Defending our boundaries as survivors: making our lives a safe space

[TW: sexual assault]

Getting a degree in International Relations, as you can imagine, means that both I and my family like to follow the news. Since Trump got elected, my mom has gotten far more interested in both local and international politics, which is a great thing!

Except when it’s not.

Currently the world is on fire over the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, particularly around sexual assault allegations that reveal a systematic pattern of abuse spanning decades.

Of course, I believe the allegations. Of course, I sympathize with the women who have stepped forward and I admire their bravery, being willing to expose themselves to the vicious tiger’s den of public opinion in order to stand up for the truth.

I can’t imagine what that must feel like, having gone through sexual assault myself and currently working my way slowly through the legal system. It’s scary enough to sit across from a single prosecutor or detective and discuss one of the worst nights of your life, no matter how sympathetic and caring that person is. Scary enough to be rushed to the hospital and let another person scrape out your most sensitive areas to collect evidence, no matter how gentle and empathetic they are. Scary enough to consider standing up in a courtroom and letting a defense attorney try to rip your reputation apart so that the person that drugged and assaulted you can go back to his everyday life a free man – free to hurt other people.

But it’s precisely because I know all of these things that I need to put up boundaries and say: enough. I can’t hear anymore. I can’t look anymore. I can’t face that open sore in another woman’s life, knowing that my own heart bears the same wound. I can’t look at another woman shaking on the stand, knowing that I may someday have to do the same. It simply hurts too much. There are plenty of other people to bear testament to this woman’s courage and strength. I don’t need to.

It’s hard to give ourselves that freedom, to let ourselves know it’s ok not to face something that scares us or hurts us. We’re told that we must always face our fears, that it makes us a better person to do so, and that not doing so makes us weak. But that’s not true. Sometimes, it takes courage to say “No, I don’t have to. I can walk away. I can change the channel. I can put up boundaries.” We are consciously choosing that, in the long run, facing this fear doesn’t make us a stronger or better person, and could in fact hurt us: that’s the difference between running away and walking away from your fears.

I’m the kind of person that doesn’t know when to say no and who struggles with boundaries a lot. I have a hard time walking away from a bad situation (part of the reason that I was sexually assaulted, actually) and often let people walk all over me because I try to see the good in everyone, no matter how much others might think they are irredeemable. This sometimes causes me to be manipulative, because instead of just asking for what I want, I talk around a problem in hopes that the other person will see it my way without me having to disclose my needs.

For the past few days, since the allegations about Brett Kavanaugh became big news, my mom has been talking about it a lot, and it had been really bothering me. I tried to just change the subject when she’d discuss it, or make a joke, pretending that she’d said “alligators” instead of “allegations” and acting shocked that a Supreme Court nominee would be keeping exotic reptiles in his dorm room at Yale. I didn’t want to admit that all the talk about sexual assault was bothering me because as a brave, strong survivor, I’m supposed to be able to face this, right?

Last night, after she brought it up again, I finally said, “Can we please make our house a sexual-assault-free space and not talk about these kinds of things? It really upsets me.” It was hard to be so direct but I was proud of myself for being able to address it finally. My mom finally understood why I was so bothered by it and agreed.

However, I wanted to respect her as well as her constant talk about it must mean something, so I asked her why she kept talking about it. Her answer really surprised me.

She said, “Because it’s been 27 years and nothing has changed. It’s just like Anita Hill.” I was confused, and then she explained the story of Anita Hill, a Black lawyer who worked with Clarence Thomas and testified in front of the Senate – in front of a bench full of white men – that he assaulted her. Despite her credible testimony, Thomas was elected and still sits on the Supreme Court today. She was frustrated that nothing has changed during my entire lifetime, and I could completely understand that anger, especially when she told me that it was partly because of my assault that she was so angry.

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Being able to be honest with my mom brought us closer and made me feel better, too. I’m glad I was able to assert my boundaries and respect my own fears rather than feel I needed to be uncomfortable in my own home just because I “should” be over it.

Please know that no matter what’s happened to you, your feelings are valid and you have the right to be uncomfortable or afraid. You have the right to your boundaries and the right to have those respected. Speak up and be bold.

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