A Sixty Year Old Looks Back at a Life Influenced by Patriarchy
“We are told in words, and not in words, we are told by their deafness,…(that)…the life experience of women, is not valuable…to humanity. (We have been valued by the patriarchal viewpoint only) as an element of their experience, as things experienced.” -Ursula Le Guin
I was raped on the July 4, 1974. I didn’t call it rape until over 30 years later. This may sound impossible. This may even sound as if I am looking back on a regrettable experience and just decided it was rape. No. It was rape. And, I was set up. I was set up to believe that I had somehow caused this assault by eighteen years of implied messages. The following years were filled with shame, self-blame and self-punishment. It was not until I became involved in the anti-violence against women world did I truly come to terms with the fact that I had indeed been raped. I heard women tell stories that I knew to be true and realized that they were telling my story. The pieces all fell into place and I understood how the next twenty years were a trauma response to the sexual assault.
As I look back, I don’t see the assault as being an isolated event, the result of being with the wrong person at the wrong time. I can see now that the rape and the repercussions were actually the product of believing that, as a female, I was not important. I had been raised to believe that the most important thing was to make sure that men were not upset or affected by my actions.
It is hard to look back and fully describe how the effect of the implied messages impacted my life. Whenever something occurred that could possibly upset my father, my mother would say quietly, “we are not going to tell your father about this.” The implication was that it would be best for him not to know because he was volatile and it was best not to make him angry. It was our responsibility to control our actions so that he would not get angry, put a fist through a wall, or throw something.
When I was four years old my younger brother died from a congenital disease. I do not remember watching my parents grieve but there were times that I experienced my father’s anger. I vividly remember being slapped across the face when I was a toddler. I also remember my father becoming livid when I put a book in my pants when I knew he was going to spank me. He would often threaten to use his belt but never did. The threat of violence was there more than the actual act, but the threat was enough to make me believe that it was my responsibility to make sure that I didn’t do or say anything that could set him off.
As I got older the messages that I was not good enough became more explicit. When I was seventeen, a few months before I was assaulted, my father became angry at me for leaving a radio playing in my bedroom. He lunged at me and I don’t know what would have happened if my mother hadn’t intervened. Later that evening, while I was at work, my mother called and told me to stay away from home because my father was threatening to leave and take my one year old brother with him. The message I took from that was that none of the females in the home (I, my mother, nor my twelve year old sister) mattered. The only one our father felt mattered was his son.
The 4th of July of 1974 was not the first sexual assault. When I was nine years old, my fifteen year old cousin held me down on a mattress in the loft of a barn while he fondled my breasts and rubbed himself against the mattress. I was frozen. I couldn’t move. I was stunned. I remember my older female cousin watching and yelling at him to stop. He didn’t stop until he was finished. I never told. I had already been taught not to tell. Anything that would be upsetting to the adults in my life had to be held in silence.
There were other messages that I received during those years that reinforced the message that males were more important. In the early 70’s Title IX (the federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity) hadn’t been implemented in my high school. When the school decided to start a girls’ basketball team we were only allowed the use of the gym between the hours of 10 p.m. and midnight. Boys’ basketball and wrestling were the priority. Girls’ sports did not matter. We did not have girls’ teams. Fathers did not shoot hoops with their daughters or toss a ball. They only did that with sons.
This message was also supported by the church I attended. Women were only allowed near the altar to clean and never allowed to serve communion or preach. Only boys served as acolytes. It was clear to me that God preferred males. Our major sin was being born female.
This implied message that males are more important is why, after I was sexually assaulted and lost my virginity in one night, I carried the message for the next 30 years that it was my fault. I was responsible because I left a bar with him. I let him take me somewhere to smoke pot. Then when things went out of control and I did not really understand what was happening to me, I thought it was my fault. I know now that I was in shock for days afterward and this act set the stage for promiscuity (including another sexual assault) and out of control alcohol use for the next year. And, when I considered backing out of an engagement to a man who had proven himself unreliable over a three year period of on and off dating, I couldn’t do it for fear of what my father and future husband would do.