Dylan Farrow is brave. Talking out about what happened to her at the hands of a man whose work has put an untouchable mantle on his shoulders is getting her a lot of flack and the response from his camp has done everything they can to diminish her, question her motives, trivialize her experience. Thank goodness there are lot of people speaking up to say that they stand by her, thank her for coming forward after having a life of otherwise autonomy and peace away from media attention. This perverse sort of dominance happens in ways all over the violence- and salaciousness spectrums. Some of us are routinely molested, sometimes with great violence, sometimes with the subtle violence of an abuse of dominance. Sometimes it happens only once, with physical force and threats or manipulating our anxiety and fear in the moment. Sometimes it happens when we are children. Sometimes it doesn't happen until we are older teens or grown women. When and how it happens, the statistics are staggering that it will be perpetrated by someone we know.
Every so often, there is a flurry of support for one or many women speaking up about what has happened to them. Molestation, rape, sexual assault. Every flurry shines a light on the broken bits of our society that need to be repaired because we still treat sexually-based crimes against others as taboo. A taboo that offers a stage for rape and child molestation jokes in conversation or performance. A taboo that makes us comfortable to let the perpetrator off the hook if the victim is coming forth with anything less than the cast of CSI coming up with particulates and cleaned-up security tapes as damning evidence.
A lot of strong women I respect have been opening up about their pasts, many simply mentioning the offense against them as a show of solidarity. I know I don't have viral levels of readership, but I take my personal experience seriously in this blog, so I am going to share what happened to me.
I was working at a summer camp in Oregon as a counselor for the oldest age group of campers. We had a good team that year, including a kind of nerdy guy who was generally agreed to be one of the nicest guys on staff. We were friends, not super close but definitely friendly. We had some shared common interests that led to a few conversations at break time, but to me he was just a part of my unit. He had an off-and-on girlfriend at camp who I barely knew, and I didn't keep track of their relationship status. It was a big staff that year, and though we all worked well in our teams, we gravitated to our usual groups of friends for time off and weekends. One evening, this guy and I were sitting in the unit house after campers' lights out. We were just chatting, keeping an eye out for stray campers headed to the bath house while counselors got an hour or so to wind down without kids before staff curfew. At some point of our conversation, he leaned in and kissed me. I wasn't particularly attracted to him, but I didn't react angrily. I just asked what that was all about and he told me he thought we had chemistry. No one had ever told me it's good decorum to ask a person before you kiss them the first time, so I figured he was finding signals that I wasn't sending. I told him I didn't want that, that I was pretty sure he had a girlfriend. He replied they had broken up, but we could just go back to talking. He was super nice and was a D&D kind of nerd, so I figured everything would be cool. When our replacements came to let us enjoy the last hour before curfew, our legs were asleep from sitting on the porch. Everyone we would usually go hang out with were showering or playing Snood on the break room computers, so he asked if I wanted to take a walk to the nearby overnight site. It wasn't uncommon for people to take short walks into familiar places in the woods at night, so I said okay. He grabbed a flashlight out of his truck and off we went. When we got to the overnight site, I started heading to the picnic table in the star-viewing break in the trees, but he stopped me and led me to a cluster of trees that blocked out the sky. He told me to get undressed. He was twice my size, had the only flashlight, and knew the trail back to main camp a lot better than I. I didn't know what to do. I thought for a second that I would run in the direction we came from but as I was calculating the likelihood of getting lost on the way back, he grabbed my arm hard and directed me again to undress. I was scared, confused, had never been told to stand up for myself, for my body. Everything I learned about getting along and avoiding drama and not being so bossy kicked into overdrive and I just did what I told. He made me lay down on the ground and got on top of me. He started to unwrap a condom and when I told him I didn't want to have sex with him, he leaned a thick forearm across my shoulders and told me if I didn't want it, I wouldn't have walked out into the woods with him. This is what we were going to do. He put his full weight on my chest, making it impossible for me to take a deep breath or move my arms or torso. I stared up at the black boughs of the trees overhead, fir needles poking me in the neck and a rock digging into the small of my back. I tried to catch a glimpse of the sky between branches as he huffed and sweated himself to completion. He stood up, grabbed his flashlight, and started to walk away. He turned back and told me to get dressed and wait a few minutes before following the path he was on to the hill that was a daily part of my route between upper and lower camps. He said he would just keep this between us. I got dressed, picked duff out of my hair, and watched the glow of his flashlight fade to black before setting off back to my cabin.
By lunch the next day, I had heard the rumor that this guy had cheated on his girlfriend with me, and that I was a huge slut for sleeping with a guy in a relationship. All I could say was that we hadn't had sex, it was just a walk in the woods to stretch our legs. I knew no one would believe me. I was artsy and serious, not bubbly and athletic like the girls spreading the gossip. There was already a strong slut-shaming culture at this camp at the end of the 1990's, something I didn't want to constantly fight. I gave in and I didn't talk to anyone about it for years. For a long time I blamed myself for being so naive, for being known to have had plenty of sex with the boy I dated throughout most of high school. I blamed myself for being stupid and not fighting back more or screaming or running away. It wasn't really rape because I didn't argue back when he said my not wanting it was a lie and didn't matter.
I held that night inside me like a concentrated ball of bile for a few years before I realized it was getting in my way. I didn't feel like I could trust anyone in my life, couldn't trust my own judgement. I took trivial gossip deeply personally, felt helpless to do anything about false chit-chat, and felt irreversibly betrayed when rumors going around about me that were false and petty were not stopped and shut down by people who heard them and knew the truth. I let a lot of friendships fall apart and held a lot of people at arm's length to avoid needing to trust someone with my secrets. Eventually, I did some counseling and opened myself up to real, intimate friendships and that night stopped ruling my emotional life Now it feels like an awful chapter of a book, instead of something I relive in stereo sound and full color over and over with no warning.
When I see the reactions to Dylan Farrow and others who come forward and name their abuse and abuser, and those reactions include people who blow off the accusations or rate them against a public persona or a body of work, it makes the bile rise in my throat. I have avoided talking even semi-publicly about what happened to me when I was 18 for a long time. It even took me all this time since Farrow's story broke to go from "I need to write this" to "I am writing this."Our culture could do a better job of supporting survivors and removing the shame and incredulity directed at them when they share their experience. The statistics tell us that there are a lot more women and men who have been sexually assaulted than we can imagine just by looking around, but every story that is shared by a survivor helps to strengthen us all against rape culture. The more real people tell their stories, the less acceptable it is to hear rape jokes from friends, child abuse jokes in stand-up sets by comedians like Aziz Ansari, reasons someone had it coming when they were assaulted. I don't have a whole lot of readers, but for those that do peek in on my blog now and then, I hope that knowing my story, the story of someone you know pretty well by now, will be a drop in your bucket. The more drops, the easier it will be for others to tell their stories instead of hiding them in a place that feeds sadness and shame.
I love you guys. Thanks for reading.