Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Goodreads Giveaway - Memory in Silhouette

I'm giving away 10 copies of my book of poetry, Memory in Silhouette on Goodreads. Enter by January 11, 2018 to win 1 of 10 copies.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Memory in Silhouette by T.L. Cooper

Memory in Silhouette

by T.L. Cooper

Giveaway ends January 11, 2018.
See the giveaway details at Goodreads.
Enter Giveaway

Friday, November 17, 2017

Shame: An Old Foe Still in the Shadows

Shame... Shame on you... Shame on me... You have no shame... Shame... Sighs!

I am not ashamed of who I am or my life experiences. I am not ashamed...

And, yet, there have been far too many moments of my life lived in shame, lived in the shame of someone else's perception of my existence and my experiences. We all have. We wear shame like a prism of everything we've done wrong shrinking us into our smallest selves and projecting reasons to not be loved into the world.

I recently read I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't): Making the Journey form "What Will People Think?" to "I Am Enough" by Brené Brown (read my review). When I started it, I had no intention of doing the exercises; however, I quickly changed my mind. As I read I realized that to have the full experience, to truly understand the book, I needed to do the exercises. Still, to be honest, I didn't
expect to get much out of it... 

After all, I'd already done this work... I was sure of it. I'd watched Brown's Ted Talks, including the one, Listening to Shame. I'd taken a couple of her classes, listened to her interviews and presentations, and worked through exercises she offered online. So, I'd done the work... Yes, I had.

So I was surprised when I started working through the exercises and discovered the residual shame in my life. I felt resistant to some answering some questions even though I was the only one who would ever see those answers. I felt reluctant to put into words how certain people and societal norms have made me feel about my life, my experiences, my choices at various times in my life. 

In the midst of reading the book, someone dear to me commented to me that someone else had no shame. While I understood her meaning, I winced, but she needed to be heard and understood not judged, so I listened and tried to understand where she was coming from. I didn't really know how to respond, but I tried. I wanted to be empathetic, but I also felt uncomfortable with the idea of the need for shame.

Over the next few weeks as I continued to read I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't), I explored the difference in shame, blame, and accountability particularly comparing the ideas presented in the book to how the three manifest in my life. I came to realize that when the friend I was talking to referred to shame, she meant accountability. Yet, shame is the language we use. Shame is what we're used to, so we fall back on it time and again even when what we really desire is accountability.

For a long time I've held onto shame for the actions of other people even when I knew I shouldn't. I've not only blamed myself for their actions but shamed myself on their behalf, on society's behalf. I, like many women, have silenced myself to avoid being shamed. I have allowed people to shame me into hiding much of myself. I've allowed people who would tell me that I had no reason to be ashamed even as they shamed me into silence.

Life is complicated and it's easy to cast shame on another without giving it a second thought. Sometimes it even feels like shame is the only way to get through to people. The research Brown and others have done find over and over that people mired in shame are less likely to change their behavior than people who can see the difference in blame, doing something bad, and shame, being bad.

My introduction to Brené Brown was her Ted Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, which I referenced in Finding Strength in Vulnerability. I saw it shortly after I'd spent a year pushing myself to do things that made me feel vulnerable. After years spent building walls around myself, I had to force myself to allow myself to be vulnerable. It took effort and it took time, and I'm still not great at it. I wrote numerous poems about the connection between vulnerability and strength, even more than what I included in Strength in Silhouette: Poems and Vulnerability in Silhouette: Poems, my two books of poetry exploring vulnerability and strength, and I've come to realize that many of those poems also explore my relationship with shame and blame.

Until I worked through I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't), I would've told you that I didn't live in shame. I would've said that I knew the difference thinking I'm a bad person and recognizing that I'm a person who did something bad. I would've told you that I held myself accountable for the things I did bad and that I tried to do good in the world. And, I wouldn't have been lying. I truly believed that about myself.... And, it's true in many instances, but not in all. I realized as I read the book and worked through the exercises that I have a tendency toward silencing myself when I think someone might put me in shame. I also have a tendency to replay small mistakes over and over in my head until I turn something someone else has already forgotten into a reason for that person to despise me.

Shame is pervasive in our society. We want people who make mistakes to be shamed rather than take the blame, hold themselves accountable, and make changes. There's something about shame that feels satisfying to those who are shaming others, at least in the moment. I think later it feels dirty and cheap, yet we keep doing it, almost like it's an addiction. But shame always comes back to us, even if its just in the shame of shaming others.

This past year my writing suffered as I dealt with past "shames" that silenced me. I wanted to write about certain life experiences, but I kept stumbling because I kept falling into the "What will people think?" trap. I excused it because when I've been open about my experiences in the past, I have been shamed time and again. I've lost relationships that mattered to me. I've had people try to rewrite my history into one they felt more comfortable being around. So, when I started trying to write about those aspects of my life I feared getting those same responses, those same doubts, those same attitudes... And, I didn't live in shame anymore... No, I didn't... I was convinced I didn't. Instead I lived in silence while pursuing a career dependent on being visible... That's not exactly a recipe for success.

I almost started the previous paragraph "I'm ashamed to admit that I've allowed my writing to suffer this past year as I dealt with past shames that silenced me." We incorporate shame language into everyday conversation with the same ease we incorporate banal greetings like "Hello" and "Goodbye" without even thinking about what that language does. I've been working on becoming more aware of my language when I'm talking as well as when I'm writing and have been appalled at how often shame words sneak into my communication when that's not at all my intention. I'm working on changing that.

Intellectually, I've understood for a long time that making a mistake didn't make me a bad person, and I've particularly understood that about other people. Yet, somehow even with this understanding and even with the ability to tell myself this in most instances, I still find myself pulled into the hole of shame. 

I like to think I've developed a certain shame resiliency as Brown defines it in I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't), but I wonder sometimes. If I had more shame resiliency, perhaps, those silences I mentioned earlier would've have become my shield against being shamed. If I had more shame resiliency, maybe I wouldn't let my work suffer because I fear other people's reactions. If I had more shame resiliency, maybe I'd be...  a better person? perfect? enough?

Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Winds of Chaos - Dona Nobis Pacem

In a world where it feels like chaos dominates our lives, it can be hard to recognize peace when it arrives. Sometimes, though, we have to grab the little slivers of peace that sneak into our lives and cling to them like they are life preservers.

When all we see is the chaos and pain life offers, peace slides into the recesses where it hides leaving us to question if there really is such a thing as peace at all.

We spend so much time highlighting violence and hatred and vitriol that we ignore kindness and love and compassion. Not only are we surrounded by the chaos of violence in the real world, but we surround ourselves with it in our entertainment. We invite chaos into our lives even when there's no reason. We binge watch the violence in fiction and pretend like it's separate from real life. We want justice against the chaos even if we can only find it in the violent acts of fictional good guys exacting revenge on fictional bad guys. But, I wonder if we've become so jaded that we can't be entertained without some sort of violence or reference to violence. 

I have to believe that kindness, love, and compassion have the power to overcome violence, hatred, and vitriol. Where is that story? Where is the entertainment value in peace? Where is the jolt that keeps us engaged in peaceful pursuits? How can peace feed our need for an adrenaline rush? How do we make peace entertaining? How do we find value in peace when violence is what sells? 

As a writer, I ask myself these questions daily. As a human being, I long for the answers. 

Looking back at my past offerings for the Blog for Peace project, it seems like I once thought I had more answers than questions... 

Today, I feel full of questions...

I've heard many people say that what we focus on multiplies, so I'm left to wonder what would happen if we focused on seeing the good in one another instead of the worst. What would happen if we focused on love instead of hate? What would happen if we focused on peace instead of chaos?

What if instead of dividing ourselves based on what someone else tells us makes us enemies, we took the time to actually get to know one another?

We live in a world where chaos and war and violence and crime are more profitable than peace and love and compassion. How do we change that? How do we find a way to profit from promoting peace instead of violence and chaos?

When I look around me, I see a world ruled by chaos and so many people who thrive on that chaos whether or not they know it. In spite of that, I work hard to cultivate peace in my own heart, in my own life, in my little section of the world. I do yoga. I meditate. I think peaceful thoughts. I feel peaceful emotions. I focus on peace. I try to be positive in my interactions with those I interact with on a daily basis. I try to feel compassion without destroying my own boundaries. I try to live from a place of love...

And, yet, I often fail. I find myself pulled into the chaos. I find myself flailing as I try to make a difference in the world. I see the chaos. I feel the chaos. I hear the chaos. Sometimes I even speak the chaos.


I can't give up on peace. We can't give up on peace.

Peace might be a bit like perfection... The perfect thing to strive for even if we can't always recognize it in the moments when it finds its way through the winds of chaos...

Sunday, October 29, 2017

How Many Times Must We Say NO MORE?

It's October, also known as Domestic Violence Awareness Month and Breast Cancer Awareness Month. I find it a bit interesting that we, as a society, have combined these two awareness campaigns in the same month. If I looked hard enough, I'm sure I could find a way to connect them.

However, let's focus on Domestic Violence Awareness Month and the No More Campaign.

I first wrote about No More back in 2015, when I wrote No More... Excuses... No More.

We live in a world that seems to be waking up... maybe. But how many times can we say No More?

We also live in a world that far too often excuses the behavior of those in power, whether in a large corporation, a small company, or even the home until forced to believe the truth when the evidence once dismissed piles up so high it threatens to topple over and crush all in its wake. Can we keep on this way?

Society blames the victim. Society shames the victim. Society silences the victim. And, let's be clear about who society is... Society is made up of people just like you and me. You and I are part of the society perpetuating this culture that perpetuates rape and domestic violence through the continued excuses for abusers and shame for the victim. It is up to us, or you could say It's On Us, to speak up, to speak out, to stand up for one another, to stand beside one another.

Society must stop protecting the guilty. It is time to stop acting as if men have no agency to control themselves and their behavior. Which brings us to this important point. Now pay attention. Sexual assault, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, and domestic violence are about power not about sex. These acts are about control, manipulation, belittlement, and ego.

Over the past few weeks the horrifying stories of Harvey Weinstein's harassment and abuse of actresses dominated the news, but this was just one more powerful aggressor in a long line of powerful aggressors who've been exposed over the past several years. Alyssa Milano recently pushed the #MeToo campaign to the forefront exposing just how rampant sexual aggression is across all walks of life, but Tarana Burke actually started the Me Too movement  several years ago to support young women from myriad backgrounds who had survived sexual assault or exploitation . We must keep this movement alive because there are far too many women out there with #MeToo stories. Far too many women from every walk of life have suffered violence at the hands of the men in their lives.

Society must stop referring to survivors as damaged goods. First of all people aren't property. Women aren't property. We have our own lives. We can make our own decisions. We have brains and hearts and wills of our own. When society moves into the territory of treating other people as if they are property, society dehumanizes them. That is unacceptable.

There are people and organizations all over the United States and around the world who work tirelessly day after day, year after year, decade after decade to address and end sexual assault and domestic violence and to provide support for survivors, but there are also detractors. There are those who dismiss the efforts because they can, because some many people don't report, because they want to believe the world fits a very specific worldview where these things only happen to someone else.

But that's just not true. In my own experience, starting when I was around twelve years old, teenage boys considerably older than me and men have invaded my private space, grabbed various parts of my body without permission, kissed me without consent, raped me, slapped and hit me, and sexually harassed me.

I know I'm not alone. I've read the stories. I've listened to my friends. I've heard co-workers speak. I've paid attention to the world around me and the women who inhabit it. I believe them.

I've heard the "boys will be boys" and "what did you do" and "you shouldn't have worn that, been there, etc. etc.... far too many things to list" and the "what did you expect being friends with him." Oh, yes, I heard all of this and much more far too many times. I've dealt with institutions more interested in protecting their reputation than supporting survivors. These are all statements and attitudes that need to be tossed in the No More bin as things to never say or do to survivors again.

But this brings us back to the question at hand. How many times must we say no more? Sometimes it feels like a neverending battle as we see increasing numbers of people coming forward with stories of invasion of their persons, and that is what it is. It's an invasion that leaves behind scars, sometimes visible sometimes not, but always lasting.

Stopping domestic violence and sexual assault begins with equality, true equality. It begins by teaching girls and boys that they are equal and they should treat each other with the respect. It comes with not saying "boys will be boys" when they cross boundaries with inappropriate touch. It comes with not perpetuating the myths that young men who take what they want are studs and young women who have sex are sluts. It comes with teaching that not only does no mean no, but that an affirmative yes is the only true consent. It comes with putting an end to teaching girls and boys to be ashamed of their sexuality and their desires. It comes with recognizing that both girls and boys are autonomous human beings capable of deciding for their individual selves what is best for them.

It sounds simple yet society continues to fall into the trap of blaming and shaming the victims and excusing the aggressors.

And being shocked when the aggression continues...

And then crying "No More..." until the news dies down or the person they know goes quiet allowing them to pretend it's not that big of a deal after all... Until the next time...

No more blame and shame for survivors and no more excuses for aggressors... 

I wonder every time I see a new story... How many times must we say NO MORE before society makes the shift to support survivors and punish aggressors instead of supporting aggressors and punishing survivors? How many times will it take to be enough? When will society finally say No More and really mean it?


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Why Women Don't Report...

Sex... Sexual harassment... Sexual abuse... Sexual assault...

We wrap anything related to sex up in so much shame and guilt that it imprisons us in our own minds convincing us no one will ever believe us, that we should be ashamed for someone else's actions, that keeping quiet is the best way forward.

People ask "Why didn't she report it?"

I know my story will resonate with many women, and some men, too, because it's not a new story. It's been going on for ages. And occasionally a scandal brings it to light and we all look for ways to be make it better, to find common ground, to not need to say "Me Too." And, then the fervor dies down and we all go about our lives until the next time. Will this time finally be the one that's different? We can hope...

Still fairly fragile from being sexually assaulted in college, I started an office job at a cabling company(now out of business if my research is accurate) in Lexington, Kentucky. I started as a temp employee and was soon offered a permanent position based on my work performance including finding an error that saved the small company tens of thousands of dollars, and later I learned based on my appearance.

I found the job quite boring but it was an income and I worked with some nice people. The company hired quite a few women. I liked that it hired quite a few women. I thought that was a good sign until...

One of the upper level management guys, my direct manager's boss (I've forgotten his title), let's call him Drick, started to take a personal interest in my role at the company claiming he saw a great future for me based on the error I'd discovered as a temp. I was flattered but also uncomfortable. Drick tended to stand too close. Drick asked personal questions that seemed weird but often prefaced them by saying he was trying to see where my life goals and career goals would fit in with the company.  Then one day he asked me about my sex life with my husband (I was a newlywed). I was taken aback by that, but I tried to laugh it off with a noncommittal joking response. Somewhere in here he began to touch me. It all seemed innocent enough at first, things I couldn't quite tell if accidental or intentional, his arm would brush mine as we went over some numbers. His hand would touch my shoulder or back as I left the room, at first so softly I wasn't sure what happened. A few of those seemingly incidental touches found a breast or my thigh but again I was unsure if they were intentional touches, at first. Eventually, Drick tried to rub my shoulders. He made several innuendo type statements. I was young and all I knew was this older man kept invading my personal space and asking me about things I felt were none of his business. I kept wondering if this was just what happened at the workplace. Yet, I didn't like it. I didn't want it. When I said something to him about it, he laughed and told me not to be so serious; however, he didn't stop. He, did, however continue to tell me I was a valuable asset to the company and that he saw huge potential in me and a great future if I listened to what he told me.

I didn't know what to do. I was embarrassed and kept wondering what I could do to make him stop. I started mentioning my husband ad nauseam, even to me, in every meeting. That did nothing to help the situation.

I needed my job. I needed the income.

I started hearing other women talk about receiving the same type of treatment I was receiving both from Drick and other members of upper management. Around this time, I learned I was being referred to as Drick's new "pet" and his old "pet" was now being treated badly. I didn't want to be his pet, and I didn't like the way he treated me. I made that known to the other employees, who brushed off my protestations.

Management decided to address the high turnover rate and requested the employees write, in detail, what we thought the problems were at the company and why people were leaving. I wrote a long document that centered around the idea of protecting people's personal space. I focused on personal space rather than sexual harassment because I feared I would lose my job if I called what I was experiencing sexual harassment. My manager read all the statements of the employees who reported directly to him before sending them on to upper management. I assume all the managers did this, but I'm not sure. After he read them, he called me in for a meeting. I have to give him credit. He handled the situation with my interests at heart. He also took steps to protect me and to make sure I was never alone with Drick again.

He insisted I report what Drick had done to me to Human Resources after he'd talked to Human Resources with a anonymous complaint about the problem in general. That's where things got tricky. As I sat down with the Human Resources Director, I immediately knew from her expression it wasn't going to go well. She asked me what had happened. I told her everything I could remember. She sat back and stared at me. Then she asked me if I liked my job. She wanted to know if I planned on contacting a lawyer. She started to hint that maybe I should change my account of things. She told me bluntly that it would be my word against his and he was more important to the company. At the end of the meeting, she told me that a note would be placed in my file that I'd reported but that no disciplinary action would be taken toward him or even a note in his file that a complaint had been made. She asked me if I really wanted to start this kind of trouble and implied it would only make things harder for me.

Over the next few weeks, I heard whispers that I'd been labelled a troublemaker. I started getting hints from my co-workers that it might be best for me if I quit. I started getting complaints about work that had previously been highly praised. My manager stepped in here and tried to support me, particularly regarding my performance.

I began searching for a new job. Being too honest for my own good at times, I told the truth about why I wanted to leave my job thinking that this had to be an anomaly. I had no idea how badly that would be received by potential employers.

Before I found a new job, my husband got a job in another state, so I left the company anyway. It's hard to put into words how hard those last few months were and how trapped I felt in a culture that seemed set up to support and protect a group of men who sexually harassed young women with abandon and without consequence.

Everyone at the company knew there was rampant sexual harassment in upper management beginning with the owner of the company, and most everyone ignored it or blamed the women being harassed. It made for a hostile working environment. Everyone knew speaking up would only make things worse, but I was naive enough to believe that when upper management said they wanted to create a better working environment in order to have better worker retention, they meant it. It later became apparent this exercise was only meant to out "troublemakers" who might bring attention to the harassment going on within the company because nothing was done to create a more hospitable working environment. When I outed myself I also outed the manager who supported me and who also ended up leaving the company.

This was not the first time I was harassed nor would it be the last, but it's what happened the time I reported.

And, this is why women don't report...

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Open Letter to Michael T. Benson, President of Eastern Kentucky University, Regarding Title IX Protections for Sexual Assault Survivors

Last week Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced that she intends to dismantle the Dear Colleague Letter Guidelines that have given survivors of sexual assault more respect in the reporting and investigatory process of sexual assault by utilizing the protections in Title IX to a safe learning environment.

Shortly before her announcement I posted Sexual Assault Happens... Then What?, my post to raise awareness about the importance of taking campus sexual assault seriously and urge people to stand up for survivors.

Upon learning of Secretary DeVos' decision to dismantle those guidelines, I wrote a letter to the current President of EKU, Michael T. Benson. As an alumna of EKU and a survivor of campus sexual assault I feel a duty to urge my alma mater to be a leader in the adherence of Title IX using the Dear Colleague Letter Guidelines to take campus sexual assault seriously and providing the support survivors need to move forward.

Here is the open letter version of the letter I sent President Benson.

Dear President Benson,

I am writing to you today to urge you and the entire Eastern Kentucky University administration to take concrete actions to protect the civil rights of survivors of sexual assault. As a proud December 1991 alumna of EKU, I am concerned about how the rhetoric and actions of the Trump Administration and the Department of Education under Secretary Betsy DeVos will impact the ability of students, including my niece, at EKU to enjoy a college education free from discrimination.

As a survivor of campus sexual assault that took place on the EKU campus, I implore you to use the Title IX protections, including the guidelines in the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter, to their fullest extent to protect survivors and give survivors the support needed to continue their education. Campus sexual assault is a serious issue. Survivors have a hard enough time moving forward with their lives. I want survivors today to have the support I didn’t have on campus. During my time on campus, there was a general knowledge among females on campus that reporting was pointless. I attended, and as an RA even organized, rape prevention events on campus. Interestingly, those events put all the responsibility on girls to stop rape and never once addressed the concept of telling boys to take no for an answer. I mention this because I noticed the EKU police website still pushes this same idea. This makes me sad. It makes girls less likely to report because they’re too busy trying to figure out what they did wrong when a guys refuse to accept their nos. Also, those rape prevention events did little to encourage reporting in those days. I sincerely hope that has changed.

Although I didn’t report it when I was sexually assaulted on campus, I sought counseling on campus. Far too much of my counseling focused on whether or not I was going to go public and the counselor questioning my experience rather than help me deal with it. The guy who raped me was still a student and began to stalk (though I didn’t realize that his behavior was stalking until much later) me during my counseling. My counselor was ill equipped to handle the situation and kept circling back to whether or not I was going public. I eventually had to leave my job as an RA and move to a different residence hall to keep the guy who raped me from finding me and eventually off-campus when he found me at the new residence hall as well. I had to put everything that happened in writing and once again was questioned about whether or not I intended to go public before being granted permission to move. I didn’t know things could be handled any differently and was far too vulnerable and naive to fight back at that time. I just wanted to get my education, graduate, and get as far away as possible.

I sincerely hope that survivors today aren’t faced with a situation like I was where the university is more interested in protecting its reputation than in providing support.

I would like to see EKU lead in the adherence to Title IX protections for sexual assault survivors and to come out with a strong statement that sexual assault is taken seriously on campus and that Secretary DeVos’s rollback of the guidelines won’t change that. It is within your power to treat sexual assault with the seriousness it deserves. Please protect all EKU students by vowing to handle sexual assault on campus justly rather than seeking ways to cover it up as has happened in the past. Give students, including those who are marginalized, the security of knowing they can report and will be treated with respect.

In light of the September 22, 2017 announcement by Secretary DeVos to dismantle the Title IX guidelines protecting survivors, I urge you to publicly commit to upholding prior Department of Education guidance, including the 2011 Dear Colleague Letter. It is more important than ever that EKU show it will handle campus sexual assault responsibly. In addition to a public statement vowing to protect survivors utilizing Title IX protections, I ask you to make your voice heard to the Department of Education and to Secretary DeVos to urge them to do the right thing and maintain policies and guidance that have been established by the implementation of Title IX in cases of sexual assault.

I have read the guidelines set forth in the Dear Colleague Letter. They are fair and just. For the first time, they give survivors a sense that their voices matter. Please don’t take that away because the Department of Education has dismantled the guidelines.

Please show your alliance with organizations such as It’s On Us, End Rape on Campus, and Know Your IX as part of your statement. These groups are working to protect students all around the country, including EKU students.

I look forward to reading your public statement soon.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Sexual Assault Happens... Then What?

I started this post over a year ago after I watched The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on campuses and the way universities handle sexual assault on campus. I've come back to it multiple times but have hesitated to publish it yet I couldn't bring myself to delete it. So... With today's announcement regarding the plan to eliminate Title IX protection for survivors, I must speak up. I can no longer be silent.

The Hunting Ground affected me deeply. I stopped it several times when I needed to think and feel and cry and rewind to listen again. (Currently available on Netflix and streaming or DVD purchase on Amazon.)

As I watched, many thoughts went through my mind. I am still dumbfounded by the way universities dismiss and/or minimize sexual assault complaints. I suppose admitting the number of campus sexual assaults on their individual campuses might deter some potential students, but...

Sexual assault happens. It happens in every community. It happens in small villages and big cities and farming communities. It happens in homes and apartments and condos. It happens in streets and alleys and fields. It happens in places of worship and dance clubs and business offices. This is reality. So, of course, it happens on college campuses. After all college campuses are communities filled with a wide variety of people.

There's never been a time in history when sexual assault didn't happen. Let that sink in. There's never been a time when sexual assault didn't occur.

So, what matters more than whether or not sexual assault happens on a college campus is how the university deals with it. I would much rather see a university be honest about its numbers and then show real action taken to investigate and deal with sexual assault than to discourage reporting and try to manipulate statistics. Fine, tell me ten rapes took place on your campus. Then tell me what you did about them. Did you have the rapists arrested? Did you participate in the investigation? Did you provide counseling services to the survivors? Did you expel the rapists? Or did you take the route that seems to be so common and make the survivors lives on campus miserable? Answer these questions with answers that demonstrate you are serious about dealing with campus sexual assault rather than trying to pretend like your campus is somehow immune to sexual assault. It isn't.

I repeat because it's important. Sexual assault happens. It happens in all communities. There has never been a time in history where sexual assault didn't happen.

If universities say no sexual assaults happen on campus, I am positive they're covering them up. I will never trust those universities. I would advise others not to trust those universities. What they prove is that they're willing to dismiss survivors in order to protect the reputation of the individual universities. I long for the day when we can have campuses where no sexual assaults take place just like I long for the day when sexual assault in all communities is a thing of the past. But, then reality sets in.

I reiterate, sexual assault happens. I'm not excusing it. There's no excuse for it. However, there's a saying that to address a problem you first have to admit it exists. Therein lies the problem, far too many people in this world want to pretend the world is something it isn't, that people are something they aren't, and that certain institutions should be immune from real world realities.

I remember when I was in college and we were given the list of things to avoid being sexually assaulted. The emphasis was on how girls could stop guys' behavior and often referred to it as behavior "getting out of hand" instead of as assault. Sadly, I visited the website of the campus police department of my beloved alma mater, Eastern Kentucky University, to find a very familiar list of ways to avoid being sexually assaulted or drugged as appears to be typical of most universities. Nowhere on that list was there a single admonition to boys to take no for an answer or to get an affirmative yes. Nowhere on that list was there a single warning to boys to not drug girls or to not get them drunk in order to "take advantage of them" to use another common phrase designed to mask assault. Nowhere on the list were punishments listed for those who perpetrate rape. Nowhere on that list was there a single thing directed at would-be rapists because once again, it's up to girls to take responsibility for the actions of others.

We can teach girls how not to get raped until the end of time, but until we teach boys to not  rape, rape will happen. Even when we teach not to rape, we only lessen the possibility of it happening. Sadly, these admonishments to girls on how to behave in order to not get raped also tend to increase feelings of guilt for survivors and decrease reporting. We have to start teaching boys that girls have the right to be respected as human beings and are not conquests to be made. And we also have to teach girls they aren't conquests to be made but fully realized individuals with needs and desires that deserve respect. We have to teach the concept that no is a complete sentence and that taking no for an answer is imperative even admirable. I addressed this before in my posts If Girls Must... What Must Boys? and Respect for Boundaries.

 (Note: I've used boys and girls here because that's the language used on the university website and because statistically the numbers of boy on girl assaults are higher than other types of assaults yet it is important to remember that same sex assaults and girl on boy assaults also occur.These same ideas apply in all these situations.)

It happened here....
The blurriness of this photo depicts
how I felt returning to this spot
years later.
When I was raped by two completely different guys in completely different places (both on campus and off campus) under completely different circumstances in less than a nine month time period, I reported nothing because I kept wondering which of the rules to keep me safe I broke. If I'd done all those things they taught me, I wouldn't have been raped, right? WRONG!! I was raped because two different guys each thought they had the right to invade my body without my permission. Period end of sentence. The reality is these two guys didn't think my "no" mattered.

Universities need to take a leadership position in the efforts to combat sexual assault. They need to step up and investigate and prosecute and do right by survivors.

Several months after I watched The Hunting Ground and while still trying to decide what to do with this post, I watched It Happened Here (available streaming on Netflix and streaming and DVD on Amazon), another documentary about how universities handle sexual assault on their campuses. I was dumbfounded by the seeming lack of awareness of the administrations of universities. Sexual assault on campus has been happening for as long as there have been campuses, and it has, as a general rule, been downplayed leaving victims to flounder as perpetrators walk free.

The girls who have taken it upon themselves to document and publicize the way universities handle sexual assault cases are much braver than I was at their age. I applaud the work they're doing. I wanted to get through it and pretend like it never happened. When  Kylie Angell said "I felt like the 21 years years before were completely separated by that day and then the future. It was like A.D. and B.C. I could no longer just enjoy college and I no longer felt safe in my own body." my breath stopped for a moment. Even after all these years, I still feel as if my life is segmented into before I was raped and after I was raped with time between the first time I was raped and the last time I was raped feeling somewhat unreal to me. I remember very little of it, what I do remember is fuzzy, and I often don't even recognize pictures from that time.

Movies like The Hunting Ground and It Happened Here push us toward a more honest conversation about sexual assault on college campuses as well as the larger community as a whole. Organizations like It's On Us push us to all pay attention to sexual assault on campus and to hold universities accountable for not treating sexual assault survivors with the respect and compassion they deserve. Title IX protections are imperative and must be protected including those that address sexual assault on campus. Please visit End Rape on Campus and join the Dear Betsy campaign to urge the Department of Education to protect Title IX.

If you have survived rape, on campus or off, reach out for help. There are therapists who can help you deal with the aftermath. There are organizations, such as RAINN, that will give you the support you need. If friends and family members struggle (many of mine did) to be there for you, find a support group. There are other people who have survived. You are not alone. I promise you are not alone.

Every time I hear Lady Gaga sing Til It Happens to You, I tear up. I can't help it. It's so easy for people who haven't experienced sexual assault to pontificate with what they think sounds like wise words when all they're really doing is inflicting more pain.