I cannot tell you how much I don’t want to publish this blog post. I’ve scheduled and rescheduled, deleted and resurrected it. I’ve rewritten it at least 50 times, in my head and on the computer. And I’d just about talked myself out of publishing it all together.
I am heartened by some of the discussion surrounding the Stanford rape case. Amongst the accusations and name calling and pitchfork waving and excuse making, an earnest conversation has begun: What do we do about this? How do we stop such things from happening?
I don’t have the answer, but I do have some suggestions. First, though, let me tell you what it’s like to grow up female in a rape culture.
When I was 7 years old, during recess one day an older boy (I’m guessing 15 or so, from the special education class that shared our recess) put his hands down my pants. I didn’t tell anyone, not a friend, teacher, or even my parents – who I told everything, including things I’d done wrong and had somehow gotten away with. Somehow, at 7, the message had been conveyed to me: What he did was a shameful thing. I should be ashamed. Because what had happened was my fault. I didn’t know how it was my fault, but I was sure that it was.
When I was 16, while out with friends, I took a couple of sips of Everclear – which I’d never even heard of before – became frighteningly intoxicated, and was nearly raped by a boy I’d met just that evening. I thought he was cute, and was flattered he liked me back. But I was not ready for sex, and I told him so, over and over. He persisted, undressing me faster than I could redress myself. It was amazing to me how quickly I became drunk, and how helpless I’d become. I’d only ever been tipsy before, and that just once or twice. My friends sat in the next room, listening to us struggle, until one of them (a boy who had a crush on me) came in and stopped him. The other two – my best friend and her boyfriend – were just going to let this guy rape me, because they felt I was too old to still be a virgin.
When I was 18, my boyfriend raped me. I was not ready for sex, particularly after the attempted rape two years prior. He did it anyway. I didn’t tell anyone for a week, because I was so ashamed. I thought I’d done something to bring it on myself. I’d been warned about this kind of thing; it was my responsibility to prevent it, stop it. And this time, I wasn’t even drunk.
My closest female friend at the time was pleased to hear I’d finally lost my virginity: “It’s about time you got laid.”
My male friends and my ex-boyfriend all told me that I’d just been lucky up to that point. That not all guys could put up with my frigidity. I had been, apparently, in the shadow of rape for years without even knowing it.
I didn’t doubt it for a second. Throughout high school, I was groped by boys who were supposed to be my friends – my breasts squeezed, my crotch grabbed. It was “all in good fun” – a tickle fight here, a joking smile there. Boys will be boys, you know.
I went to the doctor after my rape. But it’d been a week. I was not injured (he used lube; wasn’t that thoughtful?), I had no STDs, and I was too traumatized to endure a pelvic exam. There was nothing they could really do.
I went to therapy for three years. It didn’t really help, either. I clawed my way through the aftermath alone. The resulting anxiety, hypervigilance, phobias, and obsession with cleanliness and perfection were treated as annoying personality traits by everyone I knew. To them, I was just being an irritating pain in the ass.
Even the fact that I exhibited signs of trauma in the face of a traumatizing event was my fault.
The next guy I dated ended up cheating on me because I wouldn’t have sex with him.
The guy after that told me he’d break up with me if I didn’t have sex with him.
So I did. I hated every minute of it. But, I reasoned, it had to be better to do it willingly than to refuse and have him force me. Besides, what was the point of holding out? The damage had been done, right? And it had been made abundantly clear to me that unless I gave up my body, no one would want to be with me.
Months later, I confessed to my mother that I was having sex. It was the hardest thing I ever did. She was incredulous that it took me so long to tell her; we were very close, and I usually told her everything.
“Did you think I wouldn’t love you anymore?” she asked. Well, yes. Yes, I did think that. I was raised Catholic. I was supposed to wait until marriage. And I’d made a right hash of that, now, didn’t I? Good girls didn’t, and I had, so I was bad. Nobody loves the bad girls.
I stayed with that boyfriend for a few years. But of course we didn’t last. Our relationship became a power play: the more sex we had, the more sex he wanted; the more sex he wanted, the more I resented him. Finally, I decided I’d rather be alone than be with him.
I became withdrawn, neurotic. I blasted my way through a series of unhealthy relationships. I smoked too much. I drank too much. I abandoned the idea that anyone could ever love me for who I was. It seemed to me that all anyone cared about was my body, and what I would allow them to do to it. I shut down emotionally.
I was in my 30s before I had a healthy sexual relationship with someone. I still have flashbacks. I still have nightmares. I’m still freaking terrified of pelvic exams.
But I survived. I made it through the dark to the other side. I am not the same person I was back then, but I’m no longer broken.
And, in retrospect, I can see a pattern. An undercurrent that fed every interaction I just described. Every person I encountered had an opinion regarding how my body should be treated. My boyfriends felt entitled to sex. My friends agreed with them. My mother wanted me to wait until I married to have sex. My doctor voiced the same opinion. At no point was my readiness to have sex taken into consideration. I felt like sex was something people wanted to take from me, not something that I could share with someone. What made my needs and desires any less important than anyone else’s?
My parents were always open and honest about sex, and never once made me feel ashamed of my body for any reason. They were supportive, and loving, and not prone to assume the worst of me or punish me harshly. So what made me so reluctant to admit to them that I was violated – at 7, at 16, at 18? Why did I always assume it was my fault?
Years after my rape, after recounting the story to a friend, he asked, “Why didn’t you press charges?” Honestly, the thought never crossed my mind. It never occurred to me that I had been the victim of a crime, because I knew my assailant. I’d kissed him. He’d even told me he loved me. But nobody else suggested it, either. Why?
If we are to stop these rapes, we must address these questions. We must teach the next generation to do better, be better. Because rape is not the problem – it’s only a side effect of the disease.