The posters read:
“It wouldn’t hurt so bad if you just got wet” (I was crying. Not just because it hurt physically.)
But because I never said yes.
“I’m sorry, I thought you were [his daughter’s name]”
He was drunk.
Photographed in Charlottesville, VA on November 6th.
Every time I look at Unbreakable photos, my heart stops. My brain stops. I pause and take in the words on the poster and the beautiful strength of the survivor holding that poster and realize that very strength is why I’m still here. At 22, I’ve been the victim of sexual violence at the hands of four different perpetrators and while I once (and sometimes still do) wondered how that was possible and if it was somehow my fault, it has become very clear the culture of silence and shame in which we live makes my experiences a very real possibility. If and when we do talk about sexual violence, we tend to do so with statistics. Thus, even with staggering numbers, we have the ability to separate ourselves from the traumatic reality of sexual assault. I ask you to go beyond that silence and those statistics. To look into the eyes of the survivors . To really hear the words on those posters. To sit with their pain for a moment.
When you look straight into my eyes in the pictures Grace has taken of me, you can see the pain, suffering and heartbreak that comes with being the victim of sexual violence. You can see the anger around my eyes and my mouth. The weariness and exhaustion that comes with PTSD and constantly being on-guard is written all over my face. But, I am standing there and not afraid or ashamed to talk about that reality, my reality. My reality does include the words on those posters and the pain you see in those eyes, but did you know those eyes are my favorite part of my body? They light up the most beautiful blue when I see my best friend after a few months apart, when I’m fishing on the Kenai River catching huge salmon with my dad, and when I’m singing “Hello Everybody” while dancing in circles to make the two year old I nanny smile. Every day those eyes radiate joy, love, kindness, and compassion. My reality is that I’m human—I have both the ability to be hurt deeply and hurt others in that pain. But I also have the strength to overcome the hurt I’ve experienced and live boldly and love deeply because I am much more than just the trauma I have experienced.
Not talking about sexual violence and just looking at statistics allows society to forget survivors are still human and still sitting next to you in class, in church, on the bus, at dinner and in your office. Our humanity may have been taken from us, but we are fighting to get it back every single day. That fight becomes a little easier when the struggle is recognized as real and met with love and support; not completely swept under the rug or met with skepticism and attitudes that shame and blame us for what happened. If we want to drastically reduce the numbers surrounding sexual violence, we have to change the culture in which it proliferates. We have the power to begin to erase the culture of silence and shame that allows perpetrators of sexual violence, not the victims, to feel comfortable and supported. We must start shifting conversations about sexual assault from simple statistics to the very real impact of sexual assault on the very real survivors, listening to their experiences, and supporting them as people deserving of the same love, understanding and compassion as anyone else. We have to realize, recognize and understand that no one asks to be sexually assaulted and everyone reacts to trauma differently and there is no script for a victim to follow. When we allow survivors to be human, we might begin to understand the deeper cultural implications of seemingly harmless “rape jokes”, see how using a phrase like “legitimate rape” is more than just a political gaffe, and recognize how normalized and embedded both victim-blaming and rape apology are in our society when journalists on major news networks make the tragedy of rape about what will happen to the rapists because they were found guilty and will be held accountable for their actions instead of about the rape itself. (Hint: the tragedy isn’t the perpetrators’ conviction; it is the crime they committed when they sexually assaulted another human being.) This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it is a start.
To all survivors: Unbreakable provides a community of people who want to hear your story and people who love and support you wherever you are in life. Realizing you’re worthy of that love and support—and fully embracing that love, no matter what you’ve survived—is the strength of being unbreakable.
Click here to learn more about Project Unbreakable. (trigger warning)
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