“When people don’t express themselves, they die one piece at a time,” (Laurie Halse Anderson, Speak).
*SEXUAL VIOLENCE TRIGGER WARNING*
Maya Angelou taught the world that silence was crippling. That mutism was a drug. That there was power in voice, in speaking, in telling one’s story. Laurie Halse Anderson first introduced me to Dr. Angelou through her book Speak when I was fifteen. I didn’t recognize all of Ms. Anderson’s references to the Caged Bird at the time, but eight years later, I listened to Maya telling her own story of keeping silent for six years because she feared that her voice would kill people. She knew that her voice had power, but she believed that her power was something to fear. (Watch a video of Maya Angelou on finding her voice here.)
It is hard to imagine being seven years old and so terrified to speak that it would feel safer to stay silent for six years. But it is not hard to imagine being ten years old and being raped by someone older and heavier and stronger. It is not hard to imagine being so terrified of being killed if anyone found out that the pain felt safer to be buried deep rather than spoken. It isn’t hard because it is my story. It is my voice that had been safer silenced. It is my fear unmasked.
Maya Angelou knew the power of stories, and of speaking our pain, because speaking creates conversation. Laurie Halse Anderson knew the power of giving others the courage to speak their stories, continuing the conversation. I know the power of speaking through fear, because I know that fear unearthed can turn into something beautiful in time. Being wrapped in silence feels comfortable, but it is smothering. And survivors the world over have discovered how healing, freeing and empowering speaking out truly is.
Recently a mass shooting with women as its target has begun the social media conversation #YesAllWomen. While many women (and supportive men) have added their voices in support and in continuing the story, a large number of people (mostly men) are speaking against the movement, crying—more than anything else—#NotAllMen. “Not all men are like that!” they cry, not comforting victims so much as protecting their own dignity and worth. No, not all men are like that. But some are. And they make the world a terrifying place for women.
#NotAllMen began, I believe, as a way for men to try to pacify women while comforting themselves: ‘we’re not all evil,’ they implied. And that is true. But then it morphed into something cruel, as good intentions often do: suddenly it became a way for men to lash out against people who contributed to #YesAllWomen. ‘Not all abusers are men,’ they said, ‘and not all victims are women.’ No, those are very true, and are points not to be discounted. But this specific conversation is about women. We cannot get anywhere productive in the conversation if those with stories and unearthed fears are being muted. We have had enough of that. We have done enough of that to ourselves. Now is our time to speak out. We are simply asking the world to listen. (Here is a great post by a man about how #NotAllMen is hurting the conversation instead of helping; he also cites some powerful #YesAllWomen tweets.)
My story began shortly before I was ten; numerous times at church I was being chased, frightened, and hit by some boys from the congregation. I didn’t speak up. Then one day the oldest of the boys isolated me in a closet, where he raped me and threatened my life if I would ever tell. For ten years I stayed silent, keeping those memories buried deep so they couldn’t hurt me. One day I began timidly, haltingly telling my story. The journey has been painful, terrifying, and incredible. What happened to me was not my fault; what happens to any victim is not their fault. I have found power in disallowing the perpetrator to keep me silenced anymore, and I have also developed a deep respect and love for myself, both for doing what I needed to do to survive at the time, and for having the courage to change that now. “At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice” (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings). I began to see that my own surrender when I was ten was not weakness, was not defeat, was not consent. It was survival. There were no other options afforded to me, but I made it. I survived.
After Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Speak, she got numerous letters from fans of the book. (Watch a video of her turning her fans’ responses into a poem here). Numerous letters were from boys who had enjoyed the book, but didn’t understand one major piece. “I have gotten one question repeatedly from young men. These are guys who liked the book, but they are honestly confused. They ask me why Melinda was so upset about being raped.” She states that the first several times she heard this, she was shocked, but after so many letters of that same question, she began to see that society, schools, and the media are dismally failing children by not teaching them the realities of sex, but are glorifying it and treating it as something without consequences. Comedians joke about rape, it is a common fallback for shows who need a storyline for their female characters, judges blame victims, politicians make ignorant comments, religion tells women to submit and to feel shame about her body, schools don’t teach proper sexual education, police ask “what were you wearing?”, the media bemoans locking up rapists because they have so much potential, colleges don’t shut down fraternities where rapes were reported, victims are silenced, and when they have the courage to speak up, they are treated like they are at fault or never see the perpetrator punished for the crime.
We as a society have failed. There is a great injustice being done to women, and it is being done every day. It is being done visibly through #NotAllMen. It is the act of SILENCING. #YesAllWomen experience being smothered by a society that tells them they are responsible for sex, and when they don’t want it, then it is their duty to speak up, and if they don’t speak up, then it clearly wasn’t rape. #YesAllWomen read comments from men who say that the women at UCSB should have “taken one for humanity” and had sex with Elliot Rodger, siding with a murderer who blamed his attack on women who would not sleep with him. #YesAllWomen have been unnerved being in a social situation with a man, knowing that he has the power and the blind blessing of society to do as he pleases.
Violence against women is not fictional, nor is it rare. I believe that the statistics surrounding sexual harassment and abuse are greatly underestimated. But we live in a world where women hear “boys will be boys,” “never leave your drink unattended at parties,” “keep yourself covered,” “what were you doing there alone at that hour,” “did you say no/struggle/report it immediately,” “how many drinks did you have,” “we should figure this out as a family,” “he must have thought you were coming on to him,” “you should know better/act better/do better/be better.” Why is it easier to blame victims than to blame perpetrators? Because they hold the world’s power? Perhaps. Because they simply don’t understand? Perhaps. Because they haven’t heard stories, or because they haven’t been listening? BUT. What happens if society and the world continues to be bombarded with peoples’ stories? What if we release the hold that we have on each victim’s throat, allowing her to move from victim to survivor? To someone who controls her own story? To someone who regains power over her own life? I want to see that. As someone who knows the power of telling my own story and seeing myself as a strong-brave-fierce survivor, I desperately want to share that strength with others, taking part in a humanity that listens without blame, without doubt. Just listens.
My purpose behind this post is twofold, then: 1) for men, please listen to the stories being told. Don’t try to justify, or isolate, or redeem your own humanity. Women understand that not all men are like that. But some men are, and we need to be able to talk about it. Listen and respond by speaking up for us when you hear other men defending themselves, or blaming women for abuse, or joking about rape, or saying denigrating things about women. Advocate. 2) For women, tell your stories. It is hard and painful and scary and freeing and empowering and worth it. Tell your story to help illustrate the wide variety of ways in which women experience violence; times you have felt helpless or looked down upon or were harassed or abused in some way because of your gender, your vulnerability. Keep the conversation alive, and give yourself a voice. Give yourself the freedom. People are listening. I am listening.
We have all heard that we should be the change we want to see in the world. This is the change I want, so I am speaking up. I cannot tell others to have a voice when I am too afraid to use my own. Please join me. Let’s change things.
“…but after all, girls have to giggle, and after being a woman for three years I was about to become a girl,” (Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings).