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I Was Raped: But the Usual Anti-Rape Approach May Not Help My Daughters

The frenzied public rhetoric about rape and rape culture is woefully inadequate.

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But in the world outside the bondage room, such advance communication isn’t always going to be there, whether a woman is in a room full of strangers or in her own bed. Between intimate partners, sexual inquiry often takes the form of tentative sexual contact. Between strangers, the call and response is primarily body language. It is this complicated reality that my daughters must navigate. 

In trying to weave a safe course among these shades of gray, the phrase “it’s never your fault,” seems too stark and simplistic to be useful. Worse, it may be disempowering. It implies that the choices women make are meaningless, irrelevant; that whether we are careful or conservative, drunk off our asses among jerks with poor judgment or choosing to stay in control of our faculties has no import; dressing ordinary or dressing to arouse male attention and desire has no power. It is, to my mind, yet another permutation on the helpless female, the idea that all of the capacity to determine the course of our lives, for better or worse, lies in the hands (and dicks) of males.

Undoubtedly someone is going to scream that I am playing the role of the Stuebenville defense attorney, blaming the victim, giving new voice to old canards like  she asked for it, or  boys will be boys, or if you act like a slut, you deserve what you get.  I would answer that it's not a question of deserving. It's a question of complex causality and of recognizing, owning and consciously wielding whatever power we have in that equation. Absolving women of responsibility denies us response ability.

In recent years public outrage about victim shaming and victim blaming has erupted. Women have come together through events like Slut Walk to demand that society stop denigrating victims and put blame where it belongs, on perpetrators. We are, finally, reacting to the eons that Western culture has spent at the opposite end of the continuum, and we are appropriately outraged at the lingering residual: Commentators who appear to care more about football than females. Priests who molest children and get  paid off by bishops whose “moral authority” still buys them a seat in the White House. Politicians who vomit rape apologies. Policy proposals that would force women to bear rape babies.  A Bible that  never once says or implies that a woman’s consent is desired before sex and yet still gets touted as a perfect moral guide. . . .  Our collective surge of compassion and anger is long past due.

But I think there is a dark side to our insistence on absolving victims. Yes, it corrects a long-standing wrong. But it also perpetuates the same traditional mindset that promotes rape—the idea that a woman’s sexuality is the core of who she is, that we women are, as Martin Luther put it, “ made for childbearing” and as such are passive vessels of our fate. A rape victim is damaged goods, so damaged that we don’t dare wound her further by considering her role in her own violation.  In comment threads and on Facebook, outraged men and women have expressed their feeling that the Steubenville perpetrators should have their lives ruined—just like they ruined that girl’s life. Is her life ruined? Let me ask the question underneath that one. Is  she ruined?

My assault on the Ecuadorian beach took place during a summer study program. When I told my professors what had happened they were traumatized. Did I need to go home? Did I need reassurance about my virginity? Did I need a therapist? What else could they do? Oddly, they were more damaged than I was. There are experiences in my life that have shaken my sense of wellbeing to the core, driving me to depression or even suicidal thoughts—and to therapy. Having someone force me to the ground, clamp a hand over my mouth and shove fingers up my vagina was not one of them. The bite mark on my hand faded and I got on with healing older, deeper wounds left by the crazy dynamics of a mentally ill mother, parents that didn’t like each other, and a religion that taught me that I deserved eternal torture.

 
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