We have dots so close they’re splatters melting into a stain,
but hardly anyone connects them, or names that stain…
It has to change.
–Rabecca Solnit, “The Longest War”
In light of Louis C.K.’s recent statement, admitting to sexual abuse of former female colleagues, one of my best friends posted a Facebook status sharing her experience with sexual abuse. She started the status off by citing an article on Vice, written by Megan Koester. In which the reporter shared her experience, attending a comedy festival with the intention of investigating the allegations of sexual assault against Louis C.K. (Predictably, she was treated as an enemy, was told she was only welcome as long as she asked “nice” questions, and was ultimately shamed into leaving by the show’s COO.)
After my friend cited the article, she went on to explain her conflicting feelings about the scandal; she liked Louis C.K. She admitted that a major part of her wanted the accusations to be lies. But upon reading Koester’s article, she could no longer deny that, on a base level, the Louis C.K. scandal was personal. And taking full ownership of her own experiences with sexual abuse was synonymous with no longer excusing, or denying, our culture and society’s tendency to doubt victims and sympathize with abusers.
She concluded with, “I feel like now is the time for my story to be told, because it’s clearly part of a narrative too strong and too real. We have the power to shut down powerful sexual abusers – we’ve shown this. I ask for everyone to be truly conscious of how their time and money is spent, because if you’re part of the community my abuser works in, my guess is that this already sounds familiar to you.” Making a rendering point: We all live among this culture of abuse, therefore we are responsible for how it manifests and survives–like it or not.
Sexual abuse is an issue I dedicate a lot of thought and time to. I am the daughter of a survivor, a friend of a survivor, and a survivor myself. (Though I think this is true of all women–hence, #yesallwomen). Having personal experiences with sexual abuse, and close relationships with survivors, has put me in a position where I had no choice but to understand the nature of abusers. How it’s never a black and white issue. That to believe dealing with the traumatic aftermath should be “simple” is, ultimately, naïve. The logic of someone who obviously has never dealt with the debilitating confusion that is realizing a person–who was supposed to protect you–is consciously exploiting your inferior position to compensate for his self-worth deficit.
My friend, the one who wrote the Facebook status, was harassed and violated by her supervisor in the past year. I’ve talked with her as she’s struggled to claim the title of “victim”. She doesn’t see “victim” as an accurate part of her identity; she’s intelligent and independent. Defenseless, and taken advantage of, are not what she sees when she looks in the mirror. She struggles to accept that there was nothing she could have done to prevent the situation–that what happened to her was not the consequence of who she is, or anything she did.
She’ll even say, “I’ll admit, I wasn’t smart in the situation.”
She’ll say, “Even though I wasn’t interested in this guy, I thought I could run the world because he wanted me. So I humored it…” She’ll talk about how, as a woman, she often feels like she’s been trained to use her sexuality to get ahead and that, engaging in this behavior, seems like something she’s supposed to do. But then, inevitably, and undeniably, she always comes back to the truth, “That doesn’t mean I wanted his hand down my pants.”
When she says these things, I reassure her, “I’ve never been willing or comfortable enough to use my sexuality to get what I want… So I know. It doesn’t matter how you carry yourself. If someone is going to abuse you, they will find fault in how you carry yourself and they will attack it–one way or another. And that’s why you shouldn’t feel stupid about what happened. I’ve found myself in similar situations where I knew I wasn’t giving any signals. And still, something really bad and traumatic happened.”
In college I was always really careful to create an emotional boundary between myself and male professors. I never bridged the gap between professional and personal because I never wanted my academic success, or the level of my talent, to be equated and reduced to a man’s personal preference. I never wanted someone to be able to say, “You only get good grades because he has a crush on you.”
This method worked out fine… Until my final semester of college when I had a professor who harassed me for refusing to humor his favoritism. And although it didn’t amount to sexual abuse, there isn’t a doubt in my mind that he was punishing me for not bridging the gap between personal and professional. For my right to create boundaries and “prevent” sexual abuse from becoming a possibility. This is why, I believe, when it comes to an abuser who wants you: You’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
Those months following graduation, I had night terrors. I kept waking up and seeing the silhouette of a tall horned man watching me in my room. Eventually it was brought to my attention that dreams of this nature are often a symptom of trauma. Which meant I was probably experiencing PTSD as a result of what this professor had done to me. (Though what he put me through was “just” emotional violence, it was enough for me to realize: I can’t imagine what life would have been like if he’d been able to invade me on a more intimate level.)
I told my friend, “There is literally nothing you could have done differently.”
Still, I feel for her and the struggles–both external and internal–that she seems to be experiencing at this point in time. The harassment of a male professor was merely the catalyst that got me into therapy for a number of traumatic experiences I’d had with men who should’ve known better. (Though I don’t care to share those experiences here.) And tackling these psychic wounds and unresolved feelings of anger and resentment is not simple, nor easy.
However, if there’s one comment I have to make about what I’ve been through–what my friend has been through–it’s that these incidents aren’t isolated. That “small” incidents of abuse and harassment against women–in everyday life–add up over time and become indicative of a much bigger problem. That the abusive guy is not just that guy–over there (the blatantly weird and creepy individual, like Steve Harvey). But the one we love, who made us laugh and helped us out in crisis. Louis C.K.!
I don’t know what the future will ultimately hold for men who abuse power, and women as a result. But I am glad that Louis C.K. is experiencing consequences. (FX, Netflix, and HBO have all reportedly dropped his shows and future projects. While his publicist and management team have called it quits.) I’m glad that he issued a statement in which he admitted the extent of what he did, and apologized with thoughtful remorse that, I hope, was sincere.
This kind of direct-honesty in incidents of sexual abuse, and abuse of power, is unprecedented. And I hope it opens up a conversation about the complicated nature of abuse–especially in professional arenas where everyone should have an equal right to safety, and the ability to succeed without compromising integrity. I hope it inspires men at large, especially young men, to look at their own actions with clarity. And to no longer deny the sexism, misogyny, and violent masculinity that hurts women to a point that (statistically) should be considered a national crisis.
As for myself, if there is one solace I have gained from being so conscious of these problems, and from being on the receiving end of them, it’s that: When an abusive man targets you, it’s not because you are inherently vulnerable or weak. Often it is because you are strong, you have integrity, and there is some potential in you that is worthy of envy and desire. In light of this reality, there is no more room for shame or doubt. And there’s no longer any urgency to prove the extent of your suffering, or the truth about your abuser: You know what you know, and no one can touch that.