Rise Like Maya: Breaking the Silence of Rape and Sexual Assault


We must call the ravening act of rape, the bloody, heart-stopping, breath-snatching, bone-

crushing act of violence, which it is.  The threat makes some female and male victims unable

to open their front doors, unable to venture into streets in which they grew up, unable to

trust other human beings and even themselves.  Let us call it a violent unredeemable sexual act

—Maya Angelou, author of Letter to My Daughter

I just finished the book mentioned above about two nights ago.  The title is self-explanatory:  it’s Maya Angelou writing a series of letters to the daughter she never had, yet dedicates the letters to the daughters, sons, men and women of the world who will hopefully gain knowledge from her life’s experiences.  In the book is a letter called “Violence,” which focuses on the issue of rape being deemed an act of power.  Angelou explains that professionals who either work with survivors or the perpetrators (or both) may be explaining away the violent aspect of rape and sexual assault, stating “They further explain that the rapist is most often the victim of another who was seeking power, a person who himself was a victim, et cetera ad nauseam.  Possibly some small percentage of the motivation which impels a rapist on his savage rampage stems from the hunger for domination, but I am certain that the violator’s stimulus is (devastatingly) sexual” (p. 45).

For those who know a little (or a lot) about the author’s life also knows that she herself is a rape survivor.  When she was a young girl, Angelou was raped by her mother’s boyfriend, who was then killed by her uncles after telling her mother.  She, in fact, ceased speaking to everyone–with the exception of her brother Bailey–because she felt her voice had the power to murder.  She did not speak in public until she graduated from high school.  When she decided to speak, she found her voice again, which gave her power, which gave us her story.  When I think about her keeping silent out of fear of hurting someone else, my mind quickly shifts to all the survivors who did what she has done: remained silent.

I have read way too many news articles, blogs and novels about survivors (mostly women) being sexually assaulted and being made to stay quiet about what happened to them for various reasons:  loyalty to the perpetrator, the fear of being shunned by family, the shame of somehow “liking it,” and so on.  When the abuse stops , the survivor is forever altered–not being able to trust anyone, living in constant fear of the abuse starting all over again or acting out the abuse with sex partners.  We do not know what a healthy relationship looks like unless or until we get the help and support we need.  But that’s usually after we realize the significant damage the abuse caused in our lives.  Some of us do say something, but may not receive the support within the judicial system.  I’ve heard many stories about girls (and boys) reporting what happened to them, only to not be believed or be made to feel that they are the reason why the abuse happened.  It’s no wonder we don’t say anything most of the time.

I was packing up all my books to move to my new apartment when one word popped into my head: Why?  Why does the system not want to believe us? Why aren’t the state and federal laws not enforced in order to protect survivors?  Why is it that the courts can sentence a drug addict to life in prison but a child molester or rapist would be released in jail–in some cases–within 2 to 10 years?  Why do we misuse the Sex Offender Registry by placing those who committed no crime on there?  I really don’t give a fuck about two teenagers sexting one another, so why even try to place them on the Registry?  Why is this all happening?

Why?

The only answer I come with derives from being a Social Work student who’s also a Feminist and anti-Capitalist.  So here goes:  the reason why survivors are not being protected is because the system is currently run by rich White men and those who are either afraid to say something on our behalf or don’t have the support needed to enforce the appropriate laws.  Furthermore, changing and/or enforcing the current laws to protect us means the Powers That Be have to spend money to promote Sexual Assault Prevention training to law enforcement, give more money to Rape Crisis Services agencies and be educated themselves.  But most of all: Rape is seen as a “girl issue.”  It’s the woman who sees rape and sexual assault as an issue and they just want to blame men.  AND it’s the woman’s or girl’s fault  if they are raped and now they’re trying to play the system.

In other words, capitalism, sexism and ignorance affects rape and sexual assault survivors.  I may be wrong.  Shit, I hope I’m wrong.  But, from what I’ve seen and read, it’s us male and female survivors who are suffering in silence.  I write all this to tell you, dear Gang members, that no one should live in pain like this.  Why do so when you and someone you know can break the silence?  I don’t know about you, but I was tired of not saying something, so I took part in Take Back The Night and the Slut Walk back in Rochester. I spoke out against any sort of sexual violence whenever I could.  I want to change the current laws as an established Social Worker so survivors can be protected.  I want to start support groups for both men and women so they can learn not to live in fear one day at a time.  I hope to start volunteer work pertaining to working with sex abuse victims and survivors.  ANYTHING to promote fearlessness and justice for us.

Yes, rape and sexual assault needs to be seen for what it is: an act of violence that shatters those who experience it.  But we need not let the perpetrator take us down.  I am urging anyone who reads this to not live in fear anymore.  Break the silence–for other survivors and yourself.

Especially yourself.

Work Cited

Angelou, M. (2009). Letter to My Daughter.  New York, NY: Random House, Inc.

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