Warning: this open letter contains triggers that may be harmful to some.
Dear Mr. Will,
I have recently read your Op Ed in the New York Post and am pleased to learn that you’ve offered me the opportunity to educate you and those who follow you on what it is like to be a rape survivor. Yes, I am a 23-year sexual assault or rape (you pick whichever word makes you most comfortable) survivor. 23 years ago this month, 2 weeks after I began college, my former high school boyfriend became angry with me because I would not rekindle our relationship. He took out his aggressions by holding me down by the throat ripping off my clothing and forcing his penis into my vagina while I said no and begged not only for him to stop but for my life. This, Mr. Will, is rape. I, Mr. Will, am a survivor no matter how much you may believe the word demonstrates “language of prejudgment”.
In fact, let’s discuss the “language of prejudgment” you refer to when you write about female “survivors”. The very definition of the term survive according to Merriam Webster is the act of “continuing to function or prosper despite.” Google defines “survivor” as a “person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died.” Thousands of people have died because of sexualized violence; those who have not died are survivors. Surviving is what any person, male or female, does each and every time they take a breath after having been raped.
Surviving is not about “prejudgment” because it’s not about the rapist. Surviving is about the survivor, the person who gets up each day knowing they will be faced with hateful and accusatory words of prejudice from people like you. Surviving is about living each day even though your best friends, family, co-workers, and random strangers you’ll never meet seem to believe they have a right to decide whether or not you “deserved it”. Surviving is about forcing yourself to block out those who say you were wearing the wrong clothes, in the wrong neighborhood, out too late, with the wrong people, drank too much, didn’t say no loud enough, or even gave in too quickly out of fear for your life. Surviving is about forcing yourself out of the house to function like a person who’s not been raped so that you can put food on the table for all of the people depending on you. Let’s be clear. The word survivor is about the one doing the surviving not the “tender sensibilities” of the accused rapist.
While we’re on the topic of “tender sensibilities” let’s discuss why trigger warnings are important. Studies suggest that up to 31% of all rape survivors suffer from PTSD. That means as many as 1 out of every 3 survivors of sexualized violence who read your piece is suffering from PTSD. Yes, the same posttraumatic stress disorder we warn the brave men and women who serve our country of, afflicts those who have survived sexualized violence. Just as we would warn soldiers returning from Afghanistan of a possible trigger, it is our responsibility to warn trauma survivors of the very words that might cause them to relive the trauma they’ve survived. It’s not about enabling entitlement; it’s about being a decent human being.
Regarding the story you shared of a Swarthmore College student, you seem to be missing the simple fact that no means no and there’s no excuse for any sexual act after someone says no. It doesn’t matter how long they lay there together or if they’d had sex before. No means no. Placing the responsibility on the young woman after she said no allows the young man to be blameless. You are sending a message to young men everywhere that if he waits long enough and gets physically aggressive enough she’ll eventually just give in and that’s not rape. No means no. Teach young men to respect the word no rather than working another angle. Stop preaching to women how not to be raped and start teaching young men not to rape.
After reading your piece my friend, Hilary Kinavey from Be Nourished in Portland, shared with me that your piece reminded her of her days in college and the “confusion as to what my responsibility was regarding my sexual safety…It was only in the safety of my women’s studies classes that I learned I could say no: no to content that was triggering, no because my internal wisdom said so, no because I am me, who has as much a right to voice and power and to say no as my professors, my classmates and all others. This is a practice for women in this culture, although it really is a birthright.” Indeed, the ability to say no is our birthright.
While my rape may fit your description of “forcible sexual penetration” I also fit into that pesky group of people who were raped and didn’t report it ultimately making the math of those who report and those who don’t too difficult for you to understand. I, like many rape survivors, didn’t feel I would be believed, I feared I would embarrass my family, and I worried I could not withstand the public humiliation of reliving the rape in court. The fact that I didn’t report makes me no less a survivor and no less a warrior in the fight against people like you who bully women in to hiding from the world instead of becoming the strong leaders our society needs them to be.
Ironically, you’re not the first person to suggest that being a victim provides me with a sense of entitlement or even that I’ve somehow used my rape to make a name for myself in this fight. These are suggestions that never surprise me yet mystify me every time I hear them. Surviving rape is not like surviving breast cancer, Mr. Will. I don’t get to wear a pretty ribbon or a t-shirt that says I’m a survivor. I don’t get to lift my shirt or bare my scared chest as a badge of honor. There are no bumper stickers that read, “Rape Sucks. Fight Like a Girl” or “Help Save Home Plate” No, instead I cautiously approach the subject each and every time it comes up waiting for the look of disbelief, then the look of pity, followed by the uncomfortable silence as someone tries to search for the right words. The experience never gets easier and yet I continue to speak out because each time I hear someone say, “Your story has altered the course of my life” I know that getting up each day as a survivor was worth the pain.
In closing Mr. Will, I encourage you to stop writing articles full of $2 words in hopes of confusing people into siding with you and instead work to put an end to sexualized violence not only here but also around the globe. You have an opportunity to protect so many from your platform. Please, choose wisely.
Michelle Merritt, Survivor