Feminism and Politics

Starting the Conversation: Speaking Out About Sexual Abuse

diving-1600668_1280Recently the poet Annie Finch posted on her blog a piece called “Things I’ve Been Ashamed to Share About Being a Writer Until Now,” in which she gets specific about what men have done and said to her in the context of the literary life. At writers’ conferences, post-reading dinners, during professional conversations about writing, these aggressions caused fear, hurt, and shame. Even worse, Finch, like so many, also feels some shame about her response, which was to freeze. Contrary to popular belief, there’s a third ingrained human response to threat–it’s not just fight or flight, but fight, flight, or freeze. While we’d all like to believe we’d react with “fight” if faced with being grabbed, touched inappropriately, or if we were the butt of a “joke” about gang rape, the truth is that we don’t usually get to choose that instant response. Often, it is chosen for us as children, which is when many people face their first such sexual aggressions.

It’s not entirely new for a woman to name her abusers, though it is rare enough to incite controversy. And given the potential repercussions to one’s career as well as concerns about safety, it’s even rarer for the victim to say so openly, under her own name. The organization VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, felt strongly enough about this issue to provide a space for victims to anonymously tell their stories about one writer who has been widely accused of abuse in the literary world. Although there is a lot of pressure to be silent about sexual aggression, there is growing support for the telling of our truths. In doing so, we empower other women to speak up. The goals are many, but they include healing, and changing the culture of sexism.

What’s particularly interesting about Finch’s post is that she has already followed up with another post that takes this issue to the next step–when the named aggressors apologize. She prints an entire apology by one of the men she named, and refers to another apology that she says she will talk more about in a future post. Personally, I’m really heartened by the entire exchange–not merely Annie Finch’s courage in telling her truth, but her courage to continue the dialogue, to listen and respond, to take the next step towards changing the culture. Taking that next step, it seems to me, could be even more terrifying than the initial disclosure, because it gives the power back into the hands of the abusers, with all the potential to continue the same story we’ve heard over and over, most recently from a presidential candidate: the denial of the woman’s truth, of her pain, of her right to speak at all.

snail-1447233_1920But that’s not happening. Yes, the printed apology wishes that Finch had spoken up at the time, and that’s disappointing because it reinforces the assumption that it’s the victim’s duty to say what’s appropriate and what’s not, to be the gatekeeper, to makes things easier for the abuser by speaking up at the moment of the abuse. However, in speaking back to the piece, in a thoughtful way, the men Finch named have taken a step, too, towards changing the culture. Maybe their responses aren’t perfect, but we need to keep talking in order to get anywhere.

Of course, to do that, victims need to keep speaking up. Finch says, “I am now convinced, through this experience of speaking out, that keeping secrets about sexual abuse is the bedrock on which all other forms of sexual oppression rest—and that only by speaking out, and no longer being complicit in protecting people who have done these things, will we ever free ourselves (and free men as well) from the terrible burden that has been keeping our literary voices muted and robbing the world of our true words. One person, out of hundreds, suggested that it was cowardice for me to speak out because I hadn’t done so at the time. I disagree—and I need to disagree, because the survival of our voices is at stake. It’s never too early nor too late to speak the truth that as humans we deserve to tell–and in so doing, to get our voices back. We don’t owe anyone silence–not anymore. We don’t owe silence to the intimidators, attackers, or abusers, to bosses, editors, or publishers, to mothers, friends or sisters, to lovers, husbands or children, and least of all to those who are clueless about sexism.”

Finch is committed to thinking through this issue, to following the path towards change and wholeness. She writes, “But after the truth was spoken, and some other things happened in the aftermath that I will write about soon in a followup essay, it was as if for the first time in my professional life I felt like a full human being.” We all deserve to feel “like full human beings” in our lives, professional and private. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of what Finch has to say as she leads the way on this journey.

33 replies »

  1. As A child I was sexually abused and it is a horrible feeling.Please go on lulu.com and put in the search engine The Girl That Glows ebook by Onyx. Then you have to put in your birthdate as there nis an age restriction on it because of the physical and sexual abuse. Then click on the first box. It’s my life story.

  2. That dreaded moment when we realize, ‘we weren’t alone’. So many of us have encountered one way of abuse or another, and I don’t know about you, but there is like a cosmic connection that you have with that person from that moment on. Survival can mean so many things…

  3. This is an important issue. Be cautious of implying that women “should” name the aggressor/perpetrator. This can be bullying from another angle. I want women (and men and others) to be empowered.

  4. Reblogged this on Elisabeth ("Lisa") Rose and commented:

    “When I wrote my piece, I had no idea what it would feel like afterwards; I was feeling rather numb in fact. But after the truth was spoken, and some other things happened in the aftermath that I will write about soon in a followup essay, it was as if for the first time in my professional life I felt like a full human being.”

  5. Thank you, Katie, for discussing the “freeze” response! I had never heard of it until my therapist explained it to me earlier this year. Freezing was my automatic response to sexual abuse, and I beat myself up for over 30 years for not trying to stop it from happening. “Why didn’t you yell, kick, scratch, tell…why didn’t you do ANYTHING?!!!” 30 years of shame, held silently in my corroding soul. I get it now. I talk about it now. But still, I catch myself judging…

      • Interesting…I think my dad started it for me, too. Not a rager, but always in control. My sister and I joke about how we were allowed to have two emotions in that house, “happy” and “sad when appropriate”. I guess you just become conditioned to not respond…

  6. This is so true. I believe its the shame that we feel that keeps us from speaking out. Then again some men do threaten teir victims. I am still waiting for my apology. One day ….

  7. This is such a hopeful message. I agree there is danger in remaining silent but it’s taken quiet a while to get here. The more women who come forward and disclose in safe ways the more we will empower those oppressed by shame.

  8. I’m a Portland writer, too, and a friend of all of the people involved in this story (including Annie). I was present the night in question. And while I very much respect her as a friend and a woman and a poet, there are important details in this story that have been both omitted and misrepresented, most particularly the fact that the quote in question, while obviously provocative and potentially offensive, was part of a larger conversation in which people were discussing the impact of lines from “Game of Thrones.” Fans of the show may recall that, in season 6, Khal Moro states, “Instead we’ll take turns fucking you. And then we’ll let our bloodriders fuck you.” Is this inappropriate and misogynistic? Yes, absolutely. But that was the point of the conversation had at that very table — a conversation about offensive speech and the dangers of violent speech (particularly speech about women) and the ways in which such shows like “Game of Thrones” run the risk of promoting this kind of talk. This conversation began long before Annie arrived at our table. And rather than ask the nature of its content, she unfortunately jumped into the conversation and then jumped to the conclusion that it was something very different. That saddens me, particularly considering that I can think of few men with higher feminist ideals and general compassion than Bill R. As a sexual assault survivor myself, I take any insinuation of abuse or harassment very seriously. But in this particular case, it was the opposite that was occurring. I hope she’ll take this opportunity to set the record straight. The damage that has been done here is considerable.

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