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Speaking Together of the Unspeakable
Rape terrifies every woman. When we think about rape, we picture a shadowy figure attacking us in a dark and lonely alley. We imagine ourselves paralyzed with fear and being left for dead. We know this fear when we work a graveyard shift, go to the store at 11 o'clock at night, or return to a dark and empty house. Having never known complete safety from rape, we spend time and energy avoiding "risks". We plan and take precautions. We pay a high price for this unreliable safety we create for ourselves: we give up freedom.
To make matters worse, this image of the rapist that we guard ourselves against is often different from a rape survivor's experience. Sometimes sexual assault fits the image we have held, but more survivors report attacks by friends, acquaintances, family members, and co-workers.
We hear these reports, and we are scared. We can create some safety for ourselves against strangers, but how do we protect ourselves from people we normally have reason to trust? How do we know whom we can trust? It is scary for those of us who are not rape victims to realize our images of rape and rapists may have been wrong, but the real tragedy is what that realization does to the victim. If she has imagined rape as a knife attack in a dark alley, what is it that happened to her? What is the sneaking, manipulating threat of a brother in-law? Boss? Acquaintance? Husband or friend?
Victims search for answers about what happened to them. "What kind of woman is raped? What kind of woman is attacked in her own home? By someone she cares about? By a total stranger?"
Unfortunately, most victims will blame themselves. Survivors can find many things they "should" have done differently. In addition to the guilt she will place on herself, she must be careful about reporting the crime. Too often, her feelings of self-blame will be reinforced by those around her. We often judge the victim's behavior. We will ask the same questions she has asked herself. We frequently measure her response with some standard of how a victim "ought" to act. We may convince ourselves that this is something she somehow brought on herself so that we will not have to confront the fact that it could happen to us.
This self-blame and the reinforcement she receives for it will make a victim feel isolated and keep her from getting the help she needs. Hotlines and safe shelters for victims, on the other hand, can help by providing a place where survivors can talk about their experiences and come to understand that they did the right thing to survive. Through anonymity, hotline workers and callers alike can speak about the unspeakable with the knowledge that they will never recognize each other if they happen to meet at some later time. On the hotline, we have heard it all, so we can easily say, You are not alone! By speaking together, we can regain our freedom of speech.
By talking openly about rape and sexual assault, we can all say, You are not alone! We can find ways to cope, to resolve problems, to trust each other, and to find safety.Vietta Helmle
Founder and long-term executive director of MVWCS