A Rape Survivor’s Open Letter to George Will

Warning: this open letter contains triggers that may be harmful to some.

Dear Mr. Will,

I have recently read your Op Ed in the New York Post and am pleased to learn that you’ve offered me the opportunity to educate you and those who follow you on what it is like to be a rape survivor. Yes, I am a 23-year sexual assault or rape (you pick whichever word makes you most comfortable) survivor. 23 years ago this month, 2 weeks after I began college, my former high school boyfriend became angry with me because I would not rekindle our relationship. He took out his aggressions by holding me down by the throat ripping off my clothing and forcing his penis into my vagina while I said no and begged not only for him to stop but for my life. This, Mr. Will, is rape. I, Mr. Will, am a survivor no matter how much you may believe the word demonstrates “language of prejudgment”.

In fact, let’s discuss the “language of prejudgment” you refer to when you write about female “survivors”. The very definition of the term survive according to Merriam Webster is the act of “continuing to function or prosper despite.” Google defines “survivor” as a “person who survives, especially a person remaining alive after an event in which others have died.” Thousands of people have died because of sexualized violence; those who have not died are survivors. Surviving is what any person, male or female, does each and every time they take a breath after having been raped.

Surviving is not about “prejudgment” because it’s not about the rapist. Surviving is about the survivor, the person who gets up each day knowing they will be faced with hateful and accusatory words of prejudice from people like you. Surviving is about living each day even though your best friends, family, co-workers, and random strangers you’ll never meet seem to believe they have a right to decide whether or not you “deserved it”. Surviving is about forcing yourself to block out those who say you were wearing the wrong clothes, in the wrong neighborhood, out too late, with the wrong people, drank too much, didn’t say no loud enough, or even gave in too quickly out of fear for your life. Surviving is about forcing yourself out of the house to function like a person who’s not been raped so that you can put food on the table for all of the people depending on you. Let’s be clear. The word survivor is about the one doing the surviving not the “tender sensibilities” of the accused rapist.

While we’re on the topic of “tender sensibilities” let’s discuss why trigger warnings are important. Studies suggest that up to 31% of all rape survivors suffer from PTSD. That means as many as 1 out of every 3 survivors of sexualized violence who read your piece is suffering from PTSD. Yes, the same posttraumatic stress disorder we warn the brave men and women who serve our country of, afflicts those who have survived sexualized violence. Just as we would warn soldiers returning from Afghanistan of a possible trigger, it is our responsibility to warn trauma survivors of the very words that might cause them to relive the trauma they’ve survived. It’s not about enabling entitlement; it’s about being a decent human being.

Regarding the story you shared of a Swarthmore College student, you seem to be missing the simple fact that no means no and there’s no excuse for any sexual act after someone says no. It doesn’t matter how long they lay there together or if they’d had sex before. No means no. Placing the responsibility on the young woman after she said no allows the young man to be blameless. You are sending a message to young men everywhere that if he waits long enough and gets physically aggressive enough she’ll eventually just give in and that’s not rape. No means no. Teach young men to respect the word no rather than working another angle. Stop preaching to women how not to be raped and start teaching young men not to rape.

After reading your piece my friend, Hilary Kinavey from Be Nourished in Portland, shared with me that your piece reminded her of her days in college and the “confusion as to what my responsibility was regarding my sexual safety…It was only in the safety of my women’s studies classes that I learned I could say no: no to content that was triggering, no because my internal wisdom said so, no because I am me, who has as much a right to voice and power and to say no as my professors, my classmates and all others. This is a practice for women in this culture, although it really is a birthright.” Indeed, the ability to say no is our birthright.

While my rape may fit your description of “forcible sexual penetration” I also fit into that pesky group of people who were raped and didn’t report it ultimately making the math of those who report and those who don’t too difficult for you to understand. I, like many rape survivors, didn’t feel I would be believed, I feared I would embarrass my family, and I worried I could not withstand the public humiliation of reliving the rape in court. The fact that I didn’t report makes me no less a survivor and no less a warrior in the fight against people like you who bully women in to hiding from the world instead of becoming the strong leaders our society needs them to be.

Ironically, you’re not the first person to suggest that being a victim provides me with a sense of entitlement or even that I’ve somehow used my rape to make a name for myself in this fight. These are suggestions that never surprise me yet mystify me every time I hear them. Surviving rape is not like surviving breast cancer, Mr. Will. I don’t get to wear a pretty ribbon or a t-shirt that says I’m a survivor. I don’t get to lift my shirt or bare my scared chest as a badge of honor. There are no bumper stickers that read, “Rape Sucks. Fight Like a Girl” or “Help Save Home Plate” No, instead I cautiously approach the subject each and every time it comes up waiting for the look of disbelief, then the look of pity, followed by the uncomfortable silence as someone tries to search for the right words. The experience never gets easier and yet I continue to speak out because each time I hear someone say, “Your story has altered the course of my life” I know that getting up each day as a survivor was worth the pain.

In closing Mr. Will, I encourage you to stop writing articles full of $2 words in hopes of confusing people into siding with you and instead work to put an end to sexualized violence not only here but also around the globe. You have an opportunity to protect so many from your platform. Please, choose wisely.

 

Sincerely,

Michelle Merritt, Survivor

 

 

38 thoughts on “A Rape Survivor’s Open Letter to George Will

  1. You are such a courageous woman, Michelle. How much easier it would be to ignore this to this day, but your voice speaks for those who cannot.

  2. Thank you for your brilliant response. I only hope he has a shred of decency and will read it and try to understand.

  3. It is tragic that you were raped. But it does NOT happen to most women. To imply otherwise is disrespectful and terrible.

    1. Dirk, thank you for acknowledging the tragedy of sexual assault. In the US approximately 20% of people have been victims of attempted or completed sexual assault. This makes it likely that 1 out of the next 5 people we encounter have been victimized (& those are just the ones who report) Thankfully not a majority but certainly a group large enough to be recognized & supported.

    2. Great piece, Michelle! And Dirk, I suspect you will be surprised, if not shocked, by how many of your women friends have experienced unwanted sexual events at some time in their lives, including rape. Ask sincerely and they will tell you.

    3. I beg to differ. Many women I know, including myself, have been raped. We just don’t tell. In my case, my husband was a police officer & they wouldn’t even do anything to him when he held a gun to my head. I also know several women who were raped as children. The amount reported is SOOOOOOO much less than the numbers out there suffering in silence. It bears noting as well, that I know 4 men who were molested as children.

  4. thank you for this. i was raped when i was 16 by a “friend” and now, 9 years later, i am just starting to speak out. you made me feel so much less alone. ❤

  5. When I told my current boyfriend about my rape, he asked me if at least the f***ker was in jail. My immediately reaction was to laugh at the absurdity of the idea. I want to live in a world where justice doesn’t have to be absurd.

    Thank you for posting this.

    1. I’m also going to add to this — Sometimes, even after reporting, we are actively silenced by people in authority. The first time a then-acquaintance raped me, I did report it to the police. Naively, perhaps, I thought they would help. Instead, they were disbelieving, blaming, berating, and actively hostile. In the end, they ended up determining that this attack on my body was “unsubstantiated” and declined to make an arrest. Which, in addition to everything else, earned me the reputation of spiteful liar among folks who were mutual acquaintances of my rapist and me.

      Sometimes, even when we do speak out, it gets silenced and dismissed as “didn’t happen.”

      1. I can relate. I got up my courage and went to the police station to report. I didn’t know his name and waited too long. They didn’t even write a report.

  6. Thank you so much for your eloquent and public response! I appreciate your advice about trigger warnings, something I find so helpful in preparing myself for what I am about to read and the lack thereof at times very upsetting.

  7. Beautifully said. I successfully fought off a would-be rapist at 17 and have far more than the requisite 20% of friends who were not so lucky. I would add this about disease. Disease is terrible. It is frightening and painful and often financially devastating. But with the notable exceptions of STDs (sex again, of course) and lung cancer, people seldom blame the victim. No one ever says that a breast cancer patient or an MS sufferer was asking for it. Further, with again the same notable exceptions, people with illnesses are struggling with a faceless enemy caused by an impersonal twist of fate (which can be awful in it’s own right). But people who are raped must face the fact that a human being actively inflicted the experience on them with malice and intent — and that many other people will look the other way or justify the rapist’s actions.

  8. Thank you for writing a very eloquent response, because I know I would have had a few more choice words. I had experienced an assault at the age of 5 by a neighbor, and when I told people no one believed me because of how young I was. My parents to this day believe I was lying about the incident. It took me more than 10 years to be able to talk about it, because I figured no one would believe me. I finally found the strength to understand what happened wasn’t my fault and that it is my story and my truth. I’m much happier knowing this now. Thank you again.

  9. I’m sorry that the assault happened to you, and to all the respondents. Impressed is too shallow and vapid a word to encompass the admiration I have for your strength, bravery and eloquence. This empowering piece was more thoughtfully done than Mr. Will’s, and much more intelligent despite a comparative dearth of collegiate vocabulary. I applaud your reasoned response to a privileged jackass interested only in the sound of his own braying. I have a daughter and stories like these give me pause, and anxiety, but while I work in whatever way I can to change the world, she already takes karate and will continue. I work for the ideal, but prepare her for the sad world she’s inheriting.

    Thank you for what you’ve written.

  10. Beautifully said.

    Also, I would proudly wear one of the shirts or slap the bumper sticker on my car that said “Save Home Plate”. Would it make people uncomfortable? Yes, maybe. But I think that is also what’s so isolating about sexual assault – it’s invisibility and the cloak of shame. My own mother told me that, as a 7 year old, I must have liked it when my 19 year old stepbrother assaulted me. It took me years to get over that – not the assault, but the blame. It is sadthat the population of sexual assault survivors is so big, but maybe there’s a hidden strength in those numbers, too. I’ll be your first customer. Thank you for your brave and eloquent words.

    1. Jery, thank you for your kind words. I’m so sorry that happened to you, the shame can certainly be one of the worst things to deal with. I’ll let you know if I move forward with the shirt idea. Thanks for the encouragement!

  11. Thank you, Michelle. As someone who has tried to battle ptsd all my, I find comfort in your brave words. Your story brought me to tears, in an empowering hopeful way. I felt I wasn’t alone. There have been many, many times in my life; where, basic functioning is a struggle. Cowards like George Will can’t understand, won’t admit their delusion; and don’t have the intelligent capacity to see the anxiety and anguish they cause survivors AND society.

    1. Josie,

      Thank you for your kind words. I’m honored to have written something that made you feel empowered and hopeful. You’re not alone. As a fellow survivor know that you’re in heart & I’m cheering for you!

  12. I don’t know to say.. your so brave to speak out.. June 30th I was raped by my tattoo artist. I was there getting a tattoo for my 6 month weight loss challenge. I had lost 90 bls then.. I’m 25. It’s hard to speak out on what happened.. but ill glad ur able to speak for all of us. Thank you

    1. Thank you for your kind words & for sharing your story. I’m terribly sorry this happened to you. I encourage you to seek counseling immediately & consider reporting it to the authorities. As a survivor each day will be different & having a professional to guide you through your journey is key. Sending you strength, courage, & love along the way. ~Michelle

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