[cn: Non-explicit discussion of sexual violence.]
Last month, I mentioned my past experience with sexual assault and rape. And I said I was fortunate to have never suffered from PTSD, unlike many other victims who have suffered from PTSD. This is my way of saying that other people had it worse than me.
If you’ve heard any number of accounts of victims of sexual harassment or sexual violence, you know that “somebody else had it worse” is a common trope. Saying, “I don’t want to take up space from other people with more extreme stories.” Or, “I don’t want anyone to think I’m making a huge deal over something so little.” Or, “I’m not sure this even belongs in the category of sexual assault.”
In the other extreme, some people argue that we shouldn’t ever compare different experiences of sexual violence at all. We’re told that there is only one kind of rape, all sexual violence is bad, end of story.
I have issues with both of these sides, and wish to find a happy medium.
My issue with the “somebody else had it worse” trope is that it feels gracious to a fault. It’s like an unwarranted apology. It’s like walking funny in order to avoid stepping on my toes, when you’re ten feet away. If we were all talking about any other type of personal experience–say, the experience of reading a book–I wouldn’t go out of my way to mention all the people who hated the book even more than I did. And I wouldn’t apologize for how much space my review is taking up. I mean, we’re more careful when talking about sexual violence than when talking about books, because of the greater potential to hurt people. But if someone talks about a less intense experience than my own, that doesn’t hurt me in any way. In fact I’m glad for people to find a voice to talk about such things.
Although, the comparison to an unwarranted apology raises a lot of questions. According to many op-eds, women are socialized to apologize more often than men. According to other writers, telling women to apologize less is unhelpful because it just polices their language and puts them in a double bind.
So now I’m wondering, is this more common among women than men? Is it helpful to tell victims to avoid the “somebody else had it worse” trope? Or does that just put people in a double bind, where they get punished no matter what they say? I don’t know the answers! Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
Now we discuss the other extreme, the insistence that different experiences of sexual harassment and sexual violence cannot or should not be compared. I understand where this is coming from. It’s a way to counter certain anti-feminist tropes. And if I heard two people’s stories of sexual assault, it would be extremely gauche to say one was worse than the other. And even if we wanted to compare experiences of sexual violence, comparisons of experiences are really difficult in general.
On the other hand, it seems like there are plenty of legitimate reasons to want to compare experiences of sexual assault, and say that one is worse than another. For example, I’ve had multiple experiences with sexual assault and I don’t think I could really talk about them without expressing my view that one of them was a lot worse than the other two.
And if we don’t talk about all the variations in experiences, that can lead to all sorts of false assumptions. I have had people tell me that my experiences with sexual assault were in fact worse than I claim that they are. They said that I was suppressing my true feelings, or that I was numb from trauma. It feels like people are calling me confused or a liar. And this is supposed to be supportive?
That’s why I always try to emphasize the different experiences people have in relation to PTSD. Some people who experience sexual violence have PTSD in relation to it. Some people do not. Some people have PTSD and then stop having it. Other people have it indefinitely. Some people don’t have PTSD at first but develop it later. Some people have PTSD in relation to what appear to be minor incidents, and some people who experience major incidents never have PTSD. These are facts of life.
All other things being equal, having PTSD is worse than not having it, which means that other people have had it worse than me. But I want to make it clear–this is a statement of factual significance. It is not a statement of emotional significance. I know other people have had it worse than me because I know PTSD is a thing, but I am not trying to minimize what I experienced. My feelings about it mattered, and continue to matter. If you experienced something similar, your feelings matter too. They don’t stop mattering just because other people had it worse.