The Insider’s Guide to Life: Rape As We (Don’t) Know It

ColumnLet’s talk about rape.

No angry letters to the Ed this month (What am I doing wrong?). But I’d like to address news editor Andrea Newell’s recent piece on the social stigma of rape.

I think often about the things I hope to see happen in my life.

I’d like for therapy to be more widely accepted and used (and paid for by employers and communities, because it’s in our best interest); I’d like for men to be seen as beautiful, not beasts (because they are); I’d like for children to be more properly educated and fed and attended to so as to turn out more emotionally and physically stout adults. I’d like for us to spend money on ourselves and our future instead of on hurting ourselves and sabotaging our future. I’d like a more civil, optimistic, less cynical social welfare system.

And I would like for us to end rape as the everyday thing that it is.

If I were walking down a dark street to my car, and were approached by a man and mugged for my money, I’d be shocked, hurt and scared. It would hurt. I would be upset. I would immediately call my closest to provide comfort in the hospital (if I were really beat up badly), or I would recover at home with my girlfriends over a silly movie and a bottle of wine (if I were mostly just shaken). In any case, I’d feel a proud vindication, a certain defiant justice in knowing it was not my fault, that I’d encountered a sociopath or maybe a desperate guy strung out on drugs, and after some time and plenty of explanations to the bank and my credit cards and assurances to my corner barista that my cheekbone was blue from a lunatic, not a boyfriend, I’d go on with my life. I might be a bit more cautious about where I parked; or I might just buy a bigger can of pepper spray. I would probably tweet about it.

And yet.

If I were attacked in this classic alley-at-midnight scenario society so loves to conjure up when we think about rape, unless I were very exceptional, it might not be the same. In that dark street, the shame would begin. I cannot say for certain; but both anecdotal reference and statistical reporting by some of our best available organizations consistently find that most women never say. And that’s the problem. Would I tell every detail to my friends, my colleagues, my parents, a partner? The internet? Would I tell anyone anything at all? Unlike a mugger hot on my wallet, would a rapist bent on overpowering cause me to internalize my pain rather than share and eventually just shrug it off?

And if, like most women, I were assaulted in a situation less violent but no less painful (and to hell with those in power for their medieval would-be definitions of rape, including comparing it to little more than a flat tire on the road to successful womanhood), I might be even less inclined ever to tell a soul. Was I drinking? Was I flirting? Was it late? Was I wearing something sexy? Am I sexy; am I a woman? These shameless questions are put to our shamed victims, sending the clear message that for a woman, being a sexual being – that is, being a human being at all – is the same thing as wanting sex. Wanting it.

Why should any woman bother to tell at all? The perpetrator will simply go on with his life; while a woman would have no benefit to gain from sharing the ordeal, and almost certainly face judgment of some kind. (If the GOP has its way, this might include investigation from the IRS.)

And so: as much as one-fourth of the female portion of an entire generation internalizes its pain, produces the next generation, and goes on in sickness or in health. And the men and women both judge them for their pain if they are brave enough to tell. In this, we women are still defined by little more than our private parts. Men are still defined by their inherent inferiority. That is, they cannot possibly control themselves. And what of their pain? So, let’s watch it and joke about it instead.

You’d think we could all hold each other in just slightly less contempt.

The facts ought to overwhelm us, and yet Hollywood comedy darling Seth Rogan makes mainstream movie jokes about date rape, unapologetically at that, which we all but overlook. We live in a society where by some measures, as many as one-fourth of women are victims of sexual assault. 25% growth for a company is phenomenal. 25% in a raise? You must be good. 25% gain on your investment is almost unheard of. 25% unemployment is the Great Depression. In other words: 25% is a lot. We should be able to agree that 25% of anyone being hurt is 25% too many. (Note: there has been criticism of the original academic study’s finding, primarily from conservative media, though few would dispute that the modest numbers reported by law enforcement are inaccurate.)

I remember when I first stumbled upon this famous “1 in 4” statistic as a 16-year-old editor at my high school newspaper.

Tom, my editor-in-chief, stormed in from the copy editing room. “25%?!” he yelled, as if I hadn’t yet figured out this new research thing. I whipped out the NOW fact sheet and held it to his face. Flicking over the page, he grew quiet. He walked back to the copy room without a word. We published the article, which included an account from a sophomore girl who’d been recently raped by an older male student and decided not to report it because, in her words, what was the point?

That was a long time ago. Not much has changed.

Rather than be examined by a concerned populace and addressed by an appalled government, rape instead enjoys status as an adrenalitic click driver even for the most popular online publications (some of which are little more than cheap T&A gussied up with a few real reporters and celebrity bloggers). And we do nothing. In our voyeuristic appetite, we accept. In fact, we even quite enjoy it as porn.

Rape: these are a few of our favorite things.

What broken down fabric of relationships has unraveled to bring us to such a state? I don’t think it’s the people I know; is it the people you know? Because it’s someone, and I can’t begin to fathom who, but I know we must begin to address why.

The stigma of rape hurts everyone. It hurts women but it also hurts men. We as humans are meant to support and love each other. We need each other. We are all, in our varying preferences and orientations, designed for each other. We wonder in dismay at addiction and abuse, at divorce, at corporate and political corruption, at popular culture’s superficiality, at our own inability to connect in satisfying ways. We judge, and in quiet we hurt. Momentary salvage: we leave ourselves and numb out.

If we want to begin to address our ills, we might start with our most intimate violations of trust, the one that affects a very significant portion of our population – including the next generation. And because we cannot change these patterns overnight, perhaps the best thing we can do to begin to dismantle the overwhelmingly ugly specter of rape from our society is to remove the stigma from the victims.

I remember a conversation with a would-be suitor in college. Over pasta marinara we got into a heated argument about choice. I just couldn’t believe he was pro-life. I asked him if he thought even victims of rape and incest should be forced to bear an attacker’s child. He said simply that he wasn’t sure but that he thought if a woman were raped or the victim of incest, we should embrace her and not judge, because it wasn’t her fault, and that we should welcome any possible eventual child as a gift: a healing balm as the product of an unfair attack. I was furious. My eyes welled with reproach and I abruptly ended the lunch (he was mortified).

I wondered how any man, especially a young, progressive one at a good university, could think in such a way. Yet his statement was so naively hopeful, his voice so full with acceptance, I will never forget the conversation. Of course, the reality is that most women who are victims of rape or incest don’t have the benefit of loving partners or supportive communities to care for them and a child, a product of assault, as an alternative to abortion. And further, women should be able to stand as women; that is, we shouldn’t need a community’s “protection” or “support” when victimized in order to validate our own experience. We should be able to decide for ourselves how best to live.

But in retrospect, his sentiment was innocent, his sincerity so apparent. Here was a man who would stand by a woman with not a trace of judgment were she to be a victim of sexual assault. He plainly said so. And he clearly meant it. And we need more people like that.

This is the latest installment in your editor’s column, The Insider’s Guide to Life, exploring topics such as media, culture, sex, politics, and anything else. Cheers and spellcheck!

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