The Anatomy of Silence: Examining What Gets in the Way of Talking About Sexual Violence

I said #MeToo—but I was scared that it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference. That once again we’d be heard for a moment and then promptly forgotten. That our voices would have only a fleeting impact before people returned to their normal lives. That our stories wouldn’t change the culture we’re immersed in. That we would never recognize how, through our silences, we are all complicit in creating a world where sexual violence is pandemic.

That fear was what led me to compile The Anatomy of Silence, an anthology of non-fiction and creative narratives about the silence that surrounds sexual violence that is raising funds now on Kickstarter.

As people’s stories trickled in, it became clear that embedded in the tangled mess of our stories about silence surrounding sexual violence were key insights on how our collective silences operate within a larger culture of shame—a culture of shushing and blaming and objectifying and judging and protecting the status quo. Turns out that silence and the shame it thrives in are largely created by the choices we make everyday about how we engage with and respond to others.

We need to do collective healing work on how sex, shame, violence, racism, sexism, homophobia, toxic masculinity, bureaucracy, power and silence interact. This work will be daunting and painful for everyone. It will require us all to connect to our pain, to be vulnerable to one another, and to trust in ourselves and others. It’s not going to be easy.

Trauma broke my ability to be in relationships. My silence allowed me to deny that I needed or deserved caring people to love me. I think we live in a traumatized world. Our unhealthy reactions to chronic stress and our deep desire to not feel our pain keep us collectively disconnected.

This sounds stark. And it is. Healing requires us to connect and be in relationship—those of us who have been hurt by people need the caring support of someone’s presence and love to redevelop trust.

I believe we can all offer that to one another if we try. But sexual violence is everywhere, all around us. Our children, our siblings, our neighbors and colleagues, we are all in this mess together. If we can’t find ways to encourage people to talk about it—the detailed, complex, hard-to-handle reality of it—and if we can’t find ways to listen even when we don’t have the power to rewind the tape and change the story we are hearing, we will perpetuate the trauma and hurt. We will destroy yet another generation’s faith in the possibility of being protected from violence, and sexual violence will continue to go unchecked.

The stories in Anatomy of Silence are searing, heart-wrenching, inspiring and true examinations of the myriad ways we learn to use silence. There are lessons in its pages about how we are shamed and then taught silence to cope with our shame, how we then often double down on those lessons when we are suffering and when we witness others’ suffering and how abusers use those lessons to manipulate and control us.

Within the experiences and insights shared here are contradictions and paradoxes worth exploring. There is not just one story here, but 26. It is by honoring them all that we will find our way to understanding both the simple and complex reality of our silences. Somehow all of our stories—as survivors, perpetrators, allies, witnesses, citizens of the world—are connected through the spiritual, cultural, political and social fabric of our coexistence, a cluttered pile of pages with no single, crisp, clear narrative or solution.

No matter how complex and difficult it may be, I believe that by making meaning out of these collected stories, we will be able listen more deeply for the wounds that others carry. We will be able to hear silences differently. We will learn how to respond to suffering. How to not to look away. We will be given the opportunity to listen to our shame, to our anger—not run away from it. We will be presented with the choice to talk more freely and gently about sex, feelings, intimacy and our bodies.

And, if we rise to the occasion, we will begin to heal together.

The contributors in this collection, myself included, are searching to open up, to process our experiences, to break our silences and to figure out how to describe the meaning and source of those silences. But this book is not for us. We share publicly, out loud, so that we may, as a global society, examine why we have been wandering alone, silently carrying our shame, our pain, and our fears; so that we may connect with and hear one another; so that we may heal together; so that sexual violence is no longer culturally-protected.


Cyra Perry Dougherty is a space holder for the spiritual growth and healing of 21st century leaders. She is the Editor of the forthcoming book, The Anatomy of Silence (Red Press 2019), founder and CEO of Rootwise Leadership, Senior Partner at Still Harbor and an Instructor of Leadership Programming at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.