Speaking truth to dogma

For years I have shuddered at the thought of seeing my own printed name in the context of rape. However, I am increasingly convinced that it is essential for survivors of rape to reclaim our own voices in the face of those who claim to speak for us. The events of the last few weeks, particularly the bravery of those who have come forward to the administration about being assaulted and those who spoke and listened at Take Back the Night, have only reaffirmed this conviction. No one can describe any universal experience of rape. There are not a single prescribed set of feelings, no prescribed level of grief or anger or pain, no set timetable for recovery. I can only speak to my own experience as a survivor, and a central part of that experience has been a need to speak for myself and believe that my words have power and validity. Challenges to that voice seem to come from unlikely places, and often, I think, without any intent of doing so.

Several weeks ago during “Celebrate Life Week” we all received a flier entitled The Silent Epidemic in our SU boxes. On page six the article “What About Rape and Incest?” caught my attention. As a survivor of date rape, I am curious about what different groups say on the subject. So I read the article. Twice. There it was, “Pregnancy resulting from sexual assault is actually a contraindication for abortion. A doctor treating a sexual assault victim should advise against abortion. . .abortion only adds to and accentuates the traumatic feelings associated with sexual assault.” While I did not become pregnant when I was raped, my experience does raise serious concerns about these statements.

First, in any rape, a woman’s control over her own body is fundamentally denied. I remember feeling extremely alienated from my own body after being raped, looking in the mirror and seeing a figure that was entirely divorced from “me.” While for some women it may be true that carrying a child conceived in rape is a therapeutic healing experience, for others it may prolong their pain and self-revulsion. Rape inherently denies a person’s physical self-determination. Being able to choose between continuing a pregnancy and getting an abortion allows a woman some control over the ongoing physical effects of rape and allows her to reassert some of the physical self-determination that she has been denied. It is not the specific choice she makes but rather the act of choosing that is so crucial.

Second, in this situation, a woman’s doctor is a crucial source of information and support. He or she has the important role of caring for a woman’s physical health at a very difficult time in her life, and part of that role may involve answering questions about abortion. It is the doctor’s responsibility to answer those questions with the best available information. If he or she has strong moral objections to answering such questions, then it is his/her responsibility to refer the woman to someone who can do so. Advising for or against an abortion based on non-medical reasons continues to deny the woman the ability and, in fact, the right to make choices regarding her physical self-determination.

Finally, in stating that sexual assault is a contraindication for abortion (i.e. no woman should be able to have an abortion after sexual assault) and in drawing blanket statements about how women feel and what women should do after being raped, the article again denies survivors a voice. Many survivors share my experience of having their voice, their “No,” disregarded or even scorned by the rapist. After being raped, I doubted for a long time that my thoughts and voice had any power or validity on their own. I preferred to stay silent, with the belief that words not said could not be scorned. Speaking became a risk I was loath to run. With time, it became a healing process I could manage only with a few close friends. It is only now, nearly four years later, that it has become an opportunity and a source of power. Being able to reassert my voice has been a crucial step in feeling healthy, happy, and strong. It has also made me realize that in attempting to speak in the best interest of all survivors, articles like this do us a great disservice. They contain the inherent implication that they know better than an individual survivor does what is right for her, and that is both insidious and insulting.

Every survivor has her own story, and some of the most inspiring women in my life are those who have reclaimed their bodies and their voices after feeling that they had been stripped away. That publication, or any others that claim to know what is best for survivors, would better convince me of their commitment to this group of people by putting their time and resources into prevention and education about rape. We are capable of speaking for ourselves and making our own difficult decisions, and any attempt to deny that, no matter how well intentioned, creates only frustration and pain.