Reframing Sexual Assault Awareness
By Jessica Higgins, Communications Coordinator
April 6th, 2017
In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month 2017, all of Colorado Youth Matter's blogs in the month of April will be focused on issues surrounding sexual assault, including personal stories and insights from our staff. To kick off SAAM, Jessica Higgins discusses her personal story and why it has forced her to reexmaine what it means to be "aware" of sexual assault.
TRIGGER WARNING: This blog contains descriptions of sexual assault.
One night my freshman year in college, my personhood was temporarily stripped away.
A boy was over me. I was drunk; I couldn’t move. And he was touching me, touching me in places I didn’t want him to. With every passing moment that I lay there still and silent I could feel something changing in my body, something that seemed to be at a cellular level. A fundamental reality about my identity had changed. I was reduced – he reduced me – from subject to object, from a living breathing human being to a plastic doll. A doll with no rights. A doll that existed for him, for his pleasure. Unable to move, to speak, to say no. Plastic. Not human.
That’s what my rape felt like: a momentary suspension of my humanity. And when he walked out of my room I was left with the reality that I could not just go back, that I could not simply lose my humanity and my personhood and snatch it back unscathed.
But in that moment, if you had asked what had just happened to me, I would have had no words. If you had asked me if I had been raped, I would have stared at you in confused silence because I would have been unable to speak, lacking access to the vocabulary of violation. My answer to you might have been, No, it wasn’t rape, I wasn’t raped. No. No. He turned me into plastic. I don’t think I’m human anymore. But it wasn’t rape.
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and this year I am thinking about what it means to be aware of sexual assault. Generally, I think of sexual assault awareness in regards to raising awareness for the general public, for people who don’t know (or who need a reminder) that rape is an epidemic in this country. This year, though, I’m reconsidering awareness. I’m viewing it still through that first lens, of a general effort to make people recognize the prevalence of sexual violence. But I’m also thinking of “awareness” in regards to survivors being able to recognize – to be aware of – their own violation.
I’m thinking of myself after my own rape, when I was so confused about what had happened to me that I couldn’t use the words “rape” or “sexual assault” to describe it. I said things like “I feel really violated,” and “I feel like he took my humanity away,” but I shied away from the word “rape” itself because I felt that I didn’t have a right to it. He hadn’t been violent; I had just been drunk. I was no woman in a dark alleyway fighting off a terrifying stranger; he had seemed like a nice guy, a friend of a friend.
So I grappled for about a year with the knowledge that I had been fundamentally violated, but didn’t feel like I had the right to use the word “rape.” Then I began to tentatively use “sexually assaulted.” And as time went on, as I researched more about rape and consent, as friends came to me and told me of their own violations, their own confusions and doubts that so mirrored my own, I began to use the word: rape. I was raped. He raped me.
It’s been almost exactly four years since my rape, and I still struggle to use the word. But in those four years of healing and recovery, what I’ve learned is that I’m not the only person who has struggled to pin the word “rape” onto their experience. Google “I don’t know if I was raped” and you’ll find a heartbreaking archive of stories of violation: people who were intoxicated and couldn’t say no. People who consented to one sexual act but not to another. People who, because they stayed friends or stayed in relationships with their rapists, couldn’t see what happened to them as rape.
As I begin my journey in the field of youth sexual health education, I am struck by the disturbing reality that my peers often lack the knowledge and education to recognize their own violation. Like me at the time of my rape, many of them lack the vocabulary. One reason this is the case is that we perceive the word “rape” as belonging only to a certain subset of experiences: Rape can only be violent. Rape can only be between a man and a woman, where the man is the assailant. Rape cannot happen in relationships. And if your experience does not fall neatly into that constrained definition, you exist in some kind of middle ground between consensual sex and rape; not quite one, but not the other either. There is no language for you; just unspoken desperation. Just confusion.
Sexual Assault Awareness Month is and should continue to be a month of raising awareness for the general public about the prevalence of rape in our society. But I am of the opinion that we should reframe sexual assault awareness to have a dual meaning: as it pertains to public awareness of this epidemic, and as it pertains to an individual’s right to a basic education on consent and sexual assault so that they are equipped to be aware of sexual violation if it ever happens to them. All young people, all people, should be aware that they have a right to sexual relationships that feel good; that they owe nothing to no one; that if someone does violate them, it is never their fault.
We might not be able to stop sexual violence from happening, but it is well within our power to give youth the tools to recognize their own violation. In discussions of empowering young people, emphasizing awareness of sexual assault and violation may seem odd or out of place. But I believe empowerment in our fundamental rights as human beings is equal parts understanding the presence of those rights, and also being able to recognize the moments those rights are taken away. The recognition of our own violation should be obvious and immediate, because awareness of our bodily rights should be an education instilled in us from a very young age.
One night my freshman year in college, I was raped. It should not have taken me years to be able to use that word. I should have known, the moment he left my room, that he had raped me. But the reason I did not was because I was not aware of my bodily rights – because no one had ever taught me. So this April, and every month after, I encourage you to reframe sexual assault awareness in terms of current and future survivors. Teach the young people in your life about consent, and teach them about rape.
Awareness of consent, and conversely violation, is extraordinarily empowering because it prevents us from blaming ourselves for the harmful actions of others. It isn’t the perfect solution; as I imagine it, the perfect solution is a world without rape. But awareness of our own human rights, of our own autonomy, is certainly a good place to start.