Depicted in photo: Me and my girls, Brooke, 11, and Katie, 13, on the beach last weekend
Please be advised that the following post is a very personal story about rape. Please use your discretion as to whether or not to continue reading.
In an opinion piece in the Washington Post a couple of days ago (oh, look, them again, and no, I'm not linking to it), famed conservative firebrand George Will wrote an infuriating piece of, well, pretty much complete and utter crap.
Usually, I leave such things alone. I learned long ago that fire can only rage when given oxygen, and I need my own damned oxygen to breathe, but I simply can't let this one go unanswered. Here's why.
Will's premise is essentially that anyone who refuses to cede their basic human rights is buying into a "culture of victimization." It's a brilliant strategy, really. What better way to draw attention away from the offenders than to focus on the offended? What better way to discredit their claims than to lay the blame at the feet of a supposed culture of victimization rather than to acknowledge the very real and sadly pervasive cultures of sexism, misogyny, sexual entitlement and violence, both on college campuses (the focus of Will's article) and beyond?
Twice in the article, Will uses the term sexual assault and both times he puts quotes around it to indicate, I assume, both his incredulity and his disdain. "Now the Obama administration is riding to the rescue of 'sexual assault' victims," he says. "It vows to excavate equities from the ambiguities of the hookup culture, this cocktail of hormones, alcohol and the faux sophistication of today's prolonged adolescence of especially privileged young adults." There are so many issues here I'm not even sure where to begin. But I've got to begin somewhere. Because I can't keep letting these things go. You see, I have two adolescent girls who are growing up at the speed of light. Who, as though through some trick of time-lapse photography, are becoming young women even as I type. They will undoubtedly soon be considered among Will's "privileged young adults," and yes, this time the quotes are mine, and yes, they do represent both incredulity and disdain. Not necessarily because my girls aren't privileged, but because whether they are or they aren't doesn't matter a whit in this conversation. But also because one of them is autistic. And well, that complicates all of this. A lot.
Language is tricky for her at best, and the most basic of social interactions confusing and overwhelming. I spend a lot of time teaching her to say "no" and further, demonstrating to her that it should be respected when she does. But her "no" isn't always binding. She's 11, so it can't be. She can't always get what she wants in school. She can't say "no" to a test or to a lesson she doesn't like. She can't say "no" to brushing her teeth or to taking her medication or to a thousand other things that one must simply do, like it or not.
These things are what they are. But through them she is learning that responses to her saying "no" are conditional. That sometimes no means no and sometimes it doesn't. The nuance of what it means for something -- anything -- to be circumstantial is currently nearly impossible to convey to her.
Does the fact that that terrifies me make me a proponent of the culture of victimization of which Will writes? No, it makes me a mother who wants a better, safer world for her daughters than the one in which she grew up. And lest there be any question that all of this is somehow limited to the context of my younger daughter's disability... well, it's not. I thought about leaving autism out of this post entirely, but I chose to tell the story this way because although the fear is just as real, salient and valid for my older daughter, the fact that my younger one has the challenges that she does serves to make me even more aware of the dangers than I might otherwise be.
In August of 2012, I wrote the following in the Huffington Post:
There is no word in the English language less in need of a modifier, nor less capable of being modified, than rape. There is no mitigating the violation of the human body and all that comes with it.
It's odd what I remember all these years later. It's not the physical pain. It's not the begging for him to stop. It's not the tears nor the shock that followed.
It's the ground. The dark, damp asphalt. And the bricks in the wall. And the smell of the dumpster just feet away.
But more than anything else what has haunted me this week has been an image of something that I couldn't actually see at the time. A picture that I've created in my mind over time. From a different perspective. One outside myself. Watching it happen.
It's his hand. Splayed across my back. Holding me in place. Taking away my choice. My control. My dignity.
I told no one.
For so many reasons, I told no one.
Twenty-three years later, I am still embarrassed. I still feel like it's my fault. I still see his hand, the ground, the bricks, the loss.
Twenty-three years later, it's time.
It took me 23 years to tell that story because I thought that it was my fault. I thought that I had just as much responsibility as he did because I'd been drinking, because I'd kissed him and, above all, because I truly believed that my "no," was conditional.
When it comes to sex, "no" is not EVER, as George Will wants us to believe, conditional. For me, for my girls, for anyone anywhere no matter who they are or what they've done in the past, plan to do in the future, or are doing at the exact moment that they utter the word, "no."
Once they've said, "no," it's over.
Every human being has an unassailable right to absolute control over his or her own body. Period. No questions. No modifiers. No extenuating circumstances. Ever.
Unless, of course, we continue to allow those who deride and discredit the brave few who do what I couldn't 23 years ago -- who speak out against the culture that would, in the most violent and violating way, wrest that right away -- to go unanswered.
I was silent for too long.
Jess can be found on her blog, Diary of a Mom where she writes about life with her husband, Luau, and their two beautiful daughters, Katie (13) and Brooke (11). She also hosts an ever-growing Facebook community of over 120,000 people who are joining forces to make the world a better place.