Reclaiming my voice

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Breathe in. Open your mouth. Exhale. Exert your vocal chords. Silence.

It’s all too familiar a feeling to lose your voice. You cheered too much at the concert or game last night. You have a sore throat. Maybe you just drank or smoked too much.

Losing your voice doesn’t always feel that way, though. Sometimes it’s more subtle. Sometimes the causes are repeated offenses against your very being.

Maybe you lost your voice because after a constant disregard for consent and lack of respect for your wishes, you felt like your voice doesn’t matter. That you don’t matter. But that’s a fallacy — your voice matters, your wishes should be respected and consent matters.

Nine months ago I began to lose my voice when someone close to me did not think my consent mattered. My “no” did not mean “convince me.” My “no” did not mean “break my trust.” My “no” did not mean “wear me down until I was silent.”

Five months after that incident, I lost my voice completely when another person disregarded my assertions. My “no” meant “no” even if it was hours ago. My silence was not consent. My mental, emotional and physical vulnerability was not consent. I stopped believing that I mattered and that my wishes mattered.

My lack of physical scars does not mean that the emotional scars aren’t there. My experiences aren’t any less impactful because I was not ready to file a report and didn’t immediately fight back. My politeness after the fact and my silent endurance did not mean that I wasn’t experiencing severe PTSD symptoms.

Last Friday, I tried to reconnect with the world. I left my bed, my haven, my comfort zone. I went to my favorite cafe, and decided to treat myself for finally leaving the house after a week. I got ready to place my order. I froze. I shook and I trembled. I stepped away from him. I tried to regain control. I avoided him. He approached me anyways. I tried to breathe. I tried to find my voice to tell him to leave. I went numb and my mind left my body behind.

I forgot about the cake I wanted. I lost my appetite. I couldn’t speak; I didn’t feel safe speaking out. He still didn’t understand what he had done.

Despite a breakout of campaigns against sexual assault such as Haven and Bear Pact — programs implemented at UC Berkeley to educate incoming students as well as California Senate Bill 967 — today there is still a one-dimensional understanding of consent and sexual assault. Just because society is more accepting of what a survivor wore does not mean that society is more accepting and understanding of the context in which a survivor was assaulted.

SB 967 — the “Yes Means Yes” law — states, “Lack of protest or resistance does not mean consent, nor does silence mean consent.”

The lack of understanding and disregard of the concept — yes means yes — makes me anxious and angry.

I feel anxious because neither of the two people to assault me within five months understood the consequences of their actions and are thus likely to repeat them.

I feel angry because critics of the “Yes Means Yes” law are telling me, survivors and the world that reasons such as the number of questionable accusations will increase, the government has no right to dictate what your sexual encounter should be like or liberals and feminists are being too sensitive outweigh the empowerment of survivors. These critics are upholding a culture of disregard for the comfort and safety of others. This culture gives the impression that it is more important for people to have an easier time getting laid than it is to respect survivors, their journeys and their experiences with trauma.

I feel angry because invalidating the importance of “Yes Means Yes” is an invalidation of my right to comfort and safety during a time when I or anyone else is trying to find their voice.

As a liberal and a feminist, I am not being sensitive — I’m being considerate. As a survivor, I am validated and reassured that my experiences matter when there is a culture that respects and upholds “Yes Means Yes.” I am being encouraged to speak out about my experiences. I am validated and told that I deserve comfort, I deserve care and I deserve compassion.

Awareness and respect for consent needs to spread. SB 967 is just a stepping stone toward a culture that respects and understands the experiences of victims, rather than blaming them. The confusion regarding consent and the lack of sympathy toward cases of coerced consent, does not encourage survivors to speak out.

To ignore consent is to ignore a person’s wishes, their voice, their authority and, most importantly, control over their own self. Ending rape culture starts with putting a stop to victim-blaming. To promote a culture where people have autonomy over themselves and are not scrutinized when they are unable to defend their wishes. That autonomy starts with reaffirming, valuing and promoting the belief that it is not a person’s fault for not having found their voice.

A culture of awareness creates a culture of validation, a culture of empowerment, a culture of reclaimed voices.

Contact Gautami Sharma at [email protected].