The day that we talked about rape jokes

One day this summer, staff of our oldest boys came up to me.

“Jen,” they said. “Can we do a group on rape comments? The sexual jokes keep coming and yesterday [Name] made a joke about what he would do to [Celebrity] if he found her drunk and passed out. They just don’t get that rape isn’t something to joke about. And I think they get so much of this from the internet. They just don’t understand.”

[For a little more context: these boys, besides being clueless adolescents, also happen to all have Asperger’s Syndrome, or related social-cognitive challenges.]

And so the following morning I sat with the group of 13-15-year-old boys.

“Remember a few weeks ago we talked about jokes?” I began.

“Yeah, like the deadly jokes?” one of them asked.

“How you can’t joke about suicide or religion or race,” another added.

“Right. And what did we say about sexual innuendo jokes?” I asked. We quickly reviewed how, at their age, innuendo exists, and it’s funny. It can be funny to look at a banana and think it looks like something else. It can be funny to hear someone say “I blew so hard,” when talking about blowing up a balloon. It’s okay. That’s expected. It just depends on who you share innuendo with, and when. You don’t make that type of joke with a staff member, or a teacher, or a parent.

I asked them if they knew of any other deadly topics that we hadn’t talked about, and after guesses like, “family” and “disabilities” (they are such good kids, SUCH good, sweet kids…), one of them guessed, “sex?” And another guessed, “rape?”

They all burst out laughing. As expected. But I waited, and then I asked them, “Who knows what the definition of rape is?”

As we began to walk down this path of conversation, laughter came in and out, but I held their gaze and I told them, “It’s okay. It’s an uncomfortable topic. People laugh when they feel awkward or uncomfortable. It’s okay. If you need to walk away or take a break, it’s okay.” They all stayed.

We talked about what rape is. We talked about where they hear rape comments (the internet, they said. One boy said, “Everything is inappropriate. It could be a video of a TREE on YouTube, and if you scroll down, there will be racist and sexist jokes and comments about sex.”).

Next we talked about the difference between sex jokes and rape jokes.

“While sex jokes are often “deadly”, meaning that they can have negative consequences depending on who you say them to, rape jokes are ALWAYS “deadly”, no matter who you make them with. And that’s because sex and rape are not the same thing.” I said.

“But they kind of are,” one boy said. “It’s the same actions.”

“I’m glad you brought that up,” I told him. “Does anyone know why people have sex?”

They laughed again.

“Horny!”

“Love!”

I told them they were right. “Does anyone know why someone rapes?”

Silence. And then,

“Attraction?”

“Lust?”

I looked at them and said: “A person rapes for one reason: power. When a person rapes someone, it isn’t about sex. It’s not about attractiveness.”

“Wait,” one boy said. “I get it. So even though the physical actions are similar, the intent is different.”

Another boy added, “I guess you never know what someone has been through, which is why you shouldn’t joke about it?”

Yes. Yes. Yes. Kids are so smart.

“Right.” I told them. And then I shared some statistics about sexual abuse and rape. I watched their eyes widen as they looked around the table, counting the number of boys and the number of women. “Wait….” one of them said. “So someone here might have had that happen to them?”

You just never know. You don’t take that chance.

We talked about how damaging it can be for someone to hear a joke about rape. We played out some scenarios, doing Social Behavior Mapping, to look at the effects of a rape comment. They talked about how maybe people would feel unsafe around them, might be worried that they were going to harm them, might think that they disrespected women and maybe wouldn’t want to be around them anymore. These were their ideas. Their thought processes. They got it.

We talked about the kind of people they want to be. We talked about what they can do if they hear a rape comment or joke. How they could be a bystander or not. How they can choose to laugh or not. How if they choose to laugh, what message it sends. They got it.

We could’ve skipped all this. We could’ve sat them down and said, “You will have a serious consequence if I hear one more of those comments.” We could’ve. But what would that have done? The thing is – we have to have these hard conversations. It’s okay if they laugh. It’s okay if they want to walk away. It’s okay. But we have to talk about it, because otherwise they don’t know. Otherwise they don’t have the space to ask the questions. Otherwise they go on doing what they’re doing because nobody has given them a reason or an opportunity to do otherwise.

So we talk. We have the conversations, and over and over again, we talk.

Let’s try this again

I haven’t sat down to write all summer. Except once, one half-hearted post.

I have missed writing so much.

I could attribute it to working 10-12 hour days, or the heat, or being so exhausted, or writer’s block, or my computer breaking, or just simply not having enough time.

But really, it doesn’t matter why, does it?

What matters is that I have missed it. I need it back.

Writing is so good for me.

There’s so many posts that have been swimming around in my head. Words and sentences floating about that want to be collected and transformed into some semblance of coherence.

I’m going to try.

I have so much to say. About work, about kids and meltdowns and strategies and lessons. About life, about authenticity and discovery. About stories and truth-telling and being real. About everything.

And yet.

I think about finally having this time, and I freeze. My fingers freeze, my mind stops. I can’t find the words and the paragraphs I had so eloquently written in my head are nowhere to be found.

But gently, I will coax them out. Gently, I will return to this habit. Gently, I will find my voice again.

I can’t wait.

Mixed-up middle

I haven’t written in so long. Maybe a month. I hate not writing for a month. As with anything, the longer I don’t write, the harder it is to sit down and write. I can’t think of the perfect post. The words won’t come. I have nothing to say, even though I have everything to say.

So why not just start right here, somewhere in the mixed-up middle of words and ideas?

Like: I’m puzzling over the little details I’m noticing about myself. I’m thinking so much about my cravings to be busy at work, and my difficulty with free time. I’m trying to gently figure out what each means and be observant without being judgmental.

Like: Some days a sunset brings me to tears that yet another day is over already. Other days a sunset brings a sigh of relief, that a new day will dawn soon.

Like: I don’t fit either early-bird or night-owl. My energy has been shifting and I can’t quite make out the pattern of when I am most energized and why.

Like: My hyper-sensitivity is off the charts lately. Today: my heart hurting when I stepped on tree roots, fearful that I was hurting them. (Notice, don’t judge, I remind myself. I am who I am.)

Like:  “The world is unsafe” feeling is big. I find myself unable to read about, or think about, the events around the world because it’s just too big for my soul to hold right now.

Like: Books have been my saving grace ever since I was a little girl, and the comfort I find from knowing I can spend 10 minutes, an hour, or a day reading, is akin to what a child gets from clutching their blankie.

That’s it. That’s what I’ve got for now.

It’s a start, perhaps. A foot in the door at writing again. And this quiet period will end, as it always does, and at some point my fingers will frantically start typing the words again. But for now, we wait.

To the one who saved me by letting me go

What follows is a piece of writing from a dear friend, following one of the hardest actions she’s ever had to take: ending a relationship that was breaking her down more than building her up. I had the  privilege of seeing her through this process and I want you to know how brave she was, and still is. It took bravery to say goodbye, it took bravery to acknowledge what she had been through, and it’s taking bravery to continue to feel the feelings and the after-effects of leaving. While she ends her writing with an apology to her ex-boyfriend, I would argue that she owes nobody an apology, least of all him. I would argue that he’s not collateral damage, but she almost was. So, to her: I am proud of you, I love you, and I want you to always hold tight to the truth you found deep within yourself: that you deserve nothing short of wonderful.


To the one who saved me by letting me go

I have to start by saying that everything we had was real. The chemistry, the adventures, the shared values, the common interests, the good memories – it was all real. But somewhere between the giddy first dates and falling for you, something else happened. I don’t know exactly when, but toxicity crept in. And the self-doubt, manipulation, desperation and rigidity that grew over the next five years – so intense that I completely lost myself – well that was real too. For every high there was a lower low, and the cycle quickly spun out of control.

It wasn’t your fault that I was young, naïve, and didn’t know what a relationship was supposed to look like. It wasn’t your fault that I spent those first few months letting you call the shots without pushing back, because you were the experienced one. It wasn’t your fault that I went through personal challenges in the years we were together. And it wasn’t your fault that I was so blinded by wanting us to be perfect, that I didn’t notice how unhappy I was. But at the same time, you were supposed to show me what a healthy relationship looked like. You were supposed to ask for my opinion and make me feel like it was valued. You were supposed to support me through every challenge, even if you couldn’t make it go away. And you were supposed to show me that I could be honest about my feelings without getting defensive or judgmental. But you didn’t.

I’m still sifting through the distortions I have, trying to figure out which are my own, and which you put in my head. When I avoid the mirror, is it because my body isn’t good enough for me, or because it wasn’t good enough for you. When I turn away from the couple making out on the street, is it because I don’t like PDA, or because I’m jealous that you were never affectionate. When I bite my tongue from sharing my opinion, is it because I’m unsure of myself, or because I expect to be shot down. When I shiver seeing abuse on facebook, or in movies and songs, is it because I feel bad for the girl, or because I was her…  

Ugh that fucking ‘A’ word. It took me a long time to be able to not just say it, but also recognize it as the label for what I went through. ‘Emotional abuse’ is scary and weighted and stigmatized and something that would never happen to me, but guess what? It did. And that makes me feel disgusting. Admitting how traumatized I am feels pathetic. Especially since I called you my protector. But here’s the thing, being willing to walk through fire for someone doesn’t mean anything if you don’t notice you’re the one burning them over and over. You always saw it as looking out for me, as keeping me safe, as validation of your love. But the saying, “it’s the thought that counts” is actually bullshit. In this case, your intentions, however pure you thought they were, resulted in standards I could never live up to, expectations I would never meet, and kept me so confined within the boundaries and rules you set, that I didn’t notice how submissive I’d become. But when the rose-colored glasses came off and I was able to see the truth for the first time, something clicked. So I’ve spent the past few months thinking about what I would say to you, and here it is: thank you. It seems odd after how much pain you’ve caused me, but I want to thank you for three things:  

First, thank you for showing me how to love. How to be so head over heels for someone that no matter how much they drive me nuts, I still want to wake up next to them everyday and do my best to give them the world. Loving you the way I did enabled me to see exactly what giving myself to someone looks like, and showed me that I wasn’t getting that in return. Because the problem is, love, dependence and desperation are all different things. I loved you so hard because that’s how I justified how much it hurt. If I could convince myself that it was mutual, then all of a sudden, it was okay. But is love that isn’t shown or felt even real? I’m not so sure. Maybe you did really love me the best you could, but unfortunately, it wasn’t the kind of love that I needed.  

Next, thank you for showing me what I need in my next relationship. It took me a while to differentiate being selfish from being honest about what I want. Wanting validation, support and encouragement isn’t selfish. Wanting to be with someone who makes me feel on top of the world isn’t selfish. And most importantly, wanting to know every single day that I’m good enough isn’t selfish.    

So here’s what I want. I want to share taste in music, movies and TV shows like we did, but next time, sing along in the car without being yelled at. I want to road trip everywhere like we did, laughing and sharing stories, but next time, without periods of awkward silence after being snapped at for something small. I want to be asked about my plans for the week like you did, but next time, feel support and not guilt for being busy with friends or work or exciting opportunities. I want to spend time with my family and friends like we did, but next time, not have them tell me you treated me like shit in front of them. I want to lie in bed at night and thank god for the amazing day I had like I used to do, but next time, do it because most days are like that, and not because the good days are so rare. Next time, I won’t settle. I won’t confuse double standards for chivalry, rules and restrictions for caring, or jealousy for compliments. Next time, I will again give everything I have, but next time, I’ll get it in return.  

So finally, thank you for letting me go. Ultimately it was me who made the decision to walk away for good, and to choose myself in a way you were never able to choose me, but the irony is that it was your hesitation that gave me the space to do it. Those first few weeks I was furious, I was hurt and I was confused. Now all I can say is I’m relieved. By letting me go, you saved me. I honestly don’t know if I ever would have been able to realize all the things that I needed to realize about you, about me, and about us if you hadn’t insisted that we break up to see if we really wanted to be together. Maybe they would have stayed buried and I would have never known that I was settling. Or maybe they would have built up until I exploded. Exploded one night after a fight in your house, the one you had an extra key to in your pocket the day I walked away. Exploded one afternoon planning the wedding I always thought I wanted, but for some reason could never quite picture. Exploded one day when it came time to talk about kids, the ones you didn’t want but the ones I know I needed. But I don’t have to wonder what would have happened, and if or how I would have reached my clarity, because thankfully I did.   

This will come as a shock to you, but I haven’t cried. Since the day that you insisted you could change and begged me to let you and I said no, I haven’t broken down. And at first that scared me. I thought something was wrong. But then I realized that plenty of tears have already fallen. I was grieving the relationship while it was still happening and I didn’t even know it. I was crying for the things I needed that I subconsciously knew I wasn’t going to get, and crying for the things I didn’t want that you gave me all too often.  

I don’t know if you’ll ever truly understand why I walked away. It might be too painful to accept, and denial is easier. You might be angry with yourself and taking it out on me or other people because that makes sense to you. Or maybe you genuinely don’t think you did anything wrong, in which case, I feel sad for you, because you can’t fix what you can’t see. Contrary to what you might think, I do want you to be happy. I want you to find someone who is everything you need, but by that I don’t mean someone who is a doormat. I hope you find someone who makes you throw your rigid box out the window, not because she asks you to, but because you realize she can’t and shouldn’t need to fit into it.

I really do believe that everything happens for a reason. Maybe you were meant to teach me to trust, to let someone in, and to give all of myself to someone else. Maybe you were meant to help me climb to the top of the cliff, so that when you pushed me off and I came crashing down, I would be able to build myself back up again. I’m stronger now because of you. I’m tougher because of you. I’m going to raise my standards because of you. I’m never going to settle again because of you. I know what I deserve because of you. Next time, I’m going to love harder because of you. And one day, I’m going to get from someone else the selfless love that I tried so desperately to give you. I’m still figuring out what’s next for me, but I only have this chance to truly find myself because of you. So while I’m sorry that you were the collateral damage on this journey of self-discovery, you letting me go allowed me to take it, and for that, I’ll always be grateful.

Silence

Two months ago (how has it already been 2 months?) we moved into our house.

Prior to our move, I was anxious. Anxious to pack, anxious to move, and anxious for the transition.

In particular, I had about 9872134987 feelings about leaving the city. We knew that buying a house and moving to the suburbs was the next step in our life, but, I was worried.

I worried that I’d feel isolated and away from everyone and everything. I worried about the silence.

“I love how in the city there’s always noise,” I told someone. “At night I don’t have to worry about the creaks and noises I hear in the building or outside, because there’s always noise, so nothing is worrisome. I love being able to step outside of my door and have everything right there, everyone out and about. I won’t have that when we move.”

But the day came, and with tears streaming down my face when we said goodbye to the apartment we had lived in for 3.5 years (our first home), we left. And with a lot (a LOT) of help from my parents unpacking and doing projects, and perfectly-timed text messages from a friend who just always knew exactly when I needed her to check in, we settled in.

And something happened.

I fell in love.

I love our house, and our street. We are not in a rural, country town – but our street happens to be the one that goes right through a wooded area. The trees are everywhere, there is green everywhere, and I swear, it’s easier to breathe here. I began walking, often – morning or evening, because stepping outside brings an instant calm. I see bunnies and deer, chipmunks and squirrels, but mostly, I look at the trees, their branches, the green against the blue skies. I hear the birds chirp and the trees rustle. I listen to the noise – which very often, is non-existent. And as it turns out, I like the silence.

As the weeks passed, I realized that I was exhaling deeper as I drove home from work and got closer to home. I realized that on the days I went into the city to meet a friend or go to an appointment, it was actually more overwhelming being around all of the smells, sights, people, and noise. I realized that I looked forward to going home.

So – here’s to our cozy home. Here’s to the woods, to trees and to green, to birds, to stillness and to silence. Here’s to growth, and to the next part of our life. Here’s to finding calm.

Here’s to loving it.

Summer transition

The school year is winding down, and we are in what we know to be really difficult for a lot of our kids: transition.

Some kids are acting the same as they always do. Their behavior hasn’t shifted, and their mannerisms are the same.

Others are silly. Giggly, laughing, hyper, falling off their chairs, bodies flopping all over the place.

Some are weepy. Expressing fear, anxiety, worry, dread.

And others are angry. Seemingly rude, bitter, mean.

Years ago I worked with a 13-year-old at a summer program. All summer long, I was the one she would run away from, the one to whom she’d roll her eyes when I came after her, the one she’d use sarcasm and and an annoyed tone of voice with all day every day. Still I persisted. I adored her. On the very last day of camp, the group was on our way back from our last swimming block. The path split, the group headed in the direction we usually went, although both paths ended up where we needed to be, and she looked at me and said, “Can we walk through the woods path, just the two of us?” The entire walk she said nothing, but wrapped her arm around mine and held on tight. She never shed a tear, she never said “I’ll miss you”. But in her own way, she conveyed exactly that.

This year, one of my little cherubs constantly uses a rude tone of voice with me. I’ll give a direction to the group, and, seemingly exasperated, she’ll interrupt with some sort of off-topic comment, random demand, or expression of displeasure for what I’m saying. (I love this kid. So much. No sarcasm at all.) The thing is – I KNOW she adores me. Looking past the behavior I see the other things: how her behavior escalates when she knows she won’t see me if I have a meeting. How she acts even ruder if I’m paying attention to another kid in the group. How she acted like a bear and then told me she wished she could’ve been on my Field Day team. How she whined all class and then said, “I don’t only want to see you two more times this year!”

Yet again, I have to come back to behavior = communication (I know, you’re so sick of me saying that over and over again).

And this point is so necessary to remember as transitions come up, because amidst the silly, rude, mean, immature behavior, the off-topic comments, the whining, the meltdowns, we have to remember that for them, their world is turning upside down. And not necessarily in a bad way – it’s just shifting. I understand it particularly well, given that at age 28, I still don’t handle transitions well. I’m fine once the event has occurred. But the anticipation of anything, even a positive event, is hard.

Some of our kids are going to a different school next year. Some are entering middle school, some high school. Some staying in the same school and devastated that their good friends will be moving on, or moving up. Some are already worried about which teachers they’ll have next year. Some are excited for summer, and some dread it. Some are busy and kept stimulated, and some sit on their ipads and are bored.

Transitions are hard, especially when you’re particularly sensitive, or autistic, or have executive functioning challenges, or a learning disability, and you’ve spent the entire year acclimating to a routine and structure and now it’s being taken away from you.

What helps: talking about it, constantly. Previewing, constantly. Being transparent, constantly. Throughout the year, I reference the calendar in my room at least weekly. I point out what’s going on that week, if I won’t see a group for a holiday or if I have a meeting, if there are any special events, if it’s someone’s birthday.

This month, we talk about the calendar daily. Every single day we look at it, discuss the events that day, talk about how many days are left in school, how many more times they’ll see me, and their other teachers. Every single day we talk about it, because it helps. Remember, we are talking about kids who thrive on routine, thrive on repetition, thrive on knowing exactly what’s happening when. The more it’s discussed, the more they can accept it and process it.

We talk about how we feel about summer coming. For some, we do it simply: we show how we feel with a thumbs up, down, or medium. For others, we talk about the things we’ll miss about school and the things we won’t. Still, others, we talk about the feelings around moving to high school, saying goodbye to a friend. But we talk about it so we can meet it head on.

Change is hard. For all of us. To different degrees. It’ll manifest itself in a variety of different ways.

Just hold onto that knowledge, as we transition into summer.

It’s time

This has been a long time coming. It started with a whisper in the back of my brain and I wrote Musings. Then it grew to a hunger in my soul and I wrote Telling Stories. And now I just know: it’s time. It’s time to press publish and say:

I am a survivor.

Of sexual abuse. Of sexual assault.

And right now, statistically, 1 in 4 girls, and 1 in 5 women who reading this are going to say, whether in a whisper to themselves, or as a shout out loud: me too.

I walk by survivors every day. I talk to survivors every day. I just don’t know that I’m talking to them, and they don’t know that they’re talking to one too, because nobody is talking about it. Because of fear. Of shame.

Fear and shame that stopped me from speaking about it for years.

But I’m working through it. With some time, some healing, long conversations, a lot of love and compassion, and the guidance of some incredible women, my mindset is shifting. The deep dark secrets I’ve kept don’t have to be deep and dark. And they’re not secrets, they’re stories. Secrecy implies there’s a reason to keep quiet. And with this – there isn’t. And while nothing positive comes out of silence, a lot of positive comes from speaking.

I’m reframing.

Because:

Do people who have been hit by a car feel fear in sharing their story because they think they’ll be blamed? Do most victims of a crime sit and stew over telling friends about the crime that WAS COMMITTED AGAINST THEM because they think people will shame them and point a finger?

When someone is killed, it doesn’t matter if we say killed or murdered. Dead is dead. We don’t only consider it a crime if it was a gun and not a knife. It doesn’t matter if we call it robbery or burglary. We don’t tell someone who had their wallet stolen, “Well, you DID have it in your pocket where it was easy to grab. So you kind of asked for the thief to take it.” We don’t ask victims to defend their experience. Because it was a crime. A crime was committed against them.

This is no different.

People get bogged down in semantics. Was it rape? Sexual assault? Sexual abuse? Molestation? Do the words REALLY matter? Do the details REALLY matter? Does it REALLY matter to know who put what where, and when, and what was I wearing and was I drinking and how old was I and how old were they and were they male or female and how many times did it happen and what’s my favorite color and what color eyes do I have? Does it in any way change the fact that it was a crime, and it happened?

The details matter to me, because they’re my story. My memories. The words of the chapters of my life. But they don’t matter in that they don’t change the underlying truth.

And it’s not “personal”. Because what happened actually had nothing to do with me. It wasn’t my event or my choice, so there’s no reason I should have to hold it as my secret. No reason I should have to carry shame about it.

The point? The point of speaking is to stand in my truth. The point of speaking is to stop keeping a secret that never should’ve been a secret. The point is to release that which I no longer need to hold within. The point is that silence will do nothing for me or anyone else but speaking will. The point is for any of you who read this, sigh, and say, me too. The point is any little bit of courage that this gives another survivor.

And now – I am rooting down. Standing tall. Holding tight. And owning my story.

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