I sat in a small room at the hospital, between my friend Terence and a social worker and across from two police officers. I had just been raped by a man high on glue who’d climbed in my bedroom window. Terence had brought me to the hospital.
“You need to think seriously before you lay charges,” said the social worker. “It’s not just about bringing someone to justice, it’s about whether or not you feel you can handle the trial. If this goes to trial, it probably won’t happen for at least a year, and then you’ll have to drag up all of your memories of this horrible night again. Not only that, but lawyers will pry into your personal life and the choices that you made – things that might have brought this on or made it easy for the rapist to get into your room. It will feel like you’re being raped all over again.”
I was shocked. I hadn’t realized that the decision about whether or not the police would go after the man who raped me and whether or not he would be punished rested on my shoulders.
Despite what the social worker said, it seemed like a no-brainer to me. Of COURSE I wanted the man to be caught and punished, especially if it might stop him from climbing through the window of some other young woman and raping her too.
They never caught him, though I did have to visit the police station to view mug shots once or twice (much harder than they make it seem in the police dramas on TV) and I had to write down all of the details I could remember, in case he was found a few years later.
I never had to face trial and, fortunately, I had a strong support system that helped me heal from the trauma (though I still show the emotional scars now and then). Although I heard a few questions about why I’d left the window open on a stifling hot night and why I hadn’t just kicked him in the groin (the answer: because he was holding a blade over my head and tried to choke me to death when I angered him), nobody went so far as to blame me for my own rape.
Unfortunately, the same can not be said for the young woman who was raped by a couple of football players in Steubenville last August. According to the media, her community, and the people at the party who stood by and did nothing, she was raped because she was a slut, because she was drunk, because she deserved it, etc., etc.
To make matters worse, she’s now had death threats because she dared to accuse the football-playing favoured sons of the community. And she has to be subjected to the media who shows blatant bias toward the unfortunate rapists whose lives have been ruined by this.
I can hardly tell you what this story does to me. It’s bringing up anger, empathy, sadness, despair, and countless other emotions. I am shocked by the way that the media has treated this story. I am angered by the young people at the party who knew what was going on and didn’t stop it. I am outraged by a coach who apparently knew about it and laughed it off.
Mostly, I am disappointed that so little has changed since I was raped. Back then – nearly 25 years ago – I made a conscious decision that I would do what I could to bring the man to justice, even if it meant I wouldn’t be treated well by the court system. I knew I couldn’t live with myself if I chose not to press charges, and six months later I heard that he’d done the same thing to another girl.
I can’t say that I’ve done everything I could to work for change for rape victims, but I have certainly given a fair bit of energy toward trying to change the flawed cultural paradigms that let rapists get away with it and let victims carry the blame. In those 25 years, I have continued to carry hope that we can change our views and our justice system so that victims aren’t raped again when they enter the court system.
I must admit, though, when I listened to the CNN reporters lament the way these boys lives have been ruined by this verdict, all the while ignoring how dramatically this young woman’s life has been altered, I was filled with both rage and despair. Has my hope in the last 25 years been all for naught? Has nothing changed? In fact, I wonder if it has actually gotten worse, considering we now have a term for “rape culture” and we have politicians who speak openly about how the women can sometimes be blamed and the woman’s body can shut down and avoid pregnancy from a rape.
Yesterday, I let myself dip into despair and a sense of utter futility. What’s the use in working for change when things only get worse? What’s the use in fighting when it feels like a losing battle?
At the same time as this news was coming out, we received another huge dump of snow on our city and the cold weather has returned, even though it’s the middle of March and it should be starting to feel like Spring. My despair over the weather mirrored my despair over the state of the world. As I shoveled the snow in our driveway, I wondered if Spring would ever come again. “What’s the point in shoveling all this snow if we’re just going to get another dump again next week?”
Even as I shoveled, though, I knew that Spring will come again. I have lived through forty-seven winters, and that’s enough experience to know that winter never lasts forever – Spring always arrives, whether it’s in March or May.
I also knew I had a choice to make – get stuck in the snow the next time I try to pull my van out of the driveway, or keep shoveling it out of the way each time it falls. Similarly, I could get lost in despair over the Steubenville rape and give up my belief that change is possible, or strengthen my resolve and keep sharing my stories and keep working for change.
I chose the latter. A life without some hope and some desire to move forward into a better future is not a real life at all.
I am reminded of a song that my friend Steve Bell wrote, inspired by a woman who wrote a piece after her cousin committed suicide. Despite her despair, there is laundry to be done and she knows she must carry on.
We’re not alone
laundry awash in the mid-morning sun
you can see angels dance as they try blouses on
there is good work to do
We’re not alone
casting long shadows as the day wears on
Billy had troubles, now Billy is gone
there is good work to do
kissing eyelids closed like caskets
breaking bread and filling baskets
pressing dress and swabbing soiled floors
fast remains of feast and fanion
evidence of ghost companions
greeting some and showing some the door
we’re not alone
wordlessly stung by a sliver blue moon
closed casket wake in a cold living room
there is good work to do
Listen here: [soundcloud url=”http://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/78760610″ params=”” width=” 100%” height=”166″ iframe=”true” /]
Yes, there is good work to do, and I will keep doing it. I may not be able to single-handedly wipe out rape culture, but I can teach my daughters that they are beautiful and that their bodies are their own and nobody has a right to violate them. And I can encourage my nephews and the young men around me who are living with integrity and respect for women.
I did some of that good work yesterday. I played the CNN clip for my Public Relations students and we talked about media bias and what we as concerned citizens can do to challenge our media to report with integrity and compassion. And then I welcomed Barbara Judt, the CEO of Osborne House, the local women’s shelter, into the classroom to talk about the work that they do to protect women who’ve been abused and to help them heal from the violence. My students are in the midst of creating a campaign in support of Osborne House as their class project, and in the process, they’re learning about violence against women and are having lots of conversations about what we can do to contribute to making their lives better.
Yes, there are bad things happening in the world, but if I live in a world in which a classroom full of students can get passionate about doing something for women who are victims of violence, then I can continue to live with hope.
Indeed, there is good work to do.