Theory Saves Lives

(TW; mention of sexual assault, self harm)

Inspired by this post, I thought I’d go into more detail here about my relationship with feminism and the effect it had on my life – mainly, because I can be much more eloquent here than I could ever hope to be in class!

As I said in class, I think that feminism saved me. When I was 15, I was sexually assaulted. This isn’t a secret to most people who know me, as I’m open about it now. I’m open about it, because I’m committed to fighting back against sexual violence, because every 2 minutes a woman is raped in America, because 2/3 of assaults are committed by an intimate partner. Mine was. Mine was committed by my then-boyfriend. It took me until I was 21 to speak to anyone about it. In the 4 years since then, I’ve been trying to make up for that time of silence. I took part in feminist activism – participating and organizing Reclaim the Night marches, setting up a Hollaback chapter in Manchester, volunteering for a rape crisis center, fundraising for a domestic violence charity. But before I could do this, I read. I read because I didn’t have the words yet.

The very first thing I can remember reading after it happened was The Bell Jar. Reading that made me feel ok – it made me feel that there were other people who felt odd, disconnected, isolated. I was angry and upset and I didn’t know why yet. I thought it was just a bad night. That was the only way I could function on a day to day basis – to write it off as a bad night. But it was more than that – it was nightmares, self harm, the complete inability to sleep, to talk.  To this day, the only reason I got through being 15 and 16 and 17 – basically, until I went to university – is because I read feminist fiction, and then feminist nonfiction. I lost myself in books, in righteous anger. I learnt words like patriarchy and subjugation. I didn’t yet know how to express it though. It was just inside. I can’t remember this time really, but I can remember the books. I think I drove my parents crazy with the amount of books I bought.

That’s not to say books were the only thing I devoured. This was also the start of my Buffy watching; watching that continues to this day whenever I feel that I can’t face the world. Roxane Gay, a writer whose work I greatly admire, puts it thusly:

I am always interested in the representations of strength in women, where that strength comes from, how it is called upon when it is needed most, and what it costs for a woman to be strong.

What I was looking for was strength. I wanted a heroine, someone who could survive. Esther Greenwood survived. So did Buffy Summers. And so did the feminists whose names I one day embroidered on a piece of cloth; bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Audre Lorde, Betty Friedan, redstockings, and more. They built communities, they made contributions. But most of all, because they survived in an atmosphere so toxic  it must have hurt to breathe.

Fast-forward to 21. I’d just come home from a semester abroad at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville. I was watching an episode of Veronica Mars with my partner. It was the first episode – the one in which the audience is introduced to Veronica, and learn of her sexual assault at a party. I panicked. I made my partner stop the episode. That was me. That was my story. I knew that before, those nights I spent unable to sleep, thinking always, but there was something about seeing it on screen that made it concrete. Remember why representation matters? Try as I might, I’ll never be a blonde high school detective – but that experience was mine. Because I was able to, through seeing it happen on screen, finally deal with what happened to me. That was me on screen, my experience. Shortly after this, when I was able to express what had happened to me finally, I felt free in a way that I’d never felt before. I’d kept this in me for 6 years, hidden it from my family and my friends. Everything I’d read suddenly clicked and resonated on a whole new plane. For the first time in a long time, I felt in control. It was transformative. I felt able to take theory into practice – but that’s not to discount the value of theory itself.

This isn’t to say I still don’t struggle. Following insensitive remarks made to me by a friend, I’ve actually recently had a difficult time of it, sorting through issues I thought long dealt with. But, in many ways, I don’t know if they will ever be gone entirely. It happened ten years ago this New Year’s Eve. Yet I can still recall things about that day that I can’t remember about last Wednesday. So it goes. But feminism(s) gave me the tools to take care of myself – it taught me self-care and love and it gave me a community. It continues to inspire me, to be better yet still and it made me want to engage in the hard work that will help others.

Danielle yesterday remarked that one of her professors in graduate school was given a banner that said ‘theory saves lives’. I know this to be true.

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One thought on “Theory Saves Lives

  1. Pingback: Sexual Violence: Women in Media and Donna Ferrato’s photography | Girlpower

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