Tapping the 4th Precept for words the heart wants to hear
[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:
Is 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.