The title of this post is an actual question posed to me yesterday. In the wake of the settlement of a lawsuit by victims of sexual abuse against Michigan State University, my wife was listening to public radio, and the reporter plainly stated that despite the settlement and the financial penalty, the women involved would “never be whole”.
After telling me that story, she asked that question, out of love.
My response to that?
What a horrible turn of phrase to use.
Sadly, I would put this phrase right along with referring to sexual abuse survivors as “damaged goods”. It’s usually uttered by people who want to make sure that everyone who hears them knows that sexual abuse is a horrible, horrible thing. It’s life-altering, it’s painful, it causes so much hurt. And, all of that is true. Being abused became part of who I am. I can’t go back to being on the same path as I was before it happened. It altered me.
What it didn’t do was make me any less of a whole human being as anyone else.
I want to make two points about these kinds of statements. First, we do not live a life that is always on one path until abuse happens, and then always on that “less than whole” path. Everyone’s life is an amalgam of experiences and events, both good and bad, that add up to a whole human experience. Sexual abuse changes us. If you were in a fender-bender on the way to work this morning, that changed you. Relocating to live in a new city changes you. Travel changes you. The loss of a loved one changes you. Having kids changes you.
Real life is made up of a constant stream of experiences that shape and change us. Some we chose, others we did not. Some are positive changes, others are not, and some changes are harder than others. That’s life, for EVERYONE. If we are going to define sexual abuse victims as not whole because the abuse has changed them, then we are going to have to use that same term to define anyone who has ever had a bad experience that changed them. So I guess, by that definition, no one is “whole”.
Secondly, these kind of phrases are damaging to survivors. In this reporters attempt to show how serious abuse is, they also sent the message that survivors are “less than”, and always will be. People who do this might as well go ahead and say what they are already inferring, “Poor things, tossed on the trash bin of history, nothing more than detritus for the normal folks to step around while offering sad looks. That’s all they’ll ever be after something like sexual abuse”.
Survivor, you are a whole human being. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. You’ve had something horrible happen to you, something that wasn’t your fault, and you didn’t ask for, but it’s now part of you. That sucks, but it is not “end of life as we know it”, or at least it doesn’t need to be. There is still plenty of life for you to live, despite the abuse. You will struggle, and grieve, and feel a lot of things because of the abuse. You are also capable of overcoming it. You are not “less than”. Do not allow anyone to dehumanize you that way.
Everyone else, quit dehumanizing abuse victims. That’s how this all started, we were dehumanized by our abusers, who saw us as “less than”, free to do with what they wanted. Don’t make that worse, don’t continue that abuse. We are just as whole as you are.