Editor’s note: This author has chosen to remain anonymous due to the personal and sensitive nature of the op-ed.
Rape culture is a term that has been thrown around a lot in recent months. News items like the Steubenville rape case and Daniel Tosh’s standup have created this idea that our society has become more accepting of rape, certainly not viewing it as a crime in the way theft or murder are viewed. When it is discussed, rape is talked about in an all-encompassing way, like the New Delhi cases that shed light on the way an entire country treats women through cultural and traditional systems long in place. When we perceive rape as a crime, it is extreme: photographs of an incapacitated girl put online, gang rape, police corruption. While these crimes are no doubt horrendous and fully deserve to be publicized, the sensationalism that surrounds them does more than create awareness; it has trained us to see rape in one way and one way only — a forceful, brutal assault, either fiercely protested against or performed upon someone with no agency.
This definition of rape culture, however, has isolated and ignored a large percentage of rape cases. These are the cases that never come to light because they are not sensational. They take place in the home, in a safe space, and are perpetrated by individuals who are known to the victim and often trusted. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, also known as RAINN, two-thirds of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim. Four out of 10 cases take place in the victim’s home. In one out of three cases, the perpetrator is under the influence of some substance, be it drugs or alcohol. Slightly over half of all rape cases are reported to the police. These statistics show a pattern of shame and silence, notably among women who have been raped.
In a 2011 Huffington Post op-ed about the systematic gas-lighting and manipulation of women, Yashar Ali describes the common and seemingly harmless dismissal of women’s emotions as something far more insidious. Statements as insignificant as “You’re being dramatic” or “I was just joking” dismiss not only a woman’s reaction to what has been said or done to her but also the impact of the instigators, allowing them to get away with it. Women become “emotionally mute… (because) it’s a whole lot easier to emotionally manipulate someone who has been conditioned by our society to accept it.” Rape is arguably the biggest of these burdens, as it is a crime carried out predominantly by men upon women, and the aftermath triggers feelings of humiliation, revulsion and guilt. How then can rape ever exist within the public domain of discourse when its victims have been coached to dismiss their emotions, particularly those brought on by the actions of men?
Even in speaking about rape, the language that surrounds it is problematic. To call it “sexual assault” implies that brute force was exerted, but force is often unnecessary when the victim’s trust has already been obtained. To say someone is a “rape victim” or a “rape survivor” creates a whole new set of problems: Was her life in danger? If not, did she survive the disregard of her consent, and if so, what then? Does victimizing the subject of such an act remove her power to speak? Does it instead give that power to the perpetrator, her rapist?
My rapist was a close friend: someone with whom I spent a lot of time, someone whose company I enjoyed, someone with whom I’d had an intimate relationship. In keeping with the silence that surrounds rape, when he raped me I was too shocked to speak. I thought surely he would realize something was different — that I was too still, too quiet — and he would stop and ask me if I was okay. Some of the people I’ve trusted with what happened have asked me why I didn’t say no, why I didn’t tell him to stop, and this is something I still don’t know how to answer. Could I really have stopped it from happening with one word? I’ll never know. Of course it is common knowledge that consent should be given, not refused; I had done neither. After he finished, he pulled my underwear back up to cover me, and it felt like it was meant to cover everything: that he’d betrayed my privacy, coming into my room uninvited and not listening when I asked him to leave, and that he’d then betrayed my trust even further. More than disrespect, it was complete and utter disregard. I was no longer a person. I no longer had the right to consent.
In the days following, I didn’t even know what to call what had happened; “rape” lingered in the back of my mind but was too difficult, too harsh to say out loud. I remember when I finally did say it, to two close friends, and the speaking itself confirmed it to me with finality: I was raped. I was the one woman out of three. He didn’t understand why I wouldn’t talk to him, and when I tried to explain my feelings, he dismissed me, saying that I should have been more forceful in getting him to leave, that I should have said no, that I’d given him consent to have sex before, and he didn’t understand why all of a sudden it had become a problem. As I began to reply with, “I’m sorry…” I stopped and asked myself what I was apologizing for. This was something HE had done to ME. While I may have been a victim, I did not need to victimize myself further.
While I write this in the hopes that other women who may have undergone similar experiences will read it and take to heart that they are not alone, I also write it because I feel I must, for my own sake. I have to speak. I have to talk about what happened, or else it’s like it never did to everyone else but me. You hear about the shame rape victims feel in relating what happened to them, but what you don’t hear about is the pain you have to see in your loved ones. Telling my close friends and family what had happened to me was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do because I knew how much it would hurt them, but having done so has given me the courage to speak even more. So I say this to every woman out there who has felt disrespected, disregarded or dismissed: Your words are the most powerful instrument you have with which to be an advocate for yourself. Silence is what allows rape culture to exist. Don’t allow what had been done to you to define you; instead, acknowledge that you have the right to your emotions, which no one can take away from you. And never stop speaking.