Whenever a woman experiences sexual assault on a television show, it only ever goes one of two ways:

  1.    She starts crying and doesn’t stop for at least two full episodes, gives an emotional speech, and then gets over it.
  2.    She doesn’t show any emotion except mild anger for at least two full episodes, everyone calls her a strong female role model, and then gets over it.

Artwork by Shiqian Cui

Of course, I always knew I’d be the latter. Never considering myself a particularly emotional person – at least definitely not in public – having a meltdown over something that was ‘not my fault’ and entirely out of my control sounded far too dramatic.

“Why would anyone ever blame themselves?” and “Wouldn’t you just be outraged at  the attacker?” were questions I asked while cursing the aesthetically-pleasing mental-breakdown sequences on screen. It just didn’t make sense- why couldn’t the women on TV be tougher? I knew I would be.

So after I was assaulted too, all I could think of was how I’d let my past self down. For days I hated myself (even more than usual) for always crying. I had become that girl- the one I had always found irritating.

Artwork by Shiqian Cui

It didn’t help that with every conversation I had, people would cover up their pity – or at least attempt to – by reminding me of how brave I was being. Every person I spoke to and every article I read repeated “how brave victims are for coming forward”. Which I guess is true, but slightly hard to believe when you’re sitting in a room, staring at the ceiling for five hours trying to keep it together (on a good day).

Of course, all the articles assured me ‘not to blame myself’ and ‘not to feel guilty’ (that is, when they didn’t focus on the perpetrator’s motives). As I said before, these seem like statements so obvious that until recently I would have considered ridiculous, as I’m sure many people still do. But I’ve learnt to accept the truth- those feelings of self-blame are just as inescapable as they are incomprehensible.

The self-blame-game is a constant cycle no one ever manages to put into words, so here is my attempt at its interpretation- stemming from the undeniable truth: it could have always been worse.To summarise- in my brain, I know this sexual assault was not my fault. Yet, when stuck in a constant loop of ‘but if you look at it this way…’ it’s hard to convince your heart otherwise.

So, to my past self:

“Why am I just sad, and not angry?”

I still can’t answer this question with a simple sentence, but I hope that mindmap begins to explain why it’s so complicated.

Of course, throughout this whole emotional roller coaster, I, like many others before me, made the mistake of turning to Google for advice. I’ve already mentioned how the vagueness and general statements of most articles I came across were frustrating at best, but these are just personal annoyances (although here is a lone resource I found helpful). The real issue lies within popular media.

Artwork by Shiqian Cui

Recognising “the victim’s”* emotions following sexual assault has finally become more common, mostly due to the MeToo movement. However, that doesn’t change the fact the two ‘TV pathways’ I outlined earlier, although joking in tone, are not an exaggeration. Superficial and quickly dismissed, female characters are too often trivialized to just an over-dramatic woman, only labelled as “brave” when convenient for plot development and publicity.

For instance, it’s no secret Game of Thrones is an extremely graphic show, but Sansa Stark’s rape in Season 5 was used as a mere trigger for a male redemption storyline. Any following emotional factors were pushed aside- making room for a more simple and popular battle narrative. Hey, at least the shock value gave people something to talk about, boosting ratings. Even Breaking Bad’s marital assault of Skyler White in Season 2 was brushed over, occurring briefly in one episode and then never mentioned again- either on screen, or online by viewers. Completely ignored.

Of course, some assault scenes are handled well, but the bad greatly outnumber the good. Click here to see an expansion of Sansa’s story, as well as a few more analyses. Still, popular examples are limited due to the lack of sexual assault acknowledgement in mass media at all.

In fact, it’s almost impressive how sexual assault’s quickly-dismissive handling is just so careless, that despite it’s few actual mentions, still manages to have such a lasting negative impact on teenage girls. To the point where these girls might start to discredit their own emotions, in fear of being seen as being weak.

Artwork by Shiqian Cui

Just look at how fast the “victims” on screen seem to ‘get over themselves’, implying it’s unnecessary to process your emotions at a normal pace- although in reality, rushing through the cycle will probably just lead to denial. Which does nothing but intensify the self-blame-game through subconscious worrying.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, considering how popular media usually treats women. There are too many articles regarding a lack of representation, like this Bechdel Test explanation and analysis by the BBC, or these general statistics. Not to mention all the times sexual harassment isn’t even called out, but romanticised instead. What message does this reflect about our society? What message am I, and all other young people, meant to take from this?

Still, you know what, at least in these admittedly awful and damaging examples, the focus remains on “the victim”. Repeatedly, we prioritize the perpetrator instead. Why are millions of dollars put into thousands of documentaries (Making a Murderer, the Confession Tapes, and the Ted Bundy Tapes to name a few), exploring the minds and motives behind the male attackers? Whilst no one mentions the thousand hours of crying and the thousand hours of meetings I, and millions of women before me, were forced to go through?

Why can we name hundreds of infamous abusers, and none of their “attention-seeking victims”? We should learn from the recent New Zealand terrorist attack- don’t say the attacker’s name; don’t give him the attention.

Artwork by Shiqian Cui

Of course, male victims of sexual assault exist too, and are valid. Yet their sporadic voices cannot be allowed to overpower the widespread, constant fight between women and mistreatment- now normalised to the point of being mundane.

Overall, this long story of sexual assault and short story of self reflection has brought to just one conclusion- I now speak directly to all women, victims or not.

And I say all women because something further the media ignores, and men often don’t seem to acknowledge, is the vast majority of women experience sexual harassment- if not assault. It’s not just something that happens ‘that one time’ in ‘that one neighbourhood’ to ‘that one girl’ on the news. It happens every day, all the time**.

So to all women, teenage girls and elders alike: I speak to say the self-blame-game is real and it’s painful, but it doesn’t matter if it could have been worse. It doesn’t matter how bad it was for you, because the point is it’s bad enough for too many.

I may not have been angry before, but I am angry now. And you should be too.

 

Artwork by Shiqian Annie Cui, Pearson College Year 44

 

*I say “victim” in quotation marks because, to me, it does nothing but imply weak connotations. Having said that, at least it also conveys the message the assault was not this person’s fault, and I have no better suggestion for what word to use (the other option, ‘survivor’, being even worse in my opinion). Maybe I should come up with my own term- how about “the affected”? Although that sounds a bit too alien-esque…

**This is the point of the MeToo movement: sexual harassment/assault happens in your school, in your workplace, and in your family. To your mother, sister, and friend. Just ask- I’m sure every woman you know has at least one story relating to them, or someone they’re close to. Whether it’s being catcalled on a street for the first time, or a creepy uncle staring at her chest. But to be honest, I shouldn’t even refer to these women as ‘mothers’, ‘sisters’, and ‘friends’. Because it shouldn’t matter who sexual assault or sexual harassment happens to, or if you know them personally or not. Each of those women is her own person, and you should be disgusted on behalf of all the “victims” out there.

Asia Pesaro

Author Asia Pesaro

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  • j says:

    You know making a murderer is about how the dude is probably innocent, right? It outlines all the shady things the police did and what happened to him and his family. It’s not comparable to the Ted Bundy Tapes. Otherwise, great article.

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