Neither “life-long pain” nor “complete healing”

Between Victimization and One’s Livelihood: After sexual assault, finding my daily life

Na-Rang | 기사입력 2023/11/13 [15:02]

Neither “life-long pain” nor “complete healing”

Between Victimization and One’s Livelihood: After sexual assault, finding my daily life

Na-Rang | 입력 : 2023/11/13 [15:02]

During the #MeToo movement, as impassioned women hit the streets, the loudest chant to be heard was “Victims return to normal life! Abusers go to jail!” In Korean society, it is too often the case that while victims of sexual violence lose the comfort of a daily routine, perpetrators, by contrast, manage to retain their power and status, their daily lives proceeding largely unaffected. The chant not only illuminates this unjust reality but demands both that the victim can regain her normal life and that the perpetrator faces appropriate punishment for the abuse.


So, what is the “daily life” victims of sexual violence hope to go back to? Is it even possible for the victim to return to the routine she had before the abuse? What is “recovery” and what hinders it?


On October 25, the fifth round of the “Between Victimization and One’s Livelihood” discussion series hosted by the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center took place, with this month’s discussion titled “After Sexual Assault, Finding my Daily Life.” Presented at the center’s Yi Angela Hall, the event featured three survivors—Ga-Young, DanDan, and AJS—who shared their stories of dealing with pain in their own ways, healing, and pressing on with daily life in a society where sexual violence is stigmatized as a “wound that can’t be cleansed.”


▲ “Survivor’s Chair,” written by participants in the 14th Sexual Survivors’ Conference in 2018. ©Korean Sexual Violence Relief Center

Meeting with other survivors and getting the courage to face our trauma


Ga-Young, who introduced herself as a “dancing therapist,” is an arts dancer and choreographer. Currently a graduate student majoring in dance-based psychological therapy, she is also working as a therapist. As an undergrad, while she was working to improve corruption problems in the dance department, Ga-Young was sexually assaulted by another activist.


After an assault, taking time for rest and healing is crucial, but Ga-Young had to continue to earn a living as she kept up her daily routine.


“I worked part-time as a supermarket cashier, but I had serious PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). I was out of it to the point that customers had to call out ‘Hey, hey’ to get me to help them. I’d be on the brink of crying, repeating to myself, ‘I gotta hold on, even though I just want to go lie down somewhere...’ It was a period of just trying to get through each day.’’


As she strained to maintain her daily routine, she realized that it was through this very routine that her healing had unexpectedly begun. Ga-Young started teaching youth ballet to help pay the bills, but the first class left her so exhausted that afterward she sat at the bus stop in a daze for two hours. As time went on, however,  she became energized by the children’s love and felt her spirit open up to the restorative power of love. She recalls, “As my efforts to somehow keep going day-to-day began to bear fruit, it became a positive experience.”


Ga-Young, who in addition to the sexual assault was also a victim of domestic violence, remembers herself as an “unenergetic and depressed person” when she was young. Even prior to the sexual assault, some form or another of abuse had been a normal part of her life. In this way, she found the idea of returning to the time before her sexual assault meaningless. For Ga-Young, it was feminism that opened her life to new possibilities. And it allowed her to connect with other survivors.


“If you ask me to return to my life before the assault... That’s not easy... And I don’t think it’s going to work. [Laughter] My life is better now. Because of that incident I have been able to adopt feminist language, and it’s allowed me to connect to feminists and other survivors. It’s amazing how much courage my colleagues and survivors reveal as our rainbow of personalities intermingle. We are different yet find many overlaps.”


Since growing acquainted with feminism following the assault and meeting other feminists, Ga-Young has become “the kind of person who looks at, confronts, and deals with her own wounds.” Additionally, by becoming a “healing partner,” she helps other survivors recover as part of the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center’s recovery program.


“This summer’s group counseling session, where I participated as an assistant therapist, also reminded me that the forces of healing that are working inside others reach me as well. As that power is shared among us, it seems we create a sense of abundance. It’s very moving.”


Ga-Young shares without hesitation that these are the best days of her life.


▲ “After Sexual Assault, Finding my Daily Life,” the fifth round of the “Between Victimization and One’s Livelihood” discussion series hosted by the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center. ©Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center

Breaking the long silence, building the strength to face her perpetrator


“I was sexually assaulted by a relative at the age of nine, so it’s hard to compare how things were before and after the damage. To return to my life before the assault—comparing before I was nine years old to the long life I’ve lived since then—this doesn’t make any sense. Can you explain who I am without sexual assault?”


The visual artist DanDan fell victim to family sexual violence in 1982, nearly 40 years ago. In those days of brutal state violence, even mentioning “sexual assault” was difficult, so with no one listening and no one bringing up such topics, DanDan stayed silent. She lived “for a long time considering myself the only person who had been through that sort of incident, so I had a hard time getting along with others and built walls.”


It went on like this until she first shared her story with a friend in her freshman year of high school. Like many others at that time, her friend probably had no concept of sexual violence. But her friend told her, “You didn’t do anything wrong, so I hope you don’t suffer too much.” For DanDan, “that experience was crucial.”


“After that, I spoke up whenever I had to say something [about my sexual abuse]. The typical image of a sexual assault victim is someone who’s always crying and waiting for help—I wasn’t that. I actively demanded what I wanted, and I fought back when others disparaged me.”


During the decades since the sexual assault, DanDan has had no choice but to consider “how to live within the conditions created by that experience,” and says the reality of being a “sexual violence victim” is one of the defining circumstances of her life.


But it has not always kept her shackled. Rather, it has led her to willingly choose a life outside what is considered “normal.” DanDan explained that the survivor identity opened the door to the possibility of living a different sort of life.


“When my friends were studying to go to a good university, I thought, ‘Why do I have to go through that ordeal?’ And when they were trying to get a good job, I thought, ‘Why should I get a good job?’ These conditions have made it possible for me to see options my friends couldn’t. And I guess I didn’t hesitate or feel afraid when I chose something in my life other people weren’t choosing in theirs.”


DanDan started feeding stray cats several years ago and said, “I think as I watched the cats, I began to see myself in them.” She continued, “They’re clearly fellow members of our city, and yet they’re ignored by people and easily killed... The circumstances of being a woman are not very different. I’ve been taking care of the cats for two years and it turns out that has also been a way of looking after myself.”


Two years ago, she participated in the “Conference for Survivors of Sexual Violence” hosted by the Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center and spoke publicly about her assault.


Using the power of the law to punish perpetrators is often an important opportunity for victims of sexual violence to find closure and restore their daily lives. However, DanDan, who was unable to take legal action for something that took place so long ago, summoned her strength over time and eventually met the perpetrator and made “private retribution”—hitting him on the cheek dozens of times. 


The world has changed so much that other family members can’t tell you, “Just hush and keep it covered up because it could ruin his future,” and now being known as a perpetrator of sexual assault is stigmatized. And, after having gained a foothold in society, DanDan found her own language for speaking about what happened to her. It was the result of a long, meticulous strategy.


“Probably the offender can’t tell his wife or daughter why he’s in this position. And he has to avoid me if he sees me on the street. The silence that chained me for so long, now I have handed it over to him. That’s my revenge.”


▲ In the fifth installment of the “Between Survival and One’s Livelihood” discussion series, survivors Ga-Young, DanDan, and AJS shared their stories of dealing with pain, healing, and living day-to-day. ©Korea Sexual Violence Relief Center

Gaining strength by meeting webtoon readers and earning money


“AJS” writes the well-loved webtoon 27-10, which offers a frank and refreshing look at day-to-day life after experiencing family sexual violence. She suffered sexual violence in her home starting when she was ten and continuing throughout her teens.


“Being unable to get some distance because I lived in the same house as the perpetrator was excruciating. The most important thing was to hide it from my mom or friends. I had to be an ordinary friend outside, a normal daughter at home.” If someone asked her, “What’s wrong with you?” she wasn’t ready with a reason. But when she was alone, it was too often the case that a million thoughts would keep her up and she would cry until dawn.


The fact that the perpetrator wasn’t home often because of his job was a condition that allowed AJS to endure the situation for such a long time. Unrelated to her abuser, every time she got hurt—whether big or small—she would return to a state of brooding, thinking to herself “this is it, here we go,” always carrying her biggest scar with her.


AJS explains that she began to feel better little by little in her mid-20s when she started making money in earnest and could separate herself from her home and her abuser.


“A year or so after I moved out, all of a sudden I thought, ‘Huh, I’m feeling better!’ With more free time, I began to set up my space with my favorite things and started living the sort of lifestyle I wanted to live. And I got to know myself better.”


Before that point, her self-awareness was superficial, limited to identities like “victim of family violence/sexual abuse” and “loves drawing and reading comic books,” but as her sense of self deepened, her vocabulary of self-description widened. In this way, having the time and space to take care of herself has been her foundation for recovery.


When feminism’s recent comeback began, AJS began serializing her personal story as the webtoon 27-10 on a portal site.


“When I first decided to draw this cartoon, I knew I wanted to release it on a free platform so that the most people possible would see it. The main character’s concern is, ‘Will this depression get better?’ ‘Will it ever go away?’ but I wanted to convey the message, ‘Some people do get better. It’s possible.’ I especially hoped lots of teenagers could read it.”


The response was enormous. As readers progressed through the serial webtoon, the comment section was filled with fans communing and identifying with each other.


“Some of my readers wrote me that they had decided to go to counseling or that they had decided to leave their homes and go to a shelter. While I was just drawing a cartoon, the readers made it their own story and it led them to take actions for themselves. The thought came to mind that ‘I did everything I could with this cartoon.’”


AJS, who has felt creatively free since finishing 27-10, pointed to money as the key to sustaining her daily life. “I love working,” she says. “It gives me strength to see that readers like my comics enough to pay for them.” The money is allowing her to figure out what she wants to do, as well as helping her try to become a cool person.


Get rid of persistent myths about victims of sexual violence!


All three survivors—Ga-Young, DanDan, and AJS—made it clear that the societal myths surrounding sexual violence made the recovery process more difficult. Ideas such as “Victims have suffered irreparable wounds and are permanently damaged,” “Victims are depressed and lethargic,” and “This experience will dominate the victim’s life forever.”


Ga-Young shared this account from when she attended the Conference for Survivors of Sexual Violence: “I was standing confidently in my skirt talking cheerfully to other survivors, but the members of the sexual violence countermeasure committee told me, ‘Your legs are spread too wide,’ and ‘The way you talk is a little much.’ I’m not supposed to be cheerful and I’m not supposed to put myself forward? Acting like a proper victim means just showing sadness?”


DanDan described, “When I was in my 20s, there were men who said they wanted to break up with me because I wasn’t a virgin. That means I had my ‘first experience’ when I was eight. Their attitudes were ridiculous. I was so angry that I ran after them and cursed them out.”


AJS showed how the myths related to her work: “People would tell me, ‘You used to draw cartoons like that (about family sexual violence), why are you drawing other topics now?’ And ‘Why are you (as a survivor) hanging out with people like that?’ Just because I drew 27-10 doesn’t mean there’s anything I should or shouldn’t do. So I’m trying to express myself even more.”


In this way, the distorted preconceptions society places on survivors can feel more insurmountable than the damage itself. This is why such myths about sexual violence and its victims need to disappear.


Would tell other survivors, “Please treat yourself with kindness”


During the forum, the three survivors revealed neither “life-long pain” nor “complete healing.” They explained that “healing” and “recovery” are not about going back to life before an assault, but about persevering through the rough spots, and—even if they falter countless times—learning more about themselves. The three survivors, making the most of their daily lives, were asked what they wanted to say to other survivors.


“The most important thing is that you have to eat well in order to survive,” DanDan emphasized. “When I was in my 20s, an older colleague told me to eat well. Eating makes life worth living. I ate a lot, but I felt less depressed. It was amazing. Since humans are animals too, even when times are tough, if they keep their biorhythms steady, they can feel less depressed, cry less, and gain strength. I hope you start with the boring work of eating regular meals every day.”


“As I think about it, it seems being human gives you a tremendous survival instinct,” Ga-Young reflects. “I used to be angry. Now I consider my task to be letting go of the perpetrator and living my life, to make the most of myself. My hope is that other survivors can live well.”


“I want them to be nice to themselves first,” AJS affirms. “In my teens, all I ever did was look at myself in pain and suffering. Then, after a while, I started treating myself better, I felt a bit stronger and I could get out of that place. I could feed myself what I wanted to eat, allow myself to do what I wanted to do, and if I needed to talk to an expert, I’d tell myself to go see one. In this way, once I make myself better, then I can be a good person for others. So most of all, I want everyone to remember that it starts with being nice to yourself.”


Translated by Taylor Kennedy

Published November 27, 2019

Original article:


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