Several months ago Harold and I were having a passionate discourse in bed. No, we weren’t having sex. We were fighting about rape, which is weird because we’re both on the same side. Discussions about rape were everywhere as Republicans waged their war on women. I was overwhelmed by the media exposure and more than a little triggered. I wanted to discuss some of the things that were swirling around in my brain.
Of course, a conversation has at least two sides. I was coming from an emotional place and Harold was ready to try to solve our culture’s rape problem. It’s also not advisable to try to have emotionally loaded and potentially triggering conversations when one is mostly asleep, but there we were. We managed to get to a good place and go to sleep, but we’ve been discussing rape ever since. It’s frustrating to be at odds when we basically agree, but I think that struggling to articulate our thoughts is helping us to clarify our stance on rape.
I started our discussion with my definition of rape: to be penetrated without consent and to feel violated. It’s become obvious (to me) that we don’t have enough language to discuss rape and the aftermath easily. It seems that when people talk about rape they are either talking about a legal definition or they are talking about how it felt to be raped. Both are valid, but it makes it terribly difficult to have a productive conversation when people are meaning different things with the same word.
I am mostly concerned with the feelings around being raped. Perhaps when we discuss the emotional aftermath, we could use the term violation, rather than rape. I don’t want to minimize rape in any way. The physical act of rape is terrible, but bodies generally heal. The damage to the psyche is so much worse.
When people argue about whether or not a certain act is rape they tend to discount the victim’s feelings of violation. It is absolutely possible for someone to feel violated even if the experience would not meet a legal definition of rape. This is why the first reaction to any rape disclosure should be total acceptance. You don’t get a second chance. You can try to decide if the person’s experience “is really rape” at some later time. In the moment, they need you to believe them and validate their emotions.
Rape is very tricky. There are too many grey areas. In fact, rape is almost entirely grey area, as it rests in the victim’s feelings of violation and ability to consent. It often comes down to one person’s word against another. I can see why people tend to be terrified of being accused of rape, but right now I am focused on the victim’s perspective.
Feelings of violation
I want so badly to be able to describe what it feels like to be violated. I desperately want my partners to understand how I have been affected. I feel like my soul is stained. I know that I am strong, but I feel shattered inside. Something precious in me is broken. My lovers have helped me through panic attacks and flash backs, but they cannot understand a thing they have not experienced.
Let me explain it this way… If sex is the most intimate experience you can imagine, a sharing of souls, then imagine someone being that close to you, deep inside you, against your will. That person may be someone you care about, which makes this invasion a monumental betrayal. Or that person might be repugnant to you, someone you would not choose to share yourself with. Or maybe you would have, except that your right to make a choice was stripped from you, as though you weren’t really a person at all.
Being violated leaves a mark. I see that mark reflected in people all around me. I can stand in a crowded room for a few minutes and point out to you which people have experienced sexual abuse, even though people deal with it differently. I see the stain. I think it has something to do with shame, that transference of self-hatred from the perpetrator to the victim.
Ability to consent
The ability of everyone involved in a sex act to consent is a huge part of the rape discussion. Some of it is fairly accepted in our culture, like children being unable to give consent. We slip into legal definition areas in the teen years, where each state has decided for itself how old one must be to legally give consent and how old one’s partner can be for it not to be statutory rape.
Consent becomes fuzzy when people are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Inhibitions are relaxed and someone is more likely to consent to an act in the moment that they will feel violated over the next day. It is not worth the potential harm it could cause to try and have sex with someone when they are inebriated. Furthermore, I believe that someone who takes advantage of an altered state in order to get laid is indeed a rapist.
The most difficult area of consent is where someone doesn’t say anything at all. This is not consent. The lack of a definitive “no” is not a “yes”. Let me be clear: only a “yes” is consent. There are many reasons that someone might not be able to say anything in the moment. An abuse history may have taught them that their protestations will go unheeded. Fear or a desire to be loved may keep someone from speaking out in an uncomfortable situation. Get positive affirmation from your partner before proceeding. Stop if it feels wrong.
After the fact
I hear a lot of people expressing an opinion that rape didn’t really happen if it wasn’t reported right away. If we accept that feelings of violation are a valid definition of rape, than we must accept that those feels are valid at any time. Emotions do not have expiration dates.
Rape is insidious. There are many reasons that a victim might not tell anyone right away: People often feel that what happened was their fault. If they have experienced abuse in the past, they might feel that sexual abuse is normal. They may feel that no one would believe them anyway. Sometimes victims are so unable to cope with the trauma that they put the memory away for a time. Whatever the reason, rape is still rape, even if it doesn’t get disclosed immediately.
If someone reveals to you that they have been raped, the important thing is to tell them that their feelings of violation are valid. This is not in any way debating the facts of the incident, this is purely and simply stating that they are entitled to their emotions, whatever they are. It infuriates me when people question the validity of a victim’s experience rather than supporting them.
Rape is the only crime I know of where most people respond with doubt. I could tell you that my house was broken into or my car was rear-ended and the majority of people would be sympathetic and supportive, but mention rape and the response is often, Are you sure? Did you do something to bring it on?
The inability to get a compassionate response when disclosing abuse is nearly as traumatizing as the experience itself. Our culture is so busy denying that there is a rape problem, that we fail to support the people who need the most help. We need to create a safe environment for abuse reporting.
Yes, I get that a world where heinous sex crimes exists is a difficult place to live and you’d rather not acknowledge that abuse happens all around you. It seems easier to blame the victims, but by denying their stories, you are creating what you fear. When you fail recognize feelings of violation, you are in fact supporting rape culture.
Going back to my discussion with Harold, we have come to believe that the solution to our culture’s rape problem lies in open acceptance of people’s feelings of violation. We need to be able to say, openly and without fear of judgment, when we feel violated. We need to be heard and supported in those feelings so that everyone everywhere understands that it will not be hidden. Rapists will not be held accountable in our culture until we place emphasis on the emotional harm inherent in this crime.
Once we can have a dialog where victim’s emotions are given weight, then we can have a conversation about “what actually happened.” A truly open forum for discussion is going to benefit everyone— not only people who feel violated, but also people who feel wrongly accused of raping. And if our whole culture hears and understands how much rape hurts, it will be harder for anyone to pretend that it’s ever “justified” or “excusable” or “provoked”. Until that time, though, we’re all complicit in perpetrating the secret world of sexual abuse.