The State of Affairs

Michael Brown. Eric Garner. The public turning their back on the girl who recounted her UVA gang rape in Rolling Stone. Bill Cosby. MSU inviting a rape apologist to speak at commencement this weekend and giving him an honorary doctorate in humanities. It’s too much. With all of these stories in the news, the lack of progress we have made in understanding these issues is so apparent. We’ve been asking the same questions for decades, and the answers are there, but maybe we just don’t want to believe the truth.

Trigger warning:

I’ve included excerpts from my memoir (in block quotes) to give my perspective on these questions. Names have been changed to protect the…well, I changed the names because this is my story, and I am not looking for revenge or retroactive prosecution or whatever could possibly be gained by using real names. And yes, I realize that by “protecting” these men in this way, I could be allowing them to go on hurting other people. Trust me, I think about that every day, and someday I will know how to deal with it.

(1) How can someone who didn’t tell anybody for [X amount of time] be credible?

People tend to think that when a slew of victims begin to come forward years after the abuse occurred, that it’s just a bandwagon-jumping, attention-seeking behavior. Journalist George Will claimed that “victimhood is a coveted status that confers privileges,” and that “victims proliferate” when attention or money is awarded to rape survivors. The reasons “victims proliferate” is because we gain the strength to speak up when others share their stories, not because we’re looking for fame or special privileges.

There are so many reasons why a rape survivor might not tell anybody what happened for a long time. First, it may take years before they even realize or accept that they were, in fact, raped (see #3). Even if you do know that you were raped, telling somebody that you’ve been raped is so hard, and it’s often responded to so horribly, that it can be just as traumatizing as the actual rape. And I imagine that going to the police would be a hundred times worse. I can’t comprehend that anybody who falsely accuses someone of rape wouldn’t almost immediately recant their accusation once they realize how devastating it can be to talk about these things—you don’t get money or 15 minutes of fame by identifying yourself as a rape victim. You usually just get ostracized, ridiculed, and blamed. I know that false accusations do happen, but people want to believe this is the norm—it’s not. And if someone is falsely accusing someone of rape, then they are in obvious need of help anyway. I wished I had never told my friends what happened to me in high school, which is why I never even thought about calling the police.

“Going to school was like reliving being raped every day—it was worse than being raped. Getting raped was a single event that was now over. But going to school and feeling everyone looking at me, knowing that whatever they were thinking about me was probably disgusting and untrue, ensured that I would never be able to forget what happened. I would rather be dead than have a constant reminder of my transgression by being ostracized at school. But I couldn’t even understand, let alone vocalize my pain, and with everyone at school knowing what happened to me, the fewer people in the world that knew what a dead, broken girl I was, the better. I didn’t think there was anything anyone could do to help me anyway—nobody was going to be able to undo what had already happened, so I just had to live with it. I didn’t tell my mom about being raped right away, not because I didn’t trust her, but because I didn’t want her to think of me as a rape victim. I was still her innocent little girl, and it made me feel a little better knowing somebody could still think of me that way.”

Downplaying what happened is a coping mechanism.

“I still couldn’t talk about the details of what happened or how it made me feel, and casually telling Lance that I had “non-consensual sex” (I couldn’t use the word “rape” in any context without feeling like I was going to die) made me feel like it wasn’t really that big of a deal, especially when Lance’s reaction was rather blasé.

If anyone at school or work would bring up the rape, I would just brush it off like it was an awkward first-sex experience toward which I was completely indifferent. I was desperately trying to convince myself that what happened wasn’t that big of deal, that I’d get over it soon enough.”

A year-and-half later, I finally told my mom, but her response of anger and disappointment ensured that I would never talk about this again for almost another decade. Even now, after three years of therapy, recovery, and healing—and relentlessly speaking publicly about my rapes—I still find it hard to say, “I was raped.” Two weeks ago, I met with a publisher from Columbia University Press to talk about my memoir. The conversation started with the premise of my book, which is a look at PTSD from my perspective as a neuroscientist who is researching the very disorder with which I live. When he asked if my PTSD stemmed from military duty, I found my heart suddenly pounding, my palms sweating, my face turning red. It was the first time in my life I ever wished I had joined the military just so I could answer yes to his question. I paused for what seemed like an eternity before I hurriedly said, “sexual assault.” I just could not bring myself to say the dreaded R-word, and I didn’t understand why. Why do I still have a hard time saying “rape,” when other people can use the word so casually (e.g. “The Bears got raped last week.”). I’ve posted before about using rape out of context, but using the word in the correct context is excruciatingly difficult.

This summer, I found a profile of the doctor who saved my life, and I wanted to leave a review along with the other positive reviews of this amazing physician. But I got this error message when I submitted my response:

doctor review

I read and re-read my post, wondering what profanity this was referring to. It was the word “rape.” I explained that this doctor did not make me feel ashamed of being raped as other doctors had in the past, and it was because of her help that I survived. But having to change the word “rape” to “abuse” in my comment honestly made me feel ashamed. I understand that this is just some kind of computer algorithm to prevent profanity, but I think this exemplifies part of the problem there is with rape stigma—rape is something “profane,” something bad, something to be ashamed of.

Even though it’s excruciatingly hard to tell someone you’ve been raped, we do have a responsibility to speak the truth, for our own healing and to protect others. But instead of blaming the victims for not immediately going to the police, we should blame ourselves for creating a culture in which silence is safer than speaking up. And that really indicates how bad speaking up can be—because the silence will absolutely tear you apart.

(2) How can you not remember something if it was so traumatic?

It can take years just to piece together what happened during a traumatic experience. Repressed memories and “dissociative amnesia” are highly controversial, but so many trauma survivors can’t recall key details of the trauma. This is, in fact, one of the diagnostic criteria for PTSD (of which more than half of rape survivors suffer). Part of this “forgetting” could be a coping mechanism that allows one to survive and function with the knowledge of how unsafe the world is—and part of it is just the biology of how trauma affects memory.

I used to compulsively drive around “Greek Court”—as they called it—trying to remember exactly which fraternity it was. Sigma Chi? All the frat houses looked the same. Alpha Delta? Seeing those houses just led to panic, flashbacks, and ultimately getting really drunk to calm myself down. Years later, I had a flashback of the back of my rapists t-shirt—it said something about D-chi. Delta chi. I googled “EIU delta chi” and found a news story that—a year and a half after my rape there—the fraternity was shut-down and 14 students suspended for “improper hazing activities.” I thought if I could know and see exactly where that house was, I would get some answers. Or closure. I thought if I could remember the exact date, I would remember some of the other details of what happened. Over the better part of the next decade, I would try to remember the exact date by repetitively looking through my old yearbooks and searching online for the Charleston High School 2003 football schedule because I knew there was a football game the next day. A couple years ago, I suddenly thought to look up the release date of Radio—the movie I saw with my friends before going to the frat house. October 24th, 2003. That was the date. So it took me eight years to piece together the name of the frat house and date of the most devastating day of my life. But I could tell you every detail of what happened to me that night—at least the details from after I regained cognizance. I don’t know what happened during 16 of those hours, and sometimes, that’s what haunts me most.

Traumatic memories are often stored in these fragmented flashes of images and emotions, not the narratives that hold up in a court of law. Scrutinizing the details of an accusation like the date or the name of the fraternity house is necessary in the court, but just because the victim might not remember those seemingly obvious details or “something doesn’t add up” shouldn’t automatically discredit the accuser. So how do you reconcile this fact with conducting a “fair trial?” I really don’t know. I think the most fair trial would probably be one in which the survivor was allowed time to heal, when those fragmented memories become narratives and you can recount what happened without a complete existential breakdown—but that can take years or decades, which lands us back at #1. And then all that time goes by during which the rapist is probably continuing to hurt other people, and that is something I still cannot resolve within myself.

(3) How can someone not know if they were raped?

We are so confused about what “counts” as rape, and we so desperately want to believe that the people we trust are not capable of rape—of course it’s difficult to admit to yourself or anybody else that you were raped. The “guilty act” that constitutes rape used to require vaginal penetration, and many jurisdictions even required ejaculation, making rape a crime that could only be perpetrated by a male on a female. In some places, the only people who could legally get raped were “someone else’s wife, a widow, or an honest virgin.” In the United States, there is still no national standard definition of rape. A military definition of rape is commonly used throughout the US, which requires that the perpetrator uses or threatens to use unlawful force likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm, or first renders the victim unconscious or impaired. There is nothing about consent in this definition.

“It was well into the next year before I even considered the possibility that I could have been raped. When I told a coworker at Little Caesars that I had sex when I was drunk and didn’t want to, she told me that you never do anything drunk you don’t secretly want to do sober, and I knew I had done something wrong and just needed to live with it.”

It was a whole year later before I even considered the idea that I could have been raped. I did an internet search for “was I raped? and “what is rape?”

“It was one of the countless days where I just couldn’t stop thinking about what had happened with Jared, so I shut myself in one of the bedrooms at the Halo House while the guys were playing a game. My heart was pounding as I kept checking the door to make sure nobody would catch me reading about rape on the internet. I didn’t know what had happened to me, but I was hoping it wasn’t rape. I read a story about a girl who was drugged and raped by a friend, and her account was very similar to mine. And then I read another just like it. And another. I realized that I was raped, that this happens to way too many girls, and that we were all so fucking confused about what had happened to us or what to do about it. I thought that maybe I had been also been drugged, which would explain why I suddenly got so sick that night and woke up paralyzed. That made me feel a little better, like it was not as much my fault. Maybe getting raped really was beyond my control.”

We now know that any kind of sexual violation in which someone is engaged in something that they do not want to be engaged in can do the same amount of damage as “traditional violent and forced rape,” but we still can’t seem to agree on what rape really is. You can rape your spouse. You can rape someone of the same sex. You can rape someone with whom you have had prior consensual sex with. You can rape a prostitute. You can rape someone who is too scared to say no. You can rape someone who initially said yes but then changed their mind in the middle of the encounter. These statements lead to the same argument that arose from the cat-calling debate: “So if a man initiates any kind of conversation with women on the street, it’s harassment?” If a man initiates any kind of sexual advancement, it’s rape? Absolutely not. It’s not that hard to get consent. If you’re too afraid to ask your partner if he/she is okay with what’s happening because they might say no, then the answer is no. Just assume the answer is no until they say yes.

The tricky thing about rape is that people have such a hard time labeling men like Bill Cosby or their professor or their father or their partner as a “rapist.” Because “rapists” are men who hide behind bushes and consciously think, “I’m going to rape this woman and destroy her life,” right? Most often, no. When people are shocked that there are rape allegations against them, it may be because they had no idea what the other person was going through. They took what they wanted—maybe because they felt entitled to it, maybe because they didn’t think she’d remember, maybe because they really thought she wanted it—and forgot about it. But ignorance is not an excuse for insolence. Trust me, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t know what the speed limit was, you’ll still get a ticket if you’re going 20mph over it. Just because a person didn’t realize they raped somebody doesn’t mean they shouldn’t face retribution. This is one reason why it’s so important for survivors to share their stories—maybe if people knew how quickly an entire life can be destroyed when you are pressured, coerced, or otherwise forced into having sex when you don’t want to, they’ll think to ask if you’re okay with what’s happening.

But I know that there are just as many people who are not “ignorant rapists.” They know what they’re doing, and they just don’t care. I don’t know if there’s any way to get them to change their behavior or that there will ever be a time when those people don’t exist, so in the meantime, we have to focus on helping the victims/survivors.  By all means, do an investigation to uncover (or cover up) the truth, but regardless of what comes out of the legal proceedings, the accuser is clearly in need of serious help, and that’s where most of our energy should go. The very least we can do is believe them first.

4) This story is just “too unbelievable.”

Surely, one of her friends would have called police. Her injuries sound like they would have required immediate medical attention. If she was really that hurt, she would have gone to the hospital. It sounds too much like this novel I read once. It’s just too horrible and somebody would have had to notice and help her.

These are things being said about the UVA rape accusations. Why is this such an “unbelievable story?” Because people don’t want to believe this could be true. Denial, shame, and fear are forces capable of overpowering physical pain and rational thinking. I’ve been around the old proverbial block many times, and nothing in this story stood out as unbelievable to me. I know somebody whose own parents refused to take her to the hospital when she was bleeding profusely after being raped because they were too ashamed for anyone to know what happened to their daughter—when a doctor friend finally came to the house, she was within an hour of dying. My closest confidants have watched me slit my wrist and not taken me to the hospital. I have watched a friend overdose from heroin and, after I left out of fear, I found out that our other friends dragged him to the curb so nobody would find the location of our drug hub. I know clergy members, counselors, and teachers who have sexually abused children. And these aren’t “low-lifes” I’m talking about–these are college kids and respected professionals in the community.

Otherwise “good” people can still do really, really horrible things to other people—and it happens a lot. That is a fact we need to accept, but accepting the truth doesn’t have to equate with complacency or apathy. Everybody is questioning the 1-in-4 (or 1-in-5) rape statistic. It can’t possibly be true! It is true, and it’s probably even an underestimate. But the actual number isn’t what matters—any number is too high.

(5) Isn’t rape just sex that someone regrets later?

No. I almost don’t even want to justify this because it’s so idiotic. I’ve been raped and I’ve had lots of sex I regretted, and they are completely different things.

“Rape isn’t about having “bad sex.” Rape isn’t sex. Rape is the loss of control over one’s own life and body. The loss of free will. The loss of integrity. The loss of dignity. A physical and psychological violation of one’s very existence. When something that should be so innately yours and yours alone becomes public domain for anyone to use however they please, it does devastate your life. My life was no longer my own. I had no respect for my body, and I wanted to stay as far away from my mind as possible.”

(6) Why can’t you just move on with your life?

I’ll just answer this with two excerpts from my story:

“When I slept, I would have nightmares about being raped, and when I was awake, I would constantly replay the events of that night and next afternoon in my mind. The nightmares weren’t just like having a bad dream where you wake up and realize it was a dream and everything is okay. The nightmares were like physically re-living every moment of being raped and the shame and torture of being ostracized at school thereafter. Even upon waking, my body still felt exactly as it had felt when those events actually occurred. When my alarm clock would go off in the morning during the next eight years, I would usually bolt out of bed, my heart pounding so hard that I was sure everyone could hear it, every muscle in my body rigidly frozen. I would survey my surroundings, wondering what was happening, what day it was, what happened the night before. I was terrified I was waking up to another rape, just as unexpectedly as I had that fateful October afternoon. Sometimes I would just curl into a ball on my bedroom floor and tightly close my eyes, trying to escape my thoughts. I thought my mind was the one thing nobody could steal from me, the one place I could be safe. But I didn’t even feel safe there anymore.

***

I didn’t fight back. Or scream. Or answer my phone when Heather called. I just wanted it to end as quickly and painlessly as possible. The damage had already been done. A hole had been dug in me two-and-a-half years earlier and was now being excavated into a grave. Now there was nothing alive in me worth fighting for. As I lay on the hard floor, the same phrase just kept repeating itself in my head. “I cannot believe this is happening again” filled my head over and over, drowning out the vivid snapshots of the night Jared raped me until my whole existence was completely contained within that phrase in my mind. I became detached from my body so I could no longer feel the pain in my vagina and on my forehead and on the sides of my ribs that still lingered from Jared and was now being compounded by Jason. When I slowly stuck the clothes back on my body—each article of clothing weighed a thousand pounds, and they didn’t feel like my clothes anymore. Or maybe it was that my body didn’t feel like my body anymore. It was like there was black hole in the pit of my stomach, and my very existence was being sucked into itself. I stood in the dark bedroom for a moment and felt the thick, heavy, black air pushing down on my body. I felt like I was drowning. I wished I was drowning. I just wanted to go home. Nobody would believe that Jason raped me, and I didn’t even know if that counted as rape since I was letting him kiss me earlier. Or maybe I just didn’t want to believe that I had really been raped again. Everyone had seen us kissing earlier. And we were both drunk. And I didn’t scream or fight back. Plus, I didn’t even know anybody at that party, so nobody would take my side over their buddy Jason. I probably wouldn’t have let him kiss me in the first place if I hadn’t been drunk. This was all my fault. This does not happen to a person twice in just over two years. I felt like I was being punished. Was I being punished for being a lesbian? Was this God’s way of trying to make me straight? I didn’t want to get the police involved because I knew they would just tell me I was asking for it. I didn’t want to be that girl who gets drunk at a party, has sex with a guy, regrets it, and then tells everyone she was raped. I had already been raped once, and I did not want to make a habit out of it. I thought if Jason knew I was sitting in the car outside, he might come after me. I felt like I was in a war zone, and bombs were being dropped all around me. I ducked out of the car and bolted down the street. We were only about two blocks from my apartment, but I was so scared, I didn’t know where I was or where to go. I was ducking behind trees and bushes, running in between houses, trying to stay out of view. I could hear the bombs falling all around me. The whole world felt like it was caving in. I was running around the block, trying to step lightly so I wouldn’t make too much noise. I was pretty much going in circles so I never made it far from Jason’s house, and I saw Heather’s car take off down the street a few minutes later. Then I saw Jason run out of his house, slamming the door so hard it overpowered the sound of the bombs I was already hearing. He looked so angry, and twice the size as he did earlier—like the Incredible Mr. Hulk, but with a fairer complexion. Jason got in his car and squealed away. I was left in the grass terrified, shaking. I could never escape the feeling that Jason was lurking around somewhere in town, watching me. I was buried alive. Jason had killed the last remaining part of me that still had some life, and only my vital functions were still operating. I wasn’t even worthy of the finality of death—was this purgatory? I had nothing left to live for. If my inevitable death was going to be prolonged, I was going to try my hardest not to feel any pain.”

(7) And finally, of course, the blame.

If she really wasn’t at fault, she would have pressed charges. If she wouldn’t have been drinking/walking alone/wearing a skirt/breathing, she wouldn’t have gotten raped. She should have known better. She’s done other bad things, so she deserved this. When a woman is raped, coming forward means contacting the police and going to the hospital for a rape test. If a woman doesn’t want to be raped/have sex, she should stay sober and avoid going into bedrooms with drunk men.

Maybe Bill Cosby really was in an intimate relationship with a woman who was accepting money and drugs from him, and one night he raped her after giving her drugs that, unbeknownst to her, knocked her unconscious. This is still rape. You don’t have sex with unconscious people. It doesn’t matter if she was using him for money or drugs or if they were in a consensual sexual relationship before, she did not deserve to be drugged and raped. Everybody points to the illegal things that Michael Brown and Eric Garner may or may not have been doing, as if that justifies being killed by a police officer. This is another form of it-won’t-happen-to-me denial—denial that something really horrible could happen to you, you did nothing to deserve it, and there was no way you could predict, prevent, or protect yourself from it. That’s a hard pill to swallow (pardon the pun).

Everybody screams, “Innocent until proven guilty!” for certain criminals (*cough*cops*cough*), but so many victims don’t get that luxury. Accusations of rape are “false until proven true,” and the victims of police brutality haven’t been surviving long enough to tell their side of the story. The way things are going, I wonder if police and university officials would rather the rapists kill their victims so they don’t have to deal with them. Believe me, those who have been raped often wish that too. But we will survive. We will not back down. And we will not shut up until this shit stops.

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