Throughout my academic career, I have talked about, read about, and taught about rape. To be clear, rape is not my research focus. Murder is my bailiwick. Within that context, rape features peripherally as an adjunct to another crime. But I have read about, discussed, and now teach about rape because I believe it is impossible to teach the history of the United States without acknowledging the role of sexual assault and sexual violence in our nation’s history.
Preparing to teach about rape yet again this semester I did what professors do. I put trigger warnings in my syllabi. I discussed the teaching of “sensitive material” with my Gender Studies colleagues. I kept abreast of the unfolding drama about Nate Parker via social media. In the week before classes started, I put my Wonder Woman bobble head on my desk at work and pulled my power suits out of the wardrobe.
But standing in front of my class this week, confronted with yet another discussion about a historical incidence of rape, something in me finally gave way. My stomach did flip flops. My hands and legs trembled. I wanted to throw up. To calm myself, I focused very hard on my breathing and talked about everything that had happened in the film I had just shown the class, everything except the rape.1 At some point over the summer, the ground had shifted beneath my feet. Rape was now off limits, in a place to which I could not venture in front of my students. Leaving the classroom, I felt like I had failed them and had failed myself.
Late last spring, I fell to pieces in my campus office when someone asked me to attend a Take Back the Night March on campus. I don’t know why that request was the tipping point for me, but it was. I have been unmoored since then in ways I did not anticipate or expect to happen again. I was raped over twenty years ago and I have spent all of my life since then running and then rebuilding. Life is easier now, but there are days — and there have been a lot more since the spring — when I feel utterly overwhelmed again. These are the days I want to disappear. Over twenty years ago as a first year college student, I was isolated and alone and had no language in which to talk about my experience of rape. These days, the noise on college campuses is deafening. Sometimes it’s so loud, I want to go into my office, lock the door, crawl under my desk and cry. “Shut up!” I want to shout. “Can’t you give someone who has survived a break?”
What I learned this week is that it is impossible for me to deny that my own experience of sexual assault and rape shapes what I teach in the classroom. I spent decades trying to build a professional persona that did not include the person who was raped. For a time, that internal division was the only means of survival that worked for me. It enabled me to get up in the morning, walk out my door, and function in the world. Five years ago, I probably would have shown that same film in its entirety without batting an eyelid. Inside, I might have been screaming but as long as my students and colleagues didn’t know, everything would have been okay. Five years ago, survival meant staying silent in the academy.
But as I have become more personally invested in my work, my teaching, and my students, the lines have blurred. Now I believe speaking out and standing up as a survivor is more important. If one student can find solace in the fact that some people who experience rape not only survive, but flourish, then I have taught a far more powerful lesson about the capacity of human beings to endure the ongoing trauma of rape and sexual violence than a movie or a book will ever be able to do. I have confidence that I will find the strength and the words to continue to teach about rape. I believe that doing so is important because in talking about rape, my students and I bear witness to the enormous impact of sexual violence on our nation’s history. And in speaking out about my own experience, I now know that I will also be standing as living testament to the fact that those who experience rape can survive.
M. Douglas, Raymond. On Being Raped. Boston: Beacon Press, 2016.
- Louisa Burns-Bisogna & Steven Schechter, Mary Silliman’s War, DVD, Directed by Steven Surjik, (1993; Claremont, CA: Heritage Films, 1994). Return to text.
Felicity Turner is Assistant Professor of History at Georgia Southern University. Her research and teaching interests include the history of gender & sexuality, legal history, and the history of the nineteenth-century United States.