So honored to have a guest post appear on Funky Feminist, a site full of insightful and timely observations about everything from gender equality and race to facing your fears about menstrual cups. And kudos for the awesome graphic they posted with the article, which I have borrowed for this post.
My guest post on Funky Feminist addresses why some women discount the harassment and abuse they suffered, and why I hope all women eventually realize that “almost counts.” It is reprinted here with persmission.
In Sexual Harassment And Abuse, “Almost” Counts.
Note: For ease of reading, this article refer to victims as women/she/her, even though men and people with other gender identities can also be victims.
Society loves to ask victims of sexual harassment and abuse why they didn’t speak up sooner. There are myriad reasons of course: it’s too painful, they’re embarrassed, or they think it won’t do any good.
But many women don’t say anything because they discount their own experiences. By “discount” I mean assigning less value to something than it deserves.
With #MeToo and #TimesUp, this is changing. Women’s experiences are discounted less—by them and others—and validated more. But there are still many victims who haven’t spoken up or even acknowledged that their experiences mattered, maybe because it wasn’t “severe” enough. If you are one of them, this article is for you.
Why Women Discount Their Experiences
Some women downplay crimes against them as a self-defense mechanism, thinking if they pretend it didn’t matter, it won’t. Others have been taught they are less important than others. If I’m not worthy, then stealing something from me does not matter.
I wrote a novel, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, specifically to help victims of “mild” abuse recognize that what happened does matter. I’m going to use passages from the book to make my case because let’s face it: sometimes it’s easier to see ourselves in others than in the mirror.
In the Prologue, the narrator Shelby says:
I was twenty-two when I let the memories in. They’d been fluttering around the edges of my brain like a bunch of random words straining to form a sentence.
I kept finding myself awake at midnight with my face tense and contorted, my eyes scrunched, and my mouth drawn up unnaturally. Frustrated, I decided to pay attention the next time the flutters tapped gently against the inside of my skull.
Once I gave them permission, they took shape.
And that was that. I went on with my life. It’s not like what happened changed me or anything.
At this point in the story, we don’t know why Shelby reacts the way she does to her recovered memories, which are of inappropriate touching and kissing by her stepfather Norman. But it is a classic case of discounting.
The Internalization Begins
Shelby decides to just get on with her life. But after she tells her mother about her stepfather’s abuse, the cat is out of the proverbial bag, and it’s really hard to force it back in…
I’d opened the door of the little refrigerated compartment where the memories were stored. Out in the open, they began to seep and reek. This was real now.
I cried all night and dragged myself to work in the morning. I considered calling in sick but didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. I pushed those thoughts away most of the day, until Karen innocently asked me how I was in the ladies’ room. My face contorted, and just like that, I was weeping again. She hugged me, making me cry harder.
“What’s wrong, Shel? You can tell me,” she soothed.
I gasped for air between sobs. “I can’t talk about it here. Maybe over a drink sometime,” I said, knowing that would never happen. I couldn’t bring this situation into my job.
This is the stage at which many victims internalize the grief and confusion, leading to self-harm, eating disorders, depression, other mental health disorders and even physical illnesses. But you know how it goes. The situation never truly goes away. It’s always lurking somewhere in the depths of your soul, to be dredged up to the surface by certain sounds, smells, noises, or just because.
The Lucky Ones
The internalization of personal horrors ends in self-destruction for some victims, which may take days or years. The lucky ones eventually realize that what happened to them does matter. Shelby reaches that milestone only after a lot of self-reflection and months of individual and group therapy.
Lying in bed that night, I had the strangest feeling I was back in Newfield as a girl. I sat on the back porch steps in the sun, which I did a lot then, rubbing my bare feet over the sand and small rocks that collected between the bottom step and the driveway. I remembered a permeating melancholy with no nameable cause.
Maybe those warm steps became a refuge after Norman started touching me. And maybe the melancholy was my soul shutting itself off from the world’s pain and confusion.
Why It All Counts
What is damaging to one person versus another depends on many factors. Society is wrong to judge what should be harmful to an individual and what should not be. Yet people seem fixated on creating some kind of spectrum against which different types of harassment and abuse can be measured. Like if we put rape with near murder at one end and locker room talk at the other, everything else will fall neatly into its place based on severity. And its position on the spectrum will dictate how the victim should feel and how the abuser should be punished, if at all.
In reality, damage happens when a line is crossed, but that line varies by individual. For example, a crude comment from a co-worker might roll off one woman’s back while ruining another’s day or even making her fearful.
But sometimes the line is strikingly clear. When the line of trust that defines the parent-child bond is crossed, something breaks. When the line of what’s socially acceptable between colleagues is crossed, the balance of power is thrown off and damage can occur. And when a person’s body is entered against her will, something crumples inside.
Yes, we can generalize that more “severe” situations of sexual abuse are more damaging, but that doesn’t mean less severe situations should be discounted and ignored. “Almost” counts in sexual harassment and abuse, not just in horseshoes and hand grenades. As one of the characters in the book says:
“There’s no such thing as a mild trauma. Once you cross that line into trauma, some damage is going to happen.”
I’m not trying to send every woman who has been sexually harassed or assaulted into therapy. Everybody deals and heals in their own way. But let’s stop saying our situations don’t matter—that we don’t matter. Society is already doing enough of that without our help.