One time, about a year ago, I was sitting at a café with five other women, and I don’t know how we got on the subject, but because I can ruin any social gathering, we started talking about sexual assault. About rape. I talked about some statistics and said—I still don’t know why we were talking about this, how the conversation turned to this subject—that I could count ten or twelve women I knew who’d survived rape. Fifteen, actually, now that I thought about it. Maybe more. Probably more.
“Well, but,” said one friend. “You work in social services. I don’t think I know anyone who has been raped.”
“Oh no, these aren’t clients,” I said. “If I was counting clients the number would be way higher. These are friends.”
There was some back-and-forthing about what rape means and what the definitions are. We talked about how when a guy says something to you on the street maybe he’s just giving you compliment. How you just have to be careful. How maybe it’s just all part of being a woman, nothing you can do. One girl didn’t accept that the numbers are so high; she said she didn’t know anyone either, who’d been raped.
“You probably do,” I said, feeling like absolute shit, not sure why I was having this conversation in the first place. (I am not sure I want to be writing this right now, in the first place). “She probably just hasn’t mentioned it to you, for whatever reason. And anyway, you almost definitely know someone who has been sexually assaulted, or harassed or bothered or intimidated or whatever. You probably have experienced that yourself. It’s all connected, it’s all part of the same thing.”
And that’s when it got really tough, at that table, because of course everyone had a story–more than one–about something that had happened to her or someone she knew. We sat around the table telling these stories, sometimes looking at each other, sometimes not, while they mopped the floor around us and put the chairs up.
Someone who was followed home from school when she was eight years old by a couple of older men in a van. Someone whose rapist had more money and more power and more lawyers on his side than she did. Someone whose boyfriend wouldn’t take no for an answer and she just lay there until it was over and then couldn’t stop shaking. Someone who was chased down the street by a pack of teenage boys screaming what they were going to do to her when they caught her. Someone whose rapist, age thirteen, told her he would kill her, age thirteen, with his father’s gun, if she told. Someone whose cousin wouldn’t keep his hands to himself. Someone who finally just stopped going out dancing because drunk guys kept groping her. Someone who’d wanted to make out at a party and then go home by herself and maybe get together with him for a coffee later in the week. Someone who was told not to bother taking it to the cops.
It’s all part of the same thing. It’s all part of the same thing. There are so many of these stories—and they are all part of the same thing.
Maybe it’s not a surprise to know, if you follow the feminist blog world, that I’ve been thinking a lot about #MooreandMe this week, even though I would prefer to be thinking about almost anything else. I have thought about Julian Assange and Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann, and about allegations, and free speech, and transparency, and journalistic integrity, and progressive politics, and grassroots activism, and privilege, and still about all those stories: the ones I wrote up there in that paragraph, and the ones I decided not to write. It’s one of those internet wormholes where you just check your Twitter feed and then three hours later, there you are, still reading the linked articles, still clicking on more statistics, still getting more and more anxious, more and more upset. Still not knowing about the guilt in this particular case, because no one has come to trial yet, and maybe no one will. Still wondering why what seems so obvious to you (to me) is even a topic for debate: that so many people have these stories for a reason, and it’s probably not because all these people are crazy. You know? One in six women, and one in thirty-three men cannot all be crazy.
But they have to prove it. They have to have done everything right, even though no one can really define what ‘right’ is. They certainly cannot have made any mistakes or poor choices or lapsed in judgment in any way—although that seems to be allowable for their rapists–and they certainly can’t be poor or a person of colour or drunk or transgender or wearing a low-cut top or disabled or a sex worker. They better not have been in a relationship with their rapist. They better not have been walking anywhere alone. They better not have been walking with someone they thought they could trust or at a party with people they thought they could trust or at school with people they thought they could trust or at work with people they thought they could trust or at home with people they thought they could trust, no they can’t have done any of those things because then the burden of proof is on them, it’s their fault for being the victim of a crime.
We realised it was late and picked up our bags and paid our bill and left the cafe: staying together, looking at the ground, not saying much. That’s how, so often, these stories go.