My doorbell rang.
This was a bit odd, seeing that it was Thanksgiving evening, and I had an expected night alone in my town house. I wasn’t able to travel to see family that year.
I walked to the door, cautiously opening it, only to find my friend Latonya standing there. “Hey! Latonya, nice to see you!”
See looked slightly uncomfortable. “Hey Angela,” she said, forced cheerfully. “Can I come in?”
“Oh, for sure, absolutely, come on in.” I walked her to the living room, feeling like something was a bit off.
But I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable, so I tried to be welcoming. You see, I hadn’t see her in months, probably 7-8. We met on a Salvation Army outreach team to the homeless in downtown Greenville. She was strong, a powerful woman, and always ready to laugh. So I had missed seeing her and missed our friendship that had bonded.
We sat on the couch and she tried to chat, asking me about my Thanksgiving Day. We made casual talk.
In the bright light of the living room, that’s when I noticed the wounds.
Knife marks, specifically.
Pretty quickly she broke down and told me everything that was happening, where she had disappeared to the last several months.
She told me of the boyfriend, the good guy, the community Christian leader.
Then the isolation, the verbal abuse, the lying, the control.
And then the beatings with whatever object was most convenient: hangers, belts, fists.
The story kept coming, as if someone had released a bottled-up dam.
Controlling her to get whatever he wanted, abusing her at the slightest mistake, especially invisible rules that he made. Punishing including burning her skin with cigarettes, pouring scalding hot water on her, and endless punching.
Then she told me of the sexual abuse, the violence, the rape. And her doing whatever she could to appease him or “consent” so that he wouldn’t additionally hurt her.
She only knew her name as “bitch.” And it was hell living with him, though the control and manipulation made it seemingly impossible to leave.
But this time — this was the first time he had used the knife on her.
And she finally escaped. And only because she truly thought she would be killed. She was able to make a phone call to a friend who was able to pick her up and bring her to my house, as I was the only person she could think of to go to.
I sat in shock, the weight of the story depressing my entire being, as I gazed at wounds and bruising on a human being that I have never seen before in person.
Finally, after a long while of listening, watching, processing, I looked at her and said,
“Wow, that was such a great storyline.”
I was 25 that Thanksgiving. Since then I walked into, and perhaps even stumbled upon, the anti-sex trafficking movement. 5 years ago there wasn’t as much national buzz around human trafficking. In fact, I didn’t even know what that term meant. All I knew was that I wanted to support women in marginalized, risky situations.
Latonya (not her real name) was the first of 4 women that I have hosted in my home who have been able to escape terrible situations.
And the common factor? Sexual exploitation.
All of them in some shape or form had experienced sexual assault, discrimination, abuse, or violence. I wasn’t a social worker, so it wasn’t my job to talk about that in depth. But they often told me stories about their experiences, or I heard them due to proximity. I’ve been there in the hospital when the police came to write a report for the violence committed against them and had to hear all the nuanced details.
And it was heavy. It was confusing. It was painful.
As you try to process something like that with someone near you, it literally breaks your mind. And often what happens is what happened pretty quickly once Latonya came to live with me.
Her trauma became my trauma. Her symptoms became my symptoms.
And this is what we call vicarious trauma.
I was pretty alone during this period of my life and didn’t have much community, so the isolation made it that much worse. Plus, I didn’t know how to process it, or that I needed to process it. Good grief, I didn’t even know what the term trauma meant.
Since that time, I’ve attended many, many workshops and conferences on the subject of trafficking and sexual exploitation of adults and children. And at every single one the topic comes up loud and clear for all to glean:
You must take care of yourself and protect your mind and soul if you are in close proximity to disturbing or violent acts.
Because if your mind, soul and body are not cared for, what’s to protect you from imploding?
Or worse yet, numbness?
Watching sexual violence in my free time
I spend a good amount of my free time watching sexual violence and human trafficking documentaries. Reading about it. Studying it. Being educated on it.
I know, I know, not exactly what your average young adult does in her free Friday evenings.
I do it because it makes me better informed to care for and understand someone who’s had to live in that world.
But sometimes it re-triggers something unhealthy in my mind or from my past — it could be a tone of voice, or an action, or an intention. Once that happens, the good of what my “education” is supposed to accomplish is outweighed by the bad effects. Because now my mind is overcome by the second-hand experience and it controls me, not I controlling it.
I’m super sensitive, and I’ll readily admit that now. In fact, I’m glad I’m sensitive and have grown less “strong”. I know what my body is telling me, and I’m aware of something being “too much” or pushing me to the point of vicarious trauma. The non-profit I volunteer with now requires Care Coaches for their volunteers due to the type of outreach we do. I often text my own mentor and friend when something triggers me into an unhealthy place.
So with this lifestyle, I’ve had to work hard to be aware of myself, my environment, and what’s happening in and around me. When is it crossing the line? Am I looking at something to learn or help, or is it in order to obtain? Is it love or is it lust? Is it fear or is it freedom?
So this is my life. Not for everyone, I’m sure! But I hope I also have a relatively normal life, one where Netflix binges happen at times and pop culture isn’t totally out in left field.
But what I haven’t been able to resolve is this conflicting tension I get when I watch TV shows and movies with violence, especially sexual violence.
Why does it make me feel torn? Why do I feel that my authenticity is in question?
I never really had a good answer.
Until last week. That’s when I realized I had to draw a line in the sand.
As I’m sure you can guess by now, after my friend shared her traumatic story of severe violence as I described above, I did not respond, “Wow, that was such a great storyline.”
Because that’s not what you do when you witness violence.
What’s the big deal about shows with sexual violence?
I was at a friend’s house last week, and somehow the topic came around to shows like This Is Us and The Handmaid’s Tale. I made a comment that I had only seen a few episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, and I was uneasy about my conclusion about it. That’s when my friend asked for my opinion, as someone who works with survivors of sexual exploitation, and what I thought about shows like Handmaid’s Tale and Law and Order: SVU.
I hesitated, because I didn’t quite have words to phrase it.
“I mean, I know what they’re trying to say, and trying to make a point about. It’s just that it’s….it’s….”
Then it dawned on me.
Entertainment vs. Education
When I watch a documentary showing the story of a 12 year old Nepalese girl who was trafficked and sold for sex in a brothel across the border in India, I was not entertained. That was not the purpose of the film makers.
When I watched YouTube documentaries about the sex trade of minors and vulnerable women in Mombasa, I was not hoping to be entertained. That was not the purpose of my research.
After watching these shows or documentaries, I often need some sort of release or break. It’s just so heavy, heartbreaking, and wretched.
Here’s the problem: those scenes I watched in those YouTube videos, I recognized that those were the same in many of these other TV shows or movies. But something was different, something was off.
That’s when I realized that film makers and producers use sexual violence, often against women, as a form of entertainment.
Which is just another form of exploitation.
It’s the job of a film maker to tell the truth of the story. And most mainstream popular TV shows and movies are not telling you the truth of the story when it comes to sexual violence.
It shows enough to make you concede, “Well, that wasn’t right of that character to do that,” but it leaves out the weight of grossness of the act. In fact, it often makes you more interested, more desiring, and more aroused.
“But the show is showing what really did happen back in those days!”
Most arguments I’ve read in support of Game of Thrones is that this kind of violence and sexual violence really did happen and that was the norm of that time period.
That could be completely true.
But . . . actually, it’s not.
The film makers are telling a false story, one that you cannot see, one that is hidden and disguised. If they really did represent the heinousness of sexual violence, they would have problems finding viewers. It’s reality is overtly disturbing, and those of us that see it in the real world and online get therapy and healing care for ourselves. And we’re just the observers. We haven’t even discussed the injury done to the ones perpetrated against in this practice.
In the few scenes I’ve seen from Game of Thrones and The Handmaid’s Tale that depict actual sexually violent acts, they are not true narratives, they misrepresent the victim, and they are intended to cause arousal.
“But it’s such a good storyline!”
As illustrated in the opening story, it doesn’t matter how riveting a story is. If there is violence and crime against humanity that we watch with our own eyes, our reactions are typically, “Wow, that’s terrible,” and we instinctively move away, uncomfortably.
But film makers conveniently glide over the terribleness. They make violence more palatable, more reasonable, or desirable.
Which leads us to believe that we really aren’t all that bothered by this violence, which leads me to the next point…
“But this stuff doesn’t bother me. I can watch it and be totally fine.”
This argument concerns me the most. Because it’s basically admitting,
“I’m numb to this.”
You know who else we all now know is numb to sexual violence?
Now, of course, I’m not saying that you’re Harvey. But perpetrators like him weren’t born; they were made. If you read his language and how he spoke to the women he used, it was clear this didn’t bother him. And not bothering gave him plenty of license.
For us, not being bothered does not equate to Super Man or Woman status, that only the strongest of us can handle the really bad stuff.
No, it actually means that you’ve been exposed for so long that the abnormality has become normality, and your brain is not reacting as it should due to this type of conditioning.
And I think this one scares me the most because I believe we all fall into this category in one stage or another. It’s normal in our culture. Which is why you are finding so many “Me too” friends coming out on social media.
Let me ask you: if one of those friends sat down and told you her story of harassment or assault, would you be totally fine with it? Would it not bother you at all?
Shows that depict sexual violence with intention to cause arousal are exploitative.
And when we watch, we participate in the exploitation.
This is where we draw a line in the sand:
If a scene of sexual violence is meant to cause arousal in the viewer, then it is abusive.
Both to all women in our culture, and to yourself.
What these shows teach us is that, yes, sexual violence is kinda bad . . . but more than that it sure is interesting, and we’d like to watch more.
Think about that. Really think about that.
If we’re so used to watching both physical and sexual violence in a place of pleasure and half-truths, then what will we do when we are confronted with it in real life? Will we think it’s “interesting?” Will we want to see more? Will we find it arousing?
Will we say to the victim sharing their experience, “Wow, that was such a great storyline“?
No. We don’t say those things in response to stories that include gross acts of dehumanization.
I put responsibility of lie-telling on the film makers, and the responsibility of participation on us.
Consider this: if a scene of sexual violence causes you to be aroused, then you need help.
It’s not because you’re bad. It’s because you’re broken.
And join the crowd.
I recently read the New Yorker article detailing the stories of the women who have come forward sharing their sexual abusive encounters with Harvey Weinstein over the past decades.
It was a long article. The stories had jarring details. It’s a trigger warning for any female who has experience some form of sexual assault, which I’m pretty sure after seeing the many “Me too” posts that it includes all of us women.
When I finished I felt my head was heavy and slightly spinning. It was almost exhausting. Part of me wanted to just lay there and process what I just heard. But because I’m more in tune to my mental and physical state now, I knew I needed a release. I had just spent a weekend in trauma-informed training, so the teaching was fresh in my memory.
So what did I do? I watched one of the stupidest episodes of Parks and Recreation I’ve ever seen and ate 2 dark chocolate peanut butter cups.
After that brief release I felt normal, the heaviness was gone and I was able to think more clearly. Yet even still, I’ll probably talk about it with my mentor at some point, just so that I don’t soak it up into my mental state.
Because, again, reading or watching violent, abusive acts should mess up your soul.
And it takes intentionality to care for it so that those effects do not damage you or those around you.
We were not made to observe evil casually. We were not made to take pleasure in other people’s pain.