On Moving into the Light

On March 5th 2014, I gave a speech for Sexual Assault Awareness Day at the law school. I finally did something I had been thinking and dreaming of doing for 15 years or more, but I was too scared. With the support of the students who organized this day, as well as my husband and daughters, I finally felt ready and able to disclose my own experiences of rape, sexual assault and abuse dating back more than 30 years.

I wanted to use my story to demonstrate to students in the law school that experiences of sexual assault and abuse and rape are actually commonplace among us – that while we carry the scars of these experiences for ever we can and do go on to have happy, successful lives – and that speaking up and breaking the silence is critical to changing the culture, and to ensuring that this is not still happening to so many of us in another 15 years from now.

This is an excerpt from the final part of my speech on March 5th

*      *      *      *      *

I want to conclude by trying to draw out the lessons and linkages I see between my experiences, so long ago, and the present reality for men and women in our law school.

And what each of us, women and men, and whether or not sexual assault is part of your own experience, can do to change the culture.

First: I do not see the culture around the casual tolerance of sexual assault to be all that different now, than it was then.

There are new acknowledgements – the expression “date rape” did not even exist when it happened to me – and new programs – for example the important work of the bystander program here and at other universities.

But the culture of silence and shame remains, in large part.

As does the fear of not being believed.

The fear of being stigmatized for identifying oneself as a survivor of sexual assault.

And even, amazingly, the fear of being seen as a spoilsport without a sense of humor – after all rape jokes are just jokes, aren’t they?

The taboo on speaking up seems almost as strong as it was 35 years ago. We still have to break that taboo.

Second: if we do not speak up, we maintain the taboo and perpetuate the culture.

I decided to share with you in this speech the fact that there were four separate episodes of sexual violence in my life because I have come to believe that if we do not speak up and tell someone, these experiences may become cumulative.

By that I do not mean that if this happens to you once, it will inevitably happen again. But that each time we experience assault or abuse or sexual violence and do not talk about it to anyone, we inadvertently set ourselves up for the next time.

You do not have to wait as long as I did. There are people who will support and stand up for you, who will believe you, and, most important of all, protect you.

Third: I believe that my experiences show that the ways and patterns of predator behavior do not change that much over time. True, there is a new dimension now – the Internet and its potential to be used to stalk, harass, bully and then shun.

But the basic MO of a sexual predator is no different now than it was when the vicar laid in wait for me outside that restaurant in my home town 40 years ago, or when the basketball player was ready to rape his date, or when my domestic “partner” kept me captive by threatening me with the unthinkable. They all used their power to keep me complicit. And however strong we are we are trapped, caught in the web.

This still happens. It happens here and it happens in other places where individuals wield power abusively.

I am telling you about my experiences in order that you can recognize this behavior.

Whether it is happening or has happened to you, or someone you know.

If you feel threatened or targeted – you are not just imagining this or being paranoid – or (the worst false explanation of all) failing to see it as just “a bit of fun”. This is a clear, a recognizable MO – and it is wrong.

Hear what I have told you today and take courage. For your own health, you need to tell someone. Talk to your friends. Expect them to believe and support you.

There are professionals here today who can offer confidential support and counseling. Professional counseling and therapy is a critical part of healing yourself. Don’t think “That’s not my thing.”

Until today, I have taken baby steps towards my goal of being able to break the silence about my own abuse.

I have told each of my three daughters when they were in my view old enough something about my experiences for them to be able to recognize and name sexual assault, rape, sexual predatory behaviors, and physical and sexual violence. Something I was not able to do at their age.

I have done this so that they can always know that they can come to me if anything like this ever happens – or begins to happen or feels like it is about to happen – to them, or to any of their friends.

Today you are all my daughters – and sons.

Whatever your own experiences, what you have heard me talk about today will change you.

Women and men, we are all part of breaking the silence and changing the culture.

This is not just about feeling disgusted about the experiences I have described to you today – about seeing what happened to me as horrible – in a way (sorry), that is the easy part.

It includes speaking up when you have concerns or suspicions about predatory behavior, whether by students or faculty.

It includes asking your friends if you suspect they may have experienced an assault, or fear assault, or are the object of predatory behavior. If you care about them, don’t be afraid of asking them. And keep asking if you are concerned. They probably won’t tell you the first or second time you ask….

It includes believing those who find the courage to tell you what has happened to them. Please, believe them.

It includes thinking twice about whether some behavior is “just a bit of fun” and resisting the crude stereotype that women who speak out about sexual violence are over-reacting. They are not. More likely, they are under-reacting.

We all know where the lines of appropriate behavior should be drawn. We do not need to get all lawyerly about this. We know what is right and what is not right.

We know what kind of a place we want our law school to be. We want it to be a place where men and women together understand the damage and trauma inflicted by sexual violence – where we are committed to developing a culture in which sexual assault, abuse and violence is not acceptable – and in which we are all empowered to speak up, to break the silence, and to heal.

Let’s move forward together into the light. We can all be a part of this.

Dr. Julie Macfarlane


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