Skip to main content

What is Rape & What Is It Like to Be Raped?

(Part of How You Guys - That's Right, You GUYS -- Can Prevent Rape, and continued from Why Do Men Need to Know About Rape?)

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 (we’ll talk in more depth about consent in a bit). 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, the rapist, desires and chooses to do to that other person against 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 a sexual activity they do not want through guilt-trips or nagging, threats, bribes, intimidation or some other kind of emotional pressure or force. Where on the body is unwanted touch 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.

It is 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 you're wondering why I don’t say rape can be, say, vaginal intercourse or oral sex, rather than unwanted touch, that's because words like sex or intercourse imply that both parties are mutually engaged and involved. Because rape isn't sex for the person being raped, calling it sex not only enables rape, it also is a terribly hurtful thing to hear as a survivor, and one that can have a harsh impact on your sexuality: if rape was sex, then the victim was somehow complicit, and it also doesn’t differentiate rape from the wanted, consensual sex we have and enjoy.)

It’s also wise to think of attempted rape as very real sexual violence and violation, too. Someone trying to rape you, but either failing to or deciding not to at some point, tends to leave the person almost raped with nearly as much emotional trauma as if they had been “fully” raped. In other words, almost victimizing someone is still victimizing someone. While sure, it’s “better” to not-quite be raped than to be raped, I’m sure you can imagine that it would be very traumatic to have your male best friend force you on the bed and rip at your clothes with the clear intent of raping you, even if he didn’t succeed in, or finish, doing so.


If some of this still seems unclear, that’s understandable. Not only is it often hard for people who haven’t been raped to figure out when rape has happened or what it is, it’s sometimes hard even for people who HAVE been raped to figure it out. Our culture has some seriously messed up ideas about sex, gender and sexuality which obfuscate the issue.

For instance, ideas that it’s normal for women not to enjoy or initiate sex (and abnormal for men to dislike any kind of sex with women at any time, including even when their partner is NOT enjoying it, or abnormal for men not to initiate), normal for women to not want sex as much as men (and normal for male sexual needs to be more urgent than women’s needs or for male sexual desire to be everpresent), or normal for women to want their sexual partners to dominate them without negotiation or concent (and for male sexual partners to want to dominate that way) are often stated and taken as absolute facts, even though those things are rarely normal, when we mean healthy, or biological in origin. In the cases where they are common, these things often have more to do with how men and women are taught to enact or think about their sexuality than it does with our sex or gender, and with a sexual ethos that was designed to perpetuate a power hierarchy for men. There are prevalent ideas that gay men or boys are fair game for anyone, that the first time a woman has sex she should feel devoured or violated and be in great pain, and that sexual violence isn’t a choice for men, but a biological imperative, but if we just do our homework and think about these things, it’s pretty obvious to a smart person that they are not truths, but ideas which often excuse or deny sexual violence.

When it comes to young people, you are told so often that sex is something you’ll regret if you have sex as a teen or an unmarried person, and that if you have sex, something terrible will happen. So, young people who are raped can figure they’re feeling the way they are because of sex, not because of rape: they were told they were going to feel terrible after all, right? And rape happens from strangers, not from your boyfriend, right? Young men who rape, thinking they were just having “normal” sex, might also have a hard time understanding that sex was rape because they have the idea that for their partner to be terrified and vacant, or to feel ashamed, guilty or victimized during or afterwards is normal.


Rape Poem
by Marge Piercy

There is no difference between being raped
And being pushed down a flight of cement steps
Except that the wounds also bleed inside.

There is no difference between being raped
And being run over by a truck
Except that afterward men ask if you enjoyed it.

There is no difference between being raped
And being bit on the ankle by a rattlesnake
Except that people ask if your skirt was short
And why you were out anyhow.

There is no difference between being raped
And going head first through a windshield
Except that afterward you are afraid not of cars,
But half the human race.

The rapist is your boyfriend’s brother.
He sits beside you in the movies eating popcorn.
Rape fattens on the fantasies of the “normal” male
Like a maggot in garbage.

Fear of rape is a cold wind blowing
All of the time on a woman’s hunched back.
Never to stroll alone on a sand road through pine woods,
Never to climb a trail across a bald
Without that aluminum in the mouth
When I see a man climbing toward me.

Never to open the door to a knock
Without that razor just grazing the throat.
The fear of the dark side of the hedges,
The back seat of the car, the empty house
Rattling keys like a snake’s warning
The fear of the smiling man
in whose pocket is a knife.
The fear of the serious man
In whose fist is locked with hatred.

All it takes to cast a rapist is seeing your body
As jackhammer, as blowtorch, as machine gun.
All it takes is hating that body
Your own, your self, your muscle that softens to flab.

All it takes is to push what you hate,
What you fear onto the soft alien flesh.
To bucket out invincible as a tank
Armoured with treads without senses
To possess and punish in one act,
To rip up pleasure, to murder those who dare
Live in the leafy flesh open to love. The fear of the smiling man
In whose pocket is a knife.


What is it like to be raped?

It’s very difficult to talk about what rape feels like at exactly the moment it happens or is going to happen, because words rarely cut it. Rape is a physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, personal identity, gender and sexual violation, all at once. At the moment it happens, for most rape victims, something in the fabric of the world as we knew it rips wide open. For those who had such low self-esteem they already felt they only deserved pain or suffering, rape validates that feeling. But the pain of rape doesn’t stop once the rape is over: not even close.

During wanted sex with another person which is about the pleasure and personhood of everyone involved, we might feel excited, physically and emotionally high, close to that other person, awakened, taken care of, put in the best kind of spotlight, dizzy, heady or totally blissed-out. We tend to have a silly grin on our faces afterwards that our friends often notice. Even with sex that wasn’t the best sex we ever had, when we have it with someone we like and care for, and when it’s wanted, while we may be a little let down, we’re not likely to feel traumatized or to be doing all we can to keep from crying or having a nervous breakdown.

What is in our heads the whole time we’re having wanted sex is something like “Yesyesyes -- moremoremore,” not “Nonono – stopstopstop.” It’s “I wish we could do this all day,” not “I wish he would just kill me and be done with it.” We should be present with our partner, glad they’re there, not trying our best to block out what’s going on and put our minds somewhere else in some effort to preserve our sanity and selfhood. Most of us can agree that sex with another person which is wanted, and which absolutely was about us, not just the other person, will leave us feeling emotionally and physically uplifted or relaxed, not violated and injured.


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:

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.

Some rape victims do not get to that resolution phase or take a long time to get to it, particularly those in communities or areas where they are blamed for their rapes or are without support and counseling resources.

Rape survivors also -- sometimes even years and years after a rape -- often have to deal with difficult reactions to their rapes from their sexual or romantic partners. Given how much cultural stock is still put in women's value as a sexual value -- and how often rape is seen as having "spoiled" a woman sexually -- and given the kinds of anger men have towards other men, but often misdirect at women, the person one'd often look to for the most support can sometimes be just one more source of stress.

Too, since those who are raped do not tend to get a say in birth control or safer sex, many rape survivors also have to handle unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections in the midst of all the other trauma they’re dealing with.

We can safely say that those after-effects are not what most people imagine they will feel after partnered sex, nor are they what most people experience after wanted, consensual partnered sex. They are not things rapists tend to feel after they rape. They are, however, what rape survivors feel and experience.

Click to continue to the next section, Who are rapists, and where did rape even come from? or here to go back to the whole article

Information on this site is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant to and cannot substitute for advice or care provided by an in-person medical professional. The information contained herein is not meant to be used to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease, or for prescribing any medication. You should always consult your own healthcare provider if you have a health problem or medical condition.