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.
After years of being told I was the crazy one and that he didn’t need to do anything around the home because he had a “real job” (as opposed to my job as a secretary) I realized things were not working. But when I asked for more counseling (he went to one session with me), I was told I was “crazy” and so I needed to leave (he was drunk at the time). He begged me to return two days later but after two weeks back home I left. I had come close to committing suicide and knew that I needed to leave or I would be completely lost. I left my son behind because I believed what I had been told about who I was. I didn’t matter and there was no way I could properly raise a male child on my own. When my father found out that I had left my son behind he banned me from returning to Wisconsin even for a visit unless I had my son with me. This was a devastating blow that I never fully recovered from and further confirmed my belief that I was not as valuable as a male.
I fell into years of drinking and promiscuity, eating disorders, and inappropriate relationships (with a few more sexual assaults). My beliefs did not allow me to understand that my best friend was sexually assaulted by a co-worker who left her door ajar while he took me home after a night of partying so he could return and crawl into her bed. I saw this as our faults and knew we couldn’t do anything about it. I regret to this day the shaming comments I made to her.
A good friend of mine refers to this imposed responsibility to fix, placate, or refrain from upsetting our fathers as the American version of honor killing. Females’ sense of value is cut away from them in a form of psychic genital mutilation as we see ourselves only of value when men find us worthy. I learned early that my father saw my accomplishments more as a reflection of him rather than who I was.
I know it sounds as if I am blaming my father for my problems. I don’t. I have in the past, but now I realize that he was set up by a patriarchal system that was rampant through the last century that raised men to believe that they were to be respected above all else even when their actions did not warrant it. World War II and the Korean War created men who perceived their value in fighting enemies. When the ravages of war left them damaged and worn, they sought new ways to reclaim their manhood, their jobs, and their spots as head of household. This patriarchal system of war and male privilege is damaging to both men and women.
The belief that women are responsible for men’s actions continues to wreak havoc in the criminal justice system. Prosecutors refrain from charging rapists because they do not feel they have a case when a young woman (or man) has done something that a jury may believe led to the assault. (i.e. attending a party, not fighting back). We continue to tell young women how to not get raped, but fail to tell men to not rape. And when a sexual assault case does go before a jury, the jury continues to look at how the victim was responsible for the rapist’s actions rather than making the perpetrator responsible for his own.
When a rapist is set free because the jury places blame on the victim and her actions, the honor killings and psychic mutilations continue. Women who look at victims and say “she shouldn’t have been drinking, she shouldn’t have been there, she shouldn’t have gone with them” are colluding with the system that continues to make women responsible for the actions of men. This may be because of the internal denial of having been sexually assaulted as young women. They don’t want to be reminded and/or have blamed themselves for years and to face the fact that they were raped means undoing decades of self-protection when, in fact, re-opening the wound can actually start the process of healing.
Now, having reached my seventh decade, I can look back and see that there are many ways that I have changed and been healed. I also know that I can easily fall back into feeling that I am responsible for the way other people feel. It is easier, though, to catch myself and recognize that who I am and how I feel matters. I also recognize when victims are being blamed for their actions by other women that it is because women have been raised to believe that women are responsible for these acts of perpetration. It is through education and an understanding of how damaging these beliefs are that we can truly care for and keep victims safe and teach boys and young men to take responsibility for their actions.
I know that a lot of the pain that I have felt has been the result of living in a culture that perpetuated the myth of male authority over my body and mind but I can also see how the world is changing. Even when I see and hear of relationships where the male exerts power and control over his partner, child, or mother, or see women objectified and portrayed as sexual objects in advertising and movies, I can also see the good in fathers encouraging their daughters to play sports and women and men engaging in marriages of equality and mutual respect. I can only hope that this continues and that young women will someday not have to endure the repercussions of living in a society where they don’t matter.
“It is by writing, from and toward women, and by taking up the challenge of speech which has been governed by the phallus, that women will conﬁrm women in a place other than that which is reserved in and by the symbolic, that is, in a place other than silence. Women should break out of the snare of silence. They shouldn’t be conned into accepting a domain which is the margin or the harem.” -Hélène Cixous, The Laugh of the Medusa (translated by Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen)
Linda Douglas, M.Ed., CTSS, is the Trauma Informed Services Specialist at the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. Along with training on the impacts of trauma from sexual assault and domestic violence, she is an avid cyclist, hiker, cellist, yoga practitioner, and grandmother of four. You can read her blog at opendoorsnh.blogspot.com.
Whether you are 16 or 60, don't hesitate to reach out for support. Sexual Assault Advocates are available 24/7 in NH and across the nation. In NH call 1-800-277-5570 or nationwide contact RAINN