In December of 2019, I gave a keynote address about sexual violence at a fundraiser for the Orange County (N.C.) Rape Crisis Center. Giving the keynote was a wonderful experience. To clear the way to writing my talk, I needed to write my thoughts about what it feels like, about what happens, whenever I give a talk about rape.

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October 2019

I’m always nervous when I talk about rape.

It doesn’t matter how many times I do it. It doesn’t matter how much I prepare myself. Every time I stand up in front of a crowd and talk about rape, I feel naked, exposed, and judged. Angry.

Angry that I am judged, by the audience, for the decisions I made that caused me to be raped.

What did she do? How is she at fault, too?

I know that people will ask these questions because I’ve been trained to ask them, too. Our society trains us to look for what the law calls contributory fault. Even the most well-meaning listener can’t help but feel, in some small, unconscious way, that if I’d made a better choice along the way the whole messy rape thing could have been avoided. That I contributed, in some small (large) way, to the harm I suffered.

In the minds of most listeners to a rape talk, even the most supportive listeners, the victim always shares the blame. 

Most listeners don’t realize how blame infiltrates our way of thinking. It just does. We have to actively turn our minds against it every single day, or it slips back in.

So when I give a rape talk, the first thing I must do is prove that I am a victim in the first place.

Because I must prove I’m a victim, when I give a rape talk, I feel angry.

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When I talk about rape, I risk panic and anxiety. But not in the ordinary ways a person giving a talk feels nervous or anxious.

You might have heard the statistics of how afraid most people are of public speaking. I’m not afraid of public speaking. I was a full-time a university professor for 15 years, which means that I performed in front of an audience most of the days of the week for most of my adult life. I’m now a professional public speaker.

Public speaking doesn’t bother me at all.

But public speaking about rape is one of the most difficult things in the world.

One of my first rape talks was at a small event hosted by a local organization that supports rape survivors. At the time, I thought it would have little impact on me, but would have a good impact on the organization—that is, I would be doing it as a public service. I thought, Sure, I’ll go to this thing, and I’ll read, and I’ll give away some books. The audience would be supportive and one of least judgmental that I’ve ever spoken to. I was so unconcerned, in fact, that I went alone. 

That was a mistake.

I was the first speaker, in a fairly small space, with only about 75 people in attendance. But shortly after I finished, I quietly departed the room. 

Panicked.

Running. To the bathroom. Hiding. Locking myself in a stall.

First, I was ill. Then, shaking.

I called two friends on the phone, they put me on speakerphone together. They’re rape activists in our small community. I knew they would understand what I was going through.

I told them about the talk and about the psychological aftermath afterward. They knew me well enough—and themselves—to know about a traumatic reaction to a rape talk. They talked me through the panic until I was able to go back into the room. 

Giving a rape talk in front of any audience, even one that supports me unequivocally, can cause panic that is surprising. And overwhelming. And debilitating. 

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When I talk about rape, I lose control over my body. 

I can feel how the audience sees me differently between the beginning of the talk and the end. 

It doesn’t matter how much work I’ve done, how many degrees I’ve accrued, how much expertise and experience I have. When you talk about being raped, your body becomes not your own anymore. We can blame Descartes, perhaps, for the mind-body split. It’s something that we have been trying to mend in western Philosophy ever since. We have, so far, failed to do so.

Before I give the rape talk, I am someone who has a mind, who is an expert. Someone they have brought in to speak about a topic about which I know an awful lot.

And then, I say some formulation of the words “I have been raped.” 

My mind drops to the background, and I become just a body. Violated.

I can feel a shift in an audience. How they no longer look at my eyes but instead at my body: at my neck and my breasts and my legs, and mostly, they look between my legs, at the site of the crime.

When I talk about rape, I am supposed to encourage the audience to think about rape. But when they think about rape, they think about my body. 

I become only my body.

If I say that I have been raped, I must put my body front and center. It’s here, right now, in the middle of our conversation on this page. It doesn’t matter how much expertise I have about sexual violence. In the face of my own sexual violence my mind doesn’t matter. 

All that’s left is my body, and what was done to it, and by whom.

And that also makes me angry.

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When I give a rape talk, I am anxious. Angry. Afraid. How can I not be? How could anyone be anything else?

To the people listening to my talk, I’m a victim of rape. That’s all I am. I’m no longer me. I’m reduced to victim, to what was done to me. I can’t forget it, and neither can you.

But maybe that’s why it’s important that I give rape talks, even though it hurts. 

But then I must point out to you that you and I are complicit in the harm that we’ve done to me: where you have judged me, and I have let you—even helped you. Where I have suffered, and you have stood by, and I have let you. Where you have listened to my words, and let those words break me into parts.

And then, after we see the harm and recognize it, we can put me back together again.

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(c) 2019

If you enjoyed this piece, you will enjoy my latest book, the IPPY-gold-medal-winning EVEN IF YOU’RE BROKEN: ESSAYS ON SEXUAL ASSAULT AND #METOO, available on Kindle at bit.ly/evenifyourebroken, and in paperback at Bookshop.org and wherever books are sold. Buying my books is a great way to support the online writing that I do for free.

Thank you.

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