Why Do I Keep Wondering If I Was Violated "Enough"?
Last year, my former employer offered a one-time self-defense class for its female employees. It began with a discussion about our experiences with violence. "Have you ever been attacked before?" the instructor asked, catching my eye.
"Me? No," I said. It took me a beat to realize that wasn't true. "Wait. Yeah. I was mugged last July."
My friend looked incredulously at me from across the circle. "How did you forget that?" she laughed. I laughed, too.
This moment came back to me this morning, as it always does, when I walked out of my apartment building with my phone in my hand and reached the intersection where a man snatched it last July. Every time I'm on that busy corner, with cars rushing to make the light onto the freeway, I think about the over-lit conference room where I sat in a circle of women, thinking: Does this even count?
"Was this bad enough to call it harassment? Was this bad enough to call it misconduct? Was this bad enough to call it assault? Does this count?"
The instructor asked if I had been attacked. But the man who stole my phone didn't hit me that afternoon. He didn't threaten me with a weapon. He just reached out, took what was mine, and sped away on his bicycle as I sprinted after him in worn-out, $1 flip-flops.
Afterwards, I realized that I ran after him with such fury that there were black, ugly blood blisters on the sides of my feet where the rubber strap met the sole.
"Stop him! He stole my phone!" I shouted at another man standing at the intersection.
"Was that your bike?" he asked, as I caught my breath at the end of the street.
"My phone," I panted.
"Ah, well," he shrugged.
Does this count?
I've watched something like this reaction play out in response to the #MeToo movement over the past few weeks, as more and more women finally felt empowered to bring their hurts to light. Of course, what happened to me wasn't a crime limited to women. But the way that I convinced myself to forget it, the way I doubted that the crime counted as such, the way I justified it as less than it was — that is a reaction with which women are far too familiar.
Our society judges pain on a sliding scale, from a doctor-like assessment of 1 to 10. It's sexual assault, but it's not rape. It's illegal, but not unlawful. The scale exists for a reason — not all crimes are equal, and it's important to make distinctions.
For women, however, we learned from an early age to internalize this sliding scale and use it to gauge our suffering. We find ourselves asking over and over again: Was this bad enough to call it harassment? Was this bad enough to call it misconduct? Was this bad enough to call it assault?
Does this count?
For women, this sliding scale is tilted. We are forced to judge our experiences against the extremes. It wasn't really rape, because rape was what happened to your neighbor who was held at gunpoint. It wasn't date rape, because date rape is when you're roofied, like that girl you knew in college. It wasn't bad behavior, just bad communication, because you were naked and you didn't leave and you could have said "No" more strongly.
"Does it count if I'm strong, if I'm unafraid, if I'm the least victim-like victim I could ever be? Does it count if I take a self-defense class, if I carry pepper spray, if I push my trauma so deep down that I forget about it until I'm asked?"
The result of all this is well-documented. We don't press charges — because it could have been worse, and because having to go through a trial isn't worth it — for something that could have been worse. We don't report bad behavior at work — because it wasn't that bad, and it's just not worth having to deal with HR. Anything that is not the absolute worst, we minimize.
I wasn't physically hurt after I was mugged, but to this day I tense up when I hear a bicycle coming up behind me. I didn't lose anything super valuable, just an older model iPhone, but, still, I clench everything close to me when I walk outside. Does it count?
What about the time I was 18, posing for a silly Christmas photo at the mall, and Santa Claus stuck his hand under my shirt? Does that count?
What about the time a stranger grabbed my arm on the street because I had politely refused his invitation for a date? What about all the times my high school teacher went out of his way to brush his crotch against my ass? Does it count more because I was underage?
"One extraordinary byproduct of the #MeToo movement is that it validated for many, for the first time, that the abuse they had suffered had indeed been abuse."
What about the time I blacked out in the back of a cab and forgot my phone, and when I called to get it back, the cab driver told me he'd had a "nice time" and had really needed "it," and really appreciated "it," whatever "it" was?
Were you ever attacked, the instructor asked. Well, does it count if you were too drunk to know what happened?
At that self-defense class, I volunteered to demonstrate every move. I chased my much smaller friend around the room, and we laughed that I was a bully, that I was the assailant, that I was the one to be feared. Does it count if I'm strong, if I'm unafraid, if I'm the least victim-like victim I could ever be? Does it count if I take a self-defense class, if I carry pepper spray, if I push my trauma so deep down that I forget about it until I'm asked?
One extraordinary byproduct of the #MeToo movement is that it validated for many, for the first time, that the abuse they had suffered had indeed been abuse — that the trauma they experienced was real, and that the pain they felt afterwards was justified. We have been so conditioned to weigh our pain against the consequences of speaking up that we can no longer tell when somebody actually hurt us. We shove down our trauma until we forget, until we cannot see it, and convince ourselves that we were not victims. We talk ourselves out of calling our pain what it is.
As I left my apartment this morning and walked to that corner where my phone was snatched, it wasn't lost on me that it's not the attack itself that I think about each time. No, it's the moment that untruth tumbled from my mouth and into that conference room. It's the moment I took back my trauma and laid it out for everyone to compare — and judge.
"We shove down our trauma until we forget, until we cannot see it, and convince ourselves that we were not victims."
Burying and diminishing your trauma may not result in the drama we see depicted on television: broken bones, hospital stays, shell-shocked, hollow eyes haunting psychiatric wards. Each buried trauma is like a blood blister on the sole of your foot: ugly, painful, and hidden to everybody, but felt with every step.
"Was this bad enough?" we ask ourselves, when really we should just be asking: "Was this bad?"
That day at the self-defense class, I forgot I was mugged because I didn't think it was "bad enough." But that didn't mean it wasn't bad. I forgot I had been sexually assaulted because I didn't think it counted. I realize now that when I ask myself, "Does it count?" I'm really asking, "Do I count?"
The answer to that is very clear: I do. We all do.
This op-ed solely reflects the views of the author, and is part of a larger, feminist discourse.