I want you to think about the worst thing anyone has ever done to you. Linger over the details: your desperation; the hot, helpless rage burning in the pit of your stomach; the physical pain, if there was any; the sense of helplessness. Now imagine that you’re telling someone, a relative or friend you trust implicitly, about what happened to you. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll find a way to reduce the burden you carry—a wound that somehow fails to heal with the application of time and distance.
Because that’s what people do for each other. When you’re sick, we cook chicken noodle soup; when you fall down, we apply a generous coat of Neosporin and band-aid to your wound; when someone you love has died, we send flowers and sit with you while you cry. Maybe sometimes we’re not so bad, Homo sapiens.
But this time, when the physical and emotional damage is so much greater than a scrape on your knee or an unkind word from the kid who sits across from you in school, there are no offers of chicken soup or band-aids. In fact, the people you trust don’t even believe you. They interrogate you. What were you wearing? Why were you alone? Why did you wait—minutes, hours, days, months, maybe even years—before you told someone? Why did you continue to see the person who did it—your father, uncle, grandfather, family friend? How much money are you trying to get out of this?
In other words, in their eyes, you’re not the victim. Maybe you deserved it. Maybe you invited it. Maybe you’re just profoundly stupid and naive and misinterpreted what happened. Maybe it never happened at all and you’re just a liar who wants attention and money. Maybe they’re not going to say anything at all, and maybe in their silence you’ll read their disbelief, their lack of support.
You realize people just want you to shut the hell up, to avoid causing any unpleasantness or strife. So maybe that’s what you do. You shut the hell up, and the person who did this terrible thing, committed this unspeakable act, just goes on living. And likely committing other unspeakable acts. Until you can’t shut up anymore, and finally, maybe one day you go to the police and you find the words and courage to describe the unspeakable thing.
You’re one of the five to 20 percent who actually makes a report.
But it’s not over. If you’re lucky, if you’re one of the .4 to 5.4 percent of sexual assault victims whose attacker faces prosecution, you’re going to repeat the details of what happened to you, that night or that day or those nights or those days, to a room full of strangers. And if your friend or relative wouldn’t even believe you, what are the odds that a stranger will? What are the chances of a juror—who has been conditioned by a society in which the first response to sexual assault is to ask what was she wearing or how much money does she want from this—believing you?
But you’re going to have to face them anyway, hoping and praying that they do. Hoping that when you tell them about the worst thing that has ever happened to you, they won’t be thinking you’re a whore, slut, moron, liar. Because you had the misfortune to be the victim of sexual assault.
You could have simply been robbed. Maybe some stranger could have taken off with your purse. And you’d have your chicken soup sympathy. Same for getting hit by a car, having your identity stolen, having your car stolen, your house invaded.
But when someone invades your body, for some reason most people turn into conspiracy theorists. Rape is a fiction created by women, children, and even men who want sympathy or money or even sex, but they just don’t want to admit it.
So we’ve established that you’re one of the lucky ones. You were sexually assaulted, but you’re one of the .4 to 5.4 percent of victims who gets to drag your personal tragedy through court. And if you’re really, really lucky—if the jury overcomes their doubt, and your assailant is found guilty—you get to be one of .2 to 5.2 percent of sexual assault victims whose assailant is actually convicted. Which means, of course, that the person who violently attacked you is going to spend his or her life behind bars, of course.
Not so much, actually.
Only .02 to 2.8 percent of these types of attackers are incarcerated for any amount of time. And last year’s average in San Luis Obispo County for those convicted of sex crimes against children was just 6.8 years. Try taking a shit on the DA’s lawn and see if you get more time.
Maybe you can’t pretend to understand. Maybe you really are one of the lucky ones who has never been tormented by the unspeakable, silenced by those you love and trusted. Maybe one day you’ll find yourself on a jury, or sitting beside a friend or relative, as someone with an enormous store of courage tells you about the worst thing that has ever happened to her or him. You can’t erase that moment, you can’t save them from what has already happened, you can’t even save them from other people’s doubt.
But maybe you could listen, and believe.
Shredder needs chicken soup for the Shredder soul after talking about sexual assault. Send cans to firstname.lastname@example.org.