coping power dynamics rape rape and sexual assault rape culture self-care sexual assault
On Rape, Silence and Power8/17/2015
by Ngozi Cole Sweaty palms and a beating heart that almost bursts out of fear, anxiety, and repu...
Sweaty palms and a beating heart that almost bursts out of fear, anxiety, and repulsion…
Being in the same space as the rapist can be one of the most disempowering and soul-crushing experiences anyone can face. Emotional torture regurgitates lasting moments of physical trauma as we struggle, clutching at every strand of hope, just so that we may heal.
Silence in the face of oppression is about power dynamics. When people are silent about their pain, their power is sucked out of them, rendering them weak, defeated and psychologically captive under the ones who inflict their cancerous wounds. Despite the gravity of whatever incident might have occurred, it boils down to a simple power equation where one’s self-worth is subtracted and added to another’s coffer of conquest and control.
The power dynamics surrounding rape and sexual assault are no different. Unfortunately, rapists thrive on the shame and stigma inflicted on rape victims that guarantees that this private crime, even though rape is indeed a public crime, will be kept a secret. Rapists gain power on the silence of their victims, and of course there are countless incidents wherein they dare their victims to ever report the incident.
In many societies, rape victims shroud their experience in secrecy, too ashamed to out their assailants. However, rape is not an easy experience to talk about, primarily because of the physical and emotional damage involved. Many survivors prefer to bury these experiences in the hope that if they bury it long enough it might go away. Except more often than not, it doesn’t go away. Instead, it bears self-damaging fruits.
The culture of silence that surrounds rape and sexual assault, especially with regards to women and children, gives more and more power to their assailants. It cultivates the growth of victim blaming and shaming, when this should rightfully be transferred to the perpetrators instead.
It is extremely difficult to talk about rape, extremely painful to dig up a traumatic experience, but it is fundamentally self-empowering to break the silence. It can start in little steps such as changing the language surrounding your experience. Refer to yourself as a “survivor” instead of a “victim.” Even though it is essential to use the word “victim” to establish the gravity of rape as a crime, referring to yourself as a “survivor” is one step to psychological and emotional empowerment.
If it seems useless to report the crime or the time has elapsed for the assailant to be prosecuted, or if you are afraid to report it, then telling a close and trusted friend or family member is helpful too. It makes a huge difference to just talk about it—cry about it, pray about it and cuss out about it—with a trusted person. Don’t feel obligated to share all the details; share as much as you can and are ready to.
And then of course, when you feel ready and if you can, please report the crime. Many people who have been raped cite a weak or bureaucratic justice system that might not help them when these cases are reported. That might be true, but there is a lot of power that you take back from the assailant when you report them, name them, and subsequently shame them. Sometimes, just breaking the silence alone and not letting your voice be drowned by another’s oppression grants you a powerful first step to personal healing and helping others defeat their shame and silence too.
It took me five years after I had been raped as child to tell someone and then another twelve years to feel comfortable sharing it with some of my close friends and a counselor. During those years of silence, I had felt ashamed of myself that somehow it was all that little girl’s fault and that I would be an object of ridicule and repulsion if I reported it. However, the driving force behind my silence was fear…fear that the assailant would show up again and threaten me…fear that nobody would believe me, and even if they did, I would receive pity instead of support.
But sharing what had happened to me became incredibly liberating. Even though it was impossible to find the rapist again to get him arrested, I felt a pure sense of freedom and something that felt really close to healing and lasting peace. He couldn’t hurt me anymore because I had regained my power and sense of self-worth back-and you can too. Being silent about your experience does nothing for your healing and stunts the empowerment of other survivors of rape and sexual abuse to tell their stories, and gain their power back from their assailants. Please, break the silence, and conquer your oppressor.
Ngozi Cole is a recipient of the National Youth Excellence Award for Leadership in Sierra Leone, an exhibition of her deep commitment to her country. She writes for several online media platforms such as African Youth Journals and Voice of Women Initiative, and runs her own blog at sepiadahlia.com. Her work focuses on feminism and social justice.