The Cascading Silences of Sexual Violence
Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks (and sometimes more), I am publishing work from an emerging writer. This week, an essay from Clarie Gor. Clarie is a Kenyan writer and journalist. She is currently creating work that centers Black women and feminisms; that is an exploration of the various dynamics of violence; and the possibilities in collective imagination and conversation. Her essays have been published on Catapult and SmokeLong Quarterly. All her work is archived on https://clariesramblings.com, and you can find her on Twitter at @_mis_behave. This essay was edited by Meg Pillow.
In February 2020, my aunt’s husband sexually assaulted me. One evening, he drove me back from a doctor’s appointment, cornered, groped and kissed me in my aunt’s kitchen while she took a nap in the next room. Honestly, it wasn’t the violation that fucked me up. It was the realization that it was inevitable. From the moment he came across my writing, it was only a matter of time and opportunity. Men becoming aware of your existence —in your home, on the street, in the office, on the pages of a random blog on the internet— is one of the most dangerous things that can happen to a woman.
There was a moment before I reacted. A moment where I just stood there and rinsed my yogurt can so it wouldn’t stink up the trash. A moment where I thought, if I just let him finish, I can run upstairs and forget it ever happened, and I won’t ever have to wake up my aunt because waking her up would mean one more person couldn’t forget. And then that moment passed, and I gently pushed his hands away, had a few minutes of innocuous conversation with him and finally made an excuse to go upstairs. Deescalating men’s violence is a language women speak fluently.
Here’s a fucked-up statement: I am fairly well-adjusted to the myriad of sexual violence I have experienced in my life. I feel no shame about it. I don’t blame myself, I don’t wonder what if, I feel no need to forgive the perpetrators. My mental health isn’t that worse off because of them. I am as okay as someone can be about things like that.
This is the other thing about that moment: even as it happened, I had no doubt that I would survive whatever destruction it wrought. Maybe it’s because I’ve been violated so much that I have a system in place. Maybe it’s because I was beating cancer, and I had an arrogant faith in my survival. Maybe I was just aware that I didn’t get to choose—surviving men’s violence is something I’ll always have to do.
My plan was to go upstairs, sleep it off, and never speak about it. Another thing women do: count ourselves lucky that we survived at all. One, it could have been worse; I had experienced worse. Two, I had the GRE exams in four days, and I couldn’t afford to fall apart. Three, I was still recovering from skull-base surgery to remove leftover cancer cells from my head, and I’d just gotten to a point where I wasn’t in constant pain. Four, I’d lost so much bodily autonomy trying to beat cancer that I didn’t want to accept that it’d been snatched away again.
Those things may be true, but mostly, I didn’t want to ruin his marriage. I was violated and my first instinct, no matter how seemingly irrational, was to protect the perpetrator. I know that abuse is never the victim’s fault, and even so, my cousin had to tell me over and over again that I was not responsible for the silent, unacknowledged ways the family would fracture.
When I got to my room upstairs, I found that I could only sit on the floor. For about a minute, I chastised myself for overreacting—I told myself that the situation wasn't so bad as to warrant a dramatic slide onto the floor. But it was the only way I could conjure up a sense of safety. I figured if I sat on the floor on the side of the bed opposite the door and closest to the window, he wouldn’t see me if he came looking for me, and I could easily jump out the window. Then the tears came, and I called my cousins. I think I was as supported as I could have been in that phone call. They offered to drive two hours to come pick me up. They called my aunt to tell her because I just didn’t trust myself to break the news to her. They stayed up all night so they’d be available if I needed it, and they cut off ties with my aunt’s husband. They offered up their resources so I could press charges if I wanted to. I didn’t want to. Because from the moment it happened, I knew I wasn’t going to get anything resembling justice. He was a rich, well-respected doctor in several states, and I was a sick girl on a visitors’ visa. I had no recourse. I had no proof that it happened. If it came down to my word against his, they were going to believe the benevolent relative who helped me get life-saving treatment over the word of an ungrateful non-citizen. But even if I beat the odds, his incarceration, the loss of his livelihood and social capital, is not what I recognize as justice. I don’t know what justice looks like in a society that only seeks to address harm after the fact. All I want is not to be sexually assaulted. Him going to jail is neither here nor there for me.
The aftermath of this revelation to the rest of the family was as expected: a handful of “I am sorry this happened to you”s and little else in the way of support. There were speeches about the perpetrator needing help and demands for family meetings that were presumed to be a means to accountability. I sat listening silently, trying not to feel slighted, abandon, betrayed.
I recognize the abuser needs help. But this conversation is already centering his needs over my own and is rooted in the underlying assumption that I am fine. So fine that in just a few days, I should be in a mental and emotional space to extend grace and empathy to him. What may seem like faith in my ability to endure and triumph was, in actuality, the continued pathologization of Black women. Black women are strong, so strong that support and empathy is unnecessary. My strength is for me to affirm and draw from in order to survive the unendurable. My strength is not for my community to exploit in order to coerce endurance out of me.
As it is, sexual predators, especially if they are male and cishet, almost always get away with the harm they cause. Society enables it, but even in spaces where there is hope for accountability, abusers are especially adept at performing contrition to make themselves look pitiable and to manipulate their victims into forgiving them. I know this because the day after my aunt’s husband assaulted me, he trapped me in a conversation with him. He prefaced it as an apology, but mostly, he ignored my boundaries and kept touching me. He also didn’t own up to anything—blame was placed squarely on the devil. He forced my aunt and I to participate in prayer to make him a better person. It was all a performance for my aunt, the one person who could do anything of consequence.
But mostly, there was silence. And so into the unending nothingness, I whispered one question—how did I not see this coming?
There was a car ride six years ago. I sat with him in the backseat and something about how he held my hand made me uneasy. I wrote it off as a consequence of my own upbringing. I figured this is what affectionate father figures do.
My first night at his house in the U.S., my cousin stood at the door of what was to be my bedroom and implored, “make sure you lock your door.” There was something about how she said it—an unsaid expectation that I understood. I wanted to ask why I had to lock my door, but to ask would have been to verbalize the unthinkable.
There was a Saturday afternoon at my other aunt’s house. Me, needing to go downstairs, him standing in my way, drunk, trying to have a conversation, his hands wandering. Drunk men, to me at least, are a very red flag. So I declared, “I don’t like to be touched.” But again, in the unsaid, a refusal to name the actual problem. So I made it my problem: I’m not saying you’re a creep, I just have issues with affection.
There was the impromptu road trip to New Jersey. He was off one morning, and he decided “we needed to bond.” I sat on my hands the entire time, declaring without having to say—I don’t want you to touch me. When we eventually showed up at my other aunt’s house, my cousin pulled me aside, inquiring, “are you okay?” I nodded, communicating the unsaid, as usual.
The night he assaulted me, he held my hand as he drove. This time I let him. I had been in and out of his house for a year, and my guard was down. But also, there’s so much comfort touching when you have cancer—a well-meaning, albeit steady erosion of boundaries and bodily autonomy. He was the only one available to drive me to this particular appointment—he was out on sick leave after his surgery. Unlike me, they discovered his cancer early. Still, we had cancer in common —the fuckery that is confronting your mortality, the loss of your sense of self, the violation of surgery, the hell that is recovery. After he assaulted me, I kicked myself for not knowing this was an intentional preamble to the assault. He was manufacturing an emotional bond he could draw upon to manipulate me into thinking that I had consented to a sexual encounter with him.
When we got home, I went one way to look for my aunt, and he went the other way. We met in the hallway. Right before he kissed me, he declared—
“Good, she’s asleep.”
Like we had both been hoping for an opportunity we could seize.
As I came to find out, he had a long history as a sexual predator. This time, a cousin decided that he’d gone too far and demanded that the family do something about it. But what’s too far? Me having cancer? Wasn’t my vulnerability precisely why he did it? Was there an expectation that a serial sexual offender would have a line he wouldn’t cross? Even with his history, the whole family didn’t do anything to ensure it wouldn’t happen to me, especially knowing how vulnerable I was. They chose to be comfortable; they hoped the abuser would grow a conscience instead of preemptively and definitively ensuring I was safe. Ultimately, albeit unwittingly, they chose his humanity over my safety.
This is the other thing that fucked me up: my sexual assault was after all, not inevitable. In the many silences and things unsaid, there were moments, choices, that could have prevented it. In the end, we chose silence over my safety. And because of it, he got to demand it from me.
The family is a site of the sexual exploitation of girls/women. In Kenya’s Machakos county, 3964 teenage girls were impregnated between March and August last year. Ms Muthama, the Children’s Department Officer, said that a majority of the cases involved close relatives. These statistics are particularly heartbreaking if you consider that pregnancy is the metric being used to determine sexual assault. You have to wonder: what about the girls who didn’t get pregnant, or worse, the children who haven’t started menstruating? In response to this crisis, the Cabinet Secretary for Education, professor George Magoha, proposed that pornography be banned as apparently, access to pornography is responsible for this teenage pregnancy crisis. This was yet another way the state fails victims of sexual assault. Not only was this assertion false, it was downright dangerous. What it did was shift the blame from the adults preying on children to the children themselves. It framed rape as a function of childish curiosity and recklessness. Even if teenage pregnancies were a consequence of teenage curiosity and ignorance, the obvious solution would be comprehensive sex education and access to contraceptives. The government has refused these solutions. If anything, the CS claimed that these statistics had been inflated to push a sex education agenda. The language here implied that sex education is morally reprehensible and therefore an unwelcome addition to the Kenyan curriculum. Faced with this crisis, the state chose violent indifference and instead proposed a solution that may seem laughable but was actually a continuation of state violence against a demographic already vulnerable to sexual violence.
In 2020, as I processed my assault, I seized on every public story of sexual assault, hoping to find instances of restitution I could take comfort in. Instead I found D’banj using his wealth and the Nigerian police to intimidate a woman who accused him of rape in 2018. This woman, who was only asking for an apology from him, was arrested and detained for nearly 48 hours, her tweets scrubbed and her Twitter account used to promote D’banj’s unreleased album. Such cruelty. This certainly was a show of force. D’banj clearly understood his position as a wealthy, influential man and weaponized it to silence his victim.
I found, as always, women using social media to call out men who’d violated them, to organize for these men to at least lose social capital because we knew that, outside of rapists possibly being deplatformed, there’s not much else in the way of consequences. Even men not as powerful as D’banj understand this. So they derail conversations. Accuse women of chasing internet clout and trying to ruin the lives of good men. Variations of the question, “if you were actually violated, why don’t you go to the police?” So much gaslighting. For Black women especially, this particular form of gaslighting is on a whole different level. Black people are afraid of the police. Black men know that the police are more likely to harm them than get justice for them. But still, there’s a casual habit of tossing of Black women’s assault to the police. It is a silencing, a conscious unlooking. It is saying, “I don’t care about your trauma. Please shut up.” It is a demonstration of entitlement to Black women’s labour, sacrifice and even death without reciprocity or solidarity.
This gaslighting doesn’t only play out in public. It happens in our homes as well. Men protect each other all the time, often at the expense of the women they claim to love and protect. In 2019, my aunts and a couple of my cousins sat around a kitchen-table in the U.S., discussing the femicide crisis in Kenya. A girl my aunt and I went to the same high school with had just been brutally murdered, and in the aftermath, a surge of violent rhetoric, both online and offline, “cautioned” women against being the kind of woman that invites brutal murder upon herself. Two male radio hosts even went as far as asking men to call in and tell them “things your girl would do that would make you kill her.” I was trying to explain #menaretrash: how all men are implicated in rape culture regardless of how personally good and non-violent they think they are. I tossed out a hypothetical meant to demonstrate to my cousin that if ever came down to it, he would instinctively protect a male acquaintance accused of rape at the expense of the female victim.
My cousin agreed. “A woman can get over rape but a Black man can’t survive prison,” he said matter-of-factly, like it was ridiculous for me to expect anything but. I cannot begin to tell you how much this hurt.
It sucked so much to hear it put that crudely, but it wasn’t an unfamiliar sentiment. From Black families to Black movements, Black women are constantly being told, “your lives don’t matter like that. If there’s a choice to be made, we’re choosing the lives of Black men and your martyrdom is expected for this cause.”
The case of Oluwatoyin Salau reifies how Black women are failed on all levels. Salau, a vocal defender of the Black Lives Matter movement, was murdered after she tweeted about her sexual assault at the hands of a Black man. Toyin was in need of shelter after she was abused by her brother, and her family didn’t protect her. Black women being failed by their families is part of the structural indifference for Black women’s safety.
In the aftermath of my assault, there was an unspoken expectation that my aunt would do something to “punish” her husband, maybe even leave him. It was an expectation I didn’t indulge. I know that women can't always leave their abusive husbands. I texted my aunt on the night of the assault after I was sure her husband had eaten and was dozing off on the couch. I lay in bed and braced myself for disappointment while I waited for her to sneak up to talk to me. She kept her composure as I talked and winced only once when I told her that he’d asked me not to tell anyone. There was something about that wince—a knowledge, so visceral, that for her safety,
there wasn’t much she could do. I understand the complexity of abuse, how it traps us into corners of unwitting complicity and shame, but still there’s friction there: knowing he’d put her in an awfully difficult position versus the sense of betrayal I feel knowing my aunt is still married to the man who assaulted me.
In a fit of rage, I told a cousin, “you know, short of burning down the house with him in it, everything she does will be disappointing to me.” Of course, I didn’t mean this literally. What I really wanted was some sort of assurance that whatever systems enabled his abuse would be destroyed.
In March this year, my aunt’s house burned down. I kicked myself, feeling guilty that I had willed it into happening. I started wondering if maybe that was punishment enough for him, and I had to stop and remind myself that misfortune, no matter how great, isn’t accountability or harm reduction. As I prepared to go see my aunt, I caught myself, studying my face in the mirror, tempted to accentuate the dark line burnt across my cheeks due to radiation therapy. I was nervous about seeing him, worried that he might take this opportunity to claim regret and demand redemption. I thought that maybe, if I could emphasize this evidence of cancer on my face, he would leave me alone. Irrational, I know. But this is what abuse does: it leaves you in front of a mirror, bargaining with the universe. Here are the ways I have been hurt. Please take my pain as a sacrifice for my safety.