What's rape got to do with it?
We should all know by now that rape and sex are not the same thing, after all. And yet, over the years at Scarleteen, we've answered a lot of questions about rape and abuse, supported a lot of abuse and rape victims and survivors, and we've got content about both housed on a site which is primarily about sexuality, sexual health and relationships.
One big reason is that an awful lot of us in the world -- and at this site -- are rape and abuse survivors, or people trying to get free of abuse. While our rapes or assaults certainly are or were not sex for us, they often impact our sexuality and our sex lives a whole lot. Sexuality doesn't exist in a vacuum: it's made up of all of who we are, and greatly influenced by the whole of our life experiences. In so many ways, rape and sexual assault can really hijack our sexuality, due to body memories -- the places we were assaulted tend to trigger painful or uncomfortable responses, emotionally and/or physically -- and other post-traumatic effects, and for those of us who are or have been abused or raped in our younger years, before or around the same time our sexuality was forming, untangling our sexuality from our abuse is work we have to do. For survivors, a rape can also feed into ideas and concerns about virginity (a huge issue for many young people), genital normalcy and integrity and other body image issues, trust in relationships, masturbation, sexual orientation, sexual fantasy and more.
Our particular readership is of an age and a gender which is the most victimized by rape. The majority of our readership is 14-22 year old women of all orientations. According to RAINN, around 9 out of every 10 victims of rape are female. College women are 4 times as likely to be assaulted, and girls ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault, and the highest risk group to be victimized are young women under the age of 30, with 73% of rape victims between the ages of 12 and 18. As well, more rapes and abuses happen with people known to a victim, and many of our users -- of all genders -- are new to relationships without many sound ideas about what is really healthy or safe. Rates of dating violence have been on an incline for teens for some time now. So, it's unsurprising that we see an awful lot of sexual abuse and assault survivors or survivors of attempted rapes and assaults in this environment and population. The way we have always done Scarleteen is by providing what information we do based on what information our users are expressly asking for, and almost right from the start, we've had queries about rape and other abuses. Over the years, we've helped provide support for those dealing with and healing from rape and other forms of abuse so that they can move forward into a healthy, whole sexuality and a life of quality, and we're one of the rare sexuality education resources which does that. Our approach is a holistic and inclusive one, and however unfortunate it is, for a great many people, rape and other abuses are or have been a part of our lives, and are thus, not something we can just erase or omit from our sexuality.
Given the statistics and the reality, we also always want to do everything we can to help our readership protect themselves from rape and other abuses. Knowing what consent is and is not in advance, knowing what healthy relationships do and do not look like, knowing how to assert boundaries and avoid or get out of situations and scenarios where rape and sexual abuse are more likely -- as well as knowing how not to rape someone or how not to enable rape -- are all ways we can help our users to prevent rape and to protect themselves against rape. Most of us form ideas about sex, sexuality and healthy relationships pretty early, so talking about all of these issues with young people not only gives everyone the opportunity for a life either more free of rape and abuse, or where healing from either is less difficult, it also presents the opportunity for youth today to earnestly change the world by coming to their sexuality and partnerships with a clear view of what is and is not healthy and compassionate.
We talk about rape, sexual abuse and assault so often here in part because we do still very much live in a rape culture (especially when you bear in mind that Scarleteen serves an international readership, and not just a western one): a culture which enables, permits and sometimes even celebrates rape, and which also often conflates or confuses rape with sex. An awful lot of young people who come here are unclear on what consent is, what it really looks and feels like, and with how you can be sure both parties in a sexual scenario are truly willing and enthusiastic about sex. It might seem obvious to some -- and of course, once you know what enthusiastic consent looks and feels like, it becomes even more obvious -- but again, when you remember that so much of what we hear and see out and about both presents consent and rape at best, imperfectly, and at worst, very (and often knowingly) inaccurately, it's no wonder so many folks are so confused. Think about what you see and hear in media, even from the people around you: women giving passive "consent," for example, looms large, as does the idea that men are always ready for sex, with anyone at any time. Ideas that a person not fighting sex wanted from one partner, but not strongly wanted for themselves, is still acceptable as far as pursuing sex with that person who isn't really into it (or who might be so shocked they don't know how to respond) are pervasive. Sex between men and women in pornography and popular media is still often presented as having elements of dominance and control, as being about some sort of battle, or illustrates that consent doesn't need to be present or all that important. Even first-time sex -- something young people are often all about -- is commonly presented as an experience which, for the female partner, is, must or should be painful, bloody and, in some senses, violent and passive. In all kinds of media, we still often see women presented as enjoying sexual scenarios which are exploitive or abusive; we often see men if not encouraged, then given passive permission, to sexually objectify women or view sex with women as a conquest or as a means of control, self-validation, competition and dominance. We also still -- though you'd think by now we'd be long past this -- see a whole awful lot of she-asked-for-its, she-deserved-its, or she-should-have-known-betters.
In order to try and heal our culture -- or at the very least, to help people see it critically and be able to learn to work outside those pervasive messages and beliefs -- we need to talk about these things and stop tiptoeing around them or pretending rape does not remain a very pervasive, big problem. It's going to be very hard for all of us to have a wonderful, healthy sex life if sex and rape are mushed together or overlap -- and if you don't think that happens a lot, look at how often rape is still referred to as sex in articles and court cases -- or if we and our partners don't know or can't see the difference between rape and sex. Doing this is vital when it comes to preventing rape, vital when it comes to helping survivors reclaim a sexuality and sex life, vital to helping everyone be sure to enable healthy sexuality and consent rather than abuse and assault. Part of what we do here is to provide interventions, and we've a powerful opportunity to reach a group who we can help to learn, almost right from the start, what consent looks like and how any dismissal or diminishing of consent is a very serious violation which is not sex.
By virtue of being around for as long as we have, due to having such high traffic, and because the conversations we have at Scarleteen are all public, we've often found that we're discovered as a safe place for victims and survivors to come. No one has to dig to find discussions where survivors are visible, have broken their silence and are supported. At this point, it's likely also widely enough known that I am, myself, a rape and abuse survivor, as are a couple of our volunteers. Our tenure, our reputation when it comes to sensitivity around rape and abuse, and the fact that other survivors can see and talk with those like themselves has a lot to do with why so many users will talk about rape here, as well as the fact that we also know and understand that rape survivors are not made asexual by rape, and still want a healthy sex life as much as anyone else. There aren't a whole lot of places where a survivor can go, be vocal, talk in depth about rape and feel confident we will be supported, as well as be sure we won't be marginalized or patronized. A big part of the reason why so many survivors remain silent is because it is still all too easy for us to be met with verbal or emotional abuse, blame, shaming, pity or even jokes. Too, there are an awful lot of good people in the world, and rape is something that is very hard for compassionate, empathetic people to look at. To think about rape hurts. To know people are being raped, have been raped -- especially people we care about -- is painful. To know any of us are at risk of rape is scary and it is not something we often want to be reminded of, but it's something we need to be reminded of, all of us, survivors or not.
All of this is also why, hard as it is -- and it is hard -- I will wear this t-shirt, not just around the house, nor only because I very much want to help support Jennifer Baumgardner's upcoming project and to help benefit Scarleteen.
Given, I've been public about surviving rape already in a broader way than many survivors will be, simply because what I do gives me that opportunity, and also because it has been many years since my rapes. I was not somehow immediately and miraculously able to break my silence: even telling one person took me years, and it took years after that for me to start to tell more. But the way I have gone public has also had some benefits: when I am public online, people often have a history of me to draw from: it's tougher for people to make rash or quick assumptions about me, or about rape survivors based on me because that's rarely the only thing anyone will know about me. When I am public online or in print, I don't have eye contact with anyone reading my words, nor do I often have to deal with or even hear their responses.
When I wear this t-shirt on a public bus, in my neighborhood, when I go out to give a talk to people who know nothing about me, or even in promoting this via a photo, I won't have those luxuries. I suspect I'll be faced with something I'm not often faced with much anymore: with people resenting that it's something I'm making them look at or know about, with shock, with guilt or embarrassment projected unto me, with pity, with mockery, with scorn. I may even have people close to me who aren't too thrilled that it's what I choose to wear some afternoon we go out for lunch, even though they love and support me.
But I also have a feeling that it might accomplish what both my being public about surviving, and with all of what we've done with rape here at Scarleteen -- both in providing information and in providing and nurturing frank and shameless discussion. I suspect that there will be days I wear that t-shirt on the bus where a person next to me, who I have never met before, says "I was, too." Where someone walking past me on the street thinks for a moment that breaking his silence is possible and could be okay. Where someone sitting across from me at the table might later start asking the women in their lives if they were ever raped, and might open up avenues for those women to have someone safe to disclose to. Where someone who might have thought that people like me should be ashamed or silent is challenged with my idea that we should be no such thing. Where, if nothing else, someone might see me and know that I'm one person who would never blame or shame them for being victimized, and someone who would have a vast admiration for their survival. Where another survivor having a hard time healing might see that shirt at the same time I'm smiling, talking to a friend, and be reminded that being raped does not make rape our whole lives, nor does being victimized once mean we are forever victims: where that person can get the clear sense that healing from rape, surviving and thriving are absolutely possible.
On top of how it might benefit others, even decades after my first assaults, it remains empowering for me to be able to find ways to give voice to what happened to me, to stay vocal, to stay visible. Even if I am met with reactions or responses which I find to be insensitive, uninformed or unfair, I can be provided with another opportunity to address those, and to be able to address them with that person being allowed no denial in that they are speaking with a survivor, and an expert authority on her own experience and survival. It is always powerful to acknowledge that while I did not choose nor want what was done to me, my refusal to have my life and my self usurped by others, my choice to take something awful and find strength and compassion for myself through it is part of who I am and who I have chosen to become. I wish that for every survivor.
April 3rd is A Day to End Sexual Violence, to kickstart Sexual Assault Awareness Month. So, for the next few weeks, we're featuring our content and resources on rape and abuse on the front page, and we are also selling these t-shirts to help support Jennifer's important project, to help raise funds to keep Scarleteen afloat, and to do what we can to help survivors break their silence and find their strength. If you'd like a t-shirt for yourself or a friend, have a click here. If you'd like to support other organizations which help survivors as well as work hard to increase awareness about rape and abuse, I'd suggest considering donations to RAINN, Amnesty International, TEAR or a DV or rape advocacy group or shelter local to you, like DAWN here in Seattle.
Above and beyond all else, my primary goal with Scarleteen has always been to do everything I can to help young people develop and nurture a sexuality and relationships which are healthy for them and free of any abuses, and to also make an effort to heal our culture's toxic ideas and behaviors with all areas of sex and sexuality, and help a new generation usher in a kind of sexual revolution I don't think we have yet seen in history. While sex and rape are different things, I feel strongly that talking about rape, providing support and education around rape and abuse issues, and doing what we can to participate in awareness projects like this is a critical part of how we can all get to a place where rape and abuse becomes a great rarity, and where everyone is far more likely to have a happy, healthy sexuality right from the start and throughout our whole lives.