A thought across lips with breath short and soft, the tongue silently flicking across the mouth and then it is a word. We don’t say it. Forceful in tone, the utterance of the hard consonants moving through us to speak it once before surveying the eyes of the crowd for approval. Rape. The thing we did not say.
On July 10, 2008, while working as a flight attendant, I was raped on a layover in Richmond, Virginia. While details have come and gone through my thoughts in the almost ten years since, the date remains solidified in my memory. It happened on July 10, and the next day I picked up the cream-colored hotel phone, forced the most hard fought smile, and wished my mother a happy birthday. I sat on carpeting, a royal sort of red with flecks of burgundy, and I pretended to be ok.
I shared this experience, loosely, at least the aspects I believed to be important, at the 2018 Women’s March here in my community. I spoke to the crowd of over 1000 men and women rallied after the march, and encouraged legislators to support funding for staffing and resources to process rape kits. I asked the men in the crowd to cultivate a culture that respects everyone, and I begged of anyone who would listen to offer the only acceptable words when a woman shares her experience: I believe you.
I was not prepared for the response that came after this. A woman came to me, tears streaming down her face, and told me “thank you for saying I believe you.” I held this stranger in my arms and felt the absolute relief in shoulders having let go what was held onto so long. Then, another woman came to me, and another, and another. By the end of the day I heard several experiences; the stories women needed to share and felt comfortable telling me.
Still, the internal challenge for me was not the sharing of an experience that over the years has lost emotional attachment, becoming mechanical and lifeless. It was the sharing of that actual word, the word we do not say, rape.
For years I could not say it. I would say “assault” or in certain conversations I would say “sexual assault.” It was as if speaking the harsh, one-syllable violence somehow made it more real, impossible to isolate. It seemed safer to stay in the confines of vague familiarity, the ambiguity of the word leaving enough room to be interpreted to one’s comfort level.
The English language boasts approximately 171,470 words and more than 7000 derivatives thereafter. The average English speaking person holds 5000 words in their everyday lexicon. All these words, all these vocal illustrations to highlight the depth or shallow intent to our humanity, and yet some remain impossible to speak.
The word rape holds a perceptible level of force, placed on the tongue. The slow movement of lips to make the “R”, a quick thrust of the jaw to claim “A” and the push of the tongue to complete “PE”. Our mouths will against the word, a symbolic hindsight resistance.
I use the word when I tell my story now. I say the word rape, even if it hurts; even if there is a shudder or a gasp in the room; even if I’m tired; even if I’m afraid; even if I don’t have to. I use the word, and when I do so, I claim my right to move and speak, independent of anything that anyone may have ever tried to claim from me.
As I embraced strangers this weekend, women who simply needed to say the words that had finally come to them, I came to feel that, for them, there are words that will replace the significance and value the word “rape” might have previously held.
For me, strength was held in “tomorrow”, a new date in the calendar, a new phone call, a new experience, and a chance to speak the words we did not say.