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Was my friend implying I brought my rape on myself?

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Jessica asks:

I have been raped on several occasion throughout my youth. I am just now, as a 22-year-old woman dealing with these. My friend recently said to me, "Well since it happened to you once, then you are more susceptible to it happening again." It really offended me to hear this, and I wanted to know if it seems unfair to me to get upset. My whole thought process is, I already blame myself (and I know I shouldn't but what girl doesn't) why would you say something like that implying that I brought this on myself? Is that insensitive of me to feel that way?

Heather Corinna replies:

Your friend was likely referencing a longitudinal study of 3,000 women done in 1999 (Acierno, Resnick, Kilpatrick, Saunders and Best, Journal of Anxiety Disorders) which found that women who had been raped before were seven times more likely to be raped again. As well, many studies have shown that women who were raped by a partner once are very likely to be raped by that partner again, and we also know that survivors of childhood and adolescent sexual abuses and assaults are often at greater risk of repeat or further assaults or abuses.

That's upsetting, for sure, and it's understandable that you feel your friend -- not you -- was being insensitive. I don't think that implies you brought your rapes on yourself, however, but I can understand how it might feel like that was the implication, particularly if you do still blame yourself.

What statistics like that illustrate to me (and I'm a survivor as well as someone who works with these issues here and elsewhere), actually, are how very important it is NOT to self-blame, as well as how much rape can impact our sense of boundaries and general equilibrium. With those of us assaulted when we were very young, for instance, rape and assault can easily teach us the false lesson that our boundaries are for naught, are not up to us or that we really shouldn't have them: when we're younger is when we tend to learn most about healthy boundaries. If we figure we deserve to be raped, or are full of self-blame and self-doubt, that can impact our esteem and what we project of our esteem: that doesn't make an additional rape our fault, but it can make us look like an easier mark to a rapist, or incline us to make choices when it comes to letting our guard down, or trusting our instincts, that we might not otherwise. If we've kept our boundaries down after someone violated them, an abuser or attacker might read that in us. It's also normal and not at all surprising that many women who have been abused or assaulted become very worried it will happen again, and from a preventative self-defense perspective, that kind of worry -- and in some environments, paranoia, however understandable it is -- can sometimes translate not into hypervigilance, but to a decreased awareness of real dangers because we're so caught up in either imagined ones, or in a kind of conscious or unconscious profiling we're doing only based on our last attacker. All of these things can increase our vulnerability.

But none of that makes or will make additional attacks our fault. The ONLY way any rape could ever be our fault is if we rape someone. The only way rape could ever be our joint responsibility, or fault in part, is if we literally asked -- with words -- someone to rape us. That's it: those are the only two scenarios in which we could be at any fault of, or bear any responsibility for, rape.

No matter what, you get to be sensitive about rape: it is not about statistics or faceless study subjects for you, it's about you. When anyone is talking about a group of people they are not, to someone who is a member of that group, it's their job to bear that in mind, and their job not to "those people" you. You get to get upset about statistics like that, or about a friend voicing them to you without considering that for someone still working on healing, that statement is not a comfort, and is tremendously stressful. You also have the right to, when talking about rape, ask anyone you're talking with to consider you, as a survivor, and to have some extra sensitivity when they speak with you about rape. In this case, you had the right to voice that what she said upset you and why: it actually can be a really good learning opportunity for someone who is not a survivor to help show them how continually vulnerable we feel, for some, to the point that a statement like that could turn into weeks of new worries. You might next time someone says that ask them why they think that is, to get them to think more deeply about it. But you don't need to worry about being fair with this stuff: you get to feel how you feel and get upset if you get upset. Heck, you might even consider letting yourself express that kind of anger when you feel it: that's a healing thing.

By the by? I don't blame myself: I'm a girl who doesn't. I've had a lot of time to get there -- decades at this point -- and it's taken a lot of work for me to get there, but it's absolutely doable.

In time, with some more healing, you also can look forward to not blaming yourself, and not be a girl who blames yourself, too. Lots and lots of women work their way past that: lots of women do not blame themselves. You can become one of those women, and I'd encourage you to put energy into doing so. There's no truth in it after all, that kind of thinking primarily arises from social and rapist victim-blaming -- mostly to try and avoid any responsibility either for raping or for enabling rape -- more than anything else, and we all do have the power to think critically and unlearn or reject social conditioning and ideas about us or anyone else which are based in bias. Let yourself get mad about those ideas and that conditioning, because it causes all of us extra suffering, and we should be very angry about it. Rather than internalizing all of that and having it be self-blame, put the blame back where it belongs, on a rapist, and on anyone and everyone who victim-blames or perpetuates a culture of victim-blaming or rape-enabling. After all, that makes everyone more vulnerable to attacks -- especially since it takes everyone's eyes off the people who are actually responsible and dangerous -- and makes it far tougher for everyone to heal from them.

You're going to get there: know that you are. And in the meantime, whatever you need to ask of the people around you in order to get there, that's okay.

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