This article discusses sexual violence and assault.
A few months ago, minutes into a conversation about MeToo, I remembered that I, too, had been raped. Much is written about the initial trauma of sexual violence, the ongoing pain, but outside academia, little about what healing looks like. Healing from trauma has changed me in ways that I have only recently begun to understand. Beginning to forget the pain that defined my life for years has offered me some insight into what I think healing looks like.
My experience of sexual violence, initially, was radicalising. It was central, in ways I didn’t realise at the time, to my emergent feminist politics. It felt constitutive of the person I was: I remember reading and rereading an article in a (now defunct) teen magazine proclaiming I was a “survivor, [not a victim,] because you’re still here.” It provided me with a first-person anger that was uniquely powerful in pushing me towards activism, allowing me to skip over the difficulties of empathising with others or abstracted struggles. And it was consuming. I remember, vaguely, telling a friend a year after my assault that there was not a day that I didn’t think about what had happened to me. It’s difficult to imagine now, but I assume I was telling the truth.
But struggling for change is something you need to do for the good of the community, not because it helps heal you. There is a tension between beginning to heal from trauma — to believe that you can be safe, that you are not constantly under attack, and that there is so much in life beyond violence — and activism, which calls on you to constantly recognise the massive scale of sexual violence, that you and all other women are constantly, hypothetically, at risk. A feminist theory that views sexual violence, correctly, as supported by a broader rape culture also means that smaller actions are constantly re-traumatising. At one point, no sexist slight was too small to be integrated into that worldview for me. I remember barely anything about spending time with my friends at the parties I went to in my first years at uni. But I remember clearly older men leering at me, or being left with bruises after sex with strangers, or being kissed on the cheek by men rather than having my hand shaken.
Activists often celebrate anger and pain moving us to action, but they also eat away at you. I often wonder whether I would have healed at all if I was as deeply involved in feminist activism now as I was in the two years after I was raped. If Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is rooted in over-accessing traumatic memories, as emerging evidence indicates, then the practice of activists speaking about their experiences of sexual violence may be empowering, but it is also, for many, re-traumatising. Healing requires, in some sense, selfishness. It takes time and energy to come to term with those memories, and begin to forget. Perhaps survivors leading these battles sacrifice more than we, or they, realise.
I remember too, that sexual violence also became the horizon of my empathy. Seeing myself as a survivor bonded me to others who’d experienced similar things. But I remember openly laughing in a conversation at the idea of hikikomori, the phenomenon where young Japanese men live as social recluses, because it was some perverse karma for the abuse of women. I had little time for social causes that didn’t involve ending some type of ongoing mass violence.
I’m embarrassed admitting this. But it reminds me that one of the effects of trauma is selfishness. When your own pain is at the centre of your own universe, it dwarfs everything around it. I found it difficult to empathise with anything in my friends’ lives that were anything less than traumatic. In a diary entry from year 12, I write that I’m not sure if I can support a friend experiencing anxiety. “How can I take exam stress seriously when she doesn’t know what it’s like to feel like this? It’s a joke.” There was something noble about dealing with trauma, as if it gave me an insight to some transcendent truth. I remember feeling frustrated that no one appreciated the meaningful insight into trauma I presented in the conceptual art piece I made about sexual violence for the HSC (a rip off, somehow, of both Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance piece and Tracey Emin). Trauma, no doubt, teaches many things. But the romanticisation of my own pain, the self-involvement with my own identity as a survivor, closed me off to others’ pain.
I remember, too, the constant feeling that no one took sexual violence seriously in the spaces in which I was involved. In the clubs and leftist political groups I was part of, like-minded friends and I engaged in a noble but Sisyphean task: totally supporting and accommodating survivors of trauma. I regarded any person who saw our goals as unrealistic or not helpful as at best, deeply ignorant.
But gradually I realised that pain is a bottomless pit. No amount of support or gentle handling is ever enough. When I was assaulted, “trigger warnings” were at the centre of the culture war debates. Opponents argued that they allowed survivors to avoid exposure and thereby hindered long-term healing. Proponents argued that they granted greater agency to survivors, allowing them to choose when and how to engage with relevant texts. But the evidence that has since emerged is, to the dismay of both sides, that such warnings have negligible effects.
Much of my life at uni has revolved around spaces seeking to accommodate and support survivors. But at work, in class, with my family and my partner — in short, most of my life — these accommodations did not exist. I still believe that some support mechanisms are important, and useful, but their effect shouldn’t be overstated. The idea that you are suffering because those around don’t understand and support you enough is an alluring mirage: it explains away your pain by reference to others, giving you a narrative you can call on in any situation. Of course there are things that can make you feel a little better or worse, but most of it won’t make you any feel different at all. It’s its own kind of trauma to realise that there is nothing except time, in the end, that heals you — and even time isn’t always enough.
In the couple of years following my assault, my identity as a survivor was at the core of my self understanding. Feminists for decades have objected to the use of the term “victim” to describe people who’ve experienced sexual violence. In her 1988 book, Surviving Sexual Violence, Liz Kelly argues, “it draws attention to the strength women display despite their experiences of victimisation through shifting the emphasis from viewing women as passive victims of sexual violence to seeing them as active survivors.” A victim is someone something happened to; a survivor is someone who overcomes something.
But in my third year of uni a friend who’d been sexually assaulted as a child objected to the term. “I don’t think of myself that way,” he said. “Why does something that happened to me more than a decade ago make me a different kind of person?” In ways, I think, he was right. There is a passivity to the term “victim”, but it is also fixed in time. A victim is someone something happened to once; a survivor is someone who is still overcoming something. Identifying as a survivor meant I constantly conceived of myself as doing the hardest thing I’ve ever done, surviving an act of traumatic sexual violence. It was an enormous source of strength. But it also tied me, unavoidably, to that event.
But now, at feminist marches and reading MeToo stories, I’ve begun to remove my own pain from the centre of my worldview, empathising with others’ stories on their own terms rather than their similarities to my own. I’m inspired by the survivors who’ve found strength in speaking about their experiences. But the true healing, I think, comes from a place down the road, when you sometimes forget what happened to you at all. Only then does he lose his hold over you. Only then have you really survived.