Note: The content of this article contains details of sexual misconduct and molestation that may offend or trigger some readers.
by Kristin Kurens
“What’s the reaction to the name of your magazine?” Lara Dale asked me as I handed her a Cuntism sticker.
I met Dale at an intimate dinner party with a mutual friend. She’s the first person I’ve spoken to who is able to offer a well-thought reason for the abhorrence of the word cunt. That’s a rare thing; aside from a Wikipedia page on cunt’s fall into vulgarity, research on how it became so obscene is scant.
Dale told me that abuse, sexual or otherwise, may be one reason for the shocking effect the word has for some and the disdain it can conjure in others. Her authority on the subject is personal. She’s a survivor of sexual abuse that was perpetrated by her father and also had a run-in with Hollywood sexual misconduct.
“This is a rabbit hole that's very deep and dark. The whole Harvey Weinstein thing is just the tip of the iceberg,” she told me just weeks ago. And what a few weeks it’s been since that conversation. The allegations against Weinstein continue to pile up, while others still are being exposed for sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct: Kevin Spacey, Terry Richardson, Louis C.K., Steven Seagal….
The list goes on and on. It’s not just Hollywood—rape, assault, abuse, and harassment are deeply embedded in just about every industry and institution, from the music industry, to the Catholic Church, to the media (but if you ask Bill O’Reilly, it’s God’s fault), politics, the military.
Fuck, you might find yourself thinking, who isn’t a perp or rapist OR harboring perps and rapists?
Brace yourself, we will go into ugly, uncomfortable, disturbing territory. But if we’re going to find a way to end the cycle of sexual abuse, we have to have conversations just like this one. If we’re going to understand how one word can cause so much contempt, rage, and controversy, this is essential.
It makes for difficult discourse. Dale knows the resistance well, but it won’t stop her from being outspoken about molestation. “There are people who treat you like it's a disease they could catch—backing away like you are going to go crazy,” she tells me. “I’ve learned to be compassionate about that. I've discovered in many cases that the people who are the most resistant to me were abused and blocking it, not ready to deal with it.”
That’s exactly why she talks about it: to help those suffering from abuse trauma to recognize that they need help and to seek treatment.
“When you’ve been molested, there seems to be two general paths. You either become very sexualized at a young age, which is where you get, ‘She's a teen whore.’ But that's someone in an intolerable situation, subjected to intense sexuality, and that's their coping mechanism.
“On the other side, which was me, is shutting down, just complete out-of-body kind of stuff. Either way, there's not a dialogue. With one coping mechanism you're just a whore; with the other, you don't even access that. It's a pretty standard template.”
It’s a template that Dale has lived through. “Like abuse psychology, stuff will not surface until your life is more stable. My life is a good example of that. You will notice abuse victims who have unbelievable chaos in their lives. There is a strain of psychology that thinks part of that is unconscious: ‘I'm going to keep so much turmoil because I'm used to it. And it will keep me so busy, those dark demons don’t get to show up.’
“Apparently this is typical for child abuse victims, particularly incest and things like that; we will sublimate until we're in a place where our life is completely stable, and then all of us had these horrific memories come back. And it's hard—I can speak to this—when you get overwhelmed with it.”
Dale wants to reach all survivors and victims of sexual abuse with a few key messages. First, flashing back to the trauma is just like what a soldier with PTSD experiences. “You don't just flash back to what happened; you flashback to the mental and physical capacity you had at the time. Based on the conversations I've had with my mother, my incest started pre-verbal.”
I had to stop Dale here—first, pre-verbal? Sadly yes. And Dale is far from alone here. Another anonymous source told me she was raped by her grandfather when she was just four years old.
According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), every eight minutes, “child protective services substantiates, or finds evidence for, a claim of child sexual abuse.” That’s just substantiated claims. Child sexual abuse is rarely identified or reported.
Second—her mother knew?
Dale’s mother knew about the abuse. “That's been the hardest thing for me to deal with. There's a complex issue in child abuse: there is an active and a passive parent or parental figure. There's always somebody. Look at the Weinstein case. He was not acting in a bubble. Every single person on the set with him knew he was doing that, every manager that was ever around him, every talent person. This does not happen in a bubble.”
Yes, that means that women are often complicit in their own oppression and the abuse of others. How many of Weinstein’s assistants knew precisely what they were leading actresses to? And at the same time, how many men knew?
Hollywood is built on rape culture, Dale argues, and has been since the Depression when desperate times called for desperate action. That desperation led to the rape and abuse of countless people. Yes, people: women and men.
There’s a lot to take in here, and far more than is manageable in a single article. But the core issue for Dale: “Microcosm is macrocosm. If you have the power issues in the home like my father, it's a kind of conditioning… how a parental figure programs, how a church programs you.
“It starts in the home or in the family paradigm, whatever that may be. If those boundaries are violated, that child has no sense of a right to their body.”
Dale’s memories of being abused didn’t surface until she was an adult, but she remembers as a child that she never wanted to be around her father.
“My mom would joke about how if she had to be away from the house, I'd be packing my little suitcase, at age seven or so, going up the road, trying to get out of the house. And she would think it was funny. She also was molested and never dealt with it, so she doesn't have those boundaries either.”
Dale was in her thirties when she found some stability in her life and the memories of being molested started to surface. “I had all the behavioral issues of someone who was molested but no capacity to handle it.”
One trigger for Dale came in the late 1980s. “I made a decision that I was going to be an actress, a film actress. This was back in like ‘89. This part came up in a hideous, horrible Sci-Fi movie. It was being shot at the Puye Cliffs in northern New Mexico.”
Dale went to the audition, dressed for a camping scene in the script (a big audition no-no), wearing loose clothes—corduroys, wool shirt, boots—and surrounded by scantily clad actresses. She was really after one thing, a Screen Actors Guild (SAG) card.
She got through the reading, feeling completely uncomfortable. “As I was about to go out the door, the director looks up and asks, ‘Do you do nudity?’
“My agent didn't tell me. And I said, ‘No, not interested.’ It just wasn't my thing. I was flat chested; I was a dancer. I looked like a boy, like a little stick-figure boy.”
Dale was surprised when her agent called after several weeks to tell Dale that casting wanted a second reading. Dale made sure to mention her unwillingness to act in nude scenes. The agent's response: "Don't worry; it'll be sorted out later."
After the second reading, a producer asked Dale if she would do nudity. “I was pissed at that point. I really had bad feelings about it, so I wasn't afraid to say what I thought.” Again, she said no.
Much to her surprise, the casting director called about a month later: Dale got the part. She was rushed into signing a contract and on her way to becoming a film actress.
When shooting started, everything seemed great. “In one scene, Marc Singer, the lead, and these other guys come up to us, while we're camping. It's a horrible scene. And I got to that scene and I remember I came home to my boyfriend and I was just like, ‘Oh my god, I can do this. It's so easy.’
“I was so happy, like this is what I've been training for my whole life with theater, dance. It was really easy for me to go there. This is my life. I found my calling. I get called back to the set again, and all of a sudden, Singer, who hasn't paid a drop of attention to me, is all over me.
“He's Beastmaster. He was a thing for a while and buff like Schwarzenegger. He would grab me and say I needed to hug him and all this stuff…”
Singer’s trailer was across from Dale’s. She’d leave her door open due to the heat. “There would be times I'd be sitting in my trailer, and he would have his door open, with an actress, supposedly rehearsing. She'd be dry-humping him, right in front of me. He'd be looking over at my trailer. I was so naïve, no idea how to deal with any of this.”
On trips to the hotel or into Santa Fe, Singer made it a point to sit next to Dale. “He would deliberately climb over other actors to sit next to me. I'm crammed in this van like a sardine with all these tech people and directors, and Singer is right there, saying, ‘You gotta touch me, you gotta kiss me.”
Dale didn’t understand Singer’s increasingly bizarre behavior. The scene read just as dialogue, so what did Singer—and the rest of the crew—know that she didn’t? She found the situation alarmingly strange.
Dale eventually broke down to her boyfriend, when he asked about her day one evening. “This campfire scene is coming up, and Singer keeps saying, ‘We're going to warm you up for the scene.’ And all I know in my script is that he comes on to me, and I've been invaded by aliens, so I'm becoming receptive to him. And then we go off in the wilderness. He's acting like there's a full-on porn scene coming up.”
Dale’s agent pushed her to continue on, saying that she could ruin her career. Dale finally confronted the director, stressing that she had been clear about her stance on nudity.
The director spiraled into a fit, screaming that she’s letting her jealous boyfriend get in the way, throwing things around the trailer. He also told her that she was ruining her career before storming off in a rage.
Dale’s boyfriend was on location with her and they decided to leave, which turned into an intense and surreal escape: swerving cars, spinning wheels, burly techs beating at the car doors—all attempts to keep them on location at any cost.
This wasn’t a big-budget production. Dale was an unknown actress, and as she points out, not of a voluptuous build. Why the desperate need to have her in this scene? Why the intimidation—the threats to her boyfriend and her career?
The pursuit left Dale shaken and paranoid, and it didn’t end after Dale and her boyfriend escaped the shoot location. Her answering machine was filled with messages. “The one that I remember the most was from the casting lady, who at the time had a tremendous amount of power.”
Dale reads the transcription of that message to me (and again, here’s a woman who is complicit in the sublimation of another woman):
“I was just thinking about all the things that could possibly happen to you because of this, and I don't want you to ruin your whole acting career over it. Whatever it is, I hope that nobody on the set was so mean and horrible to you that caused you to have to do this.
“But you know all they have to do is call SAG and pull your card from now on, for the rest of your life. You’ll come up not cleared for work and that's that. I can't imagine what would be so important to cause you to do that to yourself. They might not do that, but, you know, they could. They probably might be mad enough to. But who knows anyway?
“Think clearly. I'm not sure you have any idea how important this is and what exactly you have done here. I'm not sure if you understand the ramifications of what it will do to the company and what they can do to you to make up for it… not that they want to do anything to you. I'm sure everybody likes you and they don't want to. But please think very seriously and call me tonight, because I think we can fix this if we can get you back to work in time to not have it destroy your life.”
Destroy your life. Walking off of a movie set because you made it clear you would not do nudity or sex scenes will destroy your life. Or so says a “sweet” Southern agent.
Dale was so disturbed by the events that summer that she kept records. She later tried to hire a lawyer but couldn’t find one willing to take on Hollywood. “Some of them flat out told me, ‘I am not going to go against the movie industry. Their pockets are too deep. You're not going to win.’”
Through a friend in California, Dale discovered what she believes is the missing piece to her odd tale and the rapid end of her short-lived acting career. The question Dale couldn’t get out of her head: Why me? There were so many willing and experienced actors waiting for that part. “That was the cancer that was eating me away the most.”
One theory is that the big money for movies like this came from overseas distribution, where censorship would be more lax. So, as one person put it to Dale, she likely would have been raped had she stayed on set. And that rape would be filmed and included in a version that would be sold in markets outside of the U.S.
She recalls the contract that she signed included a lengthy clause for overseas distribution. “The porn markets are so jaded overseas—they don't want to see an actress who knows what she's getting into. They want to see an actual rape.”
She wasn’t raped that day, fortunately. But that experience feeds right into her perspective of the prevalence of rape culture. “For me, it's twofold. Victims get groomed by their families or caretakers to not know boundaries. And Hollywood has capitalized on that. That’s the reason Weinstein is so nonchalant.
“It's not because he's more of an asshole than anybody else. It's because this is generations of men who have been raised to believe they get to do that, and there should be no questioning. If you do question, you will not work in Hollywood. And I am living proof of that. I lost my career because of that.”
There’s no way to know just how many women lost their careers because they wouldn't comply with unreasonable demands or sexual favors. And there are multiple “safeguards” in place to discredit would-be whistleblowers through negative press and desultory claims.
It can feel like an uphill battle. There is headway, thanks to the multitude of women and men, in just the past few weeks, coming forward and sharing their stories. Social media can certainly shed a light with campaigns like #metoo, but each revelation seems to prove just how far we have to go and how crucial therapy is for victims.
What’s more disturbing, as exemplified by the large number of men publicly accused of sexual misconduct is the extent to which it’s assumed that rape culture is “just the way it is.” Louis C.K.’s acknowledgement made that clear, as does the nearly blanket denial from alleged perpetrators.
As Heather Murphy of the New York Times recently wrote, “Indeed, experts note one last trait shared by men who have raped: they do not believe they are the problem.”
And victims cannot become survivors until they seek treatment. Dale’s treatment for sexual abuse came by an odd twist of fate. She was caught shoplifting.
There’s a part of Dale that doesn’t want to tell this story—it’s embarrassing. “But,” she says, “if anybody's going through this and it helps to hear this, I will tell it a million times. I never want to be that alone in the world as I was at that moment when I had no idea why I shoplifted.”
When she was stealing that night, she had dissociated. Something triggered her, and she didn’t remember any of her actions while in the store. A security guard stopped her at the exit, and she snapped back to reality. But the memory was wiped. She watched the security footage to see what she had done.
Dale’s shoplifting started when her father was molesting her. He would pick her up after dance class and withhold food until she complied with his demands. She started stealing food from stores and her own home, stockpiling it in her room.
“If I could control my food supply, then maybe he couldn't control me,” she explains. “I knew I had no means to get food except theft. I remember hoarding things under the bed. It wasn't like I wanted to steal.” It was an attempt to thwart her father’s actions.
She admits it was child logic, and it didn’t work. Her father would get his way, regardless. But it’s something victims often do: try to establish control.
Dale was arrested that night in 2010. An exhausted and overworked social worker saw that Dale was harboring old traumas and gave her a list of therapists. Dale contacted the last referral on the list: The Rape Crisis Center.
“The thing that saved me… my therapist would say, ‘You're not crazy. You were doing what everybody does in those kinds of situations.’ Nobody tells you that. Nobody does.
“Everybody who has been abused needs to know, whatever happened is not their fault. Whatever they did to cope was not crazy. That’s what you do in those situations. Don’t punish yourself, judge yourself, or judge anyone for that. Question the system or the family structure that created that.”
Talking about rape and sexual abuse is part of the solution. Victims have to feel safe in coming forward. That means all victims.
As Dale says, “I feel like if we don't deal with male rape, it's not going to stop. Rape will never end until we deal with the fact that rape is not gender based—it is power based, power-imbalance based. But it's so uncomfortable to talk about and it needs to not be.”
Researchers Jane Gilgun, Judith Becker, and John Hunter found that the key to stopping the cycle of sexual abuse was in the victims coming forward and receiving appropriate treatment and support. That includes men. Like child sexual abuse and most sexual misconduct, male rape is highly underreported. But men have to be a part of the conversation in order for rape culture to end. And male victims have to have access to the same therapies and resources as women to recover.
Again, rape or sexual abuse is not about sex—it’s about power. Both girls and boys, both men and women are victims of rape and sexual abuse. Women and children are the most vulnerable; they have the least physical power. But we have to acknowledge men are raped and abused at alarming rates—by both men and women.
The deep shame that a female experiences after rape is no less bearable for a male, especially if he cannot seek treatment. One male survivor pointed out that after being raped, most clinics he contacted assumed he was the assailant, not the victim.
“Unless we in the forefront of feminist culture acknowledge male rape and support treatment facilities to help them heal, we are never going to do anything but continue to bandage the bleeding from the rotting wound,” Dale says.
“Hopefully Weinstein will be the creepy catalyst for all this, but we all need to start telling our stories and helping each other to be heard and to heal, men as much as women.” It’s also key to listen, which, as Dale points out is an important way for survivors to heal and grow.
“I hated my father,” Dale says. “There was always this sense that he's going to do that to somebody else. I know he was molested by a priest. As much as I hated my father, if he had the kind of programs that I had… I really can't say that he would've gone on to do what he did.”
Survivors of child sexual assault, sexual abuse, and rape can heal. Counseling, therapy, and support groups help survivors learn coping mechanisms and to feel less alone. Dale is living proof of that. Her life is stable: she’s married and works as a Foley Artist in Corrales, New Mexico.
But she stresses the need to unveil the institutionalized abuse of power that’s perpetuated by shame and fear. That abuse is cultivated as a microcosm in the home and family structure and manifested outward in macrocosm through exploitative mediums like film and media.
Therapy can also be an effective means to make peace with triggers. That includes certain words, like cunt.
“Had I not done all the work, the word cunt would be absolutely horrifying to me. It would shut me down completely,” Dale says.
“That word would be used in an incestuous situation, molestation, or abuse. What I find so beautiful about taking it back is that it is powerful. But it has been co-opted by some awfully disgusting human beings over time and used against women. And that's what victims experience: the really negative use of that word.
"We need to take it back and make it positive again."
If you are suffering from trauma as the result of sexual abuse, please seek treatment. RAINN offers a confidential, 24/7 national sexual assault hotline at 800-656-HOPE.
Kristin Kurens is a writer, editor, and artist. She thrives on words, music, art, and aiding the verbally challenged. In her free time she writes fiction, paints, travels, imbibes—always in pursuit of the authentic and strange.