Use accurate language when you talk about people who have experienced sexual abuse or assault please.
“Her life is ruined forever.” This kind of catastrophic language is often used to describe the fate of those who have experienced sexual assault or abuse.
We should stop. We can acknowledge the gravity and harm of sexual assault without priming everyone, including victims, to view it as life-ending. We must use realistic language to describe living with trauma, rather than implying that trauma ends us.
I am a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. I also have a loving and safe husband, four great children, and a satisfactory life, all things considered. The individuals who abused me did not ruin my life (of course they weren’t thinking about my future in any way). But my life is changed forever by their and their enablers/concealers’ actions. I may be triggered into shutting down by the way my husband touches me. Stories of rape or abuse can cause me to dig again into my own old feelings of powerlessness, shame, and abandonment. I went several semesters in college wishing I could die by outside means without having to deal with all my feelings and the aftermath of doing the work of survival. My life was changed, and not for the better, but it wasn’t ruined.
Our family loves video games. While some games are just ABAB — jump hit jump hit — other games have skill levels such as easy, medium, or hard. One of my favorite games (because of the joy it brings my husband) names its levels rookie, pro, all-star, superstar, and hall of fame. It came to me while I was exercising — trying to keep off those ten pounds I gained when the Larry Nassar trial conspired with medication side effects to send me into a depression spiral — the idea I want that lives somewhere between victim and survivor is “level of difficulty.” Victim sounds weak; survivor sounds more triumphant than I often feel, but higher difficulty sounds just about right.
An abused or assaulted person may not have their life ruined, but henceforth they play the game of life on a higher level of difficulty. Every good is achieved through greater effort than their uninjured peers. Believing they are worthy of giving and receiving love is harder. They may have uncontrolled or barely controlled reactions to a sense trigger, a particular smell or sound. They may fear that more memories will come back — or they may not be able to control when and where the hurtful memories they do have will show up. And if they can bear to have children, they will walk the dizzying line between never letting their children leave the house to keep them safe, while recognizing that the house they grew up in wasn’t safe. None of this is fun. And unlike a video game, we don’t get achievement badges when we succeed. We must often savor alone the particular sweetness of the good parts of our lives.
As Padma Lakshmi says, the woman pays the price. We do, and we should understand the scope of that price. We should mourn the high cost. We should, as much as possible, endeavor to collect the cost from abusers, assailants, enablers, and concealers. But we should stop using “ruined” and other catastrophic terms — we do ourselves and our listening children a grave disservice. Instead, we should talk openly, maybe even casually, about the price we pay, the difficulty level in life we experience because others’ evil deeds. We know that abuse and assault continue to occur, in spite of our best efforts. Let’s speak up about the hard-fought good in our lives, the avenues to unsteady but welcome peace, and create pathways of hope for the women and men who will come after us.
People who play video games create forums for beating the games on all skill levels. They ask questions, admit their inability to beat a level or complete a side quest, and other gamers answer their questions. The ethics of this might be questionable, but in life, we need to share, if we can. Face-to-face, online forums, letters in the mail, whatever works. Your good life does not negate your trauma. Share for the folks whose life is in easy mode, share for your fellow superstars. Stop the world’s lie; don’t concede to the false narrative that a woman once sullied or a man who couldn’t protect himself is worthless.
You are reading this, alive and loved. Your game is harder but we survivors — millions strong — we are here with you. Some of us have almost beaten the game with grace and honor and struggle, through nightmares and flashbacks, at the hall of fame level. Not one of us is ruined.