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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer

Survivor advocate, "Vagina Monologues" speak for victims

I've been a rape victim advocate for quite some time. I have completed two sexual assault training courses for a total of nearly 100 hours of training. I've handled dozens of hospital calls and spontaneous disclosures from friends, relatives and strangers. I have seen as many different reactions to these experiences as I have survivors. I have tried to live through each one with the survivor as if it was my own experience. I'm what you could call a "rape expert," if such a thing exists.

As an advocate, you are taught that there are three things that are the most important to convey to a survivor. Tell the survivor that you believe him or her. Tell the survivor that he or she has options. Finally, tell the survivor that, no matter what, what happened was not his or her fault. Period. Nothing you do, say, take or drink entitles someone to assault you. Nothing.

I think that convincing a survivor that the assault was not his or her fault is the most difficult of the three. We are all programmed along the way to think that the things we do and say "cause" sexual assault. Short skirts, drinking too much and making the decision to go up to someone's room alone are classic examples of ways we find to blame survivors for what has happened to them. Even if we don't think we do it, we do. We expect survivors to be responsible for the behavior of another person. We expect them to answer for their own choices and justify their "role" in provoking that behavior. We expect survivors to explain how and why they got themselves raped.

I suspect that Brian MacMichael didn't intend to demonstrate one of the most complicated and compelling reasons why "The Vagina Monologues" is so important when he wrote in to the Viewpoint section on Monday. But he has. MacMichael probably wouldn't ever ask a survivor outright what he or she was wearing on the night of the assault and comment on how that choice brought on the attack. But he would ask the women performing "The Vagina Monologues" why they cater to the "base sexual passions of male viewers." No, these two things are not the same ... exactly. But both questions ask the object (victim or performer) to answer for the behavior of the subject (perpetrator or audience member). Following this logic all the way down the slippery slope leaves us back where we started - in a world where women cannot speak out, cannot tell their stories and must answer for the actions of another.

Nowhere in his letter does MacMichael hold his sexually ravenous male viewers accountable as part of the greater problem of violence. This is commonly the result of sexual assault - a survivor is asked to justify his or her actions while the perpetrator never answers for the crime. Women's lives are our lives. Our experiences are our experiences. Women must not be forced to censor our lives and experiences to make up for the possibility that these experiences will be viewed as an invitation to objectify us - or to rape us. We are not responsible. We cannot, and will not, answer for the behavior of others. We must work to change the possibility that women will be viewed as objects - or assaulted - instead of asking women to censor their lives.

MacMichael's view of "The Vagina Monologues" also espouses a view of men which I, frankly, find offensive and, for the most part, inaccurate. I'm sure that there are men who go see the play for its frank discussions of sexuality and female genitalia. I'm sure there are a few. But many, and even most, of the men who go to see the play go for the right reasons. They may have a girlfriend who was assaulted, a mother who endured years of domestic violence or a sister who was abused as a child. Men can be, and are, much more caring, compassionate and sensitive creatures than MacMichael seems to think. I will be sitting next to one of them at "The Vagina Monologues" this Monday night. He has stood by me through thick and thin, supported me through everything that has crossed my path. He has been my best friend for many years and will continue to be for many more. He is an example of the best of what men can be for women. And I doubt that he is the only one out there. Many men are "getting it" - and I hope that MacMichael will be one of them.

Kerry WalshV-Day ND 2002 Director-OrganizerClass of 2002Feb. 7