If you or someone you know has experienced sexual assault, please seek help with a qualified counsellor or by calling 1800 RESPECT.
I know it’s called the cycle of violence, but in my family female suffering is linear: rape and abuse are passed down like the world’s worst birthright, largely skipping the men and marking the women with scars, night terrors, and fantastic senses of humour.
My mother told me about getting molested by a family friend as part of our “bad touch” talk. She called him her uncle. We were sitting on my twin bed in a room covered with glow-in-the-dark star stickers. She was eight when he came to the house with ice cream, and while her mother cooked dinner in the kitchen he told her to come sit on his lap if she wanted some.
She doesn’t remember what he touched or how, just that it happened, and that she said nothing afterward. Some time later the neighbourhood barber told my grandmother that if my mum would fold some towels for him, her haircut would be free. So my grandmother left while she worked, and he took my mother into the back room, where he rubbed his penis on her eight-year-old body.
When my grandmother was 10, her father died of alcoholism and she went to live with an aunt and uncle. When she was 11, her uncle raped her. She told her aunt and was sent to St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Brooklyn, New York the next day.
It’s losing steam with each generation, so that’s something. My grandmother’s rape is my mother’s molestation is me getting off relatively easy with abusive boyfriends and strangers fondling me on subways — one time without my realising until I went to put my hands in my jeans’ back pockets and there was semen all over them.
My aunts and mum joked about how often it happened to them when they were younger — the one man who flashed a jacket open and had a big red bow on his cock, the neighbourhood pervert who masturbated visibly in his window as they walked to school as girls. (The cops told them the man could do whatever he wanted in his own house.)
“Just point and laugh,” my aunt said. “That usually sends them running.” Usually.
Mia Freedman, Monique Bowley and Jessie Stephens discuss the practice of 'casual sexual assault' on Mamamia Out Loud. Post continues below.
But worse than the violations themselves was the creeping understanding of what it meant to be female — that it’s not a matter of if something bad happens, but when and how bad.
Of course, what feels like a matrilineal curse is not really ours. We don’t own it; the shame and disgust belong to the perpetrators. At least, that’s what the books say. But the frequency with which women in my family have been hurt or sexually assaulted starts to feel like a flashing message encoded in our DNA: Hurt. Me.
My daughter is five and I want to inoculate her against whatever it is that keeps happening to the women in my family. I want Layla to have her father’s lucky genes; genes that walk into a room and feel entitled to be there. Genes that feel safe. Not my out-of-place chromosomes that are fight or-flight ready.
This is the one way in which I wish she was not mine.
When I was pregnant, I often joked about wanting a boy. A baby girl would turn into a teenage girl, and I remember the young asshole I was to my mother. But this is closer to the truth:
Having a girl means passing this thing on to her, this violence and violations without end.
Because while my daughter lives in a world that knows what happens to women is wrong, it has also accepted this wrongness as inevitable. When a rich man in Delaware was given probation for raping his three-year-old daughter, there was outrage. But it was the lack of punishment that seemed to offend, not the seemingly immovable fact that some men rape three-year-olds. Prison time we can measure and control; that some men do horrible things to little girls, however, is presented as a given.
Victimhood doesn’t need to be an identity, but it is a product of facts. Some women heal by rejecting victimhood, but in a world that regularly tells women they’re asking for it, I don’t know that laying claim to “victim” is such a terrible idea. Recognising suffering is not giving up and it’s not weak.
“Something bad happened to me.” More accurately: “Someone did something bad to me.” This happened. This happens.
When this reality started to become more and more clear to me, as I grew breasts and took subways, watched movies and fucked boys, I didn’t make a conscious decision not to lie down and die. But do I know that my survival instinct took over and I became the loudest girl, the quickest with a sex joke, the one who laughed at old men coming on to her.
Men’s pain and existential angst are the stuff of myth and legends and narratives that shape everything we do, but women’s pain is a backdrop — a plot development to push the story along for the real protagonists. Disrupting that story means we’re needy or selfish, or worst of all, man-haters — as if after all men have done to women over the ages the mere act of not liking them for it is most offensive.
Yes, we love the good men in our lives and sometimes, oftentimes, the bad ones too — but that we’re not in full revolution against the lot of them is pretty amazing when you consider this truth: men get to rape and kill women and still come home to a dinner cooked by one.
Somewhere along the way, I started to care more about what men thought of me than my own health and happiness because doing so was just easier. I bought into the lie that the opposite of “victim” is “strong.” That pointing and laughing and making it easier on everybody was the best way to tell our stories.
My daughter is happy and brave. When she falls down or gets hurt, the first words out of her mouth are always: I’m all right, Mum. I’m okay. And she is. I want her to be okay always. So while my refusal to keep laughing or making you comfortable may seem like a real fucking downer, the truth is that this is what optimism looks like. Naming what is happening to us, telling the truth about it — as ugly and uncomfortable as it can be — means that we want it to change. That we know it is not inevitable.
I want the line of my mother and grandmother to stop here.
This is an extract from Jessica Valenti's new memoir Sex Object. You can buy it here.
Mamamia’s Survivors of Sexual Assault Week is about providing support for the one in five women Australian women who will experience sexual assault in their lifetime. To read more from Survivors of Sexual Assault Week, click here. If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, don't suffer in silence, contact 1800 RESPECT or visit www.1800respect.org.au