Saturday, November 18, 2006

Loyal Daughters of Notre Dame

It was sometime in 1998, Manila. I was lying on a bed. Some men and maybe a woman were holding me down. I don't remember exactly, as I was not totally aware of all that was happening around me. I was wearing no underwear. A foreign object had been inserted into my anus, up past my rectum and into my colon. It hurt. It really hurt. My screams could be heard from the hallway. My girlfriend at the time, Buena, was debating with herself whether to charge into the room and put an end to things, but she did not. I could hear a female voice--the voice of authority and control in the room--saying again and again, "just a little bit further". I begged her to stop, but she did not. She continued looking at the television screen. The pain was unbearable. At last it stopped, and I passed out.

The foreign object in my intestines was a video camera. The woman who put it there was a doctor. The people holding me down were nurses. A person was missing: the anesthetist, who was supposed to make me unconscious before things got underway. He or she had not shown up. I had given my consent to the doctor to proceed with the procedure with a much reduced level of anaesthetic that she herself administered.

Rape is an event that occurs without the victim's consent. I have never been raped. I do not know what it is like to experience rape. But I do know for years after that traumatic experience in the hospital, there was no way anyone was going to put any kind of object anywhere near my anus. I may not ever give consent to it.

Sexual violence attacks the integrity of body, mind and spirit. This is what gives it its power. If it merely attacked the body, its effects lasting as long a common cold, then it wouldn't matter so much (ignoring of course the transmission of disease). Instead, its violation is profound, penetrating not only the body but emotions deep within the mind, emotions we cannot fully understand let alone control.

The raw sensitivity and brutal intensity of these emotions is perhaps known fully only to those who experience it, or immerse themselves in empathy with those who have. I would never have known the sense of violation of being "felt up" unless it happened to me. Of the range of sexual assaults, this is extremely minor. Yet I can never forget the time in San Francisco more than thirteen years ago when I was felt up. For the first time in my adult life I was wearing a dress. It was Halloween, and my costume for one of Castro's famous street parties was tame compared to many others. While leaving a bar with two of my friends, an Australian named Slim and an Austrian named Helma, someone, who I could not identify, placed a hand up the inside of my legs and headed toward my genitals. I tried to turn and around and see who it was, but people were packed in so tightly I could not do so. It was truly a creepy, awful and absolutely unwelcome feeling, leaving me with a sense of violation far more powerful than I would have ever imagined before experiencing it.

When I hear my female friends talk of their fear of being raped, I listen with all my heart and soul. I can ask them to describe how they felt, to hear how their body and mind responded to the fear. But I know that I cannot really know unless I experience that fear myself. My body and mind does not have the memory of rape, only the imagination of it.

This lack of experiential memory, paradoxically, is one reason among many why it is so crucial that initiatives like that of University of Notre Dame senior Emily Weisbecker's play Loyal Daughters are widely seen and discussed. The play, whose theme is sexuality and sexual assault as told by Notre Dame students, gave voice to actual student victims of sexual violence on and off campus. They included a woman raped in a library toilet by a member of the university's famous college football team, another woman raped by two men one after the other, and the attempted rape of one man by another. Their stories were at times graphic, and always real.

Loyal Daughters was performed this week at Notre Dame amidst some controversy, as the President of Notre Dame, Father Jenkins, withdrew his complete support for the play on the grounds that it 'at times takes a "neutral stance" toward consensual sex outside of marriage.' However according to student newspaper the Observor, Weisbecker said 'the goal of the play was not to explain Catholic teaching to audiences or preach right from wrong but rather to give "a glimpse of what's really going on [so they can] make [their] own decisions."'

In his inaugural address as President, Father Jenkins said "We will strive to build a community generous to those in need and responsive to the demands of justice – strengthened by grace and guided by the command to love God and neighbor. . . . Catholic social teaching insists that we embrace the whole human family, especially those in greatest need."

Women and men who have been sexually violated as students, faculty and workers are among those in greatest need of help on our campus. While I fully respect that one Father Jenkin's many responsibilities is to represent the teachings of the Catholic Church authentically, wisely and insightfully, I cannot help but wonder if his withdrawal of full support for the play undermined his support for ending sexual violence at Notre Dame. Would it have been possible for the women and men to tell their stories of sexual violence through the play without representing the reality of the environment in which these acts take place? Had this environment been stripped out of the play, would the audience have been able to relate their own everyday norms and attitudes on topics such as sex and alcohol to the dreadful acts the play reported? It is not enough to know that sexual violence occurs within the Notre Dame community. The play was responsible not only because of what it reported but also because it implicated attitudes many students hold, including those who would not dream of actually committing sexual violence.

As Father Jenkins himself said in his inaugural address, the "first principle" of a Catholic University is that "Knowledge is good in itself and should be pursued for its own sake." The second principle: "There is a deep harmony between faith and reason." Genuine social change requires not only faith in God, it requires faith in people: in their ability to think critically, examining their values and behaviours so that they can change them. With his deep knowledege of and respect for human nature, Father Jenkins knows this as well as anyone. By withdrawing his full support, whether he wanted to or not he weakened our community's ability to discuss openly our problems and make responsible changes in our lives. He weakened our ability to carry on the kind of conversations "in the dormitories, the dining halls, on the quads, and on long walks around the lakes" that he welcomes. We did not need to be preached to in the play. We needed to see ourselves and know more than ever that we need to make the promise of positive social change a reality.


Paul Cat said...

Father Jenkins needed to reaffirm his position on sexual assault. Second as noble a goal as Emily has, letting people decided for themselves isn't always the best of goals, especially if what one decides is unhealthy and dangerous. What does she want them to decided between? Whether or not sexual abuse is good or bad? Whether or not to go home and sexual abuse someone? No decision is necessary.

The questions that need answering are:
1. Why isn't sexual assault reported more often?
2. Why aren't the people doing the assaulting caught?
3. What is the root cause of the assault?
4. And What are we going to do about it now?

Father Jenkins doesn't control your actions. Him withdrawing his support does not weaken your ability to make social change. Although he might have weakened the community as a whole, he has not weakened my ability to be proactive in ending sexual assault.

Damon Lynch said...

Paul, thanks for stopping by, reading my thoughts and sharing your own.

The context this discussion is taking place in is one of patriarchy. How will you hear the answers to your own questions unless you truly listen? That means understanding the gender, spiritual, cultural and socioeconomic realities in which these crimes take place. You give the appearance of not wanting to truly and sincerely listen to what these women (and men) are trying to tell you.

Father Jenkins is welcome to reaffirm his position on sexual assault, the teachings of the Church on sexuality, roles of women and men and all other relevant themes. As are you are free to share your own views. However his challenge (and yours) is to do so in a way that does not in any way undermine the voices of the women who are breaking the silence about the extent of these crimes and the context in which they occur.

You are speaking from a position of privilege to tell the victims what they should and should not say in public. I do not support your stance.