Dealing With Rape
I once received a letter asking me what else sex was, besides vaginal penetration. We need to remember that all vaginal penetration -- nor all genital or "sexual" contact -- is not sex for all people all the time.
If you have been sexually assaulted or abused, you have not "had sex," or initiated or included yourself in a sexual act. You have been sexually assaulted or abused.
Were the public sentiment and the way some people use sex different, one would not even include rape in a volume discussing sex -- besides talking about it for survivors so far as dealing with the impact it can have on our sex lives -- because it is NOT sex, most certainly not for the person being raped. Partnered sex is not so simple as to be one physical act determined by one person, or something we figure happens because of one body part having a certain kind of contact with another: sex is something we do alone or with a partner or partners when we are mutually and willingly aroused, physically and emotionally, and when anyone and everyone engaging in sex has fully and freely given their consent. Sex is not what one person does TO another: but something which everyone involved does, actively and gladly, together.
Were our thoughts, as a whole people, more broad and wider in scope on sexuality, we would understand that an act of rape, typically legally defined as "a sexual act committed against a person's will," is usually only a sexual act for the perpetrator, and even in that, has far more to do with other factors, such as power, dominance, control, anger and emotional imbalance, than it does with sex at all.
William Blake, in the late 1700's, wrote a piece entitled Visions of the Daughters of Albion. At the time, the premise of this piece was revolutionary: Oothoon, a woman in love with Theotormon, is raped by another, Bromion, and despite Theotormon's feelings she is "spoiled," she boldly asserts otherwise. Oothoon -- and Blake -- states clearly that she is incapable of being spoiled, ruined or sullied by the action of others upon her, in which she had no part or engagement with. Thankfully, others have also finally begun to realize this is so.
How do you know if you have been raped?
At ANY point, during any act in which your body is violated or utilized for someone else's sexual gratification -- be it via genital or oral penetration, or more ambiguous acts such as being made to feel another's body against your wishes, et cetera -- if you have made clear, even as simply as saying no once or pushing the other person away, even as simply as NOT actively participating and NOT saying yes, that you do not wish to be sexually engaged or used, and have been forced, through physical force, coercion or threat to do otherwise, you have been raped, sexually assaulted or abused.
Rape and other kinds of sexual abuse are also not just about something men do to women. People of all genders can be and are sexually assaulted or abused; people of all genders can and do sexually assault or abuse others.
Rape is when one person wants and pursues a sexual act on, to or inside another person who does not want to participate, and who does not fully and freely consent to take part in that act. Someone giving consent to sex is someone giving a clear, active and enthusiastic yes, and who is clearly, actively and enthusiastically participating throughout. Enthusiasm may look or feel different for different people, or what part or parts of sex people are enthusiastic about may vary. When we mean when we say "enthusiastic" is "strongly and gladly wanting."
Partnered sex is about two people equally sharing something sexually; but rape, while it involves and effects both people, is only really about what one person desires and chooses to do to that other person against or without their will.
Unwanted sexual touch or sexual use of someone through force or coercion is rape. To coerce someone sexually is to get them to engage in or be part of a sexual activity they do not want through guilt-trips or nagging, blackmailing, threats, bribes, intimidation or some other kind of emotional pressure or force. Where on the body is unwanted touch considered rape? Touching someone’s vulva or vagina, breasts, buttocks, anus, penis, testicles, mouth, or other parts of the body without permission, when that touch is intentional and sexual on your part, or is considered sexual by most people, are all rape or sexual assault (in some areas, those terms mean the same thing, but in others, they differ based on the activity or situation). It is also rape to make someone else touch YOU when they don’t want to, or to force or coerce someone into doing something sexual with someone else.
If you have NOT gladly and freely consented to and participated in sexual activity -- if you have not in some way said a big yes and wanted to keep saying a big yes -- and someone else had sex with, on or to you anyway, that is rape.
It is also rape when one person does something sexual on, to or inside a person who is unable to give informed consent to sex because they’re asleep or otherwise incapacitated, like via drugs or alcohol (even if they drank or drugged of their own accord), because they're ill, injured, or emotionally bereft, or due to lack of physical, intellectual or emotional maturity, developmental disability, mental illness or because the person assaulting them is in a position of power over them, like a teacher, clergyperson or police officer. If someone engaged you sexually on their part when you were in a position of being unable to give consent or full consent, then you have been raped, sexually assaulted or abused.
Again, all of these things are rape no matter someone's gender or gender expression. While rape is overwhelmingly a crime committed by men, rarely women rape, too. And while statistically, more women than men are raped, men are also raped, usually by other men, but not only by men. Trans gender or genderqueer people can be and are raped as well.
No matter what ANYONE tells you, it is never your fault if you have been or are sexually assaulted or abused.
There certainly is fault, but it lies with the rapist, not the victim. It is that person or those people who chose to do what they did to you; it is that person or those people who are responsible for their actions. No one asks to be raped: no one asks for rape. If and when someone is asking for sex, and what they ask for is what is done, we're not talking about rape, but about mutually wanted sex.
You may have walked home alone, you may have been at a party and had too much to drink, or you may have gone alone with someone and initially trusted them and wanted to be with them, but changed your mind, or been sexually engaged with someone and then decided you did not want to be at any point during that act. You may have chosen to be with a romantic or sexual partner who raped you before they did, and you may even have had some clues that they were not safe or healthy for you. Even if any of these conditions were present, and even if you didn't make choices that would have been more likely to keep you safe, if you have not given consent to share physically, and another has done so without your consent, the fault still lies with them and them only. No one takes a drink because they want to be raped; they take a drink because they want a drink. No one walks home alone to invite rape: we walk home alone usually because we need to get home and there isn't anyone to walk home with. The person responsible for rape is always the person who chose to rape, not the person who was raped.
What should you do right away if you've been raped?
On a practical level, there are several things you should consider doing. Ideally, you should first contact a friend or family member you can trust, who can be with you indefinitely and immediately. Having someone with you for emotional support and to advocate for you can be a real lifesaver. No matter what your initial emotional response is -- and it differs a lot among people -- you will likely want someone you can trust and who you know cares for you to come and give you aid. No matter what your initial emotional response is, it can be very challenging to take care of ourselves well all by ourselves after sexual assault or abuse.
Next, you should consider calling the police, once that person is present, or go to the station or to an emergency room to report a rape. When and if you do, you should state as soon as possible, that you wish to prosecute, even if you're not sure if you'll want to right away. Filing a report, hard as it can be, is wise to do so that pressing charges is an option for you if you want to exercise that option. Without that report and evidence, pressing charges later is very difficult.
You can change your mind later if you want, and choose not to press charges, but getting help and filing a report as early as you can will initiate health testing you will need, and better reporting of the incident. Do NOT at any point, appear to waver on your desire to prosecute, even if you are unsure. When at the station, or at the scene at which you have reported, ask for a rape crisis counselor or advocate. That person's job is to help and support a victim and their needs, solely, during this process.
If you were genitally raped and may have a risk of pregnancy, you should be offered emergency contraception when reporting a rape. If you choose not to report, you can obtain EC over-the-counter at your pharmacy if you are over 17 (and in many countries, if you are any age), and if you are a minor, can get a prescription for it from any doctor, clinic or emergency room. You can also ask a friend to go get it for you, in some countries, if they are of legal age to do so. You'll want to also be sure to schedule an STI screening within the month. It's sometimes hard to have a genital exam shortly after rape, but if you did contract an infection, you'll want to know so that you can treat it or deal with that without becoming incredibly ill on top of everything else.
As much as you may want to take a shower or bath, it is ideal not to do so until after you make a report and are tested. Showering can remove important evidence like semen, saliva, skin and hair, and clothing fibers or fingerprints. Wait until after your examination for bathing: even if you're not sure yet if you will want to press charges, it's best to do everything you can to leave that option open, and provide all the evidence of the assault you can in case you do want to do so later. As well, write down all you can recall about the incident, and keep a copy of what you have written for your own records, and give another copy to both the police and a lawyer.
As far as deciding to prosecute, there are several factors to consider (and you can ask for a rape advocate at the police station to help you make these choices). The process of prosecuting for rape is often not made easy on the victim, and is can be a long and arduous process. Many people still hold the outdated and ignorant notion that in some way, it is the victim's fault. That can be particularly common with male victims, trans gender victims or when the person who raped you was a previous romantic or sexual partner.
You may hear much of this bias, if you go to trial, from the perpetrator's defense. You may also encounter it at the police station. Rape trials also take time. In the United States, most rape prosecution cases average anywhere from a few months to over a year to complete, and take at least ten to twenty days to even begin the process. However, for yourself, and other victims, bear in mind that the only way to continue to smash the myths surrounding rape, and make clear it is a serious crime, is to prosecute. You may also have medical expenses you will have to pay, including further testing, STI treatment, abortion, and psychological treatment. You may lose money by taking the time from work or school you need to heal yourself -- all of these expenses are damages, which you are owed compensation for. Above all else, rape is a crime, and prosecuting a criminal helps to keep that criminal from committing the same crime, both to you, and to others.
That said, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to choosing to report and/or press charges. There is only whatever you decide is right for you, based on what you want and feel you can handle. Generally, you do not have to make up your mind right away, when you report your rape: if you need more time to decide what to do, then ask for that time.
Healing Yourself: Body and Soul
For many of us who are survivors of rape and other sexual abuse, we have taken, and may still take, a lot of time healing ourselves, and dealing with the issues this abuse brings up.
After a rape, sexual abuse or attempted rape, a person who has been victimized often experiences what Ann Burgess and Lynda Holmstrom coined Rape Trauma Syndrome in 1974. RAINN outlines those three phases and their effects as follows, and you should take a look at them both so you can understand what you may already be feeling, and so you can have an idea of what you might be dealing with from here on in.
The Acute Phase: This phase occurs immediately after the assault and usually lasts a few days to several weeks. In this phase individuals can have many reactions but they typically fall into three categories of reactions:
- Expressed- This is when the survivor is openly emotional. He or she may appear agitated or hysterical, he or she may suffer from crying spells or anxiety attacks.
- Controlled- This is when the survivor appears to be without emotion and acts as if “nothing happened” and “everything is fine.” This appearance of calm may be shock.
- Shocked Disbelief- This is when the survivor reacts with a strong sense of disorientation. He or she may have difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or doing everyday tasks. He or she may also have poor recall of the assault.
The Outward Adjustment Phase: During this phase the individual resumes what appears to be his or her “normal” life but inside is suffering from considerable turmoil. In this phase there are five primary coping techniques:
- Minimization- Pretends that “everything is fine” or that “it could have been worse.”
- Dramatization- Cannot stop talking about the assault and it is what dominates their life and identity.
- Suppression- Refuses to discuss, acts as if it did not happen.
- Explanation- Analyzes what happened- what the individual did, what the rapist was thinking/feeling.
- Flight- Tries to escape the pain (moving, changing jobs, changing appearance, changing relationships, etc.).
There are many symptoms or behaviors that appear during this phase including: Continuing anxiety, severe mood swings, a sense of helplessness, persistent fears or phobias, depression, rage, difficulty sleeping (nightmares, insomnia, etc), eating difficulties (nausea, vomiting, compulsive eating, etc), denial, withdrawal from friends, family, activities, hypervigilance, reluctance to leave house and/or go places that remind the individual of the assault, sexual problems, difficulty concentrating and/or flashbacks.
The Resolution Phase: During this phase the assault is no longer the central focus of the individual’s life. While he or she may recognize that he or she will never forget the assault; the pain and negative outcomes lessen over time. Often the individual will begin to accept the rape as part of his or her life and chooses to move on.
What you need to heal will tend to be very individual, and you're the one who is likely to know best what it is you need. By all means, give yourself the time that you need to grieve, and try not to get caught up in feeling like time for grieving is about being weak or pathetic. It's not: grieving after any kind of trauma is healthy and important. In terms of your support people, you get to make the rules. If you want to talk about it, talk about it. If you don't, even if people around you will say you should, you get to decline and wait until that's what feels right. You need to work through the feelings of sorrow and anger you have to heal, and to reclaim your life and your body. Support is a big deal, but largely, you will have to do your own healing in your own way. Accept that, and aim for being a survivor, not a perpetual victim.
There are many support groups for survivors to help you get through these phases and to that resolution in time, and you will most likely find your own personal support circle invaluable. In time, try to work towards speaking up and speaking out -- do not let abuse silence you. It's not your fault that you were raped, but whether you do what you can to heal from it and work through it is a choice you get to make.
If, like a majority of survivors, you were raped by someone known or close to you -- a friend, a boyfriend, a family friend -- then you're also grappling with some extra-tough feelings when it comes to being betrayed by someone you invested trust in and may care for a lot. It may be hard for you to accept that person really raped you, and hard for you to cut ties with them.
In the case that you're inclined to either pretend rape wasn't rape, or see if the person who raped you will say they're sorry and not do it again, I'd encourage you to rethink that, even though I know it's hard. Someone who raped you once will likely do it again if given the chance, or abuse you in some other way. As well, trying to continue being close with someone who raped you tends to leave a person constantly triggered and -- validly -- never feeling safe. It's always best to stay as far away as you can from someone who has done you harm, and even though dealing with a broken friendship or breakup after you've been assaulted is certainly more pain on your plate, it is less painful than being raped by that same person again, listening to someone who raped you excuse what they did, or watching someone who did you that harm try and pretend it never happened.
You may want to evaluate the rape situation to take any future preventative measures you can. While we cannot always prevent rape, there are some basic things we can do -- you may know about them already -- to help protect ourselves. As well, feeling more confident in being able to help protect yourself can help with the blows rape often has on self-esteem and our feelings of safety in the world.
Have you taken a self-defense course? If you go to a party with lots of folks you don't know, do you bring a friend with you, and keep a friend with you? When on first dates, do you first choose a public place to meet to make a good judgment call on your date safely? In your relationships, casual or serious, are you doing your best to choose partners who treat you with care and respect, and who treat sex as mutually beneficial and mutually consensual? Paying attention to your gut instincts about a person and listening to what the people who care for you have to say about them, too? Are you taking your time getting to know someone before you're alone with them? If and when partners give you any indication that your "yes" to sex isn't of ultimate importance, are you getting away from them, pronto?
These precautions, mind you, do not always work, but they do often. However, we can empower ourselves by being sure we are giving ourselves as much respect and safety as possible, and demanding respect and safety from others, and make the possibility of rape smaller.
As well, given the world that we live in, few rape survivors manage to escape periods of time in which we blame ourselves for our assaults. So, do all that you can to remind yourself -- or keep others close by who can help remind you -- that you are not at fault, and that you didn't do anything to "deserve" to be raped. No one wants to be raped, no one deserves to be raped. Again, taking what safety precautions we can is wise, but sometimes they're not available to us, or we just don't know about them. Sometimes we just didn't take them, even when we did know we should. Never forget that even in situations like those, the person responsible for your rape or rapes is or was the person or people who chose to assault you. The person responsible is never the victim.
Need some more help or support?
The following links are to helping agencies for sexual assault or abuse victims or survivors. We've also included some links to help inform you or others about the difference between consensual sex and sexual assault. Our message boards are also a place where victims and survivors can find support from staff and volunteers or from peers who are survivors themselves.
- Pandora's Project
- Aphrodite Wounded (for survivors of Intimate Partner Sexual Assault)
- Male Survivor (for male survivors)
- National Association for People Abused in Childhood
- Boston Area Rape Crisis Center
- Deaf Hope (for deaf survivors)
- The National Sexual Violence Resource Center
- SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape)
- LGBTQ Survivor Information at Fenway Health
- Driver's Ed for the Sexual Superhighway: Navigating Consent
- He's my boyfriend, so how could it have been rape?
- Let's Get Metaphysical: The Etiquette of Entry
- The Pursuit of Hope
- He wants to take his anger out on my body: that's not okay, right?