The Horrors Denial Permits

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Leela G. ID Check By Leela Ginelle, PQ Monthly Our culture practices an unspoken agreement that what happens in people's homes is their business. This agreement, unfortunately, results in huge numbers of perpetrators and survivors — mammoth amounts of domestic abuse, sexual assault, torture, etc. Domestic privacy, theoretically, is value neutral. Humans, though, are violent creatures, in a way our society hasn't begun to acknowledge. A look at American television shows and movies reveals people who thwart violent crime in public, while enjoying tranquility at home — entertainment told almost always from a male perspective. For a starkly different view of things, one can examine abuse statistics, which reveal our society to be a gauntlet for girls, 20% of whom experience sexual assault during childhood. Males fare somewhat better, with 5 to 10% reporting childhood sexual abuse. Seventy five percent of these survivors are victimized by someone they know. College, as we're now learning, is a continuation of this trend, as one in four women — assuming statistics are not underreported — is sexually assaulted while attending post-secondary school. Numbers like these are horrifying, as are studies like that which emerged from the University of North Dakota last year, in which nearly one in three male students responded that, if they knew they would not be caught, they would act on "intentions to rape a woman." We talk often about equality in our culture. Politicians and commentators debate the pay wage gap and the lack of female representation in executive positions, as well as prestige fields, like finance and tech. I can't help think, though, that these talks pale in importance to those we should be having nonstop about the prevalence of rape we collectively ignore. When I began to recall the sexual abuse I'd suffered, then repressed, when young, I talked about it with friends. In doing so, I learned nearly every female I knew had been raped in high school or college. None had prosecuted their assailants, just as I hadn't. Each of us had coped as best we could, in a culture that denied such events occurred. Perhaps because I actively grieve my sexual assault experiences, I'm sensitive to messages about rape in our culture. When a comedy makes a reference to prison rape, therefore, I find it not funny, as is apparently intended, but pathological. All of us assume rape is endemic in male prisons, and our response is to uncomfortably laugh. What do we assume about young adulthood? A recent trial in Tennessee revealed three Vanderbilt football players carried an unconscious young woman into a dorm room and violently raped her, before dragging her back into the hall. The assault only came to light when campus security reviewed video footage from a dorm hallway camera upon investigating a vandalism complaint, and then pieced together events from the football players' phones. These are not the stories we tell about intimacy, romance or private lives. We create thrillers about dangerous strangers who need to be caught, and horror movies about forces invading our homes and bodies. We seem not to have the capacity or will to talk about family members or partners who violate the ones they're closest to. By not creating that space, we force survivors to live in shame and secrecy, a circumstance that often leads to addiction and/or self-harm. Likewise, we affirm to perpetrators that what they're doing, while theoretically wrong, is both permissible and invisible. At the football players' trial in Tennessee, the victim, who was a defendant's girlfriend at the time, testified she had no memory of the assault. The jury saw the phone videos — of a defendant passing out condoms, playing pornography of the computer, instructing the others about what to do with her incapacitated body. Sometimes I think we, as humans, have no idea who we are. I have memories of things that happened to me that would be unwelcome in any but the most therapeutic setting. I've pledged to myself not to bury or deny them, though. In seeking out abuse statistics, and following crime stories, I can construct a shadow world, one not normally acknowledged, in which my experience is not isolated, but terrifyingly typical. It's self-evidently unhealthy to preserve a privacy that permits sexual assault, an arrangement that allows one in five girls and one in four female college students to be violated with virtual impunity. A system like this, which, rather than assuring women enjoy physical security, provides cover to those who would rob them of it, often those with whom they're most intimate. I've spent years wondering what the basic experience of being would feel like had I never been physically and sexually assaulted. Love making, daydreaming, navigating my day and drifting to sleep — all aspects were colored by brutality. I'm glad to purge the trauma, because I detest those who committed it, and the denial that gives them, and every perpetrator, cover. Leela Ginelle is a playwright and journalist living in Portland, OR. You can write her at