Breaking The Silence About Sexual Violence by Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente


Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente. Rape CultureMy last article for Feminism and Religion had a very brief reference to an episode of sexual violence; since its publication I have received emails from women who decided to tell me their experiences with rape and abuse.

I am deeply grateful, ladies. I read each one of your stories. I am honored by the trust you placed in me to open your heart and let me go in to see your sorrow and hopes. My soul found solidarity in your words and I recognized myself in your struggle with physical and emotional scars, with your courage to pick up the pieces and coming back from the ashes to pursue justice, inner peace and build new self confidence.

Breaking the silence is not easy. We live in a culture where “women are prettier the more they remain quiet.” We’re taught rather to accept violence without complaints; if we talk, we will be blamed and vilified, isolated, ashamed or mocked. Rape is frequent topic of jokes and the medicine many males recommend for disciplining women who don’t behave “as a woman should.”

Your trust has given me confidence to speak up. I want to return your generosity and what I learned from your testimonies. I decided to publicly speak about this. You and I have lived for long time in the fear of judgment and rejection, unable to identify or raise our voices to the abuse we have suffered.

Silence perpetuates abuse. I have chosen this space where I am surrounded by wise, loving and supportive women to say: I am one of those one in three who experienced violence at some point of her life. I am like many women who suffered physical and sexual violence. I am part of the global 35% of women sexually assaulted; one of those that has been abused while you’re reading this.

Yes. I survived rape. Years ago, my fiancé at the time raped me after a long session of violence that included profanities, beatings, pouring over me one liter of 100% pure chlorine and cutting me with a knife.

That night I came home after a long day at work. He was waiting for me outside and pushed me inside when I opened the door. Yes, I knew he had a temper. Yes, he had spoken profanities at me before. Yes, our relationship was in crisis. Yes, he thought I was cheating on him. Yes, I thought all this could be fixed. However, I never expected it. Not one “Yes” cancels the big “No” as a definitive answer to all forms of violence against women.

I defended myself. I am stubborn and this time was no exception. I fought back as much as I could. But I was a small woman against a man of 1.8 meters dominated by rage who had decided to punish me for my “lack of humbleness.”

I remember clearly the words he yelled in my ear while raping me: “This is to teach you how to respect men.” “This is what you get for not knowing your place.” And, “You won’t make me feel lesser after this.” But, I also remember a single idea ringing in my head: I will prevail.

According to the police, it was not rape. He was my fiancé, so it was apparently not possible to be raped by someone I had accepted into my life by my “own adult decision and risk.” At the police station, I was told that all couples had problems. They suggested I return back home and reflect on the costs of being focused on my career. “Good women do not exasperate their men.”

He was never prosecuted. I never heard from or about him again. I am afraid that wherever he is, he could be doing the same to another woman. But, as I promised myself in the midst of the violence, I prevailed.

I decided that, despite judgments and victimization surrounding me, I would not be a victim. So far, I have lived as a survivor, giving my best to help end inequalities on which violence against women are based. However, I have still carried a shame about being sexually assaulted. I had to struggle in silence with my own vulnerability, being a feminist, an activist and a self-made woman.

Right now, in this space, I want to release my soul from any burden related to the past. I was raped because there is a culture, a society, an understanding of religions that allow men to rape and leaves them unpunished. Patriarchy should be the one to be ashamed; on its behalf the most atrocious cruelties are committed against women on a daily basis.

To my aggressor, I don’t have anything to say except that all his cruelty was not enough to destroy my will or hijack my future. I have a firm belief in divine justice and in my own ability to act on behalf of gender justice, encouraging its pursuit wherever I go.

To the people who knew about this, I appreciate your discretion and care all this time. To those who will know it today, I apologize for my silence and the changes this can bring to our links and relationships. I hope we can find a new and better way together.

I’m aware of slandering from people who will say this is the reason behind my “feminazi hate.” I do not care. I’ll be fine. My past is no longer a burden to me and those comments will not be either.

To the women who shared their stories and to those who are reading this piece, I want to let you know that you are not alone, and I care for you. We should care for each other; building networks, sharing our stories, supporting each other and boosting our courage are the only ways to protect ourselves and counteract vulnerability. There is no virtual reality, because human beings are not virtual. I am here, standing firmly, for you.

After my rape, I tattooed a butterfly on my shoulder, as “..  proof that you can go through a great deal of darkness yet become something so beautiful!” Praise your scars, they tell the world that you fought and won.

Divinity lives within us. We have a huge, unlimited and timeless power in our spiritual strength. Regardless if you believe in God or not, never stop believing in your possibilities. Believe in your dignity and resilience. Believe in your potential to transform your life. Believe in your voice and raise it loud for your truth, even if others don’t.

There is nothing in our past that could be big, heavy and difficult enough to block our road to happiness and fulfillment. It’s time to start living with no shame. Writer Asra Nomani says “When we strive to live without shame we achieve courage, confidence and voice.”  Stay attached to a simple and daily act of justice in your behalf: SPEAK UP! YOU WILL PREVAIL.

Vanessa Rivera de la Fuente is a Writer, Mentor and Community Educator in Capacity Building for Grass Roots Female Leaders and Advocates. A Muslim Feminist who is an Independent Researcher of Gender and Islam in Latin America on Feminist Hermeneutics, Muslim Women Representations, Queer Identities and Movement Building. She blogs in Spanish at Mezquita de Mujeres, a site dedicated to explore the links between Gender, Religion and Feminism as well to Women from the Global South as Change Makers in their communities.

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Categories: Feminism, Healing, Rape, Rape Culture, Sexual Violence, Sisterhood

Tags: , , , ,

37 replies

  1. Thank you for your bravery. Silences need to be broken again and again. I am thinking of how coming out as gay and lesbian to friends and co-workers led to the legalization of gay marriage in the US. It is much harder to talk about violence and violation, but just think what could happen if everyone in the world learned that one in three of his or her female friends, relatives, and co-workers (and some male friends too) had been violated. That’s a lot of people. I found when I was teaching women’s studies that almost all the women in my classes had experienced some form of violation, yes, almost all.

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  2. Thank you, Vanessa, for telling your experience so honestly and bravely and with such insight. Silence, imposed through shame and fear, is how the cultural acceptance of violence based on gender and so many other characteristics persists century after century, generation after generation. Every voice raised is a step forward to a world where everyone is respected and safe. I know your post will mean so much to so many other women who have held the burden of silence inside themselves for years and years.

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  3. Thank you for your truth and for allowing us to bear witness. I feel the healing power of your words in my own body.

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  4. I don’t disagree with talking about it. But in a sort of convoluted way, I disagree with indulging the self pity that comes with it, or the anger. In my opinion, that’s exactly what the abuser wants to accomplish, the woman obsessed with memories of the abuse, naming herself as an abused woman, fearing it will happen again, instead of dumping the whole thing back into the lap of the patriarchy — that’s where it belongs, and where it should remain, and not with us!!

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    • Sarah: Thanks for your comment. Just I want to say that if you see a victim in me, is up to you and to me. I dont feel self pity about myself and I am not looking for yours.This is me, with all my scars displayed in the wind of judgemental people. I don’t think women must remain in silence just because some people can feel annoyed to realize that women who have been raped or abused MUST live with it and also deal with the comtemp and patronizing attitude of others. “just to dumping the whole thing” is not easy and not an option because is not like not passing a exam or being rejected by someone you had a crush on. Rape belongs to the person who has been raped and talking about it is the way to take it off somehow. I can’t delete the pain of the violence but al least I can relief myself from the burden of being silence about. But one thing is to live it and another to talk from an outisder side.

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      • Sarah, for me as a rape survivor, I don’t remember self-pity (I was in the most supportive environment possible, teaching in Women’s Studies). But I KNOW that anger was absolutely necessary to getting through to the other side and becoming a survivor, not a victim. He violated me; he raped me: he dismissed my needs and desires as so much trivia; I was pretty sure that he might (and certainly could) kill me. This was not just loss of dignity for me. This was not just loss of voice. This was not just loss of my will power. This was the willful denigration of me — another human being — because my rapist hated all people like me. This violence was planned and carried out by a man, who tried first to get me so drunk that I wouldn’t remember it. I killed a houseplant by dumping that drink into its pot. He manipulated me, bamboozled me, tried to drug me, raped me, and fortunately didn’t kill me.

        So…maybe my anger tied me to him. Probably so, but not forever. I don’t think that’s what he wanted. He wanted to punish me and by punishing me, to get back all the people like me whom he hated, and he did that by raping me.

        I’m well beyond that personal anger today. But my anger was necessary then. It allowed me to feel whole, to go from victim to survivor, to get beyond any lingering doubts that I was somehow responsible — I was a young, naive 20-year-old — because it was HIS despicable actions, not mine, that had caused what happened (and hating him allowed me to put my emotion about the experience onto the correct person). In Hinduism this process is the movement from tamas (negative tendency toward confusion, heaviness, inertia, depression) to rajas (active tendency towards restlessness, passion, anger; what is active, urgent and variable,etc.) ultimately on the way to sattva (uplifting tendency towards happiness, goodness, etc.).

        Maybe — if you were raped or violated in some other way — you had a different experience in its aftermath. But I wouldn’t generalize on it. I would never tell a rape survivor HOW to move through her experience of violation, terror, reification (Verdinglichung), depersonalization, objectification, even complete disregard for her body/life/spirit, and the destruction of trust in other human beings (or just male human beings) that can result from it. It’s a hard road, but I’ve traveled it, and there is another side.

        Ultimately, I met my rapist in my dreams and had to realize that at least in my dreams, this rapist was a part of me. Embracing that wounded part of me allowed me, as you write, to “finally let go of whatever relationship might be abusing [me] (even if that relationship is now only a memory).” But it was a process and anger was a necessary part of it for me.

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      • Nancy: Thanks for be so generous and brave to share your experience with us. I know also there is another side and speaking up is starting to create that possibility both for us and for any other women who is still keeping within herself the pain and shame.

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      • Nancy, there are so many different levels of abuse that we really can’t set any rules as you say. I was speaking from my own experience, and what I learned from it. It was only when I decided to take a step back and stop engaging the bad memories, the fear and angst, caused by a very broken home growing up, that I was then truly able to begin to heal. Your story moves my heart to tears, and you must know, that I have a very profound appreciation of the depth of your thought and the gifts you share at FAR. I love your mind, the way you are able to express yourself with great clarity, with gentleness and honesty, maybe just because of all you’ve had to face and work through in your psyche.

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      • Sarah,

        I’m glad to see your response. It seems to me that you were speaking about another part of the process of healing from violence. I agree with you completely that at some point I had to “take a step back and stop engaging the bad memories, the fear and angst…so that I was then truly able to begin to heal.” Without that final step, I would still be living in fear and suffering.

        And Sarah, we must belong to a “mutual admiration society,” because I always look for your comments here at FAR. You always make me think, and often make my heart open a little more. Thanks.

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      • I think it’s beautiful and empowering we can recognize in pain, realize that Patriarchy violent us in body and soul and realize that only we, being aware of our dignity, believing in our resilience and believing in our sisters can move forward; this is a movement where none of us must to be left behind.

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    • I don’t know Sarah, there really are victims and victimizers, of course it is good to move on, but rage and pity for the self (yourself or another victim) who was violated may be necessary steps toward healing.

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      • Carol and Vanessa, I still say dump it. Rage and pity tie us to the victimizer. But we can step out of that trap, and go free, totally healed, just because we refuse to take the hurt and anger on. Most importantly, at the same time as we step away from the hurt, we can finally let go of whatever relationship might be abusing us (even if that relationship is now only a memory).

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      • Is exactly what I am trying to do. I don’t know why you assume: 1.- I write this to inspire pity 2.- I write this because I am a hater. I do think I made clear in my testimony why I am talking and where I am coming from. I will keep tellling my story as long there is one in 3 women that are “asked” to keep in silence. I will move forward with my truth if this is useful to encourage other women to move forward embracing their truth.

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  5. Breaking the silence about abuse is not self-pity, it is the strength to tell the truth, not hold on to the shame others dump on us, and to reject the role of victim to grow and mature and flourish. What I find staggering in your story Vanessa, is that this still happens. I was sexually abused in the early 1950’s and thought things had improved. Maybe what has improved is that we are now exposing this disease to the light. Only in that way can it be healed.

    Thank you for encouraging other women to shed the shame and the silence that allows it to fester.

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  6. Bless you for your courage, Vanessa. It takes so much courage to speak to a world that doesn’t want to hear. May your heart find peace.

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  7. Tuve la oportunidad de leerlo antes de su publicación y te expresé mis sentimientos y sensaciones inmediatamente, las cuales quedan entre ambas. No obstante, aprovecho esta oportunidad para hacer público mi agradecimiento por transmitir un episodio (lamentablemente triste) de tu historia de vida con el propósito de visibilizar la violencia de género en su faceta más “privada” e “íntima” pero también de demostrar que ésto – aunque influye en tu experiencia y subjetividad- no debe ser motivo de vergüenza ni culpa. No sabía de este acontecimiento, hasta hace poco tiempo, y nunca me lo imaginé o figuré. Tu personalidad y actitud no parecían los de una mujer que haya atravesado por esta situación. Esto demuestra que una debe seguir rompiendo sus propios estereotipos e imaginarios. Espero, siguiendo tus propias palabras, que “salir del closet” sea liberador y catártico a nivel personal pero además inspirador a nivel interpersonal

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    • Gracias Mayra. Las mujeres hemos aprendido a llevar todo tipo de cargas sin parecer angustiadas. Pero como te decía la otra vez: Es mejor vivir con las heridas al viento porque se pierde mucho tiempo y energía pretendiendo que todo esta bien. No, no todo siempre está bien pero eso es una buena noticia porque como la vida fluye y cambia entonces nosotras podemos ser agentes de cambio y transformar lo que no esta bien en algo mejor.

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  8. I do not know how to write the words that express my admiration for how you handled this. You are an incredibly resilient woman. It is only through bringing these stories to light that any change can occur. You are part of making that change happen. You are a butterfly. Without doubt.

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    • Thanks Laury: I decided it is better to live with the wounds exposed, because I have lost much time and energy trying to fit. I realized the best way to get along with myself and be useful to the women I work with is to say: No, everything is not always ok, shit happens and happened to me, but also life flows, move forward and changes so we can be agents of change and transform what is not right in something better.

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  9. Thank you so much for sharing your story. You are so powerful, inspiring, and brave to speak out about this pervasive, ugly violence we women (and some men) are forced to endure.

    I too am a survivor of sexual assault, rape, and domestic violence at the hands of men who claimed to love me. After the most recent attack, the rapist tried to convince me that it didn’t happen, that I remembered it wrong.

    As for the ludicrous idea that we survivors should just “dump it,” I say, easier said than done! I have to live with PTSD, depression and generalized anxiety because of what men who felt entitled to my body did to me. Yes, I hurt; deeply. Yes, I am angry. And I have a right to be, as does anyone who has lived through trauma. Both sadness and rage are crucial elements of the healing process, and to deny oneself or anyone else the right to work through these feelings is, in my opinion, another act of violence stemming from the rape culture in which we live.

    I do not share my story for Pity Points (TM) or to garner sympathy, but because breaking my silence is crucial to my healing, and vital to fighting back against societal forces that seek to silence survivors. The more survivors speak up, the more we can raise awareness and push for change. At least this is my hope.

    Blessings to you, Vanessa. Thank you for your courage and love.

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    • Rebekah: Thank you very much for sharing your story with us. I am glad to see crystal clear the effects of speaking up: When one of us speaks about the violence we have been subjected to, we open a door, we give a chance to other people to do it and start to heal, understand and reconnecting ourselves with our souls and bodies. Is my hope that speaking up can boost the change we need to end with Rape Culture. That change starts within. As latina queer feminist Gloria Anzaldua said: Nothing happens in the outside if we have not imagined before inside. So I encourage you to imagine.

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  10. Vanessa —

    Your story resonates with my experience as one of 35%. I’ve been out as a rape survivor for 40 years. I tell my story whenever it can be helpful to another woman. And I’m glad that you’re willing to do the same, because as you write, “Silence perpetuates abuse.” And getting beyond that silence is hard, but it’s incredibly freeing, empowering, and healing. Then you hear the other stories and know that you’re not the only one who was violated, but survived, whole, strong, and healing into your power again. “You will prevail” (you have prevailed).

    I don’t think you need to apologize for the changes in relationships that may result from the courageous act of telling your story. Those changes may happen. But it’s not your responsibility to take care of other people’s behavior or attitudes. It’s impossible to do that. You need to take care of yourself .

    Here’s an example of what happened to me. When I was raped, I promised myself never to tell my parents, who because they were 25 – 30 years older than I was, really couldn’t understand and would blame me. I told them almost 20 years later by mistake, and realized that I had been right all along. My mother stuck her head in the sand, not wanting to acknowledge what I had said, and father got mad at me (for upsetting my mother and as the messenger who had told him that his darling daughter had been raped). It took a while, but realized that I wasn’t to blame for their reactions. It was their culture that hurt them and changed our relationship. And as you know, that patriarchal culture is what has to change.

    And so what if people say that your rape is behind your “Feminazi hate.” There is, of course, a kernel of truth to this. When a woman has experienced misogyny on her very body, it’s hard to ignore. Becoming a feminist is the appropriate response. But of course, you’re no Feminazi, and from what I have read here on FAR, you certainly aren’t a hate-monger. “Divinity lives within us.” And it’s a lot more compassionate, understanding, loving and empowering than the sexist voices that may put us down. Thanks again for an inspiring post.

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    • I appreciate your feedback and the fact you share your perspective. I think there is nothing wrong in recognizing anger, it is important to organize it. In the outrage were forged great personal and social changes. Denying the existence of anger and say to women who have been under violent situations not to express, is part of the conditioning of patriarchy on women, whereby women NOT show anger and we must be always peaceful, conciliatory and receive all with a smile and good manners. It is precisely that role model that promotes the culture of silence.

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  11. As I said above, anger was a part of the process for me, and probably for almost all other rape survivors.

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  12. Sorry to hear about what you went through.

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  13. Didn’t have a chance to read this yesterday. Very touching post! When I led a women’s consciousness-raising group while I was writing my dissertation in 1976, I met Rebecca, who had taken her two sons and her dog (a very polite, large one named Lola) and fled her abusive husband, Tom. Eight months later, she went back to him. Then she invited me and my son (age 8) to move to California and live with them until we could get settled. I witnessed violent arguments, but what really scared me was the day I heard Tom threatening to kill himself in the boys’ bedroom so they could see his dead body. My son and I moved out. Later the same year, Rebecca moved out and divorced Tom. Domestic violence isn’t solely aimed at women. As we all know, children are victims, too. But we all know that.

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  14. Reading your post and the comments here has made me have a profound respect for women; tenacious, audacious, courageous.

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  15. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for surviving — and then flourishing. Thank you for speaking out.

    The more of us who speak, the more others there will be who find their own voices.

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