Trauma is a Complicated Thing

My last post didn’t cover everything I wanted to say about this topic, and it was a bit all over the place. The thoughts were all very fresh and I was still working through them, and I was also kind of dissociating at the time. Which brings me to the points I wanted to make in this follow-up.

Trauma is messy. It is messy and ugly and it doesn’t make sense a lot of the time. It has been brought up a lot recently, because of the Jian Ghomeshi trial, that there is no such thing as a perfect survivor. This is because rape is a complicated thing, and so is trauma. My personal experience is an excellent example of this. My story is just one story; it does not at all describe the experiences of every survivor of sexual abuse and assault, it may not even describe a lot of them. But it describes mine, and it is an important example of the myriad ways that trauma is messy.

I spoke in my last piece about the fact that I finally came to the conclusion that I have experienced rape. But the fact is, this wasn’t an earth shattering moment for me. I did not feel like I had been severely traumatized by my rapes; during them, I did not feel particularly violated. None of my trauma responses had come from those instances, or had been created by that relationship. That’s why it took me so long to identify it as rape. I didn’t quite feel like, just from those moments, I had been raped. BUT. That doesn’t actually mean that it wasn’t rape. Where the trauma did come from was the entire rest of the relationship. The rapes in particular didn’t really seem to affect me because they were simply one symptom of an already broken, toxic relationship. The decay had seeped so deeply into my bones that doing something I was not interested in doing was just a minor annoyance that was part of the norm. Those moments were part of an entire context of feeling disrespected, dismissed, and less than. So they did not stick out to me as particularly traumatizing; they were simply reinforcing trauma responses I had already learned.

There were other instances in that relationship that left more of a traumatic memory for me; one moment when I had felt triggered and told my partner not to touch me and instead he lay there poking me over and over again as I cried silently, telling him to stop, stop, stop. In a relationship dynamic like that, continuing to do something sexual — that I had stopped wanting to do ten minutes previously — just to stop my partner from giving me the silent treatment seemed pretty mundane in comparison. Hence never really realising or feeling like I had been raped. When coercion and a lack of respect have become the norm, rape is almost an inevitable because one cannot truly give consent in an environment of coercion.

Where I did experience a LOT of trauma, and developed a lot of my coping methods and trauma responses, was from the relationship before. A relationship in which I never even got touched. I never even met him in person. This is where my major trauma lies, and all of my typical responses to trauma happened. My shame. My flashbacks and triggers. My self-destructive coping mechanisms. My dissociation. My shame is still so overwhelming I never even talk about this experience as a relationship. How could I have been so easily manipulated, let my entire life be controlled, by someone I didn’t even know face-to-face.

But the fact is undeniable; I was emotionally abused and sexually exploited to an extreme in this relationship, and I suffered severe trauma. I felt incredibly violated and degraded during that online relationship, and I was emotionally blackmailed into doing things I was intensely uncomfortable with or even disgusted by. I became disgusted with myself. For a long time afterwards, certain phrases or situations would trigger an extreme response; I would burst into tears, or almost throw up, and I would not want to be touched. I was told a lot of horrible things about myself, and I started to internalize them. When I ended the relationship, I resorted to self-sabotaging coping mechanisms as a way to attempt to work through my feelings and take back the control I had felt I lost.

So clearly, I experienced a great deal of abuse and developed trauma responses from the situation that seems, out of context, far less terrible than a rape. And my rapes simply reinforced my trauma of the relationship as a whole, rather than being particular instances of intense trauma in and of themselves. Trauma presents itself in unexpected ways, and events that may seem more traumatic to an outsider can sometimes feel less so than other moments in our lives. Survivors of sexual abuse and assault each experience their trauma in a different way, and each of us cope in our own ways.

Expecting every survivor to fit into your expectations is not only unfair and unrealistic, but dangerous too. In our legal system, the knowledge that trauma is a complicated thing is not given space for consideration. The expectation is that abuse survivors will all share very similar experiences and thus will act in a particular way. But this is not the truth of our realities. When the reality of survivors’ experiences are not accepted or acknowledged, justice cannot be served, and verdicts like that of the Jian Ghomeshi trial become commonplace. Even when a survivor’s experience contradicts everything you think you know about trauma and people’s responses to it, you must acknowledge that you cannot possibly know their truth. Only they do. Please, believe survivors.

Rape is a Complicated Thing

Tonight I realised that I’ve been raped. I had already recognised and identified a previous sexual assault, and sexual abuse, throughout my life. But this took me a lot longer to see. My rapist would never, in a million years, believe that he is a rapist. If he found out that I was saying this, he would probably roll his eyes, and be genuinely amazed and astonished by my ability to make a mountain out of a molehill.

 

There are a lot of people who, upon hearing the details without the context, would also be quick to tell me that it really isn’t a big deal and really isn’t rape. But the thing is, rape is a complicated thing. Rape needs context.

 

My rapist would absolutely have stopped if I had told him to. So then, how could that possibly be rape? My rapist created an environment in which I felt like I couldn’t say no. But it’s tricky, because I didn’t feel like I was in physical danger if I said no. I didn’t think he would hit me, or “rape-rape” me. Rape doesn’t only happen when the survivor feels like there will be dire, life-threatening consequences when they say no. It doesn’t only happen when they fight back. It doesn’t only happen when it’s a stranger in an alley.

 

The only real consent is enthusiastic, freely given consent. There’s a reason this has grown to be the understanding of consent in activist circles, instead of simply the “yes means yes” phrase. Because consent becomes coerced easily and, sometimes, gently.

 

I never told my rapist to stop. I never told my rapist “maybe.” I never told my rapist “not right now.” I never told my rapist “I’ve changed my mind.” I never told my rapist anything. I never felt, at the time, like I was being raped. But I’ve finally realised that none of that matters.

 

Rape happens as soon as consent becomes tainted with coercion.

 

Times when I stopped doing sexual things when I felt like stopping, my rapist would get sulky. He would give me the silent treatment. He would snap at me. He would spend the whole night subtly punishing me for my decision. It didn’t take long for me to feel like just carrying on even when I didn’t want to anymore was better than stopping. He created an environment where “no” had consequences, consequences that may simply be a minor annoyance – but enough of a consequence for me to feel like it wasn’t worth the trouble to say no.

 

Rape is what happens when someone feels like it’s not worth the trouble to say no.

On Divisiveness in Activism

With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have heard a lot of accusations of activists being “divisive” by asking white protesters to take a back seat at rallies. This is not a new thing; in feminism there is a long history of white women telling women of colour to stop talking about race, that the movement is about ALL women and that they should stop being divisive by pointing out that women of colour have a different experience that goes ignored in feminist circles.

However, accusing people of being divisive is a dangerous thing to do in activism, as it is silencing and can veer into mimicking the very sexist or white supremacist oppression that we are trying to destroy. The problem seems to be that there is a mindset that goes like this: I am taking part in anti-oppression activism, therefore my intentions are clearly good, and we should all just focus on doing that good instead of picking on each other and destroying the movement from within.

But what this mindset fails to acknowledge is that just because you are anti-oppression, does not mean you are magically immune to perpetuating systemic oppression. The fact is that we have all grown up in these oppressive systems, and just because we are aware of them and are attempting to fight against them does not mean we do not still replicate those dynamics within our activist spaces. This is clear in feminism when men like H*** Sch***** (typing his name would inevitably attract his vitriol) become spokesmen for the movement and are considered more legitimate and relatable and a great asset to the movement. Oppressive systems are so pervasive in our lives that we model them without even realising it.

Thus, a huge part of activism is not just to protest against systemic injustice. It is also to constantly look inwards and analyse our own motivations and roles in a movement, to recognize when we are perpetuating an oppressive dynamic that we have learned. That is a huge amount of work, and not something everyone is willing to do; however, it is an integral part of being an activist. This is why activism is someone’s entire work and life – it is hard work. Activist spaces are constantly trying to unlearn oppressive behaviours and systems and create new ones; because if you do not know how to undo oppressive dynamics in your own life and spaces, how could you possibly know how to undo it on a societal level? You cannot come into an activist space, claim to be an activist, and then wonder why other activists are asking you to do the hard work that activism involves.

White people at a Black Lives Matter rally yelling the chants that do not represent their own experiences, acting as if they are affected the same way as their black co-protesters are not practising activism. Viewing people who ask these protesters to step aside and leave room for black protesters as being “divisive” is a dangerous viewpoint to hold – it is usually held by white people. White people do not get to decide where the lines are drawn in activism around racism, just as men do not get to decide what is important or necessary in feminist activism. We as privileged people do not get to define the oppression that we may perpetuate, and we do not get to ignore the voices of the people who are marginalized by a system we are part of. Telling us to take a step back is not a petty demand for people to be utterly perfect; it is a plea for us to take our activism deeper and heal the wounds we have carved into our own activist spaces.