8 Things I’ve Learned After Getting Lots Of Emails About Sexual Assault

Last week, The Frisky published an essay by an anonymous writer about her rape. She wrote about the absurdity of columnist George Will’s allegation that being a victim of sexual assault confers certain privileges. Activists have responded to Will’s inane, offensive piece with the hashtag #SurvivorPrivilege, snarkily writing about all the ways that they’ve “benefitted” from their sexual assault. Our writer’s piece focused on losing her virginity at 16 through rape and the effect it has had on her life.

The writer chose to be anonymous. So, as I often do, I put a note at the end of the piece offering to forward emails along to the author if anyone wanted to be in touch. I didn’t necessarily expect any response. But in the ensuing week, I’ve been blown away by the amount of email that I’ve been forwarding (and will continue to forward as they come in). These emails have been showing me things, both good and bad, about sexual assault in America.

NOTE: I want to make clear that am not referring to any specific letter writing, or sharing details of anyone’s story without permission. These are observations that I’ve made in aggregate from all the emails. My hope is to convey how similar stories of sexual assault and how powerful they are in a way that slogans and statistics can’t contain. 

1. Sexual assault is common. Too common. It is one thing to read a statistic like “one out of every six American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime” (or one out of 33 American men). It’s another thing to get email after email, explaining the stories of how it all happened.

2. Lots of stories echoed the one by the anonymous author — victims protested and were ignored. One of the pervasive rape myths in America is that women willingly consent to sex that they later regret and call it “rape.” Again and again, letter writers shared how they repeatedly said “no” or “stop” or vocalized how they were scared. They were ignored. Then they were raped. More than a few survivors expressed feeling guilt for not “fighting back hard enough,” so to speak, wondering if that had been twisted into being perceived as consent. That any victim could think such a thing is enormously fucking sad.

3. Many of the rapists were still in these survivors’ lives. Another common theme was that many of the rapists were classmates, acquaintances or neighbors, who were ever-present after the assault(s), always reminding the survivor of the rape and making them feel unsafe and uncomfortable. Contrary to the stereotype that all rapists are Bad Men Who Jump Out Of The Bushes, for the most part, letter writers were assaulted by men they knew.

4. Too many of the rapists were in positions of power. This fact should not have surprised me, but it did: in emails where letter writers disclosed a rape, most attackers were  bosses, older co-workers, older neighbors, even law enforcement. Another pervasive rape myth in our culture is that the victim must have been “asking for it somehow,” that she “lead him on.” Conveniently, exploitation of rapist’s power does not factor into this excuse. I will never understand how an adult man who sexually assaults a teen girl thought they were on any sort of equal footing.

5. Contrary to the reputation that some men have for being callous about rape culture, lots of guys wrote thoughtful, supportive, encouraging emails. This, actually, surprised me the most: our anonymous author got so many emails from men — who usually, but not always, revealed they had loved ones who had been raped — apologizing and offering their support. I was humbled by these emails. This served as a much-needed reminder that just because cruel, misogynistic victim-blamers might be the loudest voice, they are not the only voice.

6. People agree that American culture is screwed up. As a feminist blogger, especially one has gotten a fair amount of negative comments over a long period of time, my perspective at times is skewed into believing that no one else gives a shit. Week after week, The Frisky blogs about dehumanizing rape culture, particularly towards women and girls. It is difficult to put into words how draining it is to watch how the same types of stories cycle through the newsfeed again and again. But so many letter writers mentioned how screwed up — offensive, even — they think it is that rape is so pervasive. While I would not say I’m cheered by their response, exactly, it was humbling to read so many messages from so many regular folks who deeply care about this problem.

7. So many survivors remember exactly what they were wearing during the assault. Even years after the initial assault, many survivors could recall the exact outfit they had been wearing. Think about that.

8. One message that came up again and again for our anonymous author. And that message is: “You are not alone.”

Additionally, I would like to share with you a note directly from the anonymous author of the piece:

I was floored by the personal responses. Thank you to everyone who shared words of compassion or were brave enough to reach out with a story of their own. We truly are not alone.

If you have been the victim of sexual violence, you can get help through the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE or the National Sexual Assault Online Hotline here

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