“Do you see that kitten chasing so prettily her own tail? If you could look with her eyes you might see her surrounded with hundreds of figures performing complex dramas, with tragic and comic issues, long conversations, many characters, many ups and downs of fate…”-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Big Life Events have a Kind of Rhythm
We’re surrounded by joy and sorrow. And we grow up learning how to deal with those things. We learn the customs and traditions, the greetings and the condolences. To bring flowers when someone is in the hospital. To extend sympathy when they die. When to give gifts and how to write thank you notes. It might not happen all at once–I learned about marking someone’s yahrzeit (the anniversary of their death according to the Hebrew calendar) watching my father do it every year for his father and his grandparents.
By the time I was eight years old and his mother died, I was very familiar with this ritual. But it wasn’t until after my grandmother’s death, I learned to sit shiva (the first seven days of mourning after death and burial.) I learned about covering the mirrors, washing hands before entering the house through an unlocked door. And about feeding people. We share sad times and joyful ones. Weddings and funerals. Births and serious illness. We learn how to navigate all of these things, whether they’re sad or happy times.
What Happens when a Tragedy is not Part of the Life Cycle?
But there are tragedies that we don’t have traditions to help guide us through. No one passes this knowledge down to you as you grow up. There aren’t cultural rituals or celebrations to include you in, little by little, as you mature. They’re the kinds of things we hope will never happen to us or that we can’t imagine dealing with ourselves. There’s no playbook for how to behave when someone’s marriage is ending, or when we hear about a miscarriage or a stillbirth. We just flail our way through these things.
Rape is one of these things. There’s no guide explaining how things should happen after a rape or sexual assault. We just have to flail our way through it.
Rape is a Big Life Event…
Of course there are plenty of websites telling us what we should do after it happens to us. Even taking us through the forensic exam, with photos of some of the equipment used. And occasionally there might even be a resource that has a few ideas for how to help someone after they’ve been raped, but even those resources are very light on the realities of helping someone you care about when they’ve survived a rape or sexual assault.
If rape isn’t brutal enough to begin with, everything that happens afterwards, whether someone chooses to undergo a forensic exam or to report things to the police can be horrifying to just read about. Imagine for a moment that you’re already traumatized, that your body has already been turned into a crime scene, and now you have to subject yourself to bright lights and extensive, intimate inspections and intrusive questions. The trauma, the pain, the fear is inconceivable for most people.
…So What Rituals Have we, as a Society, Developed Around Rape?
But there are instructions that tell us what to do after we’ve been raped. As if being raped is already our responsibility, and not a millstone that we’ll be forced to carry for the rest of our lives. Every resource with instructions for what to do after you’re raped begins with something like “get to the nearest safe place” and suggests places like a hospital, police precinct or someone’s home.
Perhaps it’s different for other people, but there was absolutely nowhere that I felt safe after it happened. Obviously his apartment, the place where it happened, wasn’t safe. And the streets of my neighborhood didn’t feel safe either. They were streets I had traveled every day, to class, to work, to study. The places I went to have fun. The streets felt unsafe, and so did all of the familiar places.
Not even my childhood home felt safe.Thirty six hours or so after everything changed, I flew back home to spend a long weekend with my family-my grandparents had flown in from Florida and I hadn’t seen them in a long time. I didn’t even feel safe in my own skin. The closest to “safe” I felt was my shower, where I spent hours over the days and weeks that followed trying to scrub away everything that had happened.
We Already Pillory Rape Survivors. Florida’s SB 300 and HB 7 Will Make That Worse
When you don’t even feel safe in your own body, or your own home, when everything about your sense of trust has been exploded, the idea of trusting anyone enough to talk about it is incomprehensible. But that’s what people tell you to do. What they expect you to do. Even demand that you do it. It’s what many states, including Florida, are trying to do with new abortion legislation in our post Roe v Wade world. Both Florida’s SB 300 and HB 7, proposed legislation which would ban abortion after six weeks include the following exception:
“The pregnancy is the result of rape or incest and the gestational age of the fetus is not more than 15 weeks as determined by the physician. At the time the woman schedules or arrives for her appointment for a termination of pregnancy, she must provide a copy of a restraining order, police report, medical record, or other court order or documentation proving that she is obtaining the termination of pregnancy because she is a victim of rape or incest.”
Great. Make the survivors jump through hoops. Make them prove it was a legitimate rape. Did we not learn anything from Todd Aiken?
Well you know, people always want to try to make that as one of those things, well how do you, how do you slice this particularly tough sort of ethical question. First of all, from what I understand from doctors, that’s really rare. If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down.
We’ll set aside the ignorance about whether or not pregnancy can result from rape. There’s no “shutting that whole thing down.” Pregnancy can happen. No questions. Full stop. I don’t know what doctors he spoke to, but they should have their licenses revoked if they told him anything else.
Rape and Pregnancy
Pregnancy should never be some sort of punishment for rape. Rape survivors already contend with so much blame and so much shame directed at them, from themselves and from the rest of society. Legislators are trying to further punish survivors by insisting that they go through invasive physical exams, and be subject to incredible scrutiny about every detail of their lives. In order to collect physical evidence of an assault and report it to the police. In order to prove that they’re worthy of a medical procedure. After forcing people to go through that, the evidence may sit, gathering dust on a shelf, along with the hundreds of thousands of rape kits already sitting there, waiting to be processed.
It’s not hard to feel the judgment of others when I tell my own story. People might respond with fear, with grief or with pity. There’s often a palpable sense of relief as they count off five people they know and realize that, if I’m the one-in-five-people who has been raped, that their chances of being raped are lower. Sometimes I even tell them that I am one of the eighty percent of college rape victims and survivors who knew my attacker. And one of the more than sixty percent who didn’t report the assault.
Shame and Blame
None of those things matter. Because when I talk about my story, I have to be prepared for the blame. The blame I heap on myself for all of it. Or the blame others heap on me.
- For going over to a friend’s house.
- For staying there when my roommate decided to go home.
- For drinking two beers over the course of eight hours.
- For saying “yes” to fooling around.
- For making him angry by beating him at a video game.
- For not fighting back harder.
People who hear my story, or any other story, blame survivors for the same sorts of things. I was covered from neck to wrists to ankles. Jeans, a mock turtleneck shirt and a sweater. Nothing super tight. At least I can include that detail and deny people one thing to blame on me instead of on my rapist, the person who deserves the blame for not respecting my “no.” I already have to defend or explain every choice that night. I suppose I should be grateful to be able to fall back on the fact that I wasn’t dressed in a way that might be seen as “advertising” something.
But that’s what these kinds of laws do. They turn pregnancy into punishment for having sex. Not just for survivors of sexual violence (rape, incest or intimate partner abuse,) but for anyone who chooses to have sex. Even if you’re married, monogamous and having only “the right kind” of sex.
Todd Aiken’s Body Lies A-Moulderin’ in his Grave
His Lie is Marching On
The idea of “legitimate” is something else. What is the standard that determines “legitimate”?
According to Florida and other states who require (or want to require) proof, police reports, protective orders or other legal documentation determine what is a “legitimate” rape.
The Anonymous Attacker Almost Doesn’t Exist
But it usually isn’t some stranger hiding in the bushes who grabs you and drags you off and rapes you. Or someone slicing your window screens open, sneaking into your house and hiding in your closet until you go to bed. It’s a loving and trusted partner who decides their “yes” carries more weight than their partner’s ”no.”
Most Rapes are also Betrayals of Trust
Or it’s two friends hanging out in a college dorm, talking, laughing, and having a good time, and one of them wants something that the other person may not be interested in sharing. So they take it anyway. It doesn’t only happen to bad people, to sinners, to attractive people, to people you don’t know. Rape is about power and control, and draconian laws about bodily autonomy are also about power and control.
Can we Shut this Whole “Legitimate Rape” Canard Down?
Who determines what the standard for “legitimate” is? Does it require bruises? Wounds from a weapon? Does the survivor have to have traces of their attacker’s skin, hair, body fluids on their body? Is there going to be a minimum amount of marks that are required in order to render someone worthy of a dispensation to end a pregnancy?
People say that false rape reports will go up. But far too many people already believe, as Mississippi state senator Chris McDaniel does, that “99 percent” of all sexual assault allegations are made up.”
Okay. You’ve Reported. What Now?
Right now, of the rapes that are reported, only about five percent actually result in arrest. Only one percent are ever referred for prosecution. And less than one percent result in felony convictions or incarceration. There are delays in processing the evidence collected during a forensic exam. There are so few arrests and convictions. So there’s always one more reason that rape survivors may not report what happened. Shame, blame, and a failure of the system all contribute.
Being Forced to Talk is Another Trauma
No rape survivor should be forced to talk about their trauma until they’re ready. No rape survivor should ever be expected to report their assault to the police. Rape is traumatic. Forcing a rape survivor to go through a forensic exam re-traumatizes a person who has just had control stripped away into an invasive and very vulnerable situation. No matter how well trained the person doing the exam is, demanding it is trauma on its own. Requiring a police report further denies autonomy and increases trauma. The last thing rape survivors need is another thing to disempower them, to make them feel less in control of their lives and their choices.
Being Forced to Prove it is Another Trauma
And demanding that someone prove they were raped? Nothing but pure misogyny, playing into every stereotype about how untrustworthy or manipulative women are. Not responsible enough to not get raped. Not responsible enough to make choices about their own health. But certainly responsible enough to care for a child conceived in one of the most horrifying circumstances possible. We are already failing rape survivors. It serves no one but the conservative politicians themselves to punish survivors even further by forcing them to give birth to the children of their rapists. Especially when many states still allow rapists to sue for parental rights.
We will Talk When we are Ready
If we were to create some ideal system for supporting the victims and survivors of rape and sexual assault, what would be our priorities? We would want to ensure that the perpetrator had no further contact. We would ensure that the perpetrator was not in a position to retaliate. That survivors would also not have to fear retaliation from their community for being “the person who was raped”. And we would ensure that the survivor felt protected and safe. Forcing the survivor to press charges, putting up roadblocks to the survivor having an abortion, and doing all of this in the present environment of years-old rape kits sitting untouched in some police department closet are not the way forward. These measures don’t bring about a just world.
Women’s history month this year is about “Celebrating the women who tell our stories.” Rape can happen to anyone, regardless of gender. One of our most important tools in changing our culture’s shame-and-blame attitudes about rape is to give space for survivors to tell their stories. To listen. To believe them. Not to force them to tell before they’re ready. Not to force more trauma on people who are already hurting. And not to take their power away by judging the value of their stories in order to allow them access to health care. Every one of those stories counts. And every one should only be told to the people a survivor is comfortable telling, when that survivor is ready to tell it.
Part of a series on rape and sexual assault-to read more, follow the links below:
Part 1: I’m Going to Use the R-Word (& it’s okay if you do, too)
Part 2: Consent: Changing the Conversation
Part 3: “Rape” is Just a Four Letter Word
Part 4: The “Nice Guy” Fallacy
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