Thursday, May 14, 2015

Let's Talk About Rape. Seriously.

       I was in the car with two of my classmates on the way to another group member’s apartment where we would put the finishing touches on our fifteen-page paper. We had worked together for a while, but we still didn’t know each other well, so the usual small-talk life-inquiry ensued.

       “So how old is your son?”
       “He just turned one!”
       “Cute! How long have you and your husband been married?”
       “Since October 2014.”

       There is a moment of silence while they do the math. Yes, I was pregnant when we got married. This does not win me cool feminist points, but I can handle that; it’s a small price to pay for a hot husband and a sweet child.

       “You went to school in Chicago right?”
       “Yeah! It was a small school on the north side. Veerrrrrryyy different from OSU.”
       “What made you leave Chicago?”

       This question always sends me scrambling. Do I lie about being raped in order to make the other person more comfortable? I could say, “We just wanted to be closer to family.” Easy. Comfortable. No hassle. But that’s not true. I was raped and consequently I had to leave the city that had become a crime scene to me. I left my job because the commute seemed too dangerous. I left the school I loved because I couldn’t function in that city anymore. I don’t want to cover up the innumerable effects that rape has had on my life. So I said:

       “Well…Gabriel and I were living in an apartment together in Chicago the summer after my sophomore year. I was sexually assaulted on my way to work so we felt like we needed to leave Chicago for a time to recuperate.”

       Siri broke the silence by dictating the next turn.

       This is the most common response I get. Silence. Awkwardness. I understand that people might not know how to respond to an acquaintance revealing a traumatic event from their past—it’s weird. Understandable. I also know that when I lie about it or pretend that rape hasn’t been a major player in my life, I personally feel shamed and false. It’s as if only a part of me is allowed at the party. The other part—the rape part—isn’t invited. And how do I uninvite a major part of who I am, to the party I will be attending?

       Okay, I stretched that metaphor a bit. But I do feel an uncomfortable dissonance in my heart when I know part of me isn’t an acceptable topic for conversation. I ran across this picture when I was Pinteresting ‘Feminism.’ (If you haven’t done this—do it. That’s some inspiring shit.)

       When I saw this, I thought: Yes, please!  We need to be willing to engage in the uncomfortable conversations, even if we don’t feel like we relate or understand. By refusing to pick up the topic in conversation, we are saying it isn’t worth our time—or talking about rape isn’t okay. And if we can’t even talk about the tough things, how will systemic racism, sexism or the rape culture change?

       A few months ago I shadowed a victim’s advocate at the Franklin County Courthouse. This wonderful woman’s entire occupational purpose is to walk with the victims of crime through the legal process. She explains to them the confusing legal procedures. She is there with them through every court appearance. She babysat a woman’s child so the woman could testify. I didn’t have a victim’s advocate working on my case. I was just lucky enough to have an attorney who was compassionate and took the time to explain everything to me. Most rape victims don’t have this service.

       Throughout our day she explained her role and took me through the basic ins and outs of the court system. And let me tell you—it is huge, complicated and confusing. We need people like her to guide those who have already been victimized.

       I sat in a meeting where several prosecutors discussed their cases, their personal lives and everything in between. One lawyer causally passed me the initial report on a murder case he was working on. As I flipped through the police reports, I eavesdropped hardcore.

       “I sent the latest DNA testing results to his office but I haven’t heard back from him.”
       “He is such an ass. Seriously, he is never on time. He is about to get chewed out by the judge.”
       “I know. I bet he’s going to come back with an offer of 12 years. I won’t go lower than 25. I know of rapists serving over 20 and this guy is facing first degree murder charges.”
       “He’s pleading mental incompetence, yet won’t comply with the mental examinations. That’s going to go well. Oh by the way, how was Sam’s birthday party last weekend?”
       “Oh it was great! The clown wasn’t creepy at all.”

       I was there when the man accused of killing his wife appeared before the judge. They were right. The defense attorney did seem like an ass, and the judge did chew him out.

       The woman I was shadowing, the victim’s advocate, casually chatted with one of the courtroom police officers about the positive outcomes of a recent rape trial. The rapist was accused of raping two prostitutes. They talked about how difficult it was to get these two women to testify, but when they did, they felt empowered. They discussed the conviction and the jury’s reactions. The word ‘rape’ wasn’t a conversation killer or something to make them blush. It was a reality and they were willing to talk about it.

       When I was walking to another courtroom with one of the young, sarcastic prosecutors he shook his head in dismay as he recounted a recent disappointing ruling.

       “He raped this woman with a broom repeatedly and only got two years with a chance of parole. He’s going to be out on the street soon.”
       “That’s horrible. That part of your job has to be so frustrating.”

       We talked about the tough realities of seeing terrible people pay little or nothing for their crimes. And then he jokingly commented that he hardly ever sees any male prostitutes. I made a joke about supply and demand. Was it the most tasteful joke? Probably not. But we laughed and kept talking about tough things.

       I long for conversations about the prevalence of sexual assault, the way our culture responds to it and the legal processes that deal with it. I want to be able to talk about rape, tell a story about my kid and then joke about a silly politician. I felt safe and accepted among these sassy lawyers who didn’t fall silent at the mention of an “off limits” topic.

       Yesterday a classmate asked why Gabriel and I moved back to Columbus. I lied and said, “There are a lot of reasons I guess!” I regretted it afterward and was tempted to turn around and say, “Actually I was raped so we decided to leave Chicago.” But my fear of social awkwardness prevented me from making so bold a move. Believe me, I’m not saying that every rape survivor should go around shouting it to the world. I know how painful the rejection and inevitable social alienation can be. It is not a safe thing to do. I have decided that I have the emotional support I need from family and friends to embrace the social affront of silence. I want to introduce rape into everyday conversation because this is an everyday reality for 1 in 4 women. I will not shame myself into silence in order to maintain a culturally acceptable blind eye.

       Let’s talk about rape. Seriously.