The incomplete fit of victim and survivor
By Sav Schlauderaff
I don’t have a clearly defined sense of “before” and “after” my sexual assaults.
I can’t distinguish them or parse them out into a neatly organized story.
I can’t separate them from the sexualization of my body from a young age and numerous older men who groped me or made uncomfortable comments about me or nonconsensually touched me.
How this constant erasure of my autonomy and agency in so many ways made it harder for me to process the assaults as rape. When something becomes so normalized, how can you process it as “wrong”?
The one thing I have learned is that I am not safe and abuse is ongoing.
That abusers aren’t just the drunk white frat boy at a party.
They are also your partner, your best friend, your coworker, your colleague, your new friend you made at a party that was supposed to get you home safely.
They never get you home safely.
That yes, no matter the power dynamics or relationships--apparently my body is just never mine.
That no one told me how seeing your rapists and abusers sharing and liking posts about supporting survivors of sexual assault would feel so enraging and disorienting.
Does this mean they see their actions as okay because I never said anything?
Do these posts help reveal the scope of sexual violence or do they allow abusers to hide behind performing allyship and concern?
That the cycle of drinking to blackout and forget my pain only to be hurt again took me years to break out of.
How it taught me to only see myself as valuable if another person wanted to fuck me.
How it kept me from working on knowing and understanding myself.
That I don’t know if I can properly describe the shame and embarrassment that always accompanies sexual assault.
That it’s hard to make the decision to say no when the alternative is physical, verbal…. and all too often sexual violence. Is it even a choice?
Is it easier to be the drunk “messy” person at the party or the sexual assault victim?
And where do we see this line?
Do you see it?
Which story have you decided to tell for yourself?
I remember after the first time I was raped going out to dinner with friends at the time and being forced into the narrative of it just being a drunken hook-up where I “cheated” on my somewhat of a partner at the time. I felt so embarrassed and confused that I chose the readymade story lol aren’t I such an entertaining “hot mess”. I didn’t say that this was how I violently lost my virginity, or even whisper the horror of waking up in my own vomit and blood, the embarrassment of having to work with him the next day. I didn’t have the luxury of contemplating if it was that one drink that made me blackout or if I was drugged. Did anyone else see? Who else experienced one of the worst days of my life. I wonder how they remember it. Do they feel remorse?
And how this led to so many other men feeling entitled to my body, how this accelerated my destructive choices, my loss of friends, my self harming and hatred for myself.
There are some things I don’t know I will ever be able to talk about.
That I can tell you that it took me years to process all the harm done to me between the ages of 17 and 23….. I’m still processing.
I don’t want to recount my assaults to validate my story anymore.
Does everyone need to know my stories so that they can decide for themselves if they feel pity?
To determine if I’m a liar?
What is this desire for trauma porn?
Do you feel empowered yet?
Am I a victim or a survivor now?
And why am I only offered these two options.
I have been wrestling with the incompleteness of words and how their increased use all too often makes them feel hollow. I don’t think I’ve ever felt at home in victim or survivor. That they feel too much like categories that have been presented to me as a way to find… community? agency? identity? That I should be happy to claim them. And I’m not.
And no, this isn’t me arguing that people are looking to be victimized, it’s rather that I’m not sure how I feel yet. That I think I claimed these terms too soon without being able to process their weight. I have constantly been living in a state of pain and fear for over five years now, so can I really be a survivor yet? That it feels too much like the story has ended and I have come out triumphant, when I am constantly being forced to relive this pain these memories these rapes. I am in motion. I am not static. I am moving and processing and feeling.
I want to find new terms that don’t have my supposed feelings already inscribed onto them.
I am healing.
I am trying to love myself.
I am trying to forgive.
I am trying to educate.
That these labels feel constricting and cemented in normative narratives that I am constantly having to break.
And I’m tired.
I don’t want to be the constant interjection modifying the mainstream story.
I don’t want to find home in your cishet womanhood.
I don’t want to place myself in opposition with my harm-doers.
This isn’t a simple story.
I’m not arguing that these terms don’t contain power. We have seen over the past two years their capability to flood our social media, give space for people to speak their story.
I’m trying to create space for those who don’t understand themselves and their realities as a victim or a survivor. Who feel discomfort with the meaning these terms embody. Who may not be ready to label their experiences, but may want to give language to their present reality.
I wish language could contain multitudes. I wish you could feel what I mean when I say that I am in constant motion. What I mean when I say my feelings come in waves.
Or perhaps like snow drifts.
Impairing your vision and overwhelming your senses, to then reveal the sparkling air all around you and the euphoria of hearing the snow settle into place.
I want you to feel my pain and my moments of happiness. And I’m searching for words to describe this. Healing after assault is not always complete despair, we can contain contradictions. There is no one way we are supposed to find healing, there is no one way we should react to our own abuse.
Let me define myself.
Let me find home in a windy winter day.