Wednesday, January 10, 2007

How to tell a rape victim

jen at her blog where's the revolution gonna begin posted (quite a while ago) some of her feelings about using the term "survivor" to describe someone who has been a victim of rape.
There are lots and lots of reasons that I know I will never reach that place of calling myself or being a "survivor," which I won't go into here. Some of them are entrenched in the rape culture that makes me blame myself for my abuse and my rape(s), but some of them are simply because I don't have that capacity to "heal." You might be thinking, "Oh, don't be silly, you're only 20 years old, you don't know what you can heal from yet," and maybe, just maybe, you're right. But you're probably not. But that's exactly the problem I have with this fight against sexual violence. There's always the assumption that everyone can heal. That someday, if you just work hard enough at it, you, too, will be able to be a "survivor."
What's interesting is that I have had sort of the opposite problem with this rhetoric, though I think both her reaction and mine stem from the same root problem.

jen's experience was nightmarish, and she has every right to express her emotional response to it and the emotional damage it dealt her. She doesn't have to "get over" anything - this is something that happened to her, and the aftermath is something over which she also exercises very little control. What is important is that she be allowed to heal in any way she can.

As someone who has experienced a very different kind of rape, however, I find that holding jen's experience up as the typical one, or the emotionally obliterated response as the typical one to be really counterproductive. When I was a teenager, I was a victim of date rape of probably the most typical kind - a guy took me out, got me blind drunk, and from what I hear had sex with me while I was blacked out. I count myself as fortunate for not remembering it, but nonetheless I was drug through the blame-the-victim mud and had a terrible few weeks in the city where I was living at the time. I left town after those miserable weeks, and am glad that it's a place I'll never have to go back to again. However, I was far from emotionally broken, and it took me several months and conversations with friends to cconnect the dots and realize that the term "date rape" is an accurate one to describe the experience I had.

Why would someone not consider this rape? How could I, a person who's called herself a feminist since grade school, not recognize the classic date rape scenario? I'm not the only one who has had this problem in the aftermath of rape. Consider this discussion of a survey of college students at Alas. The survey says that of college-aged women who had been forced to have sex, only 23% said that it was "definitely rape."

A while back, Happy Feminist had a great post on this subject, and it actually spurred me to tell the details of my own rape experience, though I didn't feel comfortable tacking my name onto it. I still don't, and I've been sitting on this post since April of 2006 because of my ambivalence. I can tell myself there's no shame in it, and that exposing the reality of rape is important work, but I still am going to have a hard time clicking "submit" after I've said all I want to say.

A lot of this is related back to the common conception of rape as worse than dying, of rape killing the soul. Above, jen is tired of being told how to respond to her experience, or what her experience should have done to her, and I am too. Rape did not kill my soul. It didn't make me fear sex or fall into a deep depression. I didn't consider what happened to me rape because it didn't break me.

And I'm not the only one who's made this mistake. In 2005, Shakespeare's Sister was watching the case of an alleged gang rape, which came to this astounding end:
A 17-year-old girl went to police at the urging of her friends after she was allegedly gang-raped by three men, including her boyfriend. The men testified that the act was consensual. After reviewing all the information and statements, prosecutors decided they didn’t think they could prove a rape allegation, and so declined to prosecute the case.

Instead, they prosecuted the victim for filing a false police report. Yesterday, she was found guilty.

The victim has never recanted her story. Instead, the decision was based on the judge’s opinion that the three men were more credible, in part because a police detective and the victim’s friends testified she did not “act traumatized” in the days after the incident.
And here you have exactly why I've been hesitant to relate my experience. I'm not interested in putting my experience under the microscope, or dealing with victim-blaming, because my rape experience doesn't fit the popular "fate worse than death" narrative.

My point here is that it doesn't have to - and if you're raped, yours probably won't either. You don't have to be violated to an extent approved by Bill Napoli to have been raped. It's still illegal - and unethical - to have sex with someone without their consent, even if you leave them somewhere short of completely shattered. What happened to me was wrong, it was illegal, and anyone else who's had such an experience deserves to know it. Even worse is that when rape is presented as a "fate worse than death," there are echoes of old notions of women as sexual property that can be ruined by someone else's tampering.

To reemphasize: I don't mean to downplay the trauma and violence and evil of rape. I do want to question exactly how we decide what is "bad enough" to be considered rape, and why people think of rape on Bill Napoli's terms instead of mine.

What can we do to help people think about rape realistically?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Your post was very clarifying and sort of an eye-opener. As a man and not being connected to any rape situation, I also imagined that the victim would be utterly destroyed for their whole life. It now seems rather extreme. This was a good post, thank you for your honesty and for the interesting point of view.