Disclosing Before Dis-clothing (Yeah, It’s Weird)

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

I was originally planning on talking about vulvodynia this week, but it’s the Clothesline Project week here on campus, and I can’t think about rape, child abuse, domestic violence, the causes of the Russian Revolution and vulvodynia all in one week. Too draining.

So instead we’re going to talk about another issue the Clothesline Project brings up: how do you bare the scary parts of your identity (I’m going to be talking about “being a rape victim” here, although you can pick your own trauma and some of my thoughts will still apply) to the people who need to know without literally wearing them on your sleeve?

For myself, I can reject the “I don’t need to talk about it” answer without much thinking about it. I do need to talk about it. Call it the curse of the history major–whether I look at it as a good or a bad thing, my experiences of abuse and rape and weird crippling depression have made me who I am, and if you don’t know about my rape, you’re never going to fully understand me. Fact.

Unfortunately, I’ve found that if you hear that I’ve been raped, and then you stop listening, you’re even more likely to misunderstand me than you were in the first place.

Some of the things people have said to me, upon hearing some part of my story:
[somebody I was dating] “You seem like a handful… I’m not really sure I want to do this anymore.”
[after hearing that I was drunk, relieved] “…oh, so it wasn’t real rape.”
[after hearing that it’s happened more than once] “What do you think it is about you that makes people want to hurt you? I mean, there’s got to be something…”
[the cops, after they made a joke and I laughed nervously at it] “Are you sure you were raped? You’re not acting like a rape victim.”
[a week after the rape] “You’re acting really happy for someone who’s just been raped… you’re not taking this seriously enough.”
[a few months after the rape] “You shouldn’t still be dwelling on it… no, it’s never happened to me, but still. I think you would be happier if you got over it.”

After hearing this sort of stuff more than once, you get to a point where you’re like “Should I shut up about it and never feel really understood by anyone ever again, not to mention have no support system when things do get bad, or should I keep trying to tell my own story and keep having to hear this sort of crap and fighting off the urge to believe it about myself?”

(Also: if you’re reading this, and you don’t understand what’s offensive about any of the statements up there, please raise your Internet hand and I’ll try to explain. Some of them are things I used to say or believe, so I really do want to talk about them.)

It should be obvious what route I’ve picked–disclosure, and hope the SSRIs kick in when people are mean–even if it’s not obvious to you why I’ve decided to go with it.

And it should be obvious that there’s a lot more decisions that come along with that one. When are you going to disclose? To who? What exactly are you going to say?

A few years ago, when I was trying to settle on a phrase to describe my high school experiences, I felt “sexual abuse” was closest to what had happened, but whenever I said that, I think people assumed that I was touched by my priest at the age of five, and I felt intensely guilty that they were assuming something that wasn’t true. What if I told them the whole story later, and they were disappointed, because “That wasn’t as bad as what I thought had happened–you were sixteen, it shouldn’t have been such a big deal” and now they thought I was being a drama queen?

(This isn’t a theoretical worry–somebody once got upset with me because I had used “rape” to describe something that had happened without serious physical injury. “You should have said ‘date rape,’ ” he said. “Because rape is a lot worse.” At the time, I actually apologized. I shouldn’t have.)

What I’ve come to think: it’s not your responsibility to make sure people draw all the right conclusions from your disclosure, and this applies no matter what you’re disclosing. It’s in your interest that they draw the right conclusions, sure, and so it’s something you’re going to think about, but making unjustified assumptions makes an ass out of them, not you.

But we’re all people and we’re all going to make an unjustified assumption or two, especially when it comes to something as complicated as sexual violence. So how can you best disclose in a way that gets across what you want to get across without handing out a pamphlet? I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the past couple of months, and I’m still trying to work it out.

Given what I know about myself personally, I do feel that it’s my responsibility to disclose to anyone I’m planning on kissing. Freaking out during intimacy for no apparent reason isn’t contagious like, say, herpes, but I’m told that it’s really upsetting and even potentially traumatizing to have your partner start crying and not to know what’s going on.

Disclosure is also, obviously, better for me: if I’ve told my partner what to do in case I start acting weird, I feel safer being intimate with them and am therefore less likely to freak out.

Unfortunately I have a compulsion to over-explain. Although “No” should always be sufficient reason to stop a sexual activity that I don’t want, I have this persistent (if incorrect) feeling that my partner deserves an explanation because “No” can’t possibly be good enough.

(I recently realized the reason for this–“No” wasn’t good enough for my abuser, and I sometimes think that if I had just said “No” the right way, it never would have happened… so now I’m applying that to everyone I’m with, assuming that they, too, need to hear “the right No” in order to respect it. Unfair? Maybe. Entirely rational defense mechanism? Yes.)

And saying “hey, as an abuse survivor sometimes I put up my boundaries at seemingly arbitrary points and you shouldn’t worry too much about it” beforehand is a lot less awkward than blurting out some uncomfortable physical detail of your rape in the moment (trust me on this one).

But does that mean it’s easy to explain these things? Hell no. I’m convinced that every potential partner is going to hear “rape” and decide there are easier people to have sex with, rather than think “hey, the fact that she’s being open about this must mean she actually has her shit together…”

So that’s me for the first three weeks of a relationship–looking for the right opening and praying you’ll be willing to listen to me and take me at my word for it (if I say “I’m OK,” treat me like I’m OK, please) when I finally do feel comfortable enough to tell you.

No fun games this week (that kissing game? is, I think, the only sex game anyone needs, ever) and not even any hard and fast rules, because it turns out disclosure is different every time with every person. Maybe the lack of conclusions makes this another self-indulgent column. Or maybe you found it helpful in thinking through your own questions about disclosure.

Either way, we’ll close with a few inspiring examples of ways I’ve disclosed to brilliant success.

(Note that none of them involve metaphors–“so I got raped by this dude once, like our country is getting raped by the Republicans” is not OK, on, like, so many levels. SO MANY.)

(Also, number four is pretty explicit if you’re not into that sort of thing.)

1. I suspected a conversation was going to turn into a one-night stand. “So I’m part of Swat Survivors,” I said, casually. I think he said “I’m sorry.” Two hours later, when I was starting to get worried I had blown it, he says “So since you’re part of Swat Survivors… I guess it’s doubly important that I ask if you want me to kiss you?” I was charmed to pieces.

2. Not specifically disclosure, but one time I was on a first date and the conversation turned towards our least favorite words in the German language. His was something phlegmatic and ugly and entirely predictable, but all I could think of was “Muschi,” which sounds like “mushy” but with a German accent. He looked a bit surprised that I had steered the conversation towards sex, but now he knew never, ever, ever to call my vagina a Muschi, ever. And he didn’t.

3. [over a dinner date, discussing a seemingly benign sexual activity] “Uh, so, I’m not really comfortable with that because, well, I was sexually abused when I was younger, and we used to do that… but other activities are not nearly as triggering. We should just stay away from that for now, because I need to trust you a lot more than I do to be OK with it.”
“I’m so sorry to hear that… [beat] Are you OK? I mean, I’m not sure I’ve ever slept with anybody who has been abused.”
“Well, you have slept with what, ten women? So the chances are good.” [my ‘uncomfortable truths’ laugh] “But anyway, you should treat me just like you would treat anyone else. Really. I’m not made of glass, just surprisingly resilient and bizarrely self-reflective mirrors.” [hand squeeze, serious consideration of employing fun-house metaphor, rejected] “It’s just that I feel comfortable with you and I want you to realize where I’m coming from when I slow down the pace.”
“I can respect that.” [hand squeeze back] “And I appreciate that you trust me enough to tell me…”

(Note about what works in this situation: the listener never belittles my fears by saying “Sure, your rapist hurt you, but I’m not like that.” Maybe he’s not. But he’ll show that through his actions, not his words. Words, as you learn when you get raped, often don’t mean anything.)

4. After I had slept with somebody a few times, and it was becoming apparent that I was going to sleep with them some more, I really wanted to tell them what had happened. But oops! We had been already been playing with power-play, with him as the dominant, and I didn’t want him to say “You’re using me to re-enact the abuse, you crazy bitch.” (This will be another column topic–BDSM and survivor issues may apply to a small segment of the population, but we’re an under-served one.)

So I just said it, and crossed my fingers, and added “I know you’re going to feel funny about this, since we’ve been putting you in the dominant role in bed, but that’s what I like, I’m comfortable with it, and I don’t want anything to change. Trust me on this one.”

The next time we slept together, he did the most perfect thing he could have done under the circumstances–he put on his dominant face, he ordered me to stroke my fucking clit, and said that tonight I was going to be on top, and he didn’t want to hear any complaints.

Was there a better way to handle the situation? He was keeping the dominant element I liked in our interactions, but letting me know that he had heard me, that he cared about me, and that for tonight he wanted me to feel as safe and in control as (submissively) possible.

…and that, my friends, is one of the five most beautiful things that has ever happened to me.

Disclosure. Sometimes people use it to make you feel crazy. But sometimes it works.

May you all be comfortable in your own damn skin until next time,

Dr. Strokes