Viewing this past election year through the lens of a survivor of sexual assault was extremely difficult. With the release of the now-infamous video where Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women our bodies, our stories, and our right to consent were thrust front and center. Many chose to tweet about their assaults with the hashtag #NotOkay. Others of us, already massively triggered by his attitudes and words about women, chose to stay silent. As a survivor, I think that both are valid reactions to a man who talks about grabbing a woman's pussy. Because as I've learned over the years, and one Christmas made clear to me, once your consent has been violated, the choice of how you will share details about that assault becomes extremely important.
When my ex-husband's Aunt Lynn* hosted Christmas dinner, she went all out. Kitchen counters covered in a full spread of appetizers, a turkey and a ham, and multiple desserts. But one year it was different. My ex and I had been together for a few years at that point, and I felt comfortable hanging out in the kitchen chopping vegetables and falling into the holiday routine. I didn't expect anything beyond the usual conversation, until his aunt said, "Oh, Dena, I wanted to show you my new bedroom drapes."
We all know that there is a way women have of communicating with one another, a look and an inflection, that lets the other woman know that the request is not about the drapes. It's about leaving the room to talk when the men aren't around.
I set my wine glass down on the counter and we headed upstairs.
In the master bedroom, I dutifully admired the decor and patiently listened to her story about problems with the interior decorator while I waited for her to get to the real reason we'd gone off from the family.
Leaning against one of the bedposts, she finally said, "You know that Christine* is going to college next fall, right?"
My chest tightened with a familiar ache. It doesn't take much for me to know where the other person is headed. "Yes, she seems really excited about it."
"She is, it's a great campus, they have all the courses she wants..." Lynn fiddled with the fringe on a bed pillow.
"But?" I prompted.
"But I'm worried about her. She's still a virgin, and she's so innocent. I was wondering if you'd mind talking with her about what happened to you?"
The conversation had ended up exactly where I'd thought it would. My shoulders tensed and my jaw tightened with an involuntary reaction to the question. A part of me wanted to respond with, "I did not get raped to serve as a cautionary tale for your daughter, thank you very much," another part of me could acknowledge that she just wanted to protect Christine.
This was not the first time I'd been called upon to be that woman — you know the one, the story that ended badly, the girl that your parents tell you about when they give you the 'talk' about being safe on a first date, or when you go away to college.
The first time it had happened, I'd been stunned to realize that girl was now me. That when my girlfriend's younger sisters or daughters went off to school, I wasn't going to be asked to offer advice on how to graduate in three years summa cum laude or how to balance studying and a social life. No, I was going to be called upon for the 'how not to get raped' talk.
My reaction to realizing I was 'that girl' was not pretty. I left the party where a friend had asked me to tell her sixteen-year-old daughter about my rape, sat in the car and listed all my accomplishments, everything I'd done and believed about myself that I used as a buffer against the word 'victim.' I spoke two languages, I'd sold my first novel when I was twenty-two, I had traveled to six different countries. I yelled into the silence of a dark parking lot everything that spoke to the woman I wanted to be — strong, fierce, intelligent. 'Victim' had never been on that list. I did not want to be 'that girl.'
While I was aware that my ex's aunt knew about my history, that didn't mean I was comfortable talking about it on that day in particular. It was Christmas. And just because a rape survivor can tell their story one day doesn't mean they can tell it every day. If I chose to tell someone the details, to go beyond the simple 'rape survivor' that I will share publicly, it is a privilege. I am not obligated to serve as a warning to other women, though I may choose to see it as a responsibility. Our bodies are not public property, and neither are our stories.
Over the years of therapy, I traded in the word 'victim' for 'survivor,' and with time gained the peace to talk about it more openly. I have chosen to speak up when I thought it was needed, but speaking up was my choice. Believe it or not, I don't think about it every day, or even weekly. Does it impact my life? Of course, most notably when I'm dating and considering sleeping with someone new. Last year, I chose to continue hooking up with a guy who didn't treat me the way I liked out of bed but made me feel safe in it, which made it worth it for me. I accepted that trade-off in order to have my sexual needs met. It's not the first time I've had to balance the complicated intersection of being a survivor with sex and respect.
To be clear, I don't want what happened to me to happen to other women — far from it. But please do not ask me or other survivors to share about it and place the burden of guilt for another woman's potential rape on our shoulders. Let us offer. Because that's what my ex's aunt did that day. If I'd said 'no,' that I didn't want to waste my after-Christmas dinner buzz dredging up a painful memory and then, later, something bad had happened to Christine, might she have felt like it was just a little bit my fault? I know I would have felt guilty, irrational though it might have been.
Making our own choices about our lives matter more to a survivor than you'll ever know. We did not choose our rapes or assaults, but we can choose how, when and if we will talk about them. That matters. And as the tweets in response to Trumps' bragging about sexual assault make clear we are hardly alone. There are many of us. But make no mistake — we owe the world nothing. Not our pain, not our stories, and definitely not our bodies. But the world owes us respect. A concept that our current President seems incapable of grasping.
*Names have been changed
Photo: Flickr/Creative Commons, LWYang
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Dena Landon is a single mom who eats raw cookie dough, passionately debates intersectional feminism and frequently tangles herself in yarn. Her work has appeared on xojane.com and in Dance Teacher and Dance Spirit magazines. Her first novel was published by Dutton Children's Publishing in 2005. She blogs at femmefeminism.com, and can be found on Instagram or Facebook.