I woke this morning to my Twitter feed warning me not to read an article published in today’s National Post by Christie Blatchford. I won’t link to it, because it’s easy enough to find if you really want to read it without my needing to directly send traffic their way.
I read it regardless of the warnings that it was shaming and awful, and yeah. It was shaming and awful. And, not surprisingly, pretty triggering for me as well. I’m okay, for those who might be worried, but I’m definitely feeling the need to process this out loud, so thank you for your indulgence.
I feel an affinity to Rehtaeh Parsons, in spite of many significant differences in our stories.
She was 15 when she was sexually assaulted. I was 18 the first time it happened to me.
She was photographed while it happened, and had no control over the distribution of said photo. It being 1992, no one would have been brave enough at that time to snap a shot of my assault; as no one in the room at the time had darkroom experience or access, it would have had to have been developed in a shop.
She was shamed out of her high school. I was assaulted on grad night, and only had a few weeks left before the end.
She died at 17. 21 years later, I’m still here.
Now, for the pieces that are too similar to not talk about, the pieces Blatchford shrugs off as being “a mess.”
“It was only a week later, after the picture surfaced and made the rounds at her high school, that police were first called by Ms. Parsons.”
That she called the police at all is amazing. Most don’t, for a lot of very good reasons. I never have. Is a week really that long to wait post-assault to start talking about it? Not in my experience. I didn’t even process that what had happened to me *was* sexual assault until a year after it happened. A year it took my brain to piece everything together, to feel safe enough to make connections that wouldn’t kill me, to remember details that alcohol and trauma had blocked out when I was not ready to deal with them.
“The girlfriend of Rehtaeh’s who was at the party told police Rehtaeh was being flirtatious, even egging the boys on.”
How does this have anything to do with anything? I too flirted with the young man who assaulted me. I willingly and enthusiastically engaged in a drunken make-out session, with him. That doesn’t mean I consented to what happened afterwards.
“Add to all this conversations police know Rehtaeh had with friends the day after the party, which revealed a young woman filled with regret for what she portrayed as consensual sex with two boys and who was now afraid her friends would think her ‘a slut.'”
I thought I’d had bad sex. The people who were in the hotel room when it was happening heard me crying, and thought I was making “sex noises.” I was embarrassed, as if I’d had some kind of control over the situation*. I shrugged it off. I made jokes about it. I deflected. I ignored. I buried. I got out of the city 3 months later when I left for university, where I started sleeping 18-20 hours per day and only got up to go to class or eat.
It wasn’t until after I had moved home in May, almost a year to the day after it had happened, that I remembered. And felt. And collapsed in tears on the curb down the street from a dear friend’s house one evening as I experienced a full sensory flashback to that night, and the week preceding it. (this could get triggering, so if you’re worried, don’t read anything in italics.)
Sunday before, I run into him in the park. We talk about the cottage party we’d both attended the night before. He asks about a rumour he’d heard about my having sex that night with aforementioned dear friend. I cop to it, having no shame about my sexual choices, not realizing I’d set myself up in that moment as an easy target.
The week leading up: not a lot of academics being accomplished, with the excitement of grad night in just a few days.
Saturday night. Grad night. Fancy clothes, crappy food, same night, same location as the Much Music Video Awards, though we don’t see anyone famous (except Dan Gallagher).
Many of us rented rooms at a downtown hotel. We’d crossed the river earlier that day to buy alcohol legally (though drink it illegally, I suppose). My (platonic) date wanders away to take care of some student council schmoozing, and comes back to find me half in the bag, giggly, and already obviously vulnerable. Date asks friend to keep an eye on me, goes back out.
Friend stays close, offering more wine. Flirtation abounds, and we make out. I tell him I don’t have any condoms, and have absolutely no intentions of having sex with him.
Date comes back. Disgusted with what he finds. Disappears for rest of the night, finding somewhere else to bunk (I think – that part, admittedly fuzzy).
Two other friends are in the room a lot of this time as well, are in and out. Also drinking, sometimes interacting conversationally. Blurry.
I’m naked. I’m in a hotel room bed, with someone I know trying to penetrate me. I’m crying, it hurts, I feel so bruised. I can’t make my limbs move, or make words.
I feel shamed that my body won’t do what he wants it to, that my body refused to let him fuck me. I feel him in my mouth. I can’t breathe. The tears and the snot and the choking and gagging are all too much. I shut it all out.
Except the sounds. The sounds of my friends judging us for our shenanigans, being grossed out by our “choosing” to fuck in the same room as them. And I can’t talk. And I can’t push him off. And really, I’m not even in my body anymore at that point.
On that curb, a year later, I smelled the port on his breath. I felt the bruises starting on my body, where his fingers held me, where he battered me as he tried to penetrate me. I heard the voices of my friends, of his breath in my ear, as if they were beside me. I heard myself so clearly say I did not want to have sex without a condom, and I watched as that was completely ignored. I watched myself be plied with alcohol to render me more vulnerable. I saw my friends see what they wanted to see, not what they needed to see.
The “other side” to my story? I went to university as a Women’s Studies major. I came home with a “rape story” because I’d been indoctrinated into believing that all sex between women and men is, by its nature, nonconsensual. Yes. This is what the young man who assaulted me said to me. This is what he said to everyone else, when I started to talk about my experience, to process it out loud, to name it. This is what many of the people he told believed. This was the “other side.”
Please let me reiterate something I’ve had to explain too many times to count. There is no cachet in being identified as a rape victim. It’s not “better” than being seen as a slut. Mostly because you’re seen as a slut anyway, but now you have more people thinking it. What Blatchford’s article today has done is slut-shamed a young woman who died in large part as a result of that same behaviour. Blatchford, rather than recognizing that we need to work on our culture of empathy and respect, validated the behaviours of those who tortured Rehtaeh to death.
She’s right, though: it’s never as simple as what it looks like at first glance. She just chose to stop looking too soon.
* One thing a lot of people don’t understand is that tolerance for alcohol is widely variable. I am a tiny person. At 18, I was 5’2″, and weighed about 115 pounds. Two drinks made me a happy drunk. Three left me unable to walk or speak clearly. The assault happened after 3.5 drinks.