Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Essay 9: Notes on Rape Culture, Or What It’s Like to Go Public as a Rape Survivor

My poem, “How You Know”, went live on The Rumpus last night. It is both thrilling and terrifying. To be published is always exciting, but to have that poem be the vehicle with which you go public as a rape survivor? That’s the terrifying part.

But I feel like it’s time to really break the silence. And that I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. And that I’ve got a solid crew around me for love and support.

The people in my life, with whom I am close, know this fact about me. Some who have been in writing groups with me also know this about me. Still, it’s not something that I broadcast to the world. I don’t go around saying: “Hey! Guess what? I was raped when I was in college.” And only recently have I become more comfortable in talking about it out loud.

There is something powerful about the spoken word. The weight of sound. How it makes things more solid, more real, more manifest. And the more I speak my story –out loud—the less power it holds within me. But at the same time, the more power it gives me to speak out to let others know that they’re not alone in their traumas, in their suffering.


This doesn’t mean that I’m invincible. This doesn’t mean that I don’t get triggered.
This doesn’t mean I’m entirely healed (what does that even mean? What does that even look like? Is that a possibility?) This doesn’t mean that everyone in my life knows what happened to me.


I shared this publication news with an FB group of writers of color. Someone left a comment that was reductive, saying something dismissive about the headline (which was: “Who Holds The Power”) – the comment included “Is this a real question?”, indicating that this person did not even bother to read the column that featured, not just my poem, but stories and essays by other women who testified to moments of sexual aggression and violence. This is not a new phenomenon where people DON’T BOTHER READING, but feel compelled to hear their own voice. Still, it set me off. How dare this person come on to my post as wave a hand as if to say “been there, done that, next”. I was not only pissed, but my body was shaking.

I was triggered.

Here I was putting myself out there, laid bare for all to see – for ALL to see: friends and strangers alike. An open wound of trauma, exposed to the elements. (What the heck was I thinking??) And here was one person –an oblivious one, at that—setting me off. Of course, this is more about me than that person. And so, I am taking notice. It’s clear that, within me, I am in need of nurturing, of comfort, of gentle love. I am working on providing that for myself. This is healing work an on-going process.


My parents don’t know what happened to me. Neither does my brother. Remember: I come from a family of strangers; we don’t know much about each other. My younger sister knows only because I told her before she headed off to college herself all those years ago. I wanted to warn her, to make her aware. I don’t know if she is a statistic or not. No one in my family talks about these things. I’m the only one.

Now that this poem is out in the world (previous poems about my rape have never been this direct, this transparent), I wonder what their response might be… if they’ll even come across this poem. When I shared this poem on my FB page, I made sure that everyone on my Friends list would see it. This included my brother and cousins and my one aunt who is actually on FB. So the chances that my parents see this poem is pretty high. I wonder if they will even say anything in acknowledgment. Or will they pretend they didn’t read it? Or that maybe the event never even happened. Who knows.

I’m not looking for my parents to come to my rescue or to try to heal the hurt. I’m not expecting anything from them. Except for love. Which is a tough thing for them to express. But if they want to pretend they didn’t read it or that it didn’t happen, I’m okay with that. Because it’s their denial, not mine. I know what’s true.


Last week, I talked to my therapist about this one “relationship” with a boy in college. This was a year prior to my rape. This boy, we’ll call him Baller (as he was a basketball player), used me to get blowjobs. I, naieve as I was, thought that we were dating, that we were boyfriend-girlfriend. One day, his housemate corrected me when I said something in passing about being his girlfriend. “No, you’re not”, he said. It dawned on me like a blazing hot meteorite crashing down on my head that he was right. Baller never came to my place – it was always his place. We were never seen together in public. He never asked what I wanted. He never really showed genuine interest in me, in who I was. In short, he never saw me. He only saw an object that would satisfy his desire. (I’m not going to get into the possibility him having an Asian fetish here. That’s for another post.) I participated in this kind of “relationship” because I was so insecure and so wanted to be loved. I really didn’t know any better. I thought: maybe this is how things are, maybe this is how it’s supposed to be.

When I talked to my therapist about this, I told her that I saw this as a kind of sexual assault, an aggression, a violation. To which, she actually questioned.

So. Can we unpack this for a moment?

With the #MeToo movement (just a personal side note: I hate hashtags and never use them, but for this? This I will use. This is that important.), many women are coming forward with their stories of how they experience sexual harassment, assault, aggression, violence, and rape. In the beginning, women were reluctant to share their experiences if it wasn’t straight up rape or assault. Some were saying: “I know it could’ve been worse, but…” But nothing! You experienced something that felt like a violation and you have every right to feel however you felt and feel now and you have every right to share it. No matter how small you might think it is. Fuck that shit. Own who you are and what you experience. See it, own it, and embrace it. Don’t diminish it. No one is comparing notes. And if they are, that’s their shit they need to work out. We’re all in this together and we are going to change the tide with our swelling voices. Got me?


With the growth of this movement, the “definitions” are changing. What I’m seeing is that women are really taking men to task. And to that I say: GOOD! But what troubles me is this idea of “definition”. Who gets to define our experiences? And what words do we get to use in order to name them? Which then brings the question of language. It all comes down to language. So what would you call my story with Baller?

It seems my therapist, who is a woman, does not see my story as a violation. But rather, an instance in which I was taken advantage of because of my naiveté. As if I had been swindled in a used car deal or something. As if this were a lesson to be learned as part of my coming of age. But sexual assault? No, no. This was not that. Not in her mind.

I could feel myself tense up when she questioned my naming this story as sexual assault. Which was a message from my body to me: don’t listen to her. I nodded in her office, keeping quiet as I formulated some kind of response in my head. So, you’re telling me that a guy pushing my head down between his legs is not sexual assault? Because I willingly went to his place? Because it happened more than once? Does it have to be violent in order for it to be deemed “assault”?

I didn’t say any of this to her. I am still thinking about my response, which I will bring to her next session. But this is what rape culture is. Where men get to do what they want without question. Where they feel entitled to take what they want. And it's okay! Where nobody questions it until somebody puts up a fight. And then the person putting up the fight is the one who is questioned. Not the men.

All this to say: why can’t we just honor people where they are, honor their very individual experiences, listen to their stories –and I mean really hear them—without judgment or trying to fix it or dismiss it or diminish it? Just fucking listen. You don’t have to say a goddamn word. Sometimes it’s better to be quiet. Just listen. And be present. And hold a space for love. Simple as that.


This is "Deep Thoughts #6" for 2018. I have taken Vanessa Martir's 52 Essay Challenge, and tweaked it a bit for this year. Instead of an essay a week, I'm just going to write some so-called deep thoughts. (Sometimes serious, sometimes jokey.) :)


  1. "Sometimes it is better to be quiet. Just listen. And be present."

    Can we write this is in the sky in twelve-story tall letters of flame?

    When a person who is breaking a long-held silence is interrupted or 'splained at, she is pushed back into silence. Or labelled "angry" if she persists -- as if being angry about sexual assault, and being silenced, are so very wrong.

  2. I meant to add: thank you for writing this, as well as the poem. Your voice is needed in the world.