Image: pfly. License here.
In early 2014 I set off on a journey to South East Asia. I was travelling on my own, and for 5 weeks I had the greatest time, enjoying the independence and sense of freedom that solo travelling instilled in me. This sense of liberty was cruelly stolen from me when my drink was spiked in a bar in Thailand and I was consequently sexually assaulted by another foreigner. I was absolutely devastated and flew home to Australia to begin to somehow process the experience.
A reaction that I have gotten a lot from those who know what happened is one commending the way that I have dealt with the experience, and claiming that if it were them they wouldn’t have been able to cope. My response is that I don’t think you can ever predict how you will react to a traumatic event like this. I did fall in a heap when I initially came home. I felt like my mental immune system had been diminished, and all past hurts and sufferings plagued me. My past had become a woollen sweater, with this merciless stranger pulling the loose thread. Everything I thought I knew unravelled around me. But I didn’t want to feel like a victim of my situation, and falling in a heap was disempowering me further. A lot of things began to come up for me; new things that I had never contemplated before, as well as old things that I had thought were lying dead on the bottom of the ocean floor but had now been stirred back to life. I began to try to catch these pieces as they floated back down; to examine what they meant and attempt to put them in their place. I think that this examination has helped me extract some feeling of positive change from my experience, and I believe that I have come out the other side a stronger person, who is more at peace with herself.
My experience triggered an evaluation of the society we live in. I began to contemplate the many ways in which our culture at best tolerates, and at worst condones, the mistreatment and disempowerment of women. This awareness was incited when I was driving and a song, which I previously would have found perfectly acceptable, came on the radio. The lyrics were extremely misogynistic and derogatory towards women, and it left me feeling distressed and disgusted that I had not found such insulting material offensive in the past. Not only this, but I recalled previously enjoying such songs, and felt compelled to go home and clean up my music library. I find it extremely alarming that artists such as Dr Dre, whose songs include lyrics instructing women to ‘get the fuck out’ after ‘sucking their dick,’ are so actively celebrated. It saddens me that we live in a society where sexism is so deeply rooted that such music is so popular amongst both men and women. The derogatory ideas communicated in songs like these are so widely accepted and go largely unquestioned, serving as subliminal messages that society readily consumes.
I began to become acutely aware of other situations in which women are disempowered and objectified; casual sexist jokes and derogatory comments, the prevalence of domestic violence, uninvited and unwanted touching and catcalling, the importance placed upon a woman’s appearance, the alarming number of sexual assault reports in the news, and the exploitation of women in the pornography and sex industries. Such industries objectify women and encourage men to adopt the unrealistic expectation that sexual satisfaction is something that can be purchased and is readily accessible to choice. The porn and sex industries are fundamentally self-centred, viewing sex as an activity in which women can be bought, used and abused as a means to satisfaction, rather than a reciprocal intimacy. And this is all within a Western society in which women can presumably count themselves lucky that they are not subject to widespread customs such as genital mutilation, honour killings, child marriage, sex trafficking and marital rape.
Perhaps what is more important than this heightened awareness, is the newfound recognition I have of the ways that women internalise the messages embedded in this oppression. I began to identify patriarchy as not only a political force outside of us, but also an isolating construct that works within and between each woman. Despite leaps of positive advances for women, we still exist in a society where both sexes are brought up instilled with the same belief; that men are inherently superior to women. I believe that this deep-seated conviction is often the reason women demonstrate such severe judgement and criticism towards themselves and other women. In examining the primary female role models in my life, I recognize the tendency to be quick to criticize themselves, and the inability to accept compliments and praise. Looking back on high school friendships I recall the extensive struggles that my female friends endured with body image, self-esteem, eating disorders and the alarming prevalence of self-harming behaviours. I found my teenage years very challenging. I became trapped in a vicious cycle of depression, and endured an on-and-off 10-year dependence on self-harm to attempt to deal with my negative self-perception. Disturbingly, many of my friends knew of this behaviour, however they were not alarmed as it was considered quite ‘normal’ and many of them engaged in self-harm as well. Ironically, it was not self-acceptance that helped break my lengthy addiction to self-harm, but rather an emphasis on body image and a loathing of the unattractive scars that resembled stretch marks on my thighs that made me stop. These scars now serve as a daily reminder of this intense period of self-hatred and the prolonged struggle I endured with my identity. Now in my mid-twenties I am certain that these issues still prevail amongst my female friendship group, however we have become more accustomed to bottling up and accepting the suffering and less likely to talk about it.
You only need to look at social media websites to observe the increasing hyper-sexualisation of women in western societies. The rise in popularity and use of social media has left me thankful that such unrestricted domains were unavailable to me when I was a young teenager. Websites such as Facebook and Instagram serve as a public sphere in which young girls can post highly sexualized and self-abasing images of themselves, using sex to seek self worth and to be valued by others. A recent example of this is the ‘box gap’ phenomenon, which saw an abundance of Facebook pages crop up that were specifically dedicated to the space between a woman’s thighs. This phenomenon sparked girls to post photos of their ‘box gap,’ with the more space between the thighs the better. How is it that sexual objectification is so deeply rooted within our cultural subconscious that it is somehow acceptable to value a female based on the distance between her thighs? Although wanting to be looked at and desired is normal, women have been portrayed as passive sexual objects so often that this passivity is now considered primary to female sexuality, and we fail to see women as active subjects who similarly desire. In this way, it would appear that the internet, despite all of its advantages, is successfully robbing youth of a wholesome sexual development and making it more challenging for adolescents to shape a healthy identity and perception of self.
Another outcome of our societal norms that allocate power predominately to men, is the difficulty many women experience in expressing anger and exercising assertiveness. I acknowledge that in my experience of sexual assault I was rendered unconscious, and therefore stripped of the opportunity to exercise assertiveness and the choice to participate. However I could only relate my feelings of disempowerment to those I had felt in the past. This generated an exploration of the struggle I have always had in asserting myself and expressing anger. Reminiscing on my teenage years, which are typified for many adolescents as a time of turmoil and heated arguments with parents, I can recall having had only one big argument with my mum and dad. This argument is so memorable to me because it was so unusual for me to express anger. This is not because I did not experience anger; like any hormonal teenager there were many things that angered me. However I was inhabited by a deep-seated belief that anger was ugly and therefore resisted asserting myself.
I have become aware that this struggle is not uncommon amongst women, who have been idealized as quiet, reserved and submissive. Female assertiveness is often perceived as unattractive and aggressive. Women are predominantly socialized to be passive and value the needs of others, often beyond their own needs. This is problematic and can cause women to experience difficulty in identifying and expressing what they want in any given situation. This passivity is highlighted in the widely accepted impression that men are often the seekers of sex and women are expected to be the unreceptive gatekeepers. In my experience, men have often ignored my dismissal of their sexual approaches, and have exhibited the attitude that they just need to try a little harder. This notion is narcissistic and defies the reality that sexual intimacy should be a reciprocal connection between two mutually consenting people. In a society that shapes women to concern themselves predominantly with the needs of others before their own, many women consequently engage in sexual activity that they are not fully agreeing to. It is not my intention to paint men as the ‘enemy’ here. I believe that many men would be horrified to learn that they may have been involved in sexual activity to which their partner was not completely consenting to. The problem is that consensual sex is all too often assumed when neither party out right says “no”. This attitude must be changed, to one where consensual sex is determined when both parties readily and enthusiastically consent.
This traumatic experience of sexual assault has sensitized me to identify the many forms of oppression that women are subjected to in every day life. These instances of widespread disempowerment may individually appear to be inconsequential, however together they contribute to the persistence of a culture that tolerates and excuses rape. It is imperative that we continue to challenge these normalized attitudes towards women, and raise awareness of the damaging repercussions they produce.
In an unexpected way, this stranger’s act of brutal disempowerment has empowered me. To examine myself and the world I live in, to question, rather then accept, society and the messages it conveys. Without establishing a heightened awareness of these issues, I would have struggled to come to terms with my experience. I would have internalized this disempowerment and further distanced myself from my sense of self and others. In this respect, I believe that the trauma and my resulting reflections go hand in hand, and together have resulted in an important period of personal growth. Although I know that this experience will challenge me forever, I believe that it has deepened and inspired me, and at the end of the day I have emerged a stronger and more resilient woman.