why I’m not telling stories about rapes & me

Ed. note: This is a guest post by Emma Cohen. Emma is a sexuality educator & writer-artista. She is co-founder of the M blogHer Internet is at yisraelatzviah.com.

another perspective to hold
amongst many

Here’s a thing I learned from another survivor: people get off on this stuff. Not like, sexually necessarily. But like, (survivor) stories go to bed w/people.

I close my eyes & shudder myself over the ew-y details. My gaze is on.
Vicariously, I live you.

Which is what writing-reading tends to/is supposed to accomplish.

The thing is, I really really really Do Not Want any of the voyeur energy directed at me, & I Do Not Want to be Emma Who Has Been Raped. I Do Not Want anyone to see rape when they look at me.

I’m home for the growing season, & I wrote a small Letter to the Editor of my local paper a while back. The letter was about “preventing rape is a good idea,” but the big reveal is that I’m a rape survivor! My mom asked me “Isn’t it like coming out?”

We were outside on the part of the back acre that’s beyond the fence. With the dog. The pine trees & the ground were lush breathing spring green.

“No,” I said.

“Even a little bit?”

“No. IT IS NOT.”

Before the Letter to the Editor went to print, I had a brunch conversation about basic consent concepts w/a family friend who’s known me since before I was born. The LttE rocked her, sprang e-mails, even got me asking my mom “if [friend] needs a hug?”

The LttE also gave the family friend permission to read deeper into my consent statement at brunch. Which makes sense. I’m so close to the flame of rape stuff & the ‘burden of knowledge’ that I don’t see me from the outside. I’m also a sexuality educator, though, so this is my Work & my skill in this reality (& my secret is I find rape prevention profoundly boring when compared to my true passion, which is the sympto-thermal method of contraception. Shh.).

Anyway, soon after, there was this dinner. I was so hyped up on starting my summer job at the organic nursery + on my college rape bingo being picked up by Jezebel + Game of the Thrones that I literally slept 2 hours the night before & got out of bed at like 7 a.m. to help at the market day. So I told my mom, “I really want to talk with [friend], but I am too tired I can’t even talk.”

I tweeted w/@danabolger about my book project then sat in the bathtub while I watched Game of Thrones, just like I used to do 4 years ago w/videos in my college apartment except this time w/out the bowl of  ramen noodles with spinach and an egg in it.

Eventually the parents came home with my giant cobb salad, & my mom reported that the family friend “wanted to know about your rape.” MY RAPE.

We were in the kitchen. Standing between the sink and the stove. I went into PTS symptom management mode. I sat down and ate my salad meanly. A come-down later, I went to my mom. In the kitchen? Her study? I don’t know.

“Look,” I said, “Do not tell people details about what happened to me. Also what happened in college was just as awful and gross. Even more so in some ways.”

“I didn’t tell her much, just the basics and that it was a long time ago already,” my mom said. “Plus I don’t know that much because you don’t talk to me about it.”

“THAT’S WHY,” I said.

She hugged me.

THAT’S WHY. thatswhy. THATSWHY. That’s why. 

I don’t want to see the expressions on her mom face, feel the energies move across her mom body. The words enunciating in her mouth. Sound vibrating through ear drums.

When I do talk about rapes and sexual harassment in detail, I’m usually dealing w/ or working through trauma. I’m surfacing or I’m on the phone w/a hotline person. I’m trading stories w/creative survivors.

I am so extremely traumatized by the details. No teaching moment is worth the energy I use to practice myself out of a flashback.

I’m not gonna tell you any more than this:

When I was moving out of Oakland, I got together basically daily w/my friend-collaborator R. We’d visual journal, pack & clean, & talk.

Sometimes, we sat at the cafe on 14th St. Hot bright sun. Brown sign w/white letters. Folding wooden chairs slatted same as the table uneven and rickety on the pocked sidewalk. Smells. Sirens. The intersection. Crosswalk tones. Blue sky. Bags our friend M made out of clothes. Coffees + bagels loaded with the 4 animal proteins: meat, egg, cheese, & butter. Salt & lemon pepper.

R would set her yellow pack of cigarettes w/a lighter on the side of the table closest to the building’s burnt-red exterior wall and say something like, “if you need it, these are here.”

We would talk. Eat our bagels, sip coffee through plastic to-go cup lids. Even glue stick paper into our journals right there on the street.

Once this sketchy vibe-ing guy walked by & wanted one of the smokes. For a # of reasons that are her own, R said, “No.” For money, would she give him? “No.” Please? “No. NO.”

“You hipsters,” he spat, moving away.

We glared his face and back as he cont’d down the street away from the city center.

Return to the body, to the present.

I don’t remember what we talked about, R & I. What image imprints I released into the air, to R’s witness. I don’t want to remember. I don’t want anyone to remember.

So I don’t tell.



I wrote this piece in response to a growing movement to tell in public somewhat explicit stories about rapes & the immediate aftermath, and because both a lot of the stories & the way of telling got all viral. Telling can be healing, educational, cathartic, empowering, all kinds of adjectives that read more boring and less mmhmm-y than they actually are.

My body needed to express this sense that like, a reader gets to leave behind a story about an experience, and a survivor gets to live the experience that comes after the story. I needed to share that the lingering effects of trauma can suck really hard, and I wanted to pose an inquiry around what kind of stories aren’t being told and why. This could be so broad, is broad: memories+representations+resistance+power+privilege. I’ll leave that to a college student or a later page. I’ll point to Wagatwe Wanjuki, who asks out loud around the media’s focus on white survivors.

Some stories really are magical game-changers. Other stories ruffle feathers, inspire symbolic actions, & fade out. Some stories arrive attached to women who didn’t consent to the telling because they were incapacitated or no longer alive. Or maybe some survivors told stories that were amplified to surprising volumes.

When I participated in Project Unbreakable a long while ago, I displayed my face with a set of posters I wrote about experiences with first responders. More recently, I was pumped to see a bit of how Surviving in Numbers breaks it down. I chose not to participate. I also felt tired. Obviously, my relationship to voluntary representation is subject to change whenever because I get to do whatever I want+need about me.

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like Cosmopolitan.com, TheAtlantic.com, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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