By Elizabete Smildzina
I have been seriously sexually assaulted twice in my young life. The use of the qualifier ‘serious’ will soon become quite apparent. For now, what I mean by it is something more than your run-of-the-mill groping or other forms of unwanted touching, which has essentially just become background noise at this point. So what makes these forms of sexual assault less serious? Well, primarily the law, as there is a very clear gradient scale moving from the least serious and impactful (sexual harassment) to the most serious and impactful (rape). But what objectively constitutes the severity of these acts to its survivors? I’m fairly certain we do not care about the legal definition or about what actually took place, point by point- we care about how we felt. Some victims will remember a night of particularly insidious harassment for the rest of their lives, as one of the worst things that ever happened to them. Others will look back on being sexually assaulted and just catalogue it away in their heads as just another bad thing, amongst other bad things that have happened to them. And here we get the problem of being a Not Good Enough SurvivorTM.
The name itself says it all- it is a feeling you experience as if what happened to you was not real sexual assault, or that the way you experienced and dealt with it was the wrong way, but not due to not wanting to label yourself a survivor, more because you feel like you are not good enough at it. This is the feeling you get, for example, when unlike the stock images of young thin white women with their heads in their hands curled up in a foetal position, you do not feel permanently affected by your assault. When you don’t feel like it has changed your life in any significant sense, when you don’t feel traumatised enough to feel comfortable calling yourself a survivor. I do not view my experiences of sexual violence as some watershed moment in my life that has left me in pieces- I have always very clearly viewed it as a shitty thing that happened to me, in a long list of shitty things that have happened to me. My father’s dead. I spent a year living in extreme poverty, whilst simultaneously studying at university. I have had to completely uproot my life and start over in a new place completely by myself. So a lot of shitty things have happened to me, and I have managed to get through them all. I refuse to let a couple of vile, entitled men claim the crown of what breaks me. I refuse to be defined by my bad experiences generally.
Does that make my experiences any less those of sexual assault? Of course not. If I had chosen or even know that it was possible to report it, would my non-brokenness be a legitimate reason to not take my claims seriously? Still no. However, this still happens, as it very heavily comes down to who is controlling the narrative of sexual violence and how this narrative leaves me and experiences like mine lacking.
And this is where we encounter a curious intersection- I am not sure whether this feeling of inadequacy stems from the nature of sexual violence itself or because I’ve been socialised a a woman.
As women, we are told that everything we do is not good enough, that there are always flaws and holes in our strive for womanhood, as if it was an objective set of characteristics or experiences that we just couldn’t measure up against. But we must reject that. As Viola Davis recently said on the red carpet after being asked what advice she would give young women actors, she replied: ‘Remember that womanhood is everything inside you’. If you are a woman, whatever your experiences and characteristics, those are the ones of womanhood. It is my narrative to define and shape.
Something similar should be happening to sexual violence and survivors of it. As someone who has experienced sexual violence, whatever happened, however I felt and reacted, and however I followed it up is a valid, real, and full experience of sexual violence; or it should be, anyway. However, more often than not, we see a pre-determined, prescribed narrative of what victimhood looks and should look like, and if you happen to deviate from it, especially in a manner as significant as daring to not be permanently broken and scarred by your experiences, you pay the price: you are made to feel inadequate, denied a seat at the ‘survivors’ table by the media only interested in stories that perpetuate the already existing narrative, and not taken seriously if and when you report what happened (be it to teachers or the police).
So I and others like me are double-bound: by the misogyny that surrounds, encompasses everything and is quick to remind me that true womanhood in this society is by definition lacking and unattainable, and by the awful attitudes that still remain around sexual violence, and what it means to be a real, ‘good enough’ victim.
Apart from all the other important, wonderful things we do here at IHH, this is something I find of paramount importance: spreading the message to as many people as possible, especially fellow survivors, that sexual violence is for us to define, our story to tell. There is no competition, no right or wrong way to deal with such experiences. We will not play ‘survivor-ier than thou’, and we will not let others tell us who or how we should be. Having your control taken away by an experience of sexual violence is bad enough, we do not need any more of this as we navigate what happens next.