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A Personal Addendum: Shifting the Narrative

Opinion | April 22, 2019

CW: Sexual assault

People from Delaware love to talk about Delaware. It’s not even just those, like me, who have escaped from Delaware, who love talking about Delaware. When I’m home (in Delaware), I am always amazed by how much pride people have for our state. When I moved from a small state to a small liberal arts university, I knew I could count on the other handful of Delawareans here to look out for me. Having pride for a place, whether that pride is ironic or not, naturally makes you a little protective over it. Delaware is like my little sibling who I get to call names but I will be damned if I let someone from New Jersey talk shit about the Punkin Chunkin (look it up). We Delawareans hold each other in high regard, we want each other to succeed, and we stick up for each other.

That’s how, probably unwisely, I ended up sliding into the Twitter DMs of a guy who I went to high school with after I noticed he had been retweeting messages from various women, like Meghan McCain, who were coming out in support of Delaware Senator and former Vice President Joe Biden in the wake of recent allegations against him.

I wasn’t necessarily surprised by this behavior. Delawareans love Joe Biden as much as Joe Biden loves Delaware (a lot). But more concerningly, seeing a White cis man show “empathy” (in the words of Meghan McCain) for Biden, over the stories of women who had recently spoken out about his sexual misconduct was… disconcerting.

Despite some claims to the contrary, retweeting someone is an endorsement of their content. It’s saying, “I like what you had to say so much that I want all of my followers to see it too.” In this case, the retweets felt like a self-congratulatory loophole. I imagined Biden supporters emerging from the woodwork shouting, “See? Women love Biden! There’s no way he could have done anything wrong.” And like any endorsement, positions of power matter. It disturbed me to see this person, who ostensibly felt like he couldn’t directly tweet the messages that he was retweeting, using his platform to celebrate Biden supporters without any mention of those who they were speaking over: the eight women who have made public statements about Biden’s inappropriate interactions with them. This was my message to him (which now admittedly feels a little apologetic):

Hey. Noticing you’re retweeting a lot of Joe Biden sympathy tweets. Just wanted to let you know that survivors’ voices are always always getting silenced by people who would rather defend the honor of rapists and abusers than support and believe survivors. Obviously the allegations against Biden aren’t officially confirmed but it’s important to note that retweeting these kinds of things perpetuates systemic violence against assault survivors by undermining their stories.

The next day, I received a long reply from the classmate. I won’t go into too many details, but I will say that his (356 word) response did not provide me any clarity on his position. In fact, it just confused me more. He began, “I am 100% behind hearing survivors and seeking to validate their claims. Especially in the case of rape and abuse accusations.” But as it went on… and on… and on, he explained that “equating an invasion of personal space to predation and assault undermines the #MeToo movement. It emboldens its detractors, and reframes the dialogue around more socially acceptable behavior such as shoulder touching rather than focusing on the larger issues of legitimate harassment.” Finally, he concluded with, “If retweeting first-hand defenses of a man who has spent his entire career championing women’s rights and whose character has been relentlessly praised by women qualifies as ‘perpetuating systemic violence against assault survivors,’ we need to reevaluate the #MeToo movement’s notion of justice.”

I didn’t know how to respond. I found myself wondering, what is “legitimate harassment?” Is it harassment that escalates to physical violence? Is harassment only considered as such if there is a legal precedent outlining the proper protocol for how to “deal with it?” Is it only harassment if it can be recognized as wrong by those outside of the interaction? And what was he purporting to be “the #MeToo movement’s notion of justice?” Their mission is simply to “Support survivors and end sexual violence.” To me, a survivor of sexual violence is someone who has experienced the loss of bodily autonomy, and who has persevered despite it. The women who have reported feeling “demeaned,” “harmed,” and “thrown away” by Biden’s actions have certainly lost autonomy and deserve, at the bare minimum, to be believed and to receive the acknowledgment that they are not alone. That, if nothing else, we hear them.  

We exchanged more messages on the issue, but it became immediately clear that arguing was pointless. I shouldn’t have said anything, I thought. Like many times before, I felt the need to use logic and quantitative evidence to prove something that is societally engineered to be evidence-less, because it relies on the personal testimonies of people we are predisposed not to listen to. It disturbed me that, once again, someone’s allegiance to a man in power, perhaps a man who reflected their own identity and ideals, was weaponized to devalue victims’ statements.

He told me he planned on writing an article about the issue using my messages. I urged him not to. He did so anyway, courteously keeping me anonymous. The article included only my initial message, ending with his response to me and his long-winded opinion on why listening to survivors was important, as long as they truly were survivors. I felt deflated. Most of the words that I had carefully engineered to explain my allegiance to the discounted narratives of Lucy Flores, Amy Lappos, DJ Hill, Caitlin Caruso, Ally Coll, Sofie Karasek, Vail Kohnert-Yount, and Alexandra Tara Reade were left out. My voice, too, was erased. I felt like I had just lost a game on my own home court.

According to uslegal.com, harassment is defined as “unwanted, unwelcomed, and uninvited behavior that demeans, threatens or offends the victim and results in a hostile environment for the victim.” This perplexed me. The definition itself seems so clearcut, yet it often relies on personal testimony, subjective experience. So what about the subjective experiences that Lucy Flores, Amy Lappos, DJ Hill, Caitlin Caruso, Ally Coll, Sofie Karasek, Vail Kohnert-Yount, and Alexandra Tara Reade described in their statements about Joe Biden? What good is a legal precedent based on personal testimony, if that personal testimony is so easy for us to ignore?

This interaction with my classmate does not exist in isolation. It reminded me about times that words had failed me before, times when I felt something wasn’t right but could not verbalize precisely why. I began to examine all of the interactions that have shaped my feelings about sexual assault and formed my understanding of what it is to be a survivor. When I was 15, I attended a work event with my parents. We were greeted by a well-known Delaware politician—one who is currently still in office. I remember vividly what I was wearing: a green suede skirt with a pink and maroon floral pattern, a short-sleeved black v-neck that I had borrowed from my mom, and my hair, which was long then, sat in a ballerina bun on the top of my head. The politician greeted my parents and then me, saying something along the lines of ‘what a beautiful young lady!’ I smiled; he asked how old I was, and I responded, “15.” “Wow!” he chuckled, “they certainly didn’t make 15 year-olds like that when I was your age!” At the time, I was naïve—I had no idea what he was implying. I took it as a compliment. But I remember my mom’s awkward laugh as she abruptly pulled me away.

A year later, I began my first job at a local restaurant. It was a family pub with regular patrons. I could walk there from my house. As a host, I stood at a podium in the front and greeted customers. My post was about five feet from the bar, but at 17, I was too young to carry alcoholic beverages to customers at their tables. Still, I spent a lot of time chatting with regulars as they enjoyed their drinks. They were mostly men who seemed ancient to me (realistically, they were probably in their 50s). They could be flirty, but I didn’t find it alarming that men several decades my senior were taking interest in me. I found it kind of entertaining. I was being validated for my presence. One regular in particular got into the habit of asking, “You 18 yet?” I laughed it off. It was slightly creepy, but harmless, I thought.

Then, when I was 18, at a party with friends, I met the older brother of one of my classmates. I was a senior in high school. He was in college. He talked to me. It was exciting. We eventually started making out.

Things escalated quickly. At the suggestion of the party’s host, we made our way to a childhood bedroom. I wasn’t having fun anymore, but I didn’t say, “No.” And I did something that I had done in so many uncomfortable situations in the past—I went along with it.

When he left to use the bathroom, a wave of adrenaline hit me and I grabbed my clothes and ran outside to be with my friends. I figured he wouldn’t follow me. He wouldn’t want to make a scene, I thought. I felt safe outside of the room.

But he did follow me, and as he coaxed me back, I panicked. I didn’t want to go, but I didn’t want to make it seem like a big deal. I didn’t want to acknowledge that something was wrong and by doing so, admit that it was. So I followed, and I waited for it to end, and then I waited until he fell asleep. I quietly got up, dressed, and crawled into bed with my friends in another room. One of them asked if everything was okay—he had noticed me running out of the room earlier and then reluctantly acquiescing to going back in. I assured him everything was fine. I thought it was! Bad sex happens, I told myself.

For a long time afterwards, life continued pretty much as normal. I didn’t think about the incident much, let alone describe it as anything wrong. But my body started to act differently. I got extremely anxious at work, sometimes feeling like the comments that I had once laughed off might make me burst into tears. When I left after a shift, I would walk fast and alert. I didn’t listen to music or look at my phone. My stomach hurt.

More concerningly, I couldn’t have sex. I became anxious even in consensual sexual situations. Sex became painful or not possible at all. My muscles would clench uncontrollably. I had no idea what was going on. I confided in an older friend, thinking that this could somehow be a side effect of my birth control. She assured me that it wasn’t. Whatever I was experiencing was most likely “all in my head.”

About a year into this painful cycle, I was listening to a podcast when I heard a story about someone with a condition called “vaginismus.” It was, like many gynecological issues, a bit of a mystery (not to mention creepily named). But in her story, the woman explained that vaginismus often occurs as the result of sexual trauma. It is a subconscious bodily reaction to the anticipation of pain where the body automatically tightens the vaginal muscles, bracing to protect itself from harm. My body understood something that I didn’t have the words to describe.

I don’t tell this story to explain my sensitivity to sexual misconduct. I would hope that being a survivor of sexual assault is not a prerequisite to demanding workplaces free of harassment, or to understanding the importance of standing in support of survivors. But in thinking through my view on the Biden allegations, I have realized that I am viewing them from an entirely different world than some of my classmates, colleagues, family members, and even close friends. It was through understanding that my body was responding to trauma that I began to heal. When I addressed the trauma and began to recognize how entrenched it was, and is, in my interpersonal interactions, I allowed it to crystallize into something legitimate, something that I could acknowledge, and something that I was still recovering from. And with the support of my community, I reminded myself that my body is my own, but also that I am not responsible for standing alone to protect it.

In a perverse way, my assault helps me to understand the misunderstanding of potential allies who seek a concrete definition of what it means to be stripped of control. I know all too well the desire to make things one-dimensional and easy to understand. But unfortunately, the factual evidence that we’re seeking just doesn’t exist. It’s embedded in intangible parts of our identities and relationships. To heal, we need to acknowledge that space and to speak it into our collective consciousness.

We cannot continue to discount the voices of survivors like Lucy Flores, Amy Lappos, DJ Hill, Caitlin Caruso, Ally Coll, Sofie Karasek, Vail Kohnert-Yount, and Alexandra Tara Reade. We need to push our perception of empathy beyond our own experiences and question who we choose to stick up for and support. As a Delawarean, I want to have faith in my community to speak up for me, and to be able to listen when questioned about whose narratives they support. To upset systemic power imbalances, we need to make them tangible, and the first step is acknowledging that what survivors—any survivors—have experienced is no less real than their continued survival.

Please reach out if you need help or support. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) is the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization. Visit online.rainn.org to chat one-on-one with a trained RAINN support specialist, any time 24/7. You can also call the National Sexual Assault Hotline (800.656.HOPE,online.rainn.org and rainn.org/es).