For Rape Victims, the #MeToo Movement Can Cut Both Ways

Liz Spikol on the pain and liberation within each new revelation.

Illustration by Heather Landis

Not long ago, a friend of mine asked me what the best day of my life was. We were sitting on the banks of the Schuylkill, near the Water Works, and he was smoking a cigar and philosophizing. Without hesitation, I said it was the 1986 Friends Select School academic awards ceremony. I didn’t even have to think about it.

At the 1985 ceremony, when the senior creative writing award had been announced, I watched the winner walk to the stage with tears in my eyes. What a poetic soul she must have, I thought, beneath those acid-wash jeans! I wanted nothing more than to win that same award when I was a senior, and in 1986, I did. I also won the foreign language award as well as the drama award, which I shared with my best friend, Abby. When we heard our names announced, we ran onstage, Price Is Right-style, and lifted our joined hands in triumph, as if we were an Olympic luge team that had just won the gold instead of two high-schoolers getting mini-Oscar statuettes. It was a great day.

But the fact that this day in May 1986 remains the best day of my life says a lot about where things went from there. A few weeks after the ceremony, I graduated from high school and went to live with a native family in the Dominican Republic for a Spanish-language immersion program. In June of that year, I was raped by a member of that family, with whom I continued to live for another month.

I guess that awards ceremony was the best day of my life because it was the last day I felt truly proud instead of ashamed.

“Living in the After” is what I call living with trauma, because once you survive such an incident, there’s the Before and the After. And it’s the After that’s the long, dark slog. After my rapist was done, he tried to apologize as he put his clothes on. I slammed the door in his face and thought, “It’s over.” But it was actually just the beginning. The slam of that door was like the pop of a starter pistol, and I’ve been running a race, through varied terrain, ever since.

The dominant characteristic of that terrain has been shame, which is something I struggle to understand. Why should I — and virtually every other victim of sexual assault — feel such lacerating guilt and humiliation over an incident during which I did nothing wrong? And yet we do: Guilt and shame are two of the most prevalent feelings a rape survivor deals with.

For me, the shame came pretty much immediately. Less than an hour after it happened, I told a friend who was also in the language immersion program that I’d been raped — and I also told him not to tell anyone.

“What? He raped you! We have to tell.”

But I was firm. And we told no one because I was convinced that I had done something to make it happen.

Where did this immediate, instinctual impulse toward secrecy come from? I felt embarrassed and culpable, and I still do. I wrote a first-person column for a decade in which I disgorged every hideous detail of my personal life, from abortion to mental illness, addiction to adultery. But when I finally pitched my editor on writing a story about being raped, he was shocked to hear me mention it. After all these years of self-disclosure, how was it that something so fundamental had been left unexplored?

The psychology behind this is complex: When a person is raped, all self-control is taken away, and that is devastating. Human beings put a high premium on self-control, especially the physical kind. From the time we’re born, our parents are looking for signs of personal decision-making and autonomous control over our own bodies. It’s the most primal control we have. If I’m cold, I can decide to put on a sweater. I can choose to blow my nose. I can choose to go to the bathroom after I write this sentence or wait until I’m done with the paragraph. I can stifle a laugh. I can think, “I’m not going to cry right now.”

We make thousands of decisions each day related to our bodies, whether we’re able-bodied or otherwise, and the capacity to make these decisions contributes to a core feeling of self-determination.

The decision to have sexual intercourse with another person is one of the bigger decisions we make. It involves going outside of the norm of our daily bodily experience, and it generally has larger emotional implications than the decision to wear a hat. Above all, it’s a decision we’ve been taught that we’re entitled to make. But when you’re raped, all that bodily control, all that behavioral control, all the precious thinking behind the decision — it gets removed in the most unexpected way. What just happened? Did that really happen? It’s hard to believe, because such a profound lack of agency is totally unfamiliar. In your disbelief, you ask yourself, “What could I have done differently? What did I do to cause this?” You’re stuck on the ingrained idea that you control your own fate — and your own vagina, especially.

Taking even partial responsibility for the rape is comforting, in a way, because it suggests that we can prevent the unexpected savagery from happening again. It’s the inclination after every disaster: Windows blown out during a hurricane? That’s okay; I’ll get reinforced windows next time. We persuade ourselves that were the same situation to present itself again, we could play it out differently, because we’d be in control. We want to know that we have the capacity to save ourselves.

So it’s entrenched, this feeling of self-blame and culpability, and it results in secrecy that prevents victims from speaking their truth for years, and in victims maintaining connections with their abusers in a perpetual attempt to shift the dynamic. They’re trying to refashion the interaction on their own terms, thinking, This time, I’ll be in control. It never works. I know this from experience.

Many survivors of non-sexual trauma suffer shame as well. But even if they don’t, trauma survivors are all haunted.

For me, the rape adheres to everything else that happens, so that my life becomes a series of events linking back to the original event. The initial trauma precipitated subsequent traumas of psychosis, hospitalization and shock treatments, and years of severe mental illness. It shaped my relationship to sex. It’s the answer to so many questions, big and small — “Why don’t you have children?” “Why aren’t you taking a cab?” It’s the lifelong pebble in my shoe, no matter which shoes I’m wearing.

I asked my friend Makiese DeVose, a longtime mental health professional, why the effects of trauma are so insidious. “That loss of safety and loss of control and loss of knowing what to expect in certain circumstances — that is what creates the trauma response,” she said. “Your knowledge of the world changes in a way that makes it unpredictable. Anything that reminds you of that experience can be a trigger. Anything that recalls the memory of what happened could cause a physical response in you.”

I suppose that’s why I’ve been feeling sick since October, when the revelations about Harvey Weinstein started a wave of similar revelations. So many people I know have been rejoicing to see something that looks like progress, like change. Of course, the change is much needed, but the constant stream of disclosures has been really hard for me. Each description of violation brings up memories of my own violation. Each profession of self-doubt from a victim gets me mired, even if just for a few minutes, in my own self-doubt.

“Memories last a long time,” Makiese told me when I complained of moments like these, “and memories that get attached to emotion last even longer.” The brain’s inclination to remember is self-protective, too. “It’s like, ‘I have to remember that this thing happened because it was an unsafe event, and if I don’t store it, then I can’t keep myself safe,’” Makiese explained. “You want to control as much as you can.”

The last few months have felt like the absence of control, as though that pebble in my shoe is a jagged rock. Each day I feel like the conversation about sexual misconduct accrues more angles, more considerations, with too many issues — sex vs. power, criminality vs. being a creep — getting conflated. It’s a loud mess, and while a lot of pronouncements are being made, we’re not really listening to each other. I get especially upset when I see how many people are calling the #metoo movement a “witch hunt,” wringing their hands for the men caught up in a cultural snafu.

The wave of accusations and related firings and resignations isn’t the result of a witch hunt. It’s the result of the creation of a fleeting moment when victims feel safe to speak. Their numbers are few, but their targets are high-profile. Many people laud them for their courage, but to those who question why they waited so long or quibble over whether they should be disturbed by what happened to them, it’s time to listen rather than judge. Each person is affected differently by the experience, and those differences must be respected.

In college, I became a rape crisis counselor and educator and attended a survivor support group. I thought if I could make my experience something that was neatly encompassed in a curriculum and normalized by a group of people like me, I could control it. But two incidents, both relevant in the current moment, taught me the futility of such an effort.

The first incident involved a man, which was unusual in itself. All of us involved in this work were women who’d been raped by men. But one night, I got a call to the hotline from a male voice. He said, “I think I messed up. I think I did something that she didn’t want me to do.” He wasn’t totally explicit, but he’d clearly done something without consent after spending an evening with a girl and getting what he thought were mixed signals. Now he was miserable and lost because he was certain he’d made a mistake. He wanted somehow to fix it.

Before I spoke with him, it hadn’t really occurred to me to consider things from the rapist’s point of view. I mean, we all had pins that read, “It’s men who rape. It’s men who can STOP rape.” But I wasn’t spending much time talking to those men. The phone call opened up a space for me to speak with men openly about sexual encounters with women in college, and the variables that made such encounters dangerous or hazy.

The second incident took place in a survivor support group. We went around the room and told our stories. One woman — I can see her now, pink-cheeked and blue-eyed behind silver-rimmed glasses — got angry when it was her turn to speak: “I feel like I don’t belong here. Or you all don’t belong here. Nothing that happened to you is like what happened to me.”

She was looking for coherence, too, for a group of people who’d help pull the disparate strands of her self together. But her experience was different: She’d been dragged into an alley by a stranger and raped at gunpoint. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But I can’t help feeling that what I went through was more terrifying than the date rapes I’m hearing about. And it makes me angry, that my experience was worse, and I feel like you guys got off easy.” She didn’t come to the support group again.

Both of these stories were told to me because I was in a place where I had to listen: a support group meeting, a hotline call. In retrospect, it was a lucky break, because now, in the din of Internet noise and fast-turnaround news bites, we don’t always listen to each other the way we should. There’s a lot of point-counterpoint, and then angry unfriending. We’re not really delving into the subtleties.

Lately, I notice we’re arguing over the magnitude of each claim. Is it worse for a man to keep a woman in the room until he’s done masturbating? Or is it worse for a boss to stick his tongue down a woman’s throat uninvited? Just this morning, there was debate in my office about a legislator’s behavior. “It’s not like he’s Harvey Weinstein,” the conversation went.

It also seems like there’s the constant refrain of, “Why is she mentioning something that happened 30 years ago?” It takes so many years to build up the courage to speak, and then we’re so often attacked when we finally do say what happened. Now, in this particular moment, some white, privileged women have the room to say what even they have been afraid to say. But it’s still entirely unsafe for poor women, disadvantaged women, to say what they’ve gone through or continue to endure. And even women at the upper levels live with fear: As Jake Tapper tweeted on December 8th, “I’ve been talking to a journalist who wants to write a piece about her harassment at a major news outlet. But she’s been warned by multiple people if she writes the piece she will have trouble ever finding work again. Much work remains to be done in this area, sadly.”

Recently, I wondered how to handle an incident that happened in the 1990s. A musician in a famous person’s band tricked me into coming to his hotel room by telling me the famous person was having a party. There was no party. There was just a bed. What followed wasn’t fun, but it also wasn’t assault because, knowing I was trapped, I acquiesced. In the wake of #metoo, I consulted a few people about whether I should name this musician publicly. I was told I can’t afford the legal nightmare that would come my way if I did. It’s also possible what happened to me was just a one-shot thing. But I did reach out to his current employer to say, Hey, better check this guy’s behavior. Maybe he’s changed since the ’90s, but you should know he wasn’t always an angel. I was thanked for the heads-up.

It wouldn’t be so risky to tell the truth if people could hear victims’ voices without judgment. But that requires work. It’s hard not to judge a story of this kind. It’s even harder to listen to men talk about their own errant behavior, but this is something we should also learn to do. In many of these cases, the accused men had no idea that the advances they were making to women were unwelcome. They were blinded by their own power, in some instances. In others, they saw frightened acquiescence as consent. That’s because men and women don’t communicate very well with each other when it comes to sex and desire. Those conversations are even more complicated when questions of power and employment are layered on top.

One of the most important things I would want to say in such a conversation with men is that these incidents hurt us, and that this kind of hurt doesn’t go away. Maybe Louis C.K. feels self-loathing after he masturbates in front of a woman, but does he truly understand what that does to her soul? Now, he says, he’s ready to listen. So we need to speak up and explain why even “small” transgressions like a misguided pass can damage self-esteem and job performance and have long-lasting traumatic impact. Until we have those conversations, men will continue to be shocked by #metoo, while the only thing the women are shocked by is that the men didn’t realize what was going on.

Published as “Triggered” in the February 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.