Strong Trigger Warning for Assault, Attempted Rape, and Victim-Blaming
It should come as no surprise to anyone that rape, and ideas around what does and does not constitute consent, can have many different manifestations. Elyse Anders over at Skepchick wrote an excellent post (Strong trigger warning for Rape, Assault, and Police Mistreatment) about the numerous tactics people will use to dismiss rape charges or lead victims to believe they are at fault. Her post details how stories of rape and consent are more varied than popular narratives would have you believe. While it was a difficult post for many of us to read (because it hit so close to home), stories like hers open eyes to how pervasive the idea that victims are always at fault is. She told her multiple stories, detailing how no matter what she did, it was wrong:
I’m tired of answering “Why didn’t you _____”
Because. Because I didn’t know I could. Or should. Or even had the right to. Because it wasn’t in the script.
Maybe it’s time we wrote more scripts. Better scripts. Ones of true stories. Ones with surprising characters. Ones with flawed protagonists we can relate to. Ones with antagonists we can recognize. Ones with outcomes we can understand. Ones our friends can understand. Our families can empathize with. Ones that humanize the survivors. Ones that recognize all survivors.
That hits pretty fucking close to home, doesn’t it? It seems that almost anyone who has survived a sexual assault of any sort can relate to those words. No matter how horrific the crime against you, there was probably something you did wrong that would have otherwise prevented your assault.
From time to time, someone’s assault will fit the “perfect victim” narrative. Former Republican State Senator Bill Napoli described his idea of the perfect rape, one that would make the woman deserving of getting access to an abortion:
A real-life description to me would be a rape victim, brutally raped, savaged. The girl was a virgin. She was religious. She planned on saving her virginity until she was married. She was brutalized and raped, sodomized as bad as you can possibly make it, and is impregnated. I mean, that girl could be so messed up, physically and psychologically, that carrying that child could very well threaten her life.
Unsurprisingly, Napoli’s (and many others) idea of the perfect rape victim lines up very similarly with the “perfect virgin” trope. Feminist author Jessica Valenti describes the racial disparity in America’s abstinence movement:
Regarding the absence of women of color in the perfect virgin model – that’s been around for a long time, of course. Feminists like bell hooks have been talking about the way black women’s bodies are positioned as hypersexual for years. (Mostly because it’s a great way for men to have an excuse for sexual assault – you can’t “dirty” something that was already “unclean.”)
But don’t worry! Even if you’re white, a virgin, religious, and seemingly pure, you are probably still to blame in some way for your rape or sexual assault. Again, Valenti sums this phenomenon up perfectly:
And when rape victims are blamed for the crime committed against them, the message is the same: This is something that happened to the perpetrator, who was driven to assault by a skirt, or a date, or the oh-so-sexy invitation of being passed out drunk. Women have infringed on [men's] right to exist without being turned on. [....] Our very presence is a disruption of the male status quo.
You see, when I was a freshman in high school, I was a pastor’s daughter in a small town in Kansas. I didn’t drink yet. I was a leader in my church youth group. I played in the church worship band. I’d signed a purity oath at church camp, pledging my hymen to my future husband. I had a boyfriend, one who had asked my dad’s permission to date me. We didn’t have sex, but sometimes we’d go outside to kiss after youth group (it was pretty scandalous).
One spring day, at a High School track meet, I was sitting under the team tent with a friend. Neither of us were very popular, we ran in the same social circles, and he even went to my youth group from time to time. Both of our track events had already ended, and it was finally time for me to do what I was actually there to do – socialize. Let’s face it, I was never really into sports participation. It’s the right thing to do at that age though, and I was still very much subject to the whims of social pressure.
As we sat under that tent, we shared the latest gossip and dished about pop culture. He asked me if I’d heard some new song from a band he liked. I hadn’t. Some of you may remember a time before MP3 players were the norm, an era long lost where you carried large binders full of CDs that you swapped in and out of your Discman. He didn’t have this particular CD with him at the time so he asked if I’d like to accompany him back to the bus to listen to it. Young and naive, I agreed.
You can probably see where this is going.
We got on the bus and he swapped the CD out of his Discman and handed me his headphones. As I was listening to some shitty metal band that I’ve since forgotten the name of, he started feeling me up and put his mouth over mine. I struggled, and pushed back enough to be able to tell him, “no.” After all, I had a nice boyfriend and I wasn’t that type of girl. He got more aggressive and was able to push me down on the back bench seat of the bus where he put his hand over my mouth and worked his other hand under my clothes. Terrified, I continued struggling, but it was no use. I only competed in sports to socialize and he was one of the team’s strongest athletes.
But I was one of the “lucky” ones. Before my would-be rapist could get much further, a fellow teammate of ours walked on the bus and he was able to convince her he was looking for something in his bag. I didn’t scream or yell when she walked onto the bus. I shrank into the seat because I was ashamed. In those few short minutes that seemed like hours, I’d already convinced myself of what I’d later be told was true:
This was my fault.
I didn’t tell anyone what happened for a few days. The first adult I told was my youth pastor. I was too afraid to tell my parents because I already knew what they were going to say. And despite begging my youth pastor not to talk to my dad, and being assured that he wouldn’t, he did. My parents were furious – at me.
“Why were you alone on the bus with him?”
“How do we know you weren’t actually trying to do things with him?”
“You should know better than to behave like this.”
In my desperate attempt to have somebody understand or support me in what I was going through, I told a few of my friends what had happened. I quickly found out that they weren’t my friends, as word of what had taken place started to spread around the school. Eventually the story made its way to neighboring schools, including the school my boyfriend went to. He dumped me.
My assailant, while not one of the “cool kids” at the time, became increasingly popular. He apologized to me, at the urging of my youth pastor, but continued to trash me as a “slut who wanted it.” Meanwhile, I was urged to forgive him and move on. Learn from my mistake and be more careful going forward. It was suggested that I try to get him to come back to youth group.
I continued to internalize this narrative over the years, sinking further into a depression that was exacerbated by my growing disillusionment with organized religion. I craved positive attention from anyone because I told myself I was lucky that they’d want to associate with a mess like me. This led me to get engaged straight out of high school to a man who was 9 years my senior, who had coached me in speech and debate as a high school student, who was also a leader in my youth group. I stayed with him for months, despite the fact that he was emotionally abusive. But I was “lucky” enough to get out of that relationship as well.
It’s past time for us as a society to realize that these tropes are hurtful in more than just the most obvious ways. These myths about rape make the act more easy for would-be rapists. They shift the blame from the perpetrator to the victim. But even if you somehow avoid rape, they cause intense feelings of guilt for victims. These myths promote sexual shame and hinder healthy sexual relationships. And they have long-term mental health consequences for the victims. Even the “lucky” ones like me.