“Damn girl, you’re back again? You should try out for the Olympics or something.”
Two women clapped and shouted at me as I reached the dock on the far side of the pond again. I smiled and waved at them before I flipped and swam back to the other side. My arms cut through the water and my legs propelled me forwards; I feel stronger this year than I ever have before.
I learned how to swim about five years ago and ever since it has been a source of self-care, meditation in motion, and a way to disconnect from everyday life. Each year, I impatiently wait for the weather to be just warm enough that I can swim without my teeth chattering. The pond is a sanctuary where I practice meditation in motion as I inhale, exhale, and repeatedly count my strokes in between breaths.
It was this sanctuary that was broken last night. I struggled to keep focus and remain calm while thoughts of rape repeatedly tried, and eventually succeeded, at flooding my head as I swam across the silent and dark pond in the late evening. Instead of my meditative breathing, my breaths were short and shallow, barely giving me enough oxygen to make it to the next breath. Instead of counting strokes, I focused on keeping a panic attack at bay until I could be back on solid ground. In addition to being a swimmer, I am also a survivor of rape and sexual assault.
This past week, my news sources, social media feeds, and interactions have been inundated with news of the Stanford rape trial. The harrowing words from the judge and dismissive statement from Brock’s father are glaring examples of rape culture and how, as a society, we continue to grant perpetrators of sexual violence more credence, power, and sympathy, especially when they are white men.
Brock’s father called the 6-month sentence (3 months on good behavior) a “steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action.” I don’t support the prison industrial complex; it is steeped in racist practices and does nothing to create stronger and safer communities. However, the statement by Brock’s father brought to mind the following questions: How long should Brock have raped this woman in order to, in his father’s eyes, justify a 6 month sentence? Would it be an hour? Two hours? An entire evening?
20 minutes of action.
As I think of my own history of rape and sexual assault, I try to remember how long each episode lasted. A series of numbers, in no particular order, run through my head: ten minutes, five minutes, four minutes, ten minutes, less than 60 seconds, the list goes on. How should I interpret these numbers? How should each of these experiences impact my life? Is it the longer assaults that should carry more trauma and weight?
Too often survivors belittle or question their own experiences because they were raised in a culture that taught to do just that. Society demands that survivors report their assault straight away, remember each tiny detail, and be prepared to cooperate with the justice, medical, and law enforcement systems. This same society also distrusts, casts doubt, and minimizes the stories of Every. Single. Survivor.
20 minutes of rape.
In quantitative time, my longest assault took, perhaps, ten minutes. In trauma time, each second stretched on for hours. I can still recall the terror and powerlessness that pulsed through my entire body. Freezing and dissociating allowed me to make it through but it also means that my body instinctively reverted to these reactions when I feel similarly powerless in other situations. For years, I coached my body and mind into different thought and behavior patterns so that stillness and silence no longer reigned.
When we focus so intently on a detail: time of the assault, what the survivor was wearing, or sexual history, we tell survivors that their pain can be (and should be) measured. You had sex with the perpetrator before? Oh, well just pretend that you consented this time. The actions were basically the same. If you can’t remember the assault then it shouldn’t matter that it happened. We can’t define the harm or impact a rape has for someone else. There is no scale, equation, or metric.
Brock raped someone for 20 minutes.
It’s been years since I was last assaulted and over a decade since the chronic sexual abuse during my adolescence. I still have depressive episodes, anxiety and panic attacks, and nightmares though they are less frequent. I’m stronger now but not immune to triggers and the carelessness of people’s words and reactions to sexual violence.
Recovering and healing from rape and sexual assault is not linear and it looks different from person to person. Like many survivors, I have spent years building, rebuilding, fortifying, and restructuring piece of myself, my environment, and my communities.
Every day we wake up to a world that tells us that our experiences are not valid and that we should be silent. Every day we hear that the lives, dreams, aspiration, goals, safety of perpetrators are valued above our own. The world tells us to repress our feelings and to get over it.
Every. Single. Day. We Defy. The. Wold. Simply. By. Existing.