The ramifications of sexual assault have been at the forefront of my mind for the past five years as I’ve engaged in writing the My Myth trilogy. The series follows the story of Emily, who at age seven, is the victim of repeated sexual assault. Unable to process her reality, she creates a magical world called the First Realm where her mind escapes while her body endures abuse. She buries her guilt and shame deep inside herself until, at the age of seventeen, her childhood abuser re-enters her life and the ugly memories rise unbidden to the surface. Book one, RIVEN, is the story of Emily’s journey to self-acceptance and self-mercy.
Because we all know that when it comes to sexual trauma, all it takes is a little self-acceptance to erase the damage it’s done to our lives.
If there’s anything I’ve noticed from the #MeToo phenomenon sweeping social media right now, it’s how many times women and men who courageously share their stories talk about how raw and overwhelming their pain still is, largely, I believe, because it is unprocessed. I’ve also seen countless victims ask: “Why have we waited so long to speak up?” “Why have we allowed this to happen?” “How and when did it get this bad?”
Well, I have some ideas about that.
I’m currently working through edits of SECRET KEEPER, the sequel to RIVEN, which opens as Emily grapples with whether or not to self-reveal about her assault. Her decision is extremely difficult for so many reasons. She’s afraid that:
It’s been too long since it happened.
They’ll think she just wants attention.
It’s his word against hers.
No one will believe her.
They’ll think it was her fault.
They’ll think she’s damaged and treat her differently.
Despite her very real fears she speaks her truth, not for herself, but because she’s desperately afraid her younger siblings will fall victim to the same predator if she doesn’t.
And then she and her brothers and sister live Happily Ever After.
Unfortunately, Emily discovers exactly what many of you sharing your #MeToo stories have experienced first hand: too often, the people you trust to support you and/or intervene can’t—or won’t—help. SECRET KEEPER is the story of Emily’s search for a Champion**…an individual with enough power and authority to end the destructive cycle of abuse and transform Emily from a victim to a survivor.
So just how didwe get to a place where almost every single woman you know in real life and read about in books has experienced some kind of sexual harassment or assault?
Well, obviously, it’s because all men are pigs.
You Guys. I love being a woman and I love strong women. But guess what. I ALSO love men.
This isn’t an Usversus Themsituation. It’s not a gender issue. It’s a SOCIETYissue.
Let me illustrate with an anecdote.
Imagine you’re in line at a busy coffee shop. A man in a business suit who seems to be in a hurry has just received his drink. He’s on his cell phone while impatiently barking at the barista that he wanted almond milkin his latte, not soy. In his agitated state he happens to glance at the woman in front of you in line. He does a does a double-take, ignoring the apologies of the barista, and turns to look the woman in front of you up and down. She’s standing enough to one side that you clearly see her blush and drop her gaze to floor. The man abruptly tells the person on the phone he needs to call them back. He walks over to the woman who’s about to pay for her order and brushes her hand away from the chip reader saying, “I got this.” She says, “No thanks, I’ll pay for it myself.” But he’s already inserted his card and the cashier is already asking if he’d like a receipt. The woman smiles her gratitude. With his hand behind her elbow, the man in the business suit steers her over to the counter where the drinks are delivered.
Well, OBVIOUSLY your interpretation and reaction would be based on whether you’re a man or a woman, right?
Research shows that (aside from the actual woman in this scenario) your reaction is the same whether you’re male or female. In general, Society rules this interaction as harmless. In fact, if you’re a woman watching the scene, you might even experience a tinge of jealousy and think something along the lines of, “why doesn’t that kind of thing ever happen to me?”
Well, here’s what was actually happening in my head:
I’m uncomfortable and embarrassed.
He’s cute, but I just want to get my chai and go.
Does he expect something or is he just being nice?
Don’t overreact. Don’t be rude. Just say thanks and get out of here.
Here’s what was happening in his head:
She blushed and looked away. That means she’s definitely interested.
She said, “No, thank you,” but she was just being polite. Who doesn’t like free coffee?
Women appreciate being singled out. It’s a compliment.
How do I know what he was thinking? Because I married a man in a business suit, and he told me. He also told me on many occasions what hewould do in different situations where someone was giving himunwanted attention…from homeless people asking for money to women at bars to sales people at stores. He didn’t just tell me what he would do, he demonstrated.
According to him, this is how you say no (non-escalated version):
Face the person fully, look them right in the eye
If there’s any distance between you, assert your dominance by walking toward them.
With your hand raised say, “NO,” loudly
Everybody got that?
Fast forward to six months after we were married. It’s February 2011. Superbowl XLV is in
Dallas and my husband and I are in town looking for a home. We’re staying with a couple who are friends of his who I’ve just met. We have prime seats at the game and tickets to a posh party the night before. When we arrive at the party, my new girlfriend and I are standing in line to get in while our husbands are off getting our wristbands. Some young men approach. One of them tells me I look cold and offers me his jacket. I say, “Thank you, but no, I’m not cold.” He insists…I must be cold, my arms are bare. Again, I tell him I’m not cold and that in fact my husband will be back any moment. The young man then takes off his jacket and moves to put it around my shoulders. My new friend rolls her eyes and says, “Just wear it, it’s not a big deal.” That’s when my husband returns, and it’s obvious that it’s a big deal to him. Words are exchanged. There’s a scene. Ultimately the young man and his friends apologize (to my husband) and leave.
Can you guess what happens next?
What happens next is that the man I was married to physically, verbally, and sexually assaults me that night in the walk-in closet of the room we are staying in as guests at the home of people I’ve just met because I had the gall to disrespect him by flirting with another man.
Yikes. That got dark quick.
You see, in his mind, because I was polite, because I didn’t hold up my hand and say, “NO,” loudly, it meant I was interested and flirting.
Here’s a photo of me literally clinging to the person who had abused me the night before. Don’t we look happy?
I wasn’t. I was miserable and terrified and depressed. But sadly–because it wasn’t the first time I’d heard accusations like that–I believed him when he said it was my fault. Because, though it was the first time this particular man assaulted me, I’d been assaulted many times before. He wasn’t the first or last person to suggest that the unwanted sexual attention I receive on a fairly regular basis is my fault.
In Gagnon and Simon’s 1973 book Sexual Conduct, we learn that as a society, men and women have been conditioned to follow Sexual Scripts in which men are expected to ask for sex and a women are expected to initially deny them, and then eventually give in.
Guys. This is HUGE.
Why? Because we need to understand where we’re coming from so we can make sure not to go back there ever again.
In the not too distant past, men derived their self-worth from being breadwinners. Their identities were largely entangled with their ability to provide for their families. The messages society gives young men are: Try Harder. Be persistent. Don’t take no for an answer. Be aggressive (be, be Aggressive). You’re worth is based on winning.
Women’s identities were all about being attractive to men. Our self-worth was enmeshed with our ability to catch a good husband, birth and rear children, and run a well-appointed household. The messages society gives young women are: Men like feminine women. Be Dainty. Be Polite. Don’t Be Aggressive. Your Worth is based on your desirability.
Women have basically been programmedby societyto string men along for a time so they won’t think we’re skanks for giving in too soon, and then surrender helplessly to their masculine prowess. Men have been programmed to doggedly pursue our (chaste but seductive) womanhood–like velociraptors testing the fence for weaknesses–until we give in. To the victor go the spoils.
Enough is ENOUGH
These messages and sexual scripts no longer serve half the population. It’s time to change the way we think, the way we react, the way we treat people. It’s time to change the way we treat ourselves.
Listen to me. Regardless of gender, sexual-orientation, race, religion, or age, every person is important and worthy of respect. Self-worth is INNATE. It is INARGUABLE. It is INTRINSIC. It is NOT based on gender or adherence to archaic sexual scripts.
If you’ve read my Ask. Listen. Respect. blog post, you know that I’ve struggled for a long time with confidence and shame when it comes to men. TBH, it used to freak me out when a man breathed in my direction. To me, patriarchal society was a frightening place, a perception which was constantly reinforced by my unpleasant interactions with men. Incidents that others might brush off as a joke absolutely paralyzed me. Like the time a stranger at a stoplight rolled down his window, told me I was hot, and asked where I was going. In a deer-in-headlights kind of trance I said I was going home. He asked if anyone was waiting for me there and I answered “no” honestly, maybe because I was flustered, maybe because I was overwhelmed by the fact that I’d just moved to Dallas and my new husband lived in Virginia and I literally knew not one single soul besides my kids. The man grinned and said. “I’m gonna follow you, Baby. We’ll have some fun.”
Maybe it was his idea of a joke, but I wasn’t laughing. Somehow, simply by driving in my car, I’d signaled to that man that I wanted him to harass me. I drove around aimlessly for about an hour, terrified to go home, and got myself hopelessly lost. At that time in my life I was basically afraid of my own shadow.
Thanks to an amazing counselor, therapy, supportive friends, and my writing and research, I’ve made TONS of progress. I don’t take incidents like that personally anymore. Men don’t scare me.
Did you hear that, Men? You aren’t scary! And most of you aren’t pigs!
These days, it doesn’t freak me out when men ask me out or offer to buy my mocha for me, as long as they listen to and respect my answer. I’m even okay in professional settings when men offer favors in exchange for intimacy because I know I’ll be just fine without their favors. These days, I trust my ability to take care of myself. Not because I’m a black belt in taekwondo (I’m not) or even because I can SCREAM REALLY LOUD (I can). My self-trust and confidence comes from knowing that even though I can’t control what other people do to me, I’ll be okay no matter what they do. It’s because I know that when unpleasant things happen, I didn’t ask for or invite that behavior, and that it doesn’t define me. I’m able to react less emotionally when I’m harassed or receive unwanted attention because I know truthfully it has nothing to do with me at all.
There’s so much freedom in letting go of the things you can’t control. There’s so much power in relinquishing responsibility and guilt and shame for things you didn’t ask for, things you didn’t invite. There’s so much AWESOME in deciding that you aren’t going to let your life be dictated by out-dated sexual scripts that you didn’t agree to in the first place. These days I’m not shy. I’ll still start with polite, but I won’t panic about hurting your feelings if the answer is No. And if I want to be with you, you won’t need to guess. I’ll straight up let you know.
My eldest son (who helped me edit this post) is a research assistant for the Department of Psychology at SMU. Sadly, he reports that research indicates teaching men not to rape or assault isn’t effective. The good news is that he and his colleagues are working to develop a training program called “My Voice, My Choice,” which teaches assertive resistance to teens, and shows very promising results. The program “…emphasizes that victims do not invite sexual violence and that they have the right to stand up for themselves because violent or coercive behavior is never okay.” (Click here to read the full article).
I’m going to say it again because it’s important:
To the legion women and men who have suffered the trauma of sexual harassment or assault, it wasn’t because of anything you did or didn’t do. It wasn’t because of what you were wearing or who you were with or because you made eye-contact. It wasn’t because you blushed or because you were were alone or because you didn’t have a rape whistle. It wasn’t because you didn’t hold up your hand and say, “NO” really loud. Pure and simple, IT WASN’T YOUR FAULT.
My platform as a writer (and as a Human) is to normalize victims, banish guilt and shame, and spread the message that survivors of sexual trauma can do more than just survive, we can THRIVE. We can practice advocating for ourselves. We can find and use our voices.
We can be our own Champions!**
Check out this kick ass still from the SECRET KEEPER book trailer by Film 14, coming soon!
I have hope that women and men will work together to re-write our sexual scripts and engage in new dialogues to shape a society in which we can all feel safe and comfortable.
A society in which we can all thrive and live Happily Ever After.