by Jaclyn Friedman
You may have noticed that this column has been publishing fairly irregularly of late. For that, I apologize. But I hope to make it up to you with a brand-new format!
Don’t worry, I’ll still be commenting on pop culture as it interacts with our sexual culture. But, starting with this column, I’ll also be addressing topics related to promoting healthy sexuality and preventing sexual violence that aren’t directly related to the pop culture news of the day. Instead, I’ll be taking my inspiration from the young people I meet and interact with online, and in the communities and campuses I travel to. Even better? I’ll also be fielding questions and suggestions directly from you!
Have a topic you’d like me to cover or a question you’d like me to answer? Just email it to me at email@example.com. Your name and info will be kept strictly confidential, so do also let me know what nickname I should use in replying to you.
To get us started, I’m going to dig into an issue that I’ve been thinking a lot about in the last year, one which was also raised in this egregious, victim-blaming article on The Daily Caller this week.
The always-fab Amanda Hess has already issued a thorough takedown of the piece as a whole over at TBD. What I’d like to focus on is just this little bit:
“…[T]he SVCW study reports that when those categorized as rape victims were asked if what they described was rape, nearly 50 percent said “no.” Further, 80 percent of the subjects researchers labeled as rape victims stated that the incident resulted in neither physical or emotional injuries. Only 5 percent of those identified as victims of rape actually reported the incident. “If an attorney defending a rapist were to use this, they’d say ‘Well, what’s the big deal? 80 percent of women who are raped don’t have any adverse affects,’” Gilbert said. “It expands the definition in a way that it includes a lot of events — you know sexual activity at that age can be confusing, there is regret after, there are break ups, all kinds of things that go on,” Gilbert said.”
OK. Yeah. There’s a lot going on in that little nugget of denial, and if you’re like me, it may be sending you dangerously close to a rage blackout. But let’s take a deep breath together and dig in instead, OK?
There are basically three claims in this section:
1) Almost half of the victims who’ve experienced what legally qualifies as rape don’t identify it as such.
2) A strong majority of victims of rape claim they’ve experienced no physical or emotional injuries
3) This proves somehow that rape is just a natural side-effect of young people being sexually confused.
Thing is, #1 isn’t much of a surprise. Even May, the author of this charming missive, gets it right when she quotes attorney Rana Sampson explaining this phenomenon: “It often doesn’t register as rape to women because it does not look like the image they have in their mind. It turns out that image is not the most common type of rape and that is why so many people are able to get away with it.” In other words, most people think of rape as perpetrated on an innocent young girl by a stranger who jumps out of the bushes with a gun. But in reality, most victims know their assailants, and most rapists use alcohol or drugs to facilitate their assaults, not weapons. This can leave victims confused as to whether or not what happened to them “counts” as rape.
#3 is so far from true it would be funny, if it weren’t the number one reason used to let rapists off the hook, leaving them free to attack again. Don’t believe me? Check out the research of Dr. David Lisak, who studied thousands of college-age boys and found that the tiny fraction of rapists among them know exactly what they’re doing.
That brings us to #2. The romantic, fantastical idea that if women don’t identify their experiences as rape, they won’t suffer the consequences.
I’ve had the honor of being invited to speak at a number of Take Back The Night events at campuses across the country in the past year. But more than speaking, I’ve had the honor of listening. To literally hundreds of young women, and a few men, as they told their stories of violation and survival. And the number one most common narrative went like this: It happened three years ago. I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time. I just wrote it off as a bad hookup/boyfriend/whatever. But I’ve come to realize that it’s still haunting me, and I can’t keep silent about it anymore. This is the first time I’ve ever talked about it.
Given #1 and the pervasive myth that is #3, is actually surprising that this story is so common? I mean, we’re telling women from a very young age that rape is when a stranger jumps out of the bushes, and also that if you get drunk and someone does something sexual to you without your consent, it’s just because sex is confusing. (Actually, that’s a kinder version of what we tell women. Mostly we say: boys will be boys, you can’t change them, and if you were drunk you were being a bad girl and so you brought it upon your damn self.)
Last month, I did an interview for the excellent podcast A Pair of Continents. And during that conversation, one of the hosts, Dani, talked about ways she’s been sexually violated, and how her first instinct was to blame herself. And she dates it back to grade school, when, as she tells it, “there used to be this boy who was only a year or two older than me, and various other girls, and his thing was to go around tweaking girls’ nipples. And everyone knew that that’s what this guy did. He would just feel your nipples and twist them. And so in that sort of way, nobody ever reported that, or even thought in that sort of language, of ‘This is something that we can do. We can say this is a sexual assault and it’s wrong.’”
And that is exactly the point. When it comes to naming sexual violence, too many of us are like frogs in a pot of slowly heating water — by the time the violation rises to the level of rape, the victim-blame has been heating around us so slowly for so long that we don’t even notice we’re boiling. And so, when an interviewer asks us if we’ve been raped, we say no, even if we’ve just described to that interviewer the details of a rape that was perpetrated against us.
And when that interviewer asks us if that rape — the one we don’t even want to recognize as such — has harmed us? Of course we say no. We find excuses, and alternative explanations. We think to ourselves — that depression? The emotional numbness? Must be chemical, or stress, or heartbreak, or homesickness. That discomfort we feel with our bodies? Low self-esteem, we really should work on that. Our uneasy relationship to sex? Well, everyone feels that, don’t they?
The thing is, while I would never tell any individual survivor what’s best for her to do, the truth remains that not naming rape for what it is doesn’t protect us from harm. How I wish it did — wouldn’t that be a much easier world to live in? But in reality, it only prevents us from recognizing what has harmed us, and getting the kind of support and treatment we need to heal. And from pursuing justice. It prevents all of us from stopping the rapists in our midst from targeting a new victim, and starting the whole cycle over again.