Rape, giving credence to anecdotal evidence, and actually talking about tough shit

I was raped by an acquaintance. That it happened, that I knew the man who did it, turned out to be the least exceptional detail in the story. What did happen was I immediately told six female friends that I’d been raped, and three out of the six said, “me, too.” These were women I’d shared seemingly every secret with, who’d stayed up late with me, fueled by whiskey, recounting every painful detail of our collective failed families and relationships, yet this one thing, this one very important thing, had been left unsaid. As the weeks went on, as I told more friends, the tally of women I knew who’d been raped grew exponentially. Some of them had gone through it twice, myself having gone through an attempt at rape another time before this. But I began to wonder exactly why we–many extremely progressive feminists–suddenly zipped ourselves shut when it came to this very important matter.

One female friend who I’d told took me to the state’s battering and abuse clinic to report the incident. I lived in Idaho then. She was also the victim of a particularly terrifying rape. At the clinic, we were led into a room. I wanted to cry every moment of my days then, which, for me, always turns to unfortunate and ill-timed laughter. I sat there next to my friend in a rape crisis room, trying not to giggle. I was thinking, “I wonder if women compare their rapists, like how I always get into arguments about who had it harder growing up, or if a rapist brought you flowers, does that rank him higher or lower on the rapist scale.” Intense pain warped my sense of humor so much so that when a woman entered, said many nice things, made me calm, then said, “Now I need to tell you the tough part,” I laughed out loud. It seems the toughest part is not actually the rape.

The woman informed me that through Idaho’s laws (in 2009), anyone who has accused another person of rape must be subjected to a thorough interrogation, most often lasting for hours, by two state detectives from the police department. In 2009, there were only 11 female state officers in all of Idaho. (Also, imagine you’re a male victim, and see how comfortable that would make you.) After the interrogation, the detectives would supply you with a phone, and as the victim, you were expected to call your attacker, speak to him/her, and attempt to persuade them to confess to the crime over the phone. Perhaps, in time, Idaho will allow you to do this via text, but more likely FaceTime.

I opted out. I didn’t press charges. And it was because of one simple element to the rape that I may never understand, something that eludes me to this day, because it doesn’t make any sense: as I shifted in and out of consciousness that night, disoriented, unable to tell where I was, for a moment, I knew I was engaged in a sexual act, and for one split second, my normal human urges became muddled with a warped reality of what was actually happening, and in that split second, my brain told me, you are having sex, and you like sex, right?

That feeling, obviously, passed immediately. When I finally came to, I was wandering thirty blocks from home, near a country road, holding one shoe, as the sprinklers from suburban homes jetted up through the lawns and signaled just another morning. I remember little from the night–snapshots, mostly–all of it terrifying, but the worst of it was that one split second of enjoying sex. When I thought over what my interrogators would ask me in a little windowless room, a rotary phone in front of me, I knew I didn’t have the maturity, the understanding, to even comprehend that split second enough to explain it to anyone else, let alone two men of authority. Not one of my friends who’d been raped has pressed charges. Not one of them. I knew what I was afraid of, but what was their fear? What web of craziness and misunderstanding and redefinition of what constitutes rape were they wrapped in that allowed another rapist to go unpunished? And how do these misunderstandings and total ignorance leak into our consciousness? Are we talking about it?

When we talk about statistics and anonymous anecdotal evidence of “women don’t feel like they can go out at night,” it’s often too difficult to fathom, that so many women are afraid of something seemingly so innocuous, that so many seemingly good men have exercised their strength and bodies for evil. The man who raped me still works with many of my old colleagues, still goes out for drinks with them, and is still in authority over many young women in his classes. I still have a difficult time believing that it happened, but only because he had previously been a person to whom I’d given the benefit of the doubt, because I believed–still believe–that people are only capable of being as good as you expect them to be. I’m haunted by the possibility that I may be wrong; to my knowledge, he denies it was rape.

My experience, to some people, may rehash the idea that what constitutes rape walks a “fine line.” No. There is no fine line. And it’s taken me many years of processing grief and confusion and sharing my story to understand this. We define rape as something that is unwanted. For a society that rarely is allowed to express what we actually want, this is just asking for problems, the definition being left merely to what the victim “wanted.” But what about the rapist’s intentions? Should we not take those into consideration at all times as well? Should we not put the rapist’s intentions on display, and ask them, not if they felt they “raped” someone–because they would clearly say that they didn’t–but rather if their intention in any way was to take something they felt they would not get under normal circumstances? If this definition had been applied, if I’d been able to see that rape is far more complicated than someone either wanting or not wanting something, I think I could have seen past that strange split second and understood what I already knew to be true. But nobody was talking about it!

When someone like Akin talks about that fine line of rape, I get to wondering why he’s the only one talking, and if anything at all will ever change. But then I remember that discourse changes everything. Whether it’s small-scale or large-scale. A place like www.rainn.org is a good site for a wide net of safety and resources, but I feel strongly that we should share firstly with the people we know. If you know me, you already know I have little tolerance for discussions being deemed inappropriate…for better or for worse. Rape has clearly been one of those topics within my friend base that is too difficult to breach, but I hope that changes. And I hope that women and men share more of their stories with others in a matter-of-fact way that can bring the topic into discourse, but doesn’t negate women’s or men’s feelings and experiences. Men are likely to feel picked on. Women are likely to have resentment. I think, though, you’d be hard-pressed to find a man in your company who could listen to an actual story of rape from one of his friends and still feel picked-on. What he would feel, hopefully, is the same that I would hope a woman would feel: that it’s wrong, that something needs to be done. And maybe that’s how it starts. Maybe we’d clear up a lot of our confusion if more people said something. And if it happened to you, I welcome your story.

By the way, would really recommend RAINN. Everything I just said is basically what they believe.

Can one of his friends just sit him down and talk to him, please?

5 responses to “Rape, giving credence to anecdotal evidence, and actually talking about tough shit

  1. May be worth adding: If anything, I feel like the issue of clear consent is a red herring in the discussion. It feels like we’ve placed a great burden on it being the end-all be-all, when in reality, the discussion should center more closely on how we culturally raise men, on how we treat other humans. I think there are bound to be biological misfires in the brain when something we normally see as good is rooted in an evil act, but this is something over which we have no control. On the other hand, a man who feels an “urge,” (something we often propagate as natural), has direct control over his actions. I also despise when people assume men have no control over their actions, that they’re driven by an idea of false biology. It’s demeaning to the men I know.

  2. I’m so sorry for what happened to you. It’s amazing that you can be so open and logical after your experience. That can’t be easy.

    Like racism, rape is one of those topics where we may agree on the definition, but we don’t all agree on the nuances within the definition. What exactly is coercion? Ask ten people, and you’ll get ten different answers.

    What we should all be able to agree on is that rape is, and always has been an epidemic. Sadly, unless we can have open, honest and direct dialog on the topic, nothing will change.

    Kudos to you for opening the dialog.

    • Leo, thank you for stopping by to read. You’re so right about the asking ten people thing. It’s amazing how much we take for granted in our individual perceptions and interpretations. I think, perhaps, lawmakers do this a bit too often, but I hope the dialogue will shift in a way that allows us to solve the bigger cultural problems, so we won’t have to focus so intensely on those hazy definitions of coercion and consent. A friend wrote this in response to the piece elsewhere, but I think it’s worth sharing:

      I went to the dictionary to try to resolve this feeling I had that the word “consent” was really something about an objectifying, transactional notion of heterosex. Instead, I found this: “Consent: ORIGIN Middle English : from Old French consente (noun), consentir (verb), from Latin consentire, from con- ‘together’ + sentire ‘feel.’”

      Wow! If only we could all aspire to this sort of empathetic openness in our sexual relationships–that sex is about “feeling together”! I am kind of in love with this idea, the idea that what our society needs to go back to the original meaning of consent–an action that is context-specific and flexible. An activity that requires us to be fully present with and responsible/responsive to each other…

      (Idealism full steam ahead)

  3. Makes a lot of sense. Let’s put our resources to fixing the root cause instead of worrying about how to deal with the symptoms. My wife and I spoke about this recently. She was researching child prostitution, and we were wondering if countries like France or Italy, where sexual expression is more open, have less of a problem with it. I’d think the same conversation applies to rape.

    Other than joking about it, Americans don’t really talk about sex. Does that contribute to the objectification you talked about?

  4. I think Americans turn first to comedy, then to tragedy. It’s a double-edged dagger, right? It all depends on who’s making the comedy, too. What really makes me happy is that you were having a conversation with your wife about this stuff. God, I wish more couples spoke openly about important issues.

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