Trigger Warning: On Talking About Rape

This week’s guest writer is a volunteer advocate from HOPE Center.  Molly’s blog is in response to an article that was passed around the agency as a way to create dialogue around issues of sexual violence.  As we approach Sexual Assault Awareness Month, maybe we can use these words of insight and bravery to help others overcome their discomfort when talking about sexual violence and start demanding the change!   

Earlier this week I received an e-mail from the HOPE Center recommending that I read an article written by a young woman named Emily, entitled “Why I talk about Rape.” What sparked my interest before I even read the article is that the e-mail prefaced the article link with “***trigger warning*** she does not tone down her experience.” I realize and appreciate that HOPE Center’s intention was to alert sexual assault survivors that reading the article might bring up bad feelings.

At the same time, however, I considered an alternative interpretation of the warning if the e-mail had been meant for society at large: “reading this article may make you feel disgusted.” This thought struck me as ironic because one of the major messages in Emily’s writing is that neither she nor any other survivor should feel ashamed to speak openly and honestly about sexual assault, nor should others expect her to “tone down” the reality of her experience simply because rape is an unpleasant topic.

I too find that the topic of rape is something most people simply do not want to think about. Even in my own family, rape was something that was not discussed – not because my parents consciously censored themselves but simply because it did not seem like an issue. As a result, I grew up believing all the usual rape myths. In general, I did not trust stereotypically creepy men. If an unmarked van drove by me while I was biking home, I panicked. When I walked through bad neighborhoods, I carried a rape whistle in one hand and my keys between the knuckles of my other hand.

Ironically, I spent so much time worrying about creepy strangers hiding in the bushes or following me home in “sketchy” vans that I did not think to worry about the people I already knew. When my high school sweetheart’s best friend got me intoxicated and violently coerced me to have sex with him, I did not understand how it could be rape. Just like Emily described in her essay, I blamed myself. I told myself that, “I could have done a better job standing up for myself. I could have fought harder.”

Now that I know the facts about rape, however, I understand that I was raped. Additionally, I now realize that acquaintance or date rape, which was the nature of my experience, is something that characterizes the great majority of rapes. Most women who experience attempted or completed sexual assault know the perpetrator, whether he is a boyfriend, ex-boyfriend, friend, father, brother, etc. Unfortunately, as Emily points out, and as I have experienced first-hand, our society’s rape myths do not teach women to be careful around those they know. Furthermore, when women do survive acquaintance rape, many are left in bewilderment as to what happened to them. That is not to say that stranger rape does not occur – it certainly does, but it is much rarer than acquaintance rape.

Regardless, misconceptions about rape do nothing but harm to our society. They allow perpetrators to blend in as fathers, boyfriends, friends, etc., who (as we have been taught through societal norms) would never hurt the women they know and love. These pervasive misconceptions encourage every female survivor of acquaintance rape to blame herself because why would her father, boyfriend, or friend hurt her – a woman he knows and claims to love?

Unfortunately, even though I have come to recognize the reality of rape, especially in the context of my experience, I still run into roadblocks because of the stigma our society places on talking about unpleasant things, such as rape. Very recently, several close friends told me, at separate times and in various words, that they are tired of hearing me speak of rape, that they very simply cannot and do not want to deal with me and my past. While these words initially crushed my spirit, I realized that it will be impossible not to run into opposition in my journey towards social change. Instead, I have learned that it is a mark of a true, dear friend when s/he not only sticks by me, but also joins in my fight to end violence against women.

Yes, rape is an unpleasant thing to talk and subsequently think about. However, the irony of not thinking or talking about rape is that fewer people are willing to work towards social change, since that involves a whole lot of thinking about unpleasant things like rape. Consequently, rape continues to prevail in our society as does the silence about it.

As a result, I, along with Emily and so many other women, will continue to speak about rape in my everyday life in pursuit of positive social change. Who knows, maybe someday we, being society at large, will not need “trigger warnings” at the beginning of e-mails, but instead will be able to read an article like Emily’s and think, “good for her for speaking out!”


Volunteer Advocate

Molly H.


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