urges,” they are often given a free pass for the crimes that they commit.

This is also the basis of the cause of the erasure of people of other identities experiencing rape; victims come from all identities, although the majority of rapists are men.

And this leads us back to language: We threaten rape and sexual violation so often because of this stigma.

Language like “f*ck you” and “suck my d*ck” is rape-permitting and normalizes sexual violence. It creates a society that is full of rape myths and rape, even though we never talk about it. It creates rape culture.

This leads to the point that we need to have new models in which to think about sexuality. We cannot rely on the commodity model.

A great example of an alternative is The Standard of Enthusiastic Consent.

Basically, this philosophy says that safe, consensual sex is awesome (which it is). Only “yes means yes,” and your partner needs to be—well—enthusiastic about having sex with you.

Read more about this idea and train yourself to think about sexuality this way, instead of as a commodity.

Call yourself out when you use the double standard. Make sure your partners can and do say “yes” every single time. Support comprehensive sex education. Teach it to your children, too.

When we all decide to do away with the commodity model, we’ll do away with rape culture, too.

***

Doing away with the sexually violent language that we use is not going to be easy. It’s so ingrained that in most cases, we probably don’t even realize what we’re saying.

But it is possible. In fact, it’s even probable.

It all starts with you.

Ignoring the reality of street harassment

USA: Male Privilege of Not Knowing, via The Good Men Project:

During a sexual violence prevention training with 40 enlisted air force men (‘airmen’), one young white man stood up and said that he had never thought about this issue before, until early one morning during a deployment overseas a few years ago. As he awoke and poked his head out of his tent he happened to see a friend, a female airman (females are ‘airmen’ too), walking by at a fast clip, her head down. He wished her good morning, but she ignored him. He called out louder, and a third time, with no response. He then ran out of his tent and caught up to her, asking why she hadn’t responded.

She seemed startled and he asked her if everything was ok. She told him that she was on her way to the chow hall for breakfast, and she hated the walk. It was a long one from her tent, and she got through it by keeping her head down and muscling through as best she could. He was 110% stumped about what she meant. Rather than explain, she told him to walk with her, and he agreed.

As he described that walk to the chow hall you could see he was viscerally reliving the experience. He said he didn’t know what to expect, what the issue was. And yet as they walked, he became aware of a strange sensation. At first he couldn’t put his finger on it but it grew, and eventually he knew exactly what it was. It was the feeling of being watched. As they walked, every single tent they passed opened. Men’s eyes were on them. Throughout the entire walk.

“Well, not on us,” he explained to us. “On her”.

Although the men were not looking at him, he said he physically felt their gaze and it was overwhelming. The men didn’t say anything during the walk. Didn’t catcall, didn’t threaten. But he said they didn’t need to. By the time they got to the chow hall he was physically shaken. He had never known that this was her experience every single day going to breakfast.

It was that walk to breakfast that led him to eventually become an Air Force Victim Advocate for survivors of sexual assault on his base.

♦◊♦

To this day the memory that airman shared remains one of the most powerful examples of a man coming to the realization of how we as men are expected, trained, taught, raised, socialized, bullied, threatened and beaten into notseeing the epidemic levels of violence against women and girls all around us, let alone doing anything about it. It illustrated how powerful a look can be, how the public harassment of girls and women does not even have to be verbal to cause harm. How blind we as men allow ourselves and each other to get away with being.

And yet even though we are socialized and taught as such, it is still our choice as men to engage in the harassment of women and girls. Or to not. It is our choice and our privilege as men to ignore that street harassment exists, and its effect on the women and girls in our lives and countless others we will never meet (and who deserve every bit of respect and safety as do our mothers, partners, daughters, and sisters.)

In March 2012, right before International Anti-Street Harassment Week, I was working with a friend, my partner Bix, and others on a video modeling how men can challenge street harassment. As we filmed “Shit Men Say To Men Who Say Shit To Women On The Street” I had my own moment of truth. My partner was harassed during the shooting of the video – and none of the men involved, myself included, even noticed. This is the inherent injustice: my male privilege allows me to choose to ignore the reality of street harassment and other forms of gender-based violence, simply because I can.

Helping men reach their own moment of recognition of the true scope, scale, and impact of street harassment is one of the most important first steps to engaging men to challenge it when they see it and to change the culture that allows it.

Childhood sexual abuse talking points

10 Ways To Talk To Your Kids About Sexual Abuse, via Everyday Feminism:

Throwback Thursday: This article was originally published on 10/26/12.

(Trigger Warning)

The idea of someone molesting your child is terrifying for any parent (unless theparent is the child molester, which is 37% of the time).

The pain, fear, and trauma they may experience at such a young age are frightening to consider. It’s enough to make any parent freak out and want to never ever think about it again.

And then we hope it will just never happen to our little girl or boy.

Except your daughter has a 1 in 4 chance and your son has a 1 in 6 chance of being molested before the age of 18.

I know you don’t want to hear it or believe it. But it’s true.

And these statistics are too high for any parent to risk staying uninformed about the reality of child sexual abuse and not talking to their child about it.

On top of that, the majority of children never report sexual abuse when it’s happening. They’re often afraid of their parents’ reactions or fear getting into trouble. They don’t know how to explain what happened to them or believe what the abuser told them to keep them quiet.

Now, you can never protect your child fully from ever being molested. But you can do a lot to reduce your child’s vulnerability to sexual abuse and increase the chances they’ll tell you after something happens.

You just need to talk to them directly about it and do it many times.

Why Talking About Sexual Abuse Is Like Talking About Crossing the Street

The idea of talking to your kid about sexual abuse probably seems worse than even talking to them about sex.

You don’t want to scare them (or yourself) in the process. You don’t want to strip away their innocence. You don’t want to introduce them to how much violence and abuse there is in the world.

But given the statistics, your child is much more likely to be molested than to behit by a car when crossing the street.

So try thinking of these conversations as being just as important (and frankly more important given the statistics) than teaching your child how to cross the road safely.

It’s one of the things you teach your child as a sign of love and care and as a way to keep them safe.

Remember that when you take a deep breath and begin talking to your child about their body.

Ways of Approaching the Conversation

1. Frame the conversation for yourself as a way of loving your child: Starting from a loving place and not a scared place will help create the calm environment for your child. This will help them really listen to the words you’re saying. If you’re frightened and stressed, they will react primarily to that fear and not register what you’re saying as much.

It’s also important to not treat the subject like its taboo or dirty (which is how we often treat anything related to sex). Even when parents try to hide their feelings, children are often very perceptive and pick up on small cues telling them that something is wrong. They then may think talking about someone hurting them might be wrong even if you say it’s not. So speak from a calm, casual, and loving frame of mind when having these conversations.

2. Begin talking to them as young as 2 years old: This may seem very early butchildren under 12 are most at risk at 4 years old. Even if they can’t speak well, children at this age are busy figuring out the world. And they certainly understand and remember a lot more than adults usually realize.

For example, when giving a bath, tell them where their private parts are and that the parent is seeing and touching them to clean them but that normally nobody should.

3. Teach them the actual names of their private parts: When you begin teaching them parts of their body like ears, eyes, and toes, also teach them the real names of their private parts like “vagina” and “penis” and not their “cute” names. This gives them the right words to use if someone is hurting them and makes sure the person being told understands what’s happening. It’s also important to teach both female and male anatomy because the abuser can be of either gender and they need to know how to describe what happens to them.

In one case, a child told her parent that her stomach was hurting. When they took her to the doctor, he informed them that her vagina showed signs of rape. Their little daughter had been trying to tell them what was happening but she just didn’t know what to call her vagina so she said stomach instead.

4. Share the only instances when their private parts can be seen and touched:An age appropriate concept for a young child to understand is that nobody – including a parent or caregiver – should see or touch their private parts – what a swimming suit covers up – unless they’re keeping them clean, safe, or healthy. But also make sure they know that even in these situations, if someone is hurting them, they can still say, “stop, it hurts” and tell their parent immediately.

Some examples to help them understand what you’re talking about are when you’re giving them a bath or a doctor is seeing them. Ask them if that’s an example of keeping them clean, safe, or healthy as you’re doing it.

5. Teach them their private parts are special: When talking about this topic, it’s important to not create a taboo or dirty feeling around their private parts. Instead parents can teach their child that their private parts are so special that they’re just for them and no one else.

Only when needing to keep their private parts clean, safe, or healthy are other people allowed to see or touch them. This is also an important step to help children develop a healthy sexuality before discussing sex itself with them.

6. Teach them (and respect) their right to control their bodies: This flies in the face of what we often teach our children – that adults have absolute authority over everything and children have to do what they’re told. The problem is that this only teaches them to not speak up when they’re feeling hurt and scared because of what an adult is telling them to do. Instead, teach your child that their body is theirs and no one has the right to hurt their bodies even when a grown up is doing it. For children, it’s very empowering to have permission to say “no” to an adult if they’re uncomfortable with the request.

For example, when you’re at a social event, don’t make your child kiss or hug anyone. Instead let your child know they can give a kiss, hug, handshake, or nothing to people they see and it’s entirely up to them. And when an adult tries to make them give them a hug and they don’t want to, encourage the child to say “no” and support their decision verbally if needed.

7. Explain that no one should physically hurt them, especially in their private parts. 85% of child sexual abuse is perpetrated by someone they know. It may be a parent, relative, family friend, neighbor, teacher, or religious leader. It may be a man, woman, or another child. It can be anyone. No one unfortunately is on the safe list. In fact, children are most vulnerable with the family members and acquaintances. So make sure your child knows that no one can hurt their bodies no matter who they’re with – even when they’re with their mommy or daddy.

It’s also important that they understand you’re talking to them about this because you love them and want them to be safe. Just like you teach them about crossing the road because they might get hit by a car, you’re also teaching them that someone might sexually hurt them. It doesn’t mean it will happen. But in case someone tries to, your child will know they can say “no, stop that” and tell you what happened without you being upset with them.

8. Encourage them to trust their gut around their safety: While parents shouldn’t instill a fear of people in their child, they should support their child in trusting their gut instinct. By trusting their intuition, children will both be more empowered around making their own choices about who’s safe instead of relying on a parent telling them. This is important because a parent won’t always be there with them.

One way is to tell the child before social events that if they ever feel uncomfortable with someone – even if nothing has happened, they should leave the room and tell their parent. Even if it looks “rude,” they should know that they will not be punished for simply leaving the room. Their sense of safety comes before the need to be “polite.”

9. Explain that a secret is still a secret when shared with the parents: Many abusers tell their child victims that what happened was a secret and to not tell anyone, especially their parents. So it’s important to teach them early on that secrets are still kept secret if they tell their mom or dad. Additionally, they should understand anyone who wants them to keep secrets from their parents shouldn’t be trusted and they should definitely tell their parents about it.

10. Tell them that you will believe them if someone is hurting them and they won’t be in trouble: Many abusers tell their victims that no one will believe them and create a sense of shame around what happened. Children in general, usually blame themselves and take responsibility for things that happen in their lives, regardless of who’s actually responsible for it. Given this, children often fear what their parent will do if they tell them, including being punished. Make sure they know without a doubt that you won’t be upset, that they’ve done the right thing, and that you’re proud of them for telling them the truth.

But Here’s the Most Important Thing To Do

If you remember nothing else, remember this – these conversations should be ongoing, open, and casual.

You wouldn’t tell your child just once to not cross the street without looking both ways. You’d tell them several times and probably even quiz them about what they need to do when they want to cross the road.

It’s the same deal for sexual abuse – except you have this conversation from a much earlier age and it changes as your child grows up and becomes a teenager.

While nothing can keep your child 100% safe, if you keep an open, casual dialogue with your child, keep an eye out for signs, and pay attention to how your child responds to people, you’ve significantly reduced the risk of someone sexually abusing your child.

For more resources, please visit:

Facts about childhood sexual abuse

Local lessons from the Woody Allen abuse allegations, via Maine Kennebec Journal, by Cara Courchesne:

CHILD SEXUAL ABUSE is never far from the headlines. The last two weeks have been no exception. Dylan Farrow’s open letter published online Feb. 1 in The New York Times stoked a firestorm of responses, from celebrities rushing to Woody Allen’s defense to survivors of child sexual abuse responding in support of Farrow with their own stories.

In the flurry of Twitter updates, Facebook statuses and blog posts about Farrow’s letter, however, a few facts got lost. The following facts can’t tell us what happened when Farrow was a child, but they can help us be more informed and considerate when responding to children and adult victims who come forward to talk about the abuse they’ve suffered.

• Only 2 percent to 8 percent of rape reports are actually false. This is no different from any other violent crime. Despite media depictions that false reports are rampant, or that rape allegations are a way to exact revenge or get a famous person’s money or ruin someone’s future or reputation, studies demonstrate that only a small percentage of reports are false. And when we as a culture publicly disbelieve victims who have come forward, we communicate to other survivors they won’t be believed either.

• Child victims have difficultly disclosing sexual abuse, the least likely of all forms of abuse to be disclosed. Approximately 85 percent of child victims don’t tell or delay telling about sexual abuse. This is often because children are afraid of getting in trouble, they are afraid the offender will further harm them or someone they love, and they are most likely to have been abused by someone they know and trust. Because of these factors, there is a decreased likelihood that children will make false accusations.

• Abused children disclose in an adult world. Child victims of sexual abuse are expected to disclose as an adult might — clearly, consistently, and chronologically — yet most humans have memory difficulty associated with traumatic events.

Additional factors present challenges to an abused child’s disclosure.

A recent study of 250 substantiated cases of child sexual abuse found that nearly 25 percent of children recanted their story at one point. Other studies demonstrate high rates of delayed disclosure, and high rates of partial disclosure.

As soon as children disclose, they are forced into situations where they have to tell strangers what happened and when it happened, all while being unsure about what occurs next.

Since Farrow’s childhood, our society has made strides in child sexual abuse investigations. The creation of Children’s Advocacy Centers, where trained forensic investigators can interview children individually in child-friendly settings, has vastly improved the prosecution of child sexual abuse cases. In Maine, it is increasingly considered best practice for a child to be interviewed at a Children’s Advocacy Center.

We’ve also evolved regarding how we talk to our children about healthy relationships. It’s OK to talk to children about appropriate and inappropriate touching, about safe surprises and unsafe secrets, and to talk to them about their bodies and their own boundaries.

Talking about child sexual abuse is no longer only about the stereotypical “stranger in the van.” It’s about making sure children have the tools and the ability to tell the trusted adults in their lives if something is perpetrated against them.

Perhaps if Farrow had access to a Children’s Advocacy Center her story today would be much different. But children in Maine have that option, and we have the option to help prevent sexual violence against all people in our communities.

For more information about Children’s Advocacy Centers in Maine, visit www.cacmaine.org. To reach a sexual assault advocate, call the Statewide Sexual Assault Crisis and Support Line at 800-871-7741, TTY 888-458-5599. This free and confidential 24-hour service is accessible from anywhere in Maine. Calls are automatically routed to the closest sexual violence service provider.

Cara Courchesne is communications director for the Maine Coalition Against Sexual Assault and is writing on behalf of the Maine Network of Children’s Advocacy Centers. She may be reached at cara@mecasa.org.

Rape culture at the Wall Street Journal

*Trigger Warning for Rape Culture*

WSJ Editor: Intoxicated Sexual Assault Victims Are Just As Guilty As Their Attackers, via Media Matters for America:

Wall Street Journal editor James Taranto claimed that cases of “‘sexual assault’ on campus” that involve alcohol are really victimless crimes in which both parties are equally guilty.

In his February 10 WSJ column, Taranto baselessly argued that men are often unfairly accused in sexual assault cases on college campuses, particularly when both men and women involved in the case were drinking (emphasis added):

What is called the problem of “sexual assault” on campus is in large part a problem of reckless alcohol consumption, by men and women alike. 

[…]

If two drunk drivers are in a collision, one doesn’t determine fault on the basis of demographic details such as each driver’s sex. But when two drunken college students “collide,” the male one is almost always presumed to be at fault. His diminished capacity owing to alcohol is not a mitigating factor, but her diminished capacity is an aggravating factor for him.

As the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education notes, at some campuses the accuser’s having had one drink is sufficient to establish the defendant’s guilt … In theory that means, as FIRE notes, that “if both parties are intoxicated during sex, they are both technically guilty of sexually assaulting each other.” In practice it means that women, but not men, are absolved of responsibility by virtue of having consumed alcohol.

While it is true that reckless alcohol consumption can play a role in encouraging damaging behavior, and that male and female college students (particularly underage students) could probably benefit from learning to moderate their drinking for a variety of reasons, Taranto’s accusation that women who drink — and then are forced to have sex against their will — are not only equally at fault for their assault but are guilty of an equivalent crime takes victim blaming to a new and dangerous low.

Taranto’s victim-blaming approach furthers his attempts to disingenuously redefine the problem of sexual assault as a problem of alcohol. The problem of sexual assault on college campuses, as elsewhere, is entirely a problem of sexual assault, in which a victim does not consent to sexual relations with the aggressor. Studieshave shown that alcohol consumption doesn’t cause sexual assault, nor does it serve as a defense. According to a literature review from the National Institutes of Health:

The fact that alcohol consumption and sexual assault frequently co-occur does not demonstrate that alcohol causes sexual assault.

[…]

[M]en are legally and morally responsible for acts of sexual assault they commit, regardless of whether or not they were intoxicated or felt that the woman had led them on previously. The fact that a woman’s alcohol consumption may increase their likelihood of experiencing sexual assault does not make them responsible for the man’s behavior, although such information may empower women when used in prevention programs.

Other studies similarly found that some college men who acknowledge committing sexual assault — which included 25 percent of male students surveyed — may have used alcohol to “have an excuse for their behavior.” Other variables, like peer pressure, “may lead some men both to drink heavily and to commit sexual assault,” but the researchers found no evidence to place the blame solely on the presence of alcohol.

Moreover, just because both women and men are drinking in a particular situation does not necessarily place them on equal footing. As Ann Friedman has noted, “The biological reality is that women do not metabolize alcohol the same way as men do, and that means drink for drink women will get drunker faster.” The idea that women who get drunk and then are forced into nonconsensual sexual experiences are equally at fault in the situation misses the reality of assault, particularly as it involves physical force of some kind in a majority of cases.

If Taranto is concerned about the treatment of men in such cases, he could have written about male sexual assault victims, who are a smaller but nevertheless important portion of victims. But when men are sexually assaulted the perpetrator is usually also male; in fact, 98 percent of all perpetrators are male. The “double standard” Taranto is worried about, in which men are more often the accused, isn’t a double standard at all — it’s just reality.

The insistence that victims are equally responsible for their assault contributes to a dangerous stigmatizationwhich keeps many victims from reporting these crimes — particularly because victims who do report canbecome the targets of vicious attacks. Previously, Taranto’s victim-blaming has included insisting that efforts to address the growing problem of sexual assault are attacks on men and male sexuality.

But no matter how many times he uses the WSJ to blame victims and push sexist attacks, his concern that women take advantage of using alcohol to falsely accuse men of assault just doesn’t match the facts. According to the FBI, people falsely report sexual assault at the same low rate as other comparable crimes: only 3 percent of the time.

In response to Dylan Farrow

What Would Make You Believe a Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse? via HR Reality Check:

I don’t know if you know an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I don’t know if you know what an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse looks, sounds, or acts like. So let me tell you who I am, and let me tell you what I am like.

I am a 30-year-old white woman who lives in Austin, Texas. I have bleached blonde hair with a coral-toned streak in the front—it’s short, but I’m trying to grow it out (god, I wish it would grow faster). I work from home, but unofficially I office out of the back patio of a craft beer bar. I have a graduate degree in cultural anthropology. I am heterosexual and I am married, and together with my husband I own an old-ass house with a recent raccoon infestation. I have three cats who are named after boozy drinks.

I am an only child and I have awesome, twangy Texas-raised parents who Texas-raised me. My best friends are brilliant academics who sort of hate academia. I am overly friendly in awkward situations. I am funny and I love Star Trek. I throw big parties. I do yoga at home so I can skip savasana. I talk too much.

And when I was a kid, a relative sexually abused me. I don’t know how long it went on. It started before I entered kindergarten but stopped sometime in elementary school. I remember feelings—dread, shame, embarrassment, panic, guilt—better than I remember incidents, but I remember some incidents too.

If you had asked me three or four years ago: Andrea, have you ever been sexually abused? I would have said absolutely not. Because it took me more than 20 years to admit to myself that what happened to me as a child was real, that it was abuse, and that it was not my fault.

Why 20 years? Why so long?

My abuser made me afraid of my own capacity to experience memories. My abuser made me afraid of what the inside of my own mind looked like. I built—like, really, purposefully built—delicate, intricate, elaborate mind-paths, each of which navigated away from and around one thing: my abuse. I did it consciously at first, and then as I became older, my brain seemed to do it for me, automatically.

Whenever anything would trigger an abuse memory, or memory-feeling, I would start down a pathway to, well, wherever: a song, a poem, a saying, a dance routine, lines from a play. Anything that was not the memory, or memory-feeling. Eventually those pathways filled up, and stacked these little piles of songs-poems-sayings-whatever between my present and that thing I never wanted to think about.

Maybe I could have lived my whole life like that. Maybe I would have, if I hadn’t discovered feminism, if I hadn’t discovered anonymous message boards, if I hadn’t married someone I trust with my whole heart. But feminism, and the Internet, and being in an incredible relationship conspired together in this wonderful way and empowered me to say a combination of words I never thought I could say: I was abused as a child, and it was real, and it was not my fault.

Those are the hardest things to say, because I am saying them to the most scared, most ashamed, most terrified little 5-year-old version of myself, and she is so scared and ashamed that she can’t hear it, refuses to hear it, because hearing it means it is real. My 5-year-old self is going to live 20 years before she lets herself back into her mind and her memories. Now, all I can do is tell her, over and over again: Yes, he hurt you. It was real. It wasn’t your fault. It is a strange cycle; it is all over, and yet it is ongoing.

Despite what was done to me—I don’t say “what happened” to me, because my abuse didn’t “happen,” it was done to me by another human being—I always get the impression that people are a little surprised when they hear about it, as if I am not the adult survivor of child abuse they were expecting. Should I be wafting around like some kind of hollow-eyed ghoul? Should I be especially brave, especially vocal, stumping about my abuse at every opportunity? Should I be significantly fucked up in some easily recognizable way? Would that make it easier for people to believe that I was abused, that abuse exists, that adult survivors walk among us, live among us, drink craft beer among us?

Because what I am seeing, with Dylan Farrow’s recent open letter concerning the abuse she says she suffered at the hands of her father, deified American film director Woody Allen, is that a lot of people do not believe that we adult survivors live among them. That there is something adult survivors can do that will make us believable, but that one of those things is not, it seems, recounting our own stories and speaking out against our abusers. Especially if our stories contain, I suppose, “palpable bitchery” and not the correct, carefully measured amount of humility appropriate to a child who has had her entire life torn apart by the very people tasked with protecting her from harm.

Strange, how credible evidence against an abuser rarely seems to include the testimony of survivors, but frequently does include the “expert” opinion of people who were wholly absent from the situation, or of abusers who have a vested interest in, say, not being imprisoned. No, if we survivors remember too much, we are clearly sticking too close to an easily fabricated story, but if we remember too little, we are suspiciously devoid of all those details people say they hate to hear, but which people really, secretly like to hear.

I hear people say that Dylan Farrow must be lying—after all, it took her 21 years to write an open letter in the New York Times! Well, it took me about that long to write an open letter to my own soul. I hear people say that Dylan Farrow must be lying—after all there is a video of her as a child, unable to recount her abuse in vivid detail, from start to finish, in one defiant take!

Oh, I cannot hear that one. I cannot hear it. There are no lengths to which 5-year-old Andrea would not have gone to prevent the details of her abuse from becoming known to others. In fact, every time I had a clear opportunity to out my abuser, and to detail my trauma? I denied it even more, created elaborate excuses, let details slip but then refused to cooperate. I lived in abject fear of being punished for what another human being had done to me.

I believe 7-year-old Dylan just as I believe 5-year-old Andrea, not because our stories seem to have a couple of parallels, but because I listen to survivors, and because of that, I believe survivors. I don’t think, in the wake of Allen’s recent Golden Globes accolade, that Farrow is being opportunistic. There is no such thing as an opportune time to have been sexually abused by your father, one of the most famous film directors in the world. There is no opportune time to have had notable public figures debating the possibility of your sexual abuse in glossy, thinky magazines, really trying to get to the crux of the question: Are you, or are you not, the calculating, lying daughter of a vengeful, spiteful actress?

Perhaps I am harming Woody Allen, and all his friends, by believing his daughter. Well, that’s fine. If my belief in Dylan Farrow’s story of abuse takes a little bit away from Woody Allen’s lifetime of lifetime achievement awards and fawning hordes of celebrity fans, I think that is something Allen can spare. And if I’m wrong, and Allen is falsely accused? I ask you: If this is what Woody Allen’s career looks like, having been damaged so egregiously by spurious accusations that he is a child abuser, what precisely do you imagine an untainted Woody Allen career would look like? Dude gets his face on an officially minted piece of U.S. currency? We rename the moon “Woody”?

Some research seems to suggest that rates of child sexual abuse are declining; while that is heartening, the truth is that however the numbers play out, child sexual abuse is shockingly common and grossly underreported. I believe Dylan Farrow not only because I find her testimony to be credible on its face, but because chances are, Dylan Farrow isn’t lying.

Maybe some folks think it’s a fun intellectual exercise to pick apart some kind of “he said, she said” brain teaser about the sexual abuse of children. How satisfying it must be for those folks to feel really confident in settling in for a gander every time Midnight in Paris comes on TNT. What a reward for running a 7-year-old girl through the ringer; how lucky we all are to have solved the mystery of Did Woody Allen Or Didn’t He? Oh well, Annie Hall is on!

Here is what I know: I spent the last few days trying desperately to distract myself from just about everything besides my closest friends and most beloved books and activities, because I could not bear to watch my friends and family members tear Dylan Farrow apart on Facebook or Twitter, call her a liar, call her a fool, call her an opportunist. I am still fragile when I think of my own abuse, and I do not know who in my life I might lose to an errant rape joke or a speciously timed Woody Allen oeuvre fest. I hate that this is a fear I must live with and mitigate, daily. But this is the reality of rape culture.

I know there are lots of those people—people who would give the benefit of the doubt to literally anyone besides a scared, confused child or an adult survivor just coming to terms with their past. I wonder why there are so many of those kinds of people who seem unable to, simply, listen to survivors without transporting themselves into some crudely imagined, hyperbolic Law & Order: SVU episode full of idealized victims and nefarious abusers.

I wonder how we can change that, and I believe part of the solution is to help people who aren’t survivors learn to hear stories of survival in productive, non-victim-blaming ways. We need to change the paradigm of reception, to empower people to hear the words “I was raped” or “I was abused,” so that they can hold them and experience them without defensiveness, panic, or pity. If we do this—give listeners a cultural script for hearing these stories—I think we will go a long way toward empowering survivors to tell these stories.

As an adult, after I had privately come to terms with myself about my abuse, I still feared—deeply, viscerally—talking about that abuse to someone else. I still have trouble disentangling it from victim-blaming language; in this very essay, I had to stop myself from “admitting” my own abuse, as if it is for me to seek absolution for a crime someone else committed against me. I dreaded the withering experience of managing other people’s pity, other people’s scorn, other people’s discomfort.

I very rarely talk about my own abuse, but whenever I do, I talk about it with a mind toward making other people comfortable with my story. I wish I didn’t have to, but I’m doing it for myself as much as I’m doing it for them. If we are going to do right by survivors, then we need to empower those who can support them. And to do that, we need to give our friends, family, and loved ones the tools they need to hear our stories.

The more stories survivors tell, the less aberrant we will be—though I contend this is an imagined aberrance. If we can tell our stories, and if those stories can be heard, we may someday stop this relentless “he said, she said” tug-of-war where no victim is ever perfect enough, no accused ever quite guilty enough. But I could not tell my story until I believed that there were people in my life who could hear it without putting me away in some cramped card catalog drawer, something marked under “T” for “tragic.”

This is a gift I wish I could give all survivors: a place for their stories to live that isn’t in their head or on a police report or court petition. A place where their stories can be spread among other people, diffused, made real through their voluntary, consensual telling, to be heard by people who will not immediately file them under “L” for “liar,” or “O” for opportunist, or “B” for “bitch.”

This is the enduring story of rape culture, the eternal lie: Give us the perfect victim, and we will believe you! That’s all they’re asking for—just one perfect victim, and then we can talk about all of this rationally! Send us someone we don’t have so many concerns about! This is a great deceit, and it is borne out of a cultural narrative that has no place for listening, only a place for victim-blaming, only a place for reinforcing stories that do not too terribly upset our Friday night movie binges.

I’m not asking you to decide, today, whether Woody Allen is a child abuser, or to preach fire and brimstone the next time someone picks up a copy of Manhattan. I am asking you to do something more powerful, more long-lasting, more revolutionary: Listen to survivors. Understand that our stories are not sad addenda, but part of our whole being, part of the people you love or hate or see in the elevator sometimes at lunch. See us not as victims, or characters, or some unidentifiable, sad and tragic “other,” but as the whole people we are, moving in and out of your lives.

Listen to us, so that we can listen to ourselves.

An Open Letter From Dylan Farrow, via New York Times:

(A note from Nicholas Kristof: In 1993, accusations that Woody Allen had abused his adoptive daughter, Dylan Farrow, filled the headlines, part of a sensational story about the celebrity split between Allen and his girlfriend, Mia Farrow. This is a case that has been written about endlessly, but this is the first time that Dylan Farrow herself has written about it in public. It’s important to note that Woody Allen was never prosecuted in this case and has consistently denied wrongdoing; he deserves the presumption of innocence. So why publish an account of an old case on my blog? Partly because the Golden Globe lifetime achievement award to Allen ignited a debate about the propriety of the award. Partly because the root issue here isn’t celebrity but sex abuse. And partly because countless people on all sides have written passionately about these events, but we haven’t fully heard from the young woman who was at the heart of them. I’ve written a column about this, but it’s time for the world to hear Dylan’s story in her own words.)

What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies. I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it traveled in its circle around the attic. To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains.

For as long as I could remember, my father had been doing things to me that I didn’t like. I didn’t like how often he would take me away from my mom, siblings and friends to be alone with him. I didn’t like it when he would stick his thumb in my mouth. I didn’t like it when I had to get in bed with him under the sheets when he was in his underwear. I didn’t like it when he would place his head in my naked lap and breathe in and breathe out. I would hide under beds or lock myself in the bathroom to avoid these encounters, but he always found me. These things happened so often, so routinely, so skillfully hidden from a mother that would have protected me had she known, that I thought it was normal. I thought this was how fathers doted on their daughters. But what he did to me in the attic felt different. I couldn’t keep the secret anymore.

When I asked my mother if her dad did to her what Woody Allen did to me, I honestly did not know the answer. I also didn’t know the firestorm it would trigger. I didn’t know that my father would use his sexual relationship with my sister to cover up the abuse he inflicted on me. I didn’t know that he would accuse my mother of planting the abuse in my head and call her a liar for defending me. I didn’t know that I would be made to recount my story over and over again, to doctor after doctor, pushed to see if I’d admit I was lying as part of a legal battle I couldn’t possibly understand. At one point, my mother sat me down and told me that I wouldn’t be in trouble if I was lying – that I could take it all back. I couldn’t. It was all true. But sexual abuse claims against the powerful stall more easily. There were experts willing to attack my credibility. There were doctors willing to gaslight an abused child.

After a custody hearing denied my father visitation rights, my mother declined to pursue criminal charges, despite findings of probable cause by the State of Connecticut – due to, in the words of the prosecutor, the fragility of the “child victim.” Woody Allen was never convicted of any crime. That he got away with what he did to me haunted me as I grew up. I was stricken with guilt that I had allowed him to be near other little girls. I was terrified of being touched by men. I developed an eating disorder. I began cutting myself. That torment was made worse by Hollywood. All but a precious few (my heroes) turned a blind eye. Most found it easier to accept the ambiguity, to say, “who can say what happened,” to pretend that nothing was wrong. Actors praised him at awards shows. Networks put him on TV. Critics put him in magazines. Each time I saw my abuser’s face – on a poster, on a t-shirt, on television – I could only hide my panic until I found a place to be alone and fall apart.

Last week, Woody Allen was nominated for his latest Oscar. But this time, I refuse to fall apart. For so long, Woody Allen’s acceptance silenced me. It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away. But the survivors of sexual abuse who have reached out to me – to support me and to share their fears of coming forward, of being called a liar, of being told their memories aren’t their memories – have given me a reason to not be silent, if only so others know that they don’t have to be silent either.

Today, I consider myself lucky. I am happily married. I have the support of my amazing brothers and sisters. I have a mother who found within herself a well of fortitude that saved us from the chaos a predator brought into our home.

But others are still scared, vulnerable, and struggling for the courage to tell the truth. The message that Hollywood sends matters for them.

What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett? Louis CK? Alec Baldwin? What if it had been you, Emma Stone? Or you, Scarlett Johansson? You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?

Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse.

So imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter.

Are you imagining that? Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?