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Tapping the 4th Precept for words the heart wants to hear

cristina moon wedding

[TRIGGER WARNING: This post contains information that may be disturbing to survivors of sexual assault.]

The week before I got married, my fiancé and I were writing and rehearsing the things we were going to say to one another to cement our commitments — specifically, our wedding vows. We also started practicing using the words “husband” and “wife,” noticing how new and strange these words felt on our lips.

In the days leading up to the wedding, I found myself going through different permutations of my own vows, mentally editing and revising. I whispered “my husband” under my breath while puttering around the house. When I imagined my husband tossing “my wife” into everyday speech, I felt a sweet tenderness creep across my face.

One day, I was walking down the street, not thinking about anything in particular. But Elliot Rodger’s gender-based killing spree in Santa Barbara and the trending hashtag #YesAllWomen were likely in the back of my mind.

Suddenly, I heard two very complicated and surprising phrases in my mind that I realized I wanted to hear my husband say — or at least know he would be willing to say — outside of our wedding ceremony and in everyday life:

“My wife is a survivor of sexual assault.”
“My wife was raped.”

My sexual assault happened 12 years ago, but continues to be a fundamental part of my experience and identity. I have been molded by it in various ways — diminished by others’ skepticism and validated by growing awareness of our society’s rape culture.

It took years of Buddhist practice and therapy to become more comfortable with my own vulnerability. That was when I was finally able to admit that it truly was rape, and that I knew my rapist was a serialist who had also violated other women. But just saying the words was so hard for so long — even now writing this post, my shoulders pull back in hesitation.

I struggled to understand why I want to hear my husband say these two phrases, and whether it’s appropriate for me to ask him to say them confidently when it’s called for. I know my hesitation is in part rooted in fear — my heart races whenever sexual assault comes up in conversation.

Because of all these emotions wrapped up here, I wonder about my motives and expectations, and the potential consequences of bringing this up with my husband. Needing a sturdy mode of inquiry, I decided to look at it through the 4th Buddhist Precept on wise speech:

060714cm311Is this honest/true?
Even asserting that “rape” is the appropriate label for my experience takes effort and courage. Not long after my assault, I described my experience to someone only to have him say, “I’m so relieved. I thought you were hit over the head or something. That’s not so bad.”

Someone else told me he struggled to call what happened to me “rape” because it was something he had done himself.

What happened to me was rape because it was not consensual. If someone does not give her consent, or is unable to give consent, it’s rape.

Could saying these phrases cause harm?
The harm that these phrases would more likely cause have to do with people’s discomfort — whether it’s an artifact of rape culture, or tied to one’s own trauma. The words could make people uncomfortable, sad, angry and aversive. They could lead to criticism, accusations and self doubt — indirect kinds of harm.

Are these phrases helpful?
However, these phrases also have the power to assert my future husband as an ally who is willing to speak honestly and plainly about an experience of mine that pains him. And being able to speak with authenticity and mindfulness about my experience contributes in its own way to bringing the systemic oppression of rape culture into the light.

There is a part of me that needs my future husband to be able to say these words because if he says them, I can say them more confidently. I imagine talking to my children one day about the fact that I was assaulted so they, too, will know how complex and deeply rooted rape culture is in our society — though I hope by then that we will have evolved far beyond where we are now.

I also know that if we speak about what happened to me, it supports others in speaking their truths as well. So in this way and through this inquiry, I’ve found new strength and a conviction that’s full of care that these words would have value in being spoken because they are truthful, helpful, brave and right.

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Comments (9)

  • sally

    I was raped several times by the same man, my husband. It was violent physically and emotionally. It happened over 40 years ago and I only talked about it with anyone last year. I was raised in a culture that considered a wife the husband’s property (not overtly, but underlying). I felt such betrayal but there was guilt on my part; what had I done to cause him to do this? I remained married to him for another 10 years after the violence ended because I thought I had no other options.
    Gratefully, I was able to leave and create a new life for myself and children. I have never talked about this with our kids as they do have a relationship with him and realize that he has emotional problems. I’m not sure what it would accomplish.
    So the scars linger. I’m 74 and still am filled with sadness. Buddhism has allowed me to feel some compassion for him.

  • Katie Loncke

    Sally I am so sorry for what you’ve gone through. And grateful that you’ve survived, and that you are sharing your story. I think people feel so alone in these private experiences, and it’s hard to know how to talk about it. That’s also why I’m grateful to Cristina, the author of this piece, for sharing her considerations about publicly naming an event, rape, that some see as “personal business.” It’s not just personal business. And, as your story shows, it can have such a deep and long-lasting impact.

    I’m just so impressed and thankful that at 74 you can talk about that experience. Not that you have to — but I guarantee that by sharing your story you are helping others in similar situations to feel less alone.

    It’s also such a testament to your wisdom that, through dharma, you have discovered more compassion (even a little bit more) for someone who caused you so much harm. The lingering sadness and the compassion at the same time — so real. To me, Buddhism isn’t about magically fixing everything and erasing all the hurt to bliss out in nirvana (that’s a common perception that I come across, and sometimes wish were true!), but actually facing the suffering that occurs to us in this very body, in this very heart, in this very life.

    Thank you for your inspiration, Sally. I am humbled.

    Much love and metta to you,


  • sally

    Thanks Katie, Pema Chodran’s writings about not running away have been a big help…”When Things Fall Apart”. Brought me to Buddhism. Thanks for all you do. Much love fern

  • Katie Loncke

    Hi fern, “When Things Fall Apart” was I think also Dawn’s introduction to Buddhism! (Dawn Haney, my awesome Co-Director.) So much thanks to Pema for those teachings… wow. After you read that book, what was your next step toward dharma? Were you able to find a nearby sangha? Or did that take a long time?

    In my opinion, you’re wonderful. Thanks again for sharing and saying hi. much much love.

  • sally

    Hi Katie, I have been in a 12 step program for about 30 years, you know, a spiritual program. I was doing a VISTA year in a little Texas town after I had retired. Their library was awesome, I think it flew under the radar of the very conservative town members. That’s where I found Pema’s book. It was the missing piece. Anyway, when I returned to my small town in FL, I got involved with an energy healing group and met a woman who knew a woman who had practiced Buddhism for a long time. We began meeting and reading and it has developed from there. I have found a Buddhist Peace Fellowship group and have attended several of their meetings, altho they are quite a far way to go.
    Thank you for all you do. I’m continuing to practice and study. Goal of bringing peace into my political activities.. .

  • Cristina Moon

    Fern – I was so moved to see your comment on Saturday morning that I was finally able to have this conversation with my husband, teary eyed over coffee and donuts.

    Your sharing and truthfulness here are exactly what I hoped my post would invite. I am so grateful for your contribution, for your practice and for you!

    A big part of the evolution of my Buddhist practice has been to embrace the life experience and wisdom of the many ‘elders’ I get to practice with in sangha or on retreat. How wonderful that you found Pema’s book and dove head first into healing, Buddhism and BPF.

    Thank you, again, for your comments.


  • sally

    Your sharing gave me the courage to share too.For me it’s all about our interconnectedness. I had read something recently about “Indra’s Net”, how we’re individual but all sentient beings are connected like a big net around the world at each one at each little knot. I love the visual, can experience it. Thank you. And blessed marriage. Much Love fern

  • Carondelet Dember

    The TRIGGER WARNING says at the top: This post contains information that may be disturbing to survivors of sexual assault.]

    As a survivor of rape, once when I was a 8 years old by my grandfather and another when I was 14 years old by a father of a young child I was babysitting, I am also a survivor of multiple molestations by my grandfather from 3 – 12 years old. My mother who was my grandfather’s only child and my youngest sister committed suicide over their long time suffering/shame of their sexual abuse ( and my mothers rape).

    I am not triggered by the article. I am shored up! Although I understand why the warning is here, I find comfort and courage from any rape survivor who has the courage to begin this very personal, tough conversation in public. Over the course of 25 years now, since I was 33 years old and the memories started surfacing, and after many long dark hours of the most difficult work I’ll ever do, I have pause of speaking publicly about the rape when I was 14. Shame has kept this secret in the dark the longest. It seems my dear sweet innocent 14 year old part thought she was at fault, she did something wrong, she thinks she is bad, and she promised herself as she was walking back from the incident she would put this away and never allow something to reminder her of it again. Fortunately I have my own 15 year old daughter to thank for triggering the incident when she turned 14! My fierce life force reminds me of how I healed the younger abuse. I spoke out. I told the family secret. I told my story to fellow survivors, to my brilliant well trained therapists, to a mental health conference, to my husband and my older sister who were always by my side, and to my closest loyal friends. Speaking out publicly has more healing power for me. It empowers me more.. Each time I do I create intimacy with myself and others. Telling the truth from my heart has literally saved my life and may save someone else’s.

    Thank you for your article. You support and give courage to others to tell their story, one survivor at a time. Bless you and your marriage dear sister!

    Grateful everyday to be alive on this beautiful planet!

    Carondelet Crain Dember

  • Juanita Rice

    Each of the last two years I have organized poetry readings for One Billion Rising demonstrations locally. How healing and moving it is when women speak eloquently of the realities of their lives and the sufferings so common in our power-obsessed social structures. I thank each of you who have written here, and especially the author of the piece. The Peace. A deep bow to honesty and courage that heal.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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