Are You Benchmarking?

**Trigger warning – this blog contains references to sexual violence.

Estimated statistics suggest 1 in 3 women are survivors of physical or sexual harm in their lifetime, including sexual harassment, sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape. In the past 24 hours, you have possibly interacted with 3 different women, so you have likely spoken with, texted, emailed or smiled at a survivor of sexual abuse or violence.

ShrinkyDinks

Remember ShrinkyDinks?  Their shape and colour didn’t change when baked, they merely shrank in size, and came out of the oven looking exactly the same…..but lots smaller.  This makes a helpful analogy for  the way survivors of sexual harm sometimes minimalize their experiences, diminishing them in a range of ways for a plethora of reasons.  Denial, social conditioning, fear, trauma, and memory issues are just some of the factors that lead survivors, and society, to minimalize sexual harm.  For some, the minimalization is essential for their own self-preservation.

Recently, the author of Broken Pieces and Broken Places, Rachel Thompson (@RachelintheOC) started a Twitter hashtag #WhySurvivorsDontReport.  Rachel was deluged with responses from women and men around the world.  Her blog is here.  Some of the reason that so much sexual violence goes unreported is probably that those who do speak out may feel embarrassed and ashamed, not just because of what was done to them, but because they felt they needed to report it.  Indeed, Rachel quotes a statistic from RAINN: “8% [of sexual violence survivors] believed it was not important enough to report.”  Perhaps they think they should just get on with it…..after all, these things happen all the time, right?

Benchmarking

Along with society drawing comparisons and telling us what constitutes the “worst” sexual violence, and also our own ability to listen to each other’s stories, letting ours fade into the background when we compare what we survived in relation to friends who experienced what society might tell us is deemed worse, a third phenomenon can happen.

It seems we ourselves can, at times, benchmark our experiences of sexual harm, keeping a mentally-ordered list of incidents based on relativity; the worst things which happened to us remain at the top.  Other incidents  we rank in order from worst to least worst, until we get near the bottom where we list the time we were “just” tickled too much by a scary uncle as children, “only” sexually harassed at a bus stop, or maybe “sort of” groped by an acquaintance when drunk at a party.

Some of the sexual harassment, violence and assaults I experienced growing up were incidents I had not given much more than a passing thought to until recent years.  Was this because they were ‘nothings’?  In isolation – umm…no; absolutely not.  How had I managed to shrink some of them down into near insignificance?  Had I chosen my scariest experiences and then used them as a measuring stick for everything else, perhaps?

The positive element is that perhaps we are in a good place with those things at the bottom of the list, we have not allowed them to consume us. But they are all examples of sexual harm.  By shrinking them down, we must be careful we are not communicating to others that they should minimalize similar things that happened to them, there are no rules – everyone responds in their own way.

If we are going to raise children who feel confident to speak out about sexual harm and to understand how that behaviour – any sexually abusive behaviour – affects others, we need to be able to talk about it with them.

We need to stop diminishing it, because making it appear smaller and smaller doesn’t make it go away.

We need to challenge what happens today, but also, if we are able, explore our own benchmarking – what is at the bottom of our lists of past experiences of sexual harm, those incidents we may have shrank down in our minds, for whatever reasons?

This is not because we want to make them bigger; it is not because we want to re-traumatise ourselves.

It is because they were still not okay.

And we need our children to know that.

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