by M. Sophia Newman
Boy meets girl, boy rapes girl, girl has a fabulous life anyway. I won.
Oh, for the love of God.
There have been a million different stories about the Steubenville rape case by now. The facts are well-established. (If you’ve missed them, here they are in review: a group of American high school students at a party hauled an unconscious classmate from place to place, raped her, urinated on her, and filmed themselves laughing at these violations. One boy posted a video about the incident on Youtube, where it went viral. The outcry prompted an investigation, which ended this week with the conviction of two boys, Trent Mays and Ma’lik Richmond. Both will spend a year or more in prison.)
The whole thing has been commented to death by now. Yesterday’s controversy revolved around CNN’s overly sympathetic treatment of the rapists. Countless blog posts and Gawker articles and who knows what all have been written.
Many comment on the leniency of the prison sentences. Famous punk rocker of yesteryear Henry Rollins wrote a blog post that noted this specific injustice at length. Then he added, “I have yet to say anything about the damage to the young woman involved. It is ironic and sad that the person who is going to do a life sentence is her.”
Like many people, I sympathize with the rape victim. And my sympathy makes this comment essential: Rollins' statement is disturbing and false.
Actually, I might sympathize more closely with the rape victim than many people, having lived through violence myself.
Someone raped me when I was 21. Being violated caused me tremendous, heart-shattering fear, like it does for many victims. I wondered how I could possibly live with the knowledge of my rapist’s stark, hideous disdain for me. When I told friends I trusted – asking only that the guy, who we all knew, get some counseling – they stunned me by sending an email to dozens of members of our shared social network, insisting I had lied and I was “ruining [the rapist’s] life.” The disrespect and victim-blaming were roughly similar to some aspects of the events in Steubenville.
Years later, I would read health research that established what I learned firsthand: it is not the rape itself that causes long-lasting trauma, but the victim-blaming that comes afterwards. Being raped was an encounter with something deeply sinister. But being deliberately bullied and denied help precisely because I had encountered this sinister destruction was a uniquely evil act. It implied a downward spiral of victimization awaited me. With deeply ugly memories of rape still ringing in my head, the terror of being treated as even more subhuman made me wish for death.
But I did not die.
Instead, I went to work.
“I want to congratulate you, Sophia,” my social worker told me some years later. “People who get treated like you got treated end up on heroin.”
I didn’t take heroin, nor any drugs at all (although I can see why victims wish to numb their pain). I didn’t have time for that. I was too busy with graduate school.
In my master’s program, I studied violence prevention closely. I also lived in a Zen temple, where I meditated fifteen hours a week. I took self-defense classes, and later helped teach them. I went to counseling sessions faithfully for a year. I worked, in other words, as hard as it was humanly possible to work to heal the brain injury that the rape had caused me. Through relentless effort, I rebuilt my life.
No justice ever came to my rapist. There was no court case, no conviction, no compensation. The people who slandered me publicly have never apologized or acknowledged their wrong-doing. I worked, but society mostly didn't work with me.
But I won anyway.
I had friends who supported me. I found a community of progressive martial artists and self-defense people. I developed a meditation practice I truly love. My brain damage healed while I earned my public health degree, and when I finished, they inducted me into the honor society. Then I won the Fulbright Fellowship – and when I went to the doctor to complete my medical clearance papers, he looked at my health history, said, “You don't have this problem anymore,” and archived those medical records.
I got well. I got my life back. I won completely.
Between the day I got raped and the moment I was officially well, eight years passed. That was much longer than it should have been. I wish I had been helped much earlier and not blamed for the crime my rapist committed.
But here’s the math, Henry Rollins: eight years is not a life sentence.
Actually, rape is not a life sentence for most victims. It is a particularly potent form of violence, and the intense stigma and victim-blaming are why its traumatic effects last so long.
But the reality is that most people who are traumatized are resilient. Most people get better, whether with professional help or the support of their communities. They get well, move on, and often have very good lives. I am living proof of this.
Insisting that the worst five hours of the Steubenville rape victim’s life will degrade all of her entire remaining fifty years is not friendly, and it is not factually accurate. It places additional stigma on the victim by assuming she is irrevocably damaged. It asks that she remain in the prison of rape trauma for far longer than is natural or necessary. It is an unjust imposition on this young woman.
I have faith that the victim in Steubenville will one day be fine. I applaud her for pursuing justice, and I hope this week’s verdicts bring her some relief. I hope she gets all the help she needs.
And for myself, I must insist: I served all the time that I have to serve in the prison of rape trauma and stigma. I worked to earn my liberation, even though I never did anything wrong in the first place. I deserve to be free now.
Really, I already am.
I plan to use my liberty to go back to mostly ignoring Henry Rollins.
UPDATE (March 21, 2013)
When I wrote this article yesterday, I retrieved Henry Rollins' email address from his website, and sent this link, saying, "I can tell from your words that you are sympathetic to the plight of rape survivors. I appreciate that. But I take exception to your remark that the victim in the Steubenville rape case is serving a 'life sentence.'"
Henry himself responded a few hours later. His response was exceedingly kind and respectful, and ended with the line, "Things get better when we stand up to this brutality."
Considering I was directly criticizing a guy who first got famous for his screaming vocals (as the lead singer for the seminal hardcore band Black Flag and a hard rock act called Rollins Band) and for generally being an angry guy, the classy response was rather unexpected and even a little sweet.
It feels so good, in fact, that he made the last sentence of my essay wrong. Since yesterday, I'm not ignoring Henry Rollins much at all. In fact, I've been on a huge Black Flag kick all day. Thanks, Henry.
For more of M. Sophia Newman's writing, check out her blog https://msophianewman.squarespace.com/blog/