I've always understood what the words "rape" and "abuse" meant -- or the basic definitions at least. My elementary and middle school (nestled in the suburbs outside of Cincinnati) were oddly good on sexual education for a small Ohio town and, as early as third grade, I can remember sitting in class and learning about sexual abuse. We watched videos that told us what inappropriate behavior was and where an adult was not allowed to touch you.
However, I never really thought about that as applying to myself or anyone I knew. I always secretly believed that sexual assault only happened to other people, like the kids in those videos or on after-school specials or on 90210. Outside of class, my family didn't talk about those things, and my grandparents (who basically raised me) were adamant about protecting me from the evils of the outside world. They didn't want me to ever have to know what things like that were -- or who they affected.
For my entire childhood, I knew that my mother avoided crowds, but I was young and thought it was just because they were noisy and sweaty. But when I was 12, my mother took me to a Jewel concert with her, because she didn't want to go alone and had no one else to go with, and I remember the way she clung to me so fiercely and protectively, her nails nearly digging into my skin. At the time, I thought she was just worried about my safety -- in the normal way that all moms are -- but I would later find out what the extent of that worry was.
When my mother was 16, she was raped at a fireworks show, the one our hometown has every year. And no one did anything about it. No one helped her fight off her abusers. They let her be raped. As a kid, I used to beg her to go to that show, to sit with me and watch the city set the sky on fire, but she always refused, and I hated her for it. We would watch it instead at home, and she would sit so far from me, watching in silence.
For so much of my life, she has been silent about what she went through, and like so many people I know, still can't quite find the language to speak publicly about her experiences. On the day that my mother told me about her experience she lifted the veil on what so many go through every day -- women and men alike. I've witnessed so many others deal with the same issues. I watched one friend crumble under the weight of sexual abuse, listened to her blame herself, sat with her as she decided how to "take care" of the situation. In college, I watched another friend's marriage fall apart because her partner didn't know when to stop. This came from someone she thought she could trust, someone who was supposed to love every part of her.
As a queer man, I recently came out publicly about my own experiences with being assaulted, and since that time, I have continued to have the veil lifted, as others shared their stories with me and I further became a witness to the ways in which people survive abuse. I learned how we all have a role in helping others survive. As a recent TED talk from Tony Porter suggested, men must join that fight; we all must work together to break the silence around rape culture in America and speak out about the ways in which that culture specifically affects women. The common statistic is that 1 in 4 women will deal with rape, abuse or sexual assault in their lifetime, but those figures have been much questioned, as that statistic only includes those willing, able or ready to report it.
This is largely because we live in a society in which victims feel powerless to report their abuse or do anything about their assault, especially younger women who have less experience with sex, who might not quite be aware of the gravity of the situation and who might be overwhelmed by the burden proof placed upon victims of abuse. Vanessa Pinto of the Huffington Post discusses a powerful one-woman show on the subject by Nancy Donoval, and in it, Donoval describes her experiences as a young survivor:
It wasn't until Donoval was dating another man that she had a name for what happened to her. She tried to explain to her partner why she was reluctant to take the physical part of their relationship very far. After she told him what happened, he told her that she had been raped. Back then there was no language for date rape or acquaintance rape. Rape was something that happened by some strange person lurking in a bush; it couldn't possibly happen from a person you trusted or consider your friend. Even now that those phrases are commonly used, many survivors still don't identify what happened to them as sexual assault or rape.
For those who do report it, the story is not much better. According to RAINN.org, a woman in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every two minutes, but only 46 percent of those cases will be reported to the police. And only 3 percent of rapists will serve any time in prison for their actions. Last year, the Chicago Tribune surveyed a number of universities in Illinois and Indiana about their sexual assault prevention statistics in the previous six years. The Tribune found that only four of the 171 reported sexual assaults on those campuses, only 12 led to an arrest and four ended in a conviction, a scant 2.4 percent of the original reportings. Between 2005 and 2011, Notre Dame, Northwestern's Evanston campus and the University of Illinois at Chicago had seen not a single conviction from their reported sexual crimes.
This month, we will see a number of incredible activists, feminists and allies work to change those statistics with the annual Take Back the Night Protests, which seek to raise awareness about on these issues and "end violence and institutionalized violence" across the globe. However, they cannot do so alone, because none of us can fix our culture of silence in just one month or with just one action.
As we observe Sexual Assault Awareness Month, we must realize that our responsibility to the women and men who have been affected by sexual violence extends for more than just 30 days. Education and outreach are life-long endeavors, and we must continue to tear down the structures of negative masculinity and patriarchy that oppress women across the globe. We must challenge the discourse that tells women that it's OK to be harassed by a man in street for wearing a short skirt and that they deserve to be assaulted if they dress or act a certain way and work together to change that narrative. We must stand with those who have the ability to use their voice to speak out on this issue and with those who remain silenced. You never know who is keeping quiet.