I’ll be honest: It’s tiring that every time I admit I’ve been sexually assaulted, I get treated like some sort of helpless victim. I hear a resounding chorus of “poor yous.” I’ve been given hugs, been told, “you are so strong.” But the reality is, I’m not. I’m no stronger than anyone else. I was just never given the option not to be.
The morning after I was sexually assaulted by a friend of mine in 2012, I called him up and convinced him to drive to my house and talk to me about it. We had been friends for several years, and by the end of the conversation he was on the verge of crying. He felt embarrassed. He felt awful. Of course he did. It takes a sociopath not to. By talking it out I was able to understand his motivation—he had just come out to a group of us that night, he finally felt comfortable with me, he was drunk—and suddenly I didn’t feel angry anymore. It by no means made his actions right. But the dialogue humanized him and pulled me out of my own cycle of suffering.
I have since moved on—I can talk about it casually; I bear no ill will toward him nor the experience. But if I internalized it, if I was given the power to punish rather than forgive, that wound would have festered and I would be a much darker, unhappier person for it.
Too often we coddle people like me. We give survivors political tools for punitive revenge but don’t give them the resources to heal. On paper that works. But with an issue that is so personal and can cut so deep, it is imperative not to provide survivors with a way to lash out with our anger, but with a way to deal and make peace with it. Violence only begets violence.
In an episode of the radio program This American Life, Lulu Miller tells a story about Daniel Kisch, a blind man who “sees” by using echolocation. This allows him to walk freely and famously, even ride a bike. Growing up in an environment that never catered to his disability, he never felt like he was incapable. And he warns that by providing limiting expectations, we create a culture that never seeks to transcend them. When we put sexual misconduct policies in place that allow the accused or accuser to remove the other party from residence halls and classes, promoting no dialogue between parties, we end up creating a system that circumvents the healing process. When it can take over six months for an investigator to sort out an accusation without witnesses, is anyone really being helped? Or is our anger, as survivors, simply being indulged?
Thus, our system of misconduct policies end sup protecting the institutions they are created by, not the individuals they’re intended for. They aren’t designed to help us move on. Instead they isolate us, forcing us to clutch our wounds so close that we fail to consider what we truly need. They let us lash out with political violence. But we mustn’t stoop to that.
Not everyone has my story. Not everyone knows their attacker, and not everyone has the chance to talk to him or her afterward. Not everyone wants to. But we must be willing to work past our own bruises. No matter how far away our attackers are, how many bars they are behind, our wounds will not heal until we are forced to confront them. And we can’t confront them until the greater public is actually willing to talk about sexual assault.
Every public discussion I’ve had in the past four years at this college about sexual assault and how we deal with it has always ended in victim pandering. Often, as a man, I am shut out of the conversation entirely until I am forced to admit I am a survivor. Most of the time, everyone cautiously nods together like lemmings, unable to discuss an investigation system that is well-intentioned but ineffective. And while I praise Emerson for providing valuable education and support systems that many colleges do not, the painful truth is that I’m still one of the only survivors I know who can talk about his experience without sobbing into his shoulder.
We must stop focusing on revenge. We must stop telling ourselves that we’re damaged. Because we’re not damaged. We’re just told we can be.