Skip to main content
I was one of several guests on a radio show in Baltimore on Friday. The topic of the show was apparently going to be about sex education and social justice, but turned out to be more like fear-mongering and a whole lot of projections around teen sexuality mixed with focus on parents and teen sexuality. I got the impression all four of us who were asked to take part, despite some of our disagreements, were very frustrated with the show and the host clearly asking questions he didn't want factual answers to, despite purportedly asking us to take part to provide just that.
At one point, he asked one of the guests to talk about rape victims and survivors. She said she did not do any work with rape or survivors, but instead of deferring to any of us who had, or just saying "I don't know," she went ahead and did some postulating and guesswork. There were several things she said in a rush of words that bothered me, but one of the most troubling was a statement that rape survivors "compulsively have sex."
This is a very common stereotype. It's one that can be incredibly damaging in several ways. It's also one which has long since been dismantled by rape survivors, people who work in the field as advocates for survivors and educators about rape.
I had to wait a while before I got a chance to respond, since the host accepted what was said at face value. I should mention that with a response like the speaker's, the onus was not just on her but also on the host to defer the question elsewhere or ask that speaker to talk about something that was within her area of expertise. This is one of a couple reasons why I'm not naming names here today out of courtesy. The whole show was so badly organized and biased that I don't want to tar someone who said some uneducated things when I am sure did not say them with malice, and when she may very well take responsibility for them herself elsewhere.
When I got a chance to do some correcting, I was cut off before I could do so well. Part of why I got cut off is that the only chance I got to correct the information was in answering a question about what parents should know per teen sexuality and talking to teens. I think I was also cut off because in explaining some of this, I identified as both someone who has worked with survivors but was also a survivor myself, which I got the impression, made the host seriously uncomfortable. While I was going a little off-topic in making the corrections, not only were they important not to let stand, the information was relevant to what parents should know, and I want to explain why.
Part of what kept getting bandied about was the primarily media-manufactured idea that teens are now having sex earlier than before. In asking all four of the guests -- all sexuality educators, and two of us work with very large, broad sex education groups and have for many years -- if this was in fact true, we all said that it was not, each explaining why. (At some point in the show I was asked to explain what "sexualizing" teens meant, and I regret I did not throw tact to the wind and say "Adults endlessly obsessing about what kinds of sex and how much sex teens are having, especially when trying to insist they're having sex at rates they are not, in order to be provocative for their own notoriety is an example of sexualizing them.")
In the discussion, it began to seem like that the host, just like all too much data on sex as a whole, was not separating consensual sex from rape. The host also used the term "unwanted sex" at some point -- again, just like all too much data continues to do -- instead of saying rape.
One thing I'd mentioned earlier about ages of sexual debut was that when discussing sex and 13-15 year olds, we know from an awful lot of study and work with that population that a great deal of young women that age "having sex" -- having intercourse -- aren't having sex at all. They are being raped.
One third (33%) of sexually active teens 15-17 reports “being in a relationship where they felt things were moving too fast sexually”, and 24 percent have “done something sexual they didn’t really want to do.” More than one in five (21%) report having oral sex to “avoid having sexual intercourse” with a partner. More than a quarter (29%) of teens 15-17 report feeling pressure to have sex. Nearly one in 10 (9%) 9-12th grade students report having been physically forced to have sexual intercourse when they did not want to at some point. (Kaiser Family Foundation, National Survey of Adolescents and Young Adults: Sexual Health Knowledge, Attitudes and Behaviors, May 2003.)
NONE of that data is about fully consensual sex: most of it is about rape and other kinds of sexual abuses.
As well, the younger a girl is when she has sex (a statistic which again, often does not separate rape from consensual sex, but just counts any vaginal intercourse as 'sex") for the first time, the greater the average age difference is likely to be between her and her partner. (Abma JC, Martinez, GM, Mosher, WD., Dawson, BS. Teenagers in the United States: Sexual activity, contraceptive use, and childbreaing, 2002. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 23(24). 2004.) When it comes to rape, for victims of all genders, it's most common for rapists to be a male older than the they are, especially the younger the victim is. This is not to say all age-disparate relationships involve rape, but it is to say that many do, particularly for the youngest people.
It's accepted and understood that around one on every 4-6 women are raped in their lifetime, and around one in every 33 men (though in both cases, underreporting is an issue, so both numbers are likely higher, particularly the male figure). Data we have on rape also has long shown us (and plenty of us have the personal experience to know this already) that the rate of rape for people of all ages is usually highest for the youngest people: teens and young adults of every gender are victimized at the highest rates and are at the highest risk of being raped.
When someone is raping us, they are refusing and removing our autonomy. A rapist is taking control of our bodies against our will to get what they want sexually and/or emotionally for themselves, and not only when we don't want it, but often expressly because we don't.
After rape, it's common for survivors to feel like that robbery of body ownership and sexual ownership can hijack or co-opt ourselves and/or our sexualities in many ways for quite some time. If we choose to have wanted, consensual sex and have body memories or other post-traumatic reactions, if we find we can't not think about our rape or rapes in some way during sex, you can perhaps understand why we feel that way. If rape or other sexual abuse leaves us feeling like our only value is as a sexual object, you can perhaps understand why we feel that way. If we can't even think about sex we want without thinking about rape, you can perhaps understand why we feel that way. If we can't chose to have any kind of sex without someone suggesting it's merely a compulsion about our rape, you can perhaps understand why we feel that way.
The belief or statement that if we have sex after rape, it is only out of compulsion or reaction to our trauma is one way we are also robbed of autonomy and choice. What that purports is that after rape, for weeks, months, years or ever after, we still are no longer able or allowed to make the free choice to have sex we want when we want it. That kind of statement is yet another robbery of our personhood, and our right to want and/or do the things people who were not raped want or do. It's one of many statements made about rape and sexual abuse survivors that suggest we are all damaged goods, a statement not only biased and ignorant, but unsupportive and damaging. This is one of many ways in which it's not just our rapes themselves that do us harm but the way we are treated by others because we have been raped. It puts survivors in the mode of being perpetual victims, not recognizing the hard work many of us have to do heal, and the strength and force of will our healing process can give us. Frankly, speaking both for myself and the wealth of other survivors I know and have spoken with through my work over the years, once any of us have come through that process, I'm inclined to say we're a group of people who generally are more equipped than most to ONLY choose to have sex when that is absolutely what we want, not less.
The speaker also said sex was "always more confusing" for survivors. That can certainly be true sometimes. But it's important to remember that most of us not only figure it out in time, but tend to have even more clarity around what is or isn't wanted, what is or isn't sex, because we have had an experience which has made very clear what sex is NOT and what is NOT wanted. That's an experience those who have not been abused or assaulted have not had in the same way, and often are more unsure about than we are by virtue of our experience. As someone who has worked in sex education for over a decade, who has had tens of thousands of one-on-one conversations about it with individuals and whose work just never seems to stop piling up, it also seems to be stating the obvious that sex is clearly confusing for a whole lot of people, not just rape survivors.
Do some survivors have sex compulsively as a reaction to rape or other sexual abuse? Yes, some do, but so do lots of people who have never been sexually assaulted or abused. Compulsive behavior after assault can also manifest in a lot of different ways when it is an issue. But many rape and sexual abuse survivors don't ever have sex by compulsion.
Of course, it's also possible that just like this host and many others call or see rape as "unwanted sex", that what is seen as "compulsive sex" is instead, yet more rape. Many rape survivors are raped more than once, either because they feel it was made clear they do not have the right to say no, because they have not been able to identity dangers when it can be seen coming, because they have not left or been removed from the relationship in which rape happened the first time or a host of other scenarios. This can particularly be an issue with the youngest victims: girls who were victimized before turning 12 and then again as adolescents (ages 13–17) were at much greater risk of both types of victimization as adults than any other women. (Siegel, J.A., and L.M. Williams, Risk Factors for Violent Victimization of Women: A Prospective Study, Final Report.) Since so many people still think of rape only as stranger-rape, rather than the more common contexts it happens in -- especially to the youngest victims -- where the rapist is a family member, boyfriend, friend or otherwise known person, it can be all the more easy for people who conceptualize rape simplistically to continue to conflate rape with sex.
Why do parents, not just young people, all people, or advocates, need to know this stuff? First and foremost because it's just not okay, wise, beneficial or kind to misrepresent people, and it's particularly shitty to marginalize people who have been already been marginalized by abuse. In other words, everyone needs to know things like this because it's unacceptable to stereotype survivors or other or objectify us further.
Many parents also assume that if a young person says they had sex or is discovered to have had sex that it must have been consensual. By all means, most of the time, that is the case, since the majority of people are not raped. However, that minority isn't minor: it's millions of people. Because of the way people and so much of our culture talks about and treats rape, like calling it "unwanted sex," because of how much victim-blaming there still is, because of how hard and scary it can be to disclose or report rape (of which false assumptions or suppositions about victims are part), and because people generally do NOT want to have been raped, it's not uncommon for people to be very reluctant to disclose rape or to call their own rapes rapes. Many people don't realize how many rape victims don't disclose or report because they worry about being further attacked or "getting their rapists in trouble." Of course, assuming that any sex must be unconsensual just because of someone's age or gender is problematic, too.
If and when a young person has been raped or otherwise sexually abused, it's also vital to do things that will help that person heal. Presenting someone as damaged goods does not help with healing: it just adds insult to injury. Suggesting that wanted, consensual sex must be a compulsion or post-traumatic reaction does not help anyone heal, particularly since part of most of our healing is to get to a place where we can have our own sexual life. Suggesting our minds, bodies and sexualities will never be fully our own is not only false, it also gives us the message that you think our rapists won in taking us, and we can never have our whole selves back. I have had to help plenty of survivors unpack their hurtful internalization of these messages, messages many have received from people and the world around them long after they were raped or abused, over and over again.
Again, sometimes survivors do have sex that is compulsive or reactive. We also want to be sure to recognize that sometimes that's about trying to relive the experience to process it or change the script or other known on unconscious motivations which can be about processing and healing. In other words, even in some cases where it is or appears troubling to an outsider, it may just be where someone is at in their own process, and outsiders should carefully consider the judgments they may make about that, or any way they may pathologize behavior that may not be pathological. Hopefully, people can also start to garner an awareness that judging a rape survivor's sexual behavior can put even more baggage on a person than it can to non-survivors.
A lot of the time, rape survivors of every age are having sex because sex is what we want, because it makes us feel good about ourselves, our bodies and our interpersonal relationships, and for the whole range of reasons people who have not been raped want to engage in sex.
Once more with feeling, all survivors of rape do not behave the same way, just like all survivors of concentration camps didn't, all survivors of other hate crimes do not, all people who have been mugged do not, all veterans of wars do not. Just like many other kinds of trauma, not only are all rapes different, all of the people who survive them are different, as is our process in reacting, healing, surviving and thriving.
A post over at Shakesville sums this up so well:
There is no such thing as a “typical” response to rape. Immediately following a rape, some women go into shock. Some are lucid. Some are angry. Some are ashamed. Some are practical. Some are irrational. Some want to report it. Some don’t. Most have a combination of emotions, but there is no standard response. Responses to rape are as varied as its victims. In the long term, some rape victims act out. Some crawl inside themselves. Some have healthy sex lives. Some never will again."
It's important for everyone, including parents, to understand the manufactured myth of the "right response" to rape, or the way victims are "supposed to act" is myth and is dangerous. Just like the idea that if someone isn't crying or angry after rape they haven't been raped, the idea that if someone is having sex -- either of any kind, or in ways or frequency arbitrarily considered acceptable or not -- or isn't tells us who has been raped or who hasn't, who is healing or who is not is also false. Ideas or statements there are right or wrong ways to behave, sexually or otherwise, post-rape leave many victims feeling unable to disclose or report as well as unable to either heal or be recognized as having healed; as a whole person, like anyone else, not as some kind of one-dimensional person who is but merely as someone who got raped, an idea that suggests we our rapists didn't just rob our personhood while raping us, but forever.
Sometimes, being careless or clueless about any of this will hurt our individual feelings as survivors and make us feel crappy: that's not acceptable, but most of us can and will deal, even though it sucks (particularly since we're often all too used to it). Some survivors can't deal with that, and it sets them back in or keeps them from healing. But the effect can be even more serious and far-reaching than that, because statements like this, especially broadcast widely and with a voice given any kind of authority, also can enable rape and the continued maltreatment and dehumanizing of survivors.
Be careful how you talk about us, especially if and when you haven't shared our experiences or done any work yourself to really listen to us as a large, varied group or haven't done a whole lot of homework in reading the work of those who have, and those who have collected sound data on rape and rape survivors. If you're asked about rape or rape survivors and you're talking about your personal experience, qualify it as that. If you're talking about rape or survivors as a group with no experience, personally or professionally, then either refer people to those who have that experience, to sound sources of general data like RAINN, or just say you do not know. If you want to know or speak about what our experiences have been like? Ask us. We're right here, willing, wanting and able to speak for ourselves, needing you to allow us to do just that by not speaking for us.
If there's a common compulsivity in all of this, it's the habit of non-survivors or uninformed speakers to speak with bias or ignorance about survivors. Foot-in-mouth disease when it comes to talking about rape victims and survivors is long-established and epidemic compulsive behavior.
I want to wrap this up with something a lot of survivors and thoughtful people who work with survivors know, but a lot of people don't realize.
If and when you have been raped or sexually abused in some other way, when the time comes that you can experience consensual, wanted sex, that in and of itself -- even if the sex isn't all you wanted it to be, whether or not you get off -- can be a profoundly liberating, healing experience. It is watershed to have positive, enjoyable and reclaiming experiences about parts of our bodies or selves that were traumatized, just like it's a huge deal for someone who had an injury they were told meant they'd never walk again to find themselves walking. Tangibly experiencing and clarifying that rape and sex are radically different things is huge. Having a wanted, consensual sexual life is not only of the same value to us as it is to everyone else, it can also help send our hearts a clear message that no matter what others say or intimate, we are NOT damaged goods, forever cursed to be sexual objects or dysfunctional sexually or interpersonally; that no matter what happened to us, our bodies and sexualities are still absolutely our own, by our choice, within our control and for our own pleasure and joy.