I Was Raped: But the Usual Anti-Rape Approach May Not Help My Daughters
In the summer of 1983, I was ambling along a beach in Ecuador talking and flirting with a local high school boy. We rounded a curve. The long open stretch we had been walking disappeared from sight and we were alone—or almost alone. Ahead of us on a rocky outcropping four guys sat, watching the shore. As we approached, they hopped down and sauntered toward us. Then one of them grabbed my companion while another put a knife to his throat. The other two grabbed me, knocking me to the ground and fighting off my bathing suit while I kicked and bit and my companion yelled, “People are coming. Let her go. People are coming.” They panicked and released us and took off up the beach. I staggered into the water to wash their fingers out of my vagina and the blood off a bite mark on my hand, and then we ran back in the direction we had come.
My experience is remarkable only because it is so shockingly ordinary. In a CDC survey of American women, one in five reported that they had experienced a rape or an attempted rape at some point in their lives. But until that day on the beach, rape simply wasn’t on my radar. What I lost in that incident was the assumption that it couldn’t happen to me, and in the intervening years it is a lesson I have never forgotten.
My daughters are now approaching the age I was back in 1983, and as a mother who wants to send them into the world empowered and confident, curious and bold, but with a strong self-protective instinct, I have wrestled with what to tell them about my experience—or that of my sister, who got into a car only to find that the passenger handle had been removed by the serial rapist at the wheel; or that of my friend for whom the fingers weren’t those of a young tough on a beach but those of a pastor in a church library.
For this task, meaning the task of preparing two daughters for life in the big wide world, the frenzied public rhetoric about rape and rape culture seems woefully inadequate. “No means no,” may be what we need to tell our sons, but our daughters need another message. They need to hear that no can mean no, and—fuck the Right for saying so—but historically it can also mean yes, and there are many, many nonverbal ways to signal consent whether you intend to or not. And sometimes your lack of consent, no matter how clearly stated, isn’t going to protect you.
The relationship between female helplessness or coercion and sexual arousal for our species is hard wired, and it’s not going away. It can be modified and constrained, but it can’t be punished out of existence. We could have a public stoning of the Steubenville offenders, and my daughters would still have to deal with this complicated reality. Pretending this isn’t the case while millions of women discover newfound orgasmic thrills in bondage fantasies would be laughable if it weren’t dangerous.
Sexual and behavioral norms are changing, which is one reason that explicit consent to sex is more important now than ever. In the past, women were protected from male sexual impulses by patriarchal rules that kept us off the streets unaccompanied or kept us covered from neck to ankle in layers of fabric or made courtship a formal negotiation between males who, essentially, owned us. Most women would rather manage our own safety, thank you very much, but that means we have to manage it. In this regard, the BDSM community offers an interesting edge case. BDSM, at some level, is about playing with the limits of sexual vulnerability, getting the maximum arousal out of a certain kind of tease, without crossing a line. At some level, I think this is the game our whole culture is playing—from Hollywood to music, to dance, to fashion. This means that a bunch of cues that used to mean “yes” actually don’t anymore, and the potential for aroused, judgment-impaired minds to misread nonverbal or ambiguous communications is enormous. BDSM communities deal with this by clarifying up front what’s okay and what isn’t—by requiring explicit verbal or even written consent, and increasingly we all need to do the same.