Not one of my relationships in my adult life has been unaffected by sexual abuse. Not one. Whether they are survivors, witnesses, bystanders, or friends and family of abusers or survivors, just about everyone I know and care about deeply has been impacted in some way by sexual abuse. That sucks. I am tired of dealing with the triggers, flooding, unhealthy numbing and distracting behaviors that I and the people I care about have to deal with on a regular basis. This sucks too. The collateral damage of sexual abuse is staggering. I could inundate you with statistics about the prevalence of sick days, lost jobs, physical aliments, mental health issues, relationship struggles and other interpersonal shit survivors of all kinds and the people who love them have to navigate. But I won’t. This is not about statistics; this is about the rage and pain that is part of living in a world where sexual abuse is rampant. There is so much resistance to really acknowledging how deeply entrenched sexual abuse and incest are in our society. This compounds our individual and collective pain.
Bystanders of all kinds, please step the fuck up. I don’t want you to call CPS or the police or any other institution or agency (unless you have to). What I want is for you to be there when it get shitty, which it will. Because this is shit is shitty. Too many people can’t be bothered or don’t know how to be there for the long haul. It is hard being close to a survivor. I know. I am one and I love many, many, many survivors. Because, well, there are many, many, many survivors. And we get crazy made like mad. The collateral damage of sexual abuse gets pathologized, criminalized, or otherwise diagnosed as single issues: depression, anxiety, bi-polar mood swings, chronic fatigue, hypertension, insomnia, anorexia, bulimia, addiction... Collateral damage includes all the rippling effects of surviving abuse: the emotional, mental, psychological and spiritual impacts, lost opportunities, lost jobs, somatic and health concerns, physical pain, the inability to set boundaries and the consequences of this, the impact abuse has on current relationships, time spent in bed, in bars, in hospitals, in counseling offices...time which could have been spent living, loving, inventing, creating, writing, dancing, daydreaming, organizing--the loss is staggering to individuals but also to communities, to all of us. When I think of all the energy that people expend surviving first the abuse then surviving and navigating the collateral damages, time and energy that could have been spent doing so many, many other things, it breaks my heart.
It is hard to be close to the dark, painful shit that comes out when we come face to face with the brutal reality of sexual abuse. It’s ugly. The anger and rage that survivors (rightfully) have, often makes people uncomfortable. And afraid. Sometimes survivors act out of this pain and rage in ways that hurt themselves and others. This can be hard to deal with. But we must. I am not suggesting we accept whatever behaviors a survivor does and do nothing. We can hold them fiercely, lovingly, and compassionately accountable. This is hard too. I have been on both sides of this and it is brutally difficult to hold and be held accountable. It must be done without shame or judgment.
I am tired of triggering my partners and them triggering me because the world does not create a safe enough place for people to say, “Shit I am in a rage because, well, there was a time that someone made me very unsafe and my body is freaking out now. So, can I take the day off work, or get a massage, or go for a huge ass hike or get a drink with friends? (I am not advocating using alcohol or substances to deal with the effects of trauma, but let’s be real, sometimes it’s too much and you need to shut your system down and judging someone for trying to get through another day, or night, by having a few drinks, getting stoned or throwing up, while important to address when people are ready to, is not my primary concern here). What I am concerned about is the lack of concern for survivors. We don’t want to talk about sexual abuse for too long. After a while we get frustrated with survivors who want to “keep” talking about it, or are talking about it in the “wrong ways”, or have cycles of rage and depression and want to talk about that. We want them to move on. Stop thinking about it. Be positive. Moving on means they have done their work and have healed. But we rush the process by being focused on the goal rather than moving through the heartbreaking reality that it takes a long ass time to get through a day when you have been abused. It just does. As a culture, we need to get over the time line. Get over the goal of moving on.
This is a call for anyone who has rolled their eyes when someone gets triggered. Again. It can be hard to be close to people who may act out of their pain in ways that are destructive, challenging, and exhausting. Please stop rolling your eyes and start opening your heart. I know it’s frustrating when people act out of pain in ways that are harmful, hurtful and difficult, but so is having to live with the on-going collateral damage of sexual abuse. Let me reiterate, I am not saying passively accept any and all behaviors that people might engage in--but know that limits can be set with compassion.
Friends, family, co-workers, adults, bystanders, everyone--believe survivors. Believe survivors even if they don’t remember everything, or hell, even if they don’t remember anything. Abuse fucks with your body, your brain, your biochemistry and your memory. We need to stop being defense attorneys when someone discloses--stop asking “What happened? When? Who did what?” It’s hard to hear that someone we care about has been abused and it’s natural to want to know what happened, but step up and do survivors a solid: Don’t interrogate, validate. Not sure how to validate? Communicate understanding and support. Ask what they need and if you can do it, do it. If they don’t know, hang out with them in the not-knowing. If they still need something and you are tired, get support for yourself, ask someone else, or lovingly and compassionately set boundaries. Supporting survivors is not about supporting them unquestioningly and endlessly. We all need boundaries and to know when we have hit our limit. Sometimes survivors take boundaries badly. That’s ok, sometimes people who have not been abused take boundaries badly. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set them. Don’t fragalize survivors.
Friends and family members, please keep validating the impact the abuse has on people. Too many survivors have to deal with shitty responses when they tell people. Then, they have to deal with people not wanting to talk about it, wanting survivors to get over it. When we address sexual abuse, we come face to face with the harsh reality that people we love and care about can, and do, horrible things. I want us to stop shutting off survivors so that we do not have to face this ugly truth. It is understandable to not want to talk about sexual abuse and incest. But we must. We must keep talking about.
We put too much emphasis on holding those who abuse accountable in ways that are reactive and pathologizing, and less on all the various conditions that allowed the abuse to happen. It takes a village, right? Well, it takes a lot of not looking, not asking, not speaking up and not stepping in for someone to abuse and this is a shout out to all of us who have been around abuse and did not look, did not ask, did not speak up, did not step in. There is not a statute of limitations on supporting survivors. If for any reason you were unable to when it happened, which is a complicated reality that many witnesses and bystanders face, you have ample opportunities to now. Even if it was years ago, you can still step up now. Not by calling CPS or the police, but by making a daily commitment to believe, support, defend, validate, acknowledge that sexual abuse is rampant in our communities and that while it is hard to look at that tragic reality, we must.
We want to close our eyes. Witnesses and bystanders, as well as survivors and the badass people who love and support them, please open your eyes, ears, and mouths. Speak, write, dance, perform, about sexual abuse, talk about it even when people don’t want to. If you are someone who has a hard time listening to these things, challenge yourself to increase your capacity to listen. Then find ways to act. Please do not stop having fun or doing and talking about things that bring you joy. This is not about being heavy all the time. This is about being real.
We need each other. This means we need to feel safe enough to connect, to create conditions in our relationships and communities that promote healing, hope and possibility. This means learning how to keep listening, keep talking, keep healing, keep holding space for healing, keep taking care of ourselves and the people in our worlds. Ok, my it’s-late-and-I-am-sick-of-it-rant is over. Thanks for listening.