“Well, my experience wasn’t as bad as yours, so…” and the well-meaning survivor trails off into silence. The times I have had this conversation, had to stop myself from saying it, or heard variation of this sentence has increased tenfold since the explosion of the #MeToo movement. And the problem is, this is just an externalization of a battle we’re all probably fighting on the inside as well. I’m here to tell us all that we need to stop, why, and what you can do about it.
First, let’s talk about that internal battle.
I understand the confusion, guilt, and shame that comes with sexual assault; I have felt that confusion, guilt, and shame after my own sexual assault. There is no “standard” or “normal” response to being assaulted, you don’t need to question why you feel this way or if you should feel this way. We all react differently, but I know that so many of us feel this guilt. But y’all, we need to try to work through it (and here are some tips for what we can do from the University of Michigan: https://sapac.umich.edu/article/161).
Because remember that the only thing that causes an assault, is an assaulter. A perpetrator. Another person outside yourself. Period. You did not cause your assault no matter what the circumstances or context. No matter what you did or said. No matter how “small” you think the transgression was. Because even the “smallest” assault is still assault.
So now let’s talk about this issue of “smallness” and the problem with comparing or trying to rank our experiences. Spoiler alert: assault is assault is assault. When we start the conversation of “worse than”, “less than”, “big”, or “small” we are walking a dangerous and slippery path friends. It reminds me of that old poem or proverb about the want of a nail:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the message was lost.
For want of a message the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Except here’s the version I see is us crossing over in our facebook comment threads and even IRL too that we need to be careful to stop ourselves:
He belittled me, but he never screamed at me, some women have it worse.
He screamed at me, but he never groped me, some women have it worse.
He groped me, but he never slapped me, some women have it worse.
He slapped me, but he never punched me, some women have it worse.
He punched me, but he never choked me, some women have it worse.
He choked me, but he didn’t rape me, some women have it worse.
He raped me, but he didn’t kill me, some women have it worse.
He killed me, guess I had it worst.
When we make our experiences “less than” other stories of assault that we view as “worse” (either personally, societally, or culturally) we are inherently saying that some forms of abuse are basically “ok” or “not really so bad”.
I am not saying you can’t or shouldn’t share these thoughts, feelings, and fears with your
friends and partners. However, I am saying that if we truly want to end all forms of sexual assault and intimate partner violence, we can’t invalidate our own or others’ stories and experiences of violence and abuse by directly comparing or ranking our experiences in this way.
Every “nail” matters. Every “message” matters. All our experiences with harassment, abuse, and assault matter. Because every instance of abuse and assault is wrong no matter how small we think it is, (psst: we’re wrong, it isn’t small). Full stop.
If we treat any abuse as “less than” or do not value every “nail” we will never win the battle of eliminating all forms of assault, harassment, and abuse. And this is a battle worth fighting and the words we use and share during this battle matter. If we constantly compare our abuses to each other, we will lose… for the want of a nail.
So, what’s your “message”? What is your experience or story you haven’t shared because, like a nail, it felt too small? How can you use that message to help us win the battle?