Feminism: Legitimate Rapes

[Content Note: Rape, Personal Descriptions of Rape]

This week I am not writing about Twilight. Not because I don't want to write about Twilight, but because there is something more important that I need to address in this moment.

There is a good chance that you're already aware of the Akin mess that has exploded all over the media these last few weeks. There is an equally good chance that you've run into such terms as "legitimate rape" and "forcible rape". And, if you've been frequenting the old Acacia Moon Publishing forums, you've already had the experience of seeing a man-who-has-not-experienced-rape helpfully explain that rape is about power and overriding consent for the evulz, so if a situation doesn't fit that definition, then it's not rape.

So here is a highly personal post about rape.

I was raised in a conservative environment where terms like "legitimate rape" and "forcible rape" made perfect sense to me. (Looking back, and sinking back into the mindset of the first 20 years of my life, is like looking back into the mind of a cult member version of myself. I distinctly remember that I believed specific things, but I cannot for the life of me understand why or how I could believe them.) I was so steeped in these ideas that it took years for me to accept that rape is something that has happened to me. In fact, depending on how you define rape (and I think I've been clear about how I define it), I have been raped three times in my life.

I was raped by a boyfriend who held me down and committed a non-violent rape on me, with the act intended as a relationship "ice breaker" so that I would get over my whole "virgin until marriage" mindset and have consensual sex with him once that ship had sailed.

I was raped by a boyfriend who had non-violent sex with me while I slept because he wanted sex in that moment, and didn't have any other viable alternative partners, and he knew that if he woke me and tried to elicit my consent, he would not receive it, so he didn't bother to ask.

I was raped by a boyfriend who had non-violent sex with me in a manner I did not consent to, because the manner of sex that I did consent to was not something he wanted to do, and he felt that once the non-consensual sex act got started, I would get into it and change my mind.

I have never liked the statement that "rape is about power", although I understand the underlying meaning and I think there's a conversation there that is worth having. And my three rapes could definitely be construed as being about power in the sense that the rapes were committed on my body by men who used their power and privilege to override my wishes. Each of those men could have walked away in those moments and gone to get a different (and willing) sex partner, but they chose not to because they didn't feel the need to -- they had power to assert over me and assert it they did.

But the framing that "rape is about power" bothers me for the same reason that most platitudes and four-word sentences bother me, and it's because it strikes me as more complicated than that. Many people seem to hear that framing and come away with the idea that "real rape" is about a violent-tendencied man asserting his power and dominance in a brutal and forcible way that leaves marks just as indelibly on the body as it does on the psyche. And because of that mental image (which is repeatedly pushed in media portrayals and political discussions of rape), you have situations like my own, where it took me years to realize that, no, I actually had been raped. Thrice.

None of my rapes were violent. None of my rapes left physical marks on my body that could be seen and diagnosed by the naked eye. Though all of my rapes contained a measure of force -- being held down, or raped whilst unconscious -- none of them were what I would instinctively characterize as "forcible", since "forcible" connotates something similar to "violent" in my mind.

Though my rapes were about power, they could also just as easily be characterized as about selfishness. The men who raped me were not trying to humiliate me, or put me in my place, or take me down a peg or two. My rapes were not primarily about asserting power over me. They were primarily about men who wanted something from me and who felt they had the right to take it without my consent. In two of my three rapes, the men actually wanted me to enjoy the rape, and genuinely believed that I would enjoy the rape, once it really got underway. In those two rapes, the men involved were actually disappointed when they finally accepted after the fact that I hadn't started enjoying the rape, mid-rape.

I will also point out that one of the men who raped me was a proud feminist ally when he wasn't raping people. He stopped raping me mid-rape because I "looked like [I] was being raped". To which I was then able to explain that there was a good reason for that. A conversation ensued. I think learning occurred. This rape -- the most complicated of my three rapes -- is one I don't talk about very often because it was so unlike the common narrative of rape.

The common narrative of rape -- that it's a violent act perpetuated by a violent abuser who wants to cause pain and humiliation on the victim -- does not fit my past at all. That doesn't mean, of course, that there aren't rapes that fit that common narrative, because there certainly are. But it does mean that the common narrative of rape does not include all different kinds of rape -- and as a result, some victims are harmed by virtue of being unable to label what they have experienced.

Rapists come in an infinite variety of types. Some rapists are in loving relationships with their victims. Some rapists believe they are doing their victims a favor. Some rapists believe that their victims will enjoy being raped once they "get past" whatever perceived hangups are currently preventing the victim from enjoying their rape. Some rapists do not believe that what they are doing even is rape.

What the rapist believes is immaterial; if they are overriding the consent of their victim, then it is rape, regardless of the violence level of the rape is or the nature of the rapist's feelings. And for everyone not in the role of victim, focusing on the rapist's feelings is generally immaterial and unhelpful when dealing with a rape. But for the victim, it's easy to look at their rape and at their rapist and think, "well, if he really loves me..." or "but if it wasn't about power..." and find themselves struggling with how their rape can be "legitimate" rape if it didn't fit the common narrative.

Rape apologists who talk about "forcible rape", or "legitimate rape", or who opine that all rapists rape for the rush of power and violence, or who talk about magical pregnancy-prevention hormones triggered by the presence of rape, do not understand this. They have not experienced rape, or (if they have) they have experienced only one type of rape. They have fallen into the trap of assuming, deliberately or otherwise, that rape is something that fits a narrow narrative in their head. And in doing so, they invisible every rape victim who was raped by someone who seemed, even while the rape was happening, to genuinely care about the victim.

I have been raped by men who gently kissed me before, during, and after the rape, and who told me that they genuinely loved me and that what they were doing to me was something healthy and necessary and good. I have been raped by men who supported and fought and cared passionately about feminist causes and progressive positions. I have been raped by men who raped not out of a lust for power or dominance or violence, but out of sheer callous selfishness and a rape-culture-induced belief that they, as Men, could and should "lead" in the bedroom and that I, as Woman, would find my initial no's being turned into mid-rape yes's once I got into the act.

These rapes were legitimate, in that my lack of consent was real, present, expressed, and overridden.

These rapes were forcible, in that the rape was physically forced on me against my will.

These rapes were about power, in that the men involved felt empowered to override my consent.

But these rapes aren't the sort of rapes that fit the common narrative of rape that the media and the right-wing politicians push. They aren't the sort of rapes that are easily recognized by people who have been raised in Rape Culture, who have no experience with rape, and who have never had to re-examine what they think they know about consent. But they were rape nonetheless. And it took me years to realize and understand that rape was more complicated than what I had been taught by the culture around me.

Talking about non-violent rape isn't easy. I've often thought how much easier it could have been for me if my rapes had fit more closely to the cultural narrative of rape. Not because violent rape is in any way "easy" to endure or survive -- it most certainly is not -- but in my very particular and personal case, it might have made the difference between being believed by my family and friends versus being disowned by almost everyone I knew and very nearly expelled from college for "immoral" behavior. And it would make the difference now in being believed about my status as a rape victim instead of having to field -- as I frequently do after posts like this -- trolls via email who explain that, no really, I wasn't raped and I'm cheapening the very concept of rape by saying that I was and why do I hate rape survivors so much that I would cheapen their experience by falsely claiming kinship with them etc. etc.

And this is really Rape Apologism 101: Chip away at the concept of rape as much as possible, until the issue is no longer about consent and is instead about a set of experiences and circumstances that make up an impossible-to-achieve narrative. If the victim is white, young, pretty, virginal, and set upon in X place by Y rapist with Z distinguishing marks left on her body, then it's rape. Anything else? Not rape. Not so much because consent was implied or given by default (though there are certainly people ready and willing to argue that), but simply because the word has become so defined by one specific narrative that all other versions just don't seem to fit. The connotation has subsumed the definition.

That is how you teach young women to not recognize when they are raped. That is how you convince them to stay with their rapists the next morning, and to chalk it all up to overzealous love or a big misunderstanding. That is how you manage to create a world where one in twenty men have committed a rape, and will even admit to it when asked as long as the word 'rape' isn't used. That is how you redefine "rape" to have nothing to do with consent and everything to do with a fictional narrative that is so vanishingly rare that almost nothing will ever be classed as such.


Will Wildman said...

This is a really enlightening post for me. I've always thought that the 'rape is about power' was a really important and valuable premise, but you illustrate here how incomplete it is. Which really shouldn't be a surprise, as you say, since it's only four words trying to encompass a very large and multifaceted - thing.

Thank you and well done.

chris the cynic said...

I wish you hadn't needed to write this post. It's not that it isn't a very good post, it is, it is just that we shouldn't be in a world so wrong/dangerous/callous that such a post is necessary.

M Syre said...

Fairly enlightening; full of stuff that minds don't usually critically analyse and get the same sussed. An other side of the same coin that was normally ignored or not even thought of. Brave soul!

depizan said...

I've always thought there was something wrong with "rape is about power," but been hard pressed to explain exactly what. This. This is what's wrong with it. It suggests that there is, somehow, such a thing as non-consensual sex that isn't rape. (And people who think that might want to take a long hard look at why this is an important concept for them.)

ItsWhaChaDo said...

When that phrase has been recited to me, it's most often been in the form "Rape isn't about sex, it's about power". And my inner objection was "Then why does it always involve sex?"

Antigone10 said...

You brought up the part about "young, virginal, white" victim and I think there's another adjective that needs to be thrown in there: meek.

Trigger warning- I'm going to talk about my rape.

I was dumped by my boyfriend of about a year (my first lover, actually). We were living together, and I had exactly zero dollars on hand to move into a new place, so we were still living (and sleeping together). I was crying, I thought pretty softly, at night after I thought he had fallen asleep (mostly out of frustration that I had to find a new place to live, and just everything) and he woke up and decided that we were going to have sex. He didn't say anything to me, he didn't ask if I wanted to or anything, he just got on top of me and started fucking. I froze- this whole situation seemed so bizarre that I wondered if I was having some sort of weird dream. He finished, and I was left feeling disgusted and dirty. I spent the rest of the night on the couch and went to my friend's house for the rest of the week.

I didn't call it rape at that time because I felt like I hadn't done anything to stop it. I said to myself the same thing that other people said to me after when I talked about that. "You're so good at setting boundaries and sticking up for yourself that you must have wanted it- I mean, come on, the last thing you'd call yourself is shy". "You love having sex, I mean, wasn't rape every time he nagged you into having sex and this just skipped the nagging" "You didn't think he was that bad of a guy- I mean, you could have went to your friend's place in the first place but you didn't". I didn't call it rape, it was just this weird, violating, "bad sex". After I had found a place to live I even went back and seduced him ( I did actually get his consent in an active way) to prove that it wasn't anything bad, and so we could leave on a positive note.

There were too many barriers to call it rape, from going against my own self-image (I'm not a victim anymore) to my actions before and my actions after. But it was rape- he never asked, I never said yes, and I never wanted it.

Silver Adept said...

I second chris's sentiment about wanting a world where this post is unnecessary because the acts and mindset described in it were anathema to everyone.

The back of my head tickles with some sort of statistical data that says most acts of non-consensual sex are not by the gangs or types of people you would find in fictional Port Angeles, but by acquaintances, friends, and romantic interests. Which says that if we wanted to pay attention, we would have already redefined ourselves rather than letting an old, patriarchal, convenient-for-religion and slavery definition persist about what is and isn't rape.

Also, to be metatopically tangential, those organizations and politicians that talk about "forcible rape" or "legitimate rape" are still framing it in terms that the only legitimate end result of sex is pregnancy and children. In those terms, a woman getting pregnant by a rapist must have wanted sex from him, which feeds nicely into their anti-contraceptive platform, of which more than Todd Akin subscribe to.

The fail is exponential, and short of a major mental shift away from the ideas that are convenient for men of privilege to have and perpetuate (possibly brought on by an influx of women into the halls of power, the police, and everywhere else that they can go so that they can not only help the public turn away, but have enough numbers and power so as to eject people behaving badly toward them), I can't really see anything changing on a big scale. That sucks.

Pqw said...

Ana, this post demonstrates the power Emoters have. Excellent job laying everything out. (

I, too, wish posts like this didn't need writing however.)

Both of my rapes did not fit the 'normal' narrative. The first one was forcible and violent - I was afraid for my life - but an implement was used. So it wasn't until a class in college 4 years later that I learned that my personal sense of having been raped in such a situation did in fact fit a definition of rape. Other people in my life, though, have persisted in calling it 'sexual assault' because it was an implement. This . . . has not been helpful to my healing process.

The second rape was not violent or forcible. It was my first date with a coworker. He'd promised to take me out for a nice dinner; instead, we sat at the bar 'waiting for our table' for a very long time, during which I got drunk (by accident on my part - I'd been too nervous to eat beforehand). Somehow we ended up at his apartment, and eventually, naked. But I don't really recall how. I was way too drunk to give consent, but he didn't ask either. I do remember, right as penetration was imminent, woozily thinking, "hmm, I guess we're going to have sex. I guess I'm okay with it?" (What were my options, realistically?) The next morning, I knew my parents would excoriate me as a slut if they knew what happened. I excoriated myself as a slut, since, as I thought of it then, I'd had sex on a first date. With someone I barely knew. So, I pursued the guy, and we, well, didn't have a relationship, so much as a one-night stand that lasted 11 months? Something like that. But at least my parents didn't think I was a slut! It was 20 years before I realized that night could be called rape. And then a whole lotta things suddenly made sense. . . in a bad way.

My parents are not among the (very few) people who know my first rape was with an implement. So that's not why they don't believe me. They'd just rather believe I threw away a lifetime of honesty for the lulz and to 'ruin my cousin's life'. Yeah, like that was gonna happen! So in response, everyone in my family's been at pains to explain to me, over and over, how much more they like him than me. I guess my chronic PTSD kicking in when my cousin the rapist surprises me by showing up to a family gathering just convinces everyone else what a boring, unfun person I am. Finally, I stopped going, and I stopped talking to my parents. But that means I have essentially been orphaned. Also against my will.

Linda. said...

Thank you for this. I, too, was raped in an unconventional way. I had an independent study with a professor. He asked me about my plans for the weekend and I innocently told him. When he showed up where I was, I felt bad that he was alone, so I left my friends and sat with him. He bought me wine - I'd only had a few sips up until that night. I got drunk. He took me to his house. At first, I felt flattered that he wanted to spend time with me, but then he started to force himself on me sexually. I kept saying "No" and "Stop" but he wouldn't. I was afraid and panicked and really upset. Finally, I thought if I told him I wasn't on the pill, he'd stop. He just flipped me over and raped me anally. I bled for 3 days and didn't tell a soul. I continued my independent study with him. The next meeting, he tried to touch my breast, and I told him if he laid another hand on me, I'd go straight to his wife and tell her everything that happened.

This experience drastically changed my life. But for years I didn't realize I'd been raped because no knives or guns were used. It left me a mess in my twenties and into my thirties.

Thank you for writing about your experiences. I hope they help someone who's going through something similar now to properly identify it and get help.

Amarie said...

Ana, I sincerely don't know what to say in response to this post except...you, and many others in our Ramblite Blogosphere, are a very, very, very strong person. I am not a rape victim myself, so forgive me in advance if I sound ignorant and uneducated about this subject. Again, I'm pissed as all hell (read that: understatement) that such things happen to you and others. I'm even more pissed at a world where such a horrid kind of thinking and compartmentalizing is commonplace. In fact, it's in the heads of our 'benign leaders' like Akin.

But I support and admire every single one of you! Stay strong!!! ^ ^

Aidan Bird said...

Thank you for writing this. It really explains it all succinctly and so well. Whenever I try to explain the same points, it never comes out as well as this. Thank you for that.

TW: Rape and discussion of rape culture

My rape was in a campsite in the middle of the night and it was two strangers that held me down and did it. Except even when I finally, months later, tried to tell someone after being too terrified to admit it to anyone, they labeled it a dream. I had only some bruises around my armpit and a sore, sore body for weeks after the incident, but none of that mattered. It was a dream. I had imagined it. And these words came out of the mouths of family just as much as friends, and even therapists. It was only the doctors at my university that took me absolutely seriously, and it was through their help that I got the care I needed.

This is why when people try to claim we don't live in a rape culture, I just become infuriated. What happened to me. What happened to you and others here on this board - that's all apart of the rape culture. When people like Akins says awful shit that's absolutely wrong and hurtful - that's apart of rape culture. When the media and entertainment industry only portrays a certain narrative of rape and writes off all other rapes as "illegimate" or "lying and not real" or whatever - that's rape culture. When people blame the victim and try to convince the victims that if they just did this or that or prepared like this or like that, then they would have been safe - that is rape culture.

The only way to stop rape is to teach people not to rape. How do you do that? Dismantle rape culture by teaching about consent - the importance of consent and respect of other people's bodies. You don't touch another person's body - especially their private areas - without their consent period. Teach people that, and teach people that they do not ever have the right to take another person's body for their own pleasure. That they have no right to ever try to initiate sex without implicit consent said out loud and clearly. That they do not own other people's bodies. The more we teach that, the less rape will happen. It may never fully stop it, because of the way the world is, but lessening it, and building a new generation of people who live by consent and respect other people's bodies would be a huge improvement.

Posts like yours help to really deconstruct the word rape and how our culture has been trying to redefine it and limit that word, and thus hurting thousands if not millions of survivors. So thank you again.

depizan said...

I don't know the right things to say. I don't know that there are right things to say. The stories you've shared are horrible - no one should be raped. And no one should lose family and friends over being raped because the very people who should support them opted to support rape culture and/or rapists instead.

I think you're very brave to share.

Phoenix said...

Ana, you're the best. Every time you post on this topic, I smile - not because I expect pleasant reading but because I am SO GLAD that someone out there gets it and articulates my own thoughts in such a clear manner.

Do you have any objections to people reposting your links on Facebook or other blogs? Just want to make sure before I link, especially to this one since it's so personal and you mentioned that you get a lot of trolly emails after writing things like this.

Ana Mardoll said...

Reposts are fine, yes.

jemand2 said...

"These rapes were legitimate, in that my lack of consent was real, present, expressed, and overridden."

I have been confused, personally, about some very damaging sexual occurrences in my past which I am inclined to want to call "rapes," but which don't even necessarily follow this script. I was in a relationship characterized by emotional and psychological abuse, one in which my no's regarding such things like kissing and light groping were regularly overridden with the same type of selfish self-focus you write about regarding your rapes, and with a man who did regularly say that he truly loved me and it was all for my good and perhaps actually believed this. My attempts to get out of the relationship with the negotiating tools I'd been given in my conservative women-should-be-passive-in-relationship upbringing had failed utterly on multiple occasions, even when I had broken out of that script partially and started to be a bit more assertive, a bit more "rude"-- still I failed utterly in seeing any way out. By the time the relationship got around to what I consider, in retrospect, to be sex, it had become SO OBVIOUS that my consent or lack thereof was ABSOLUTELY IRRELEVANT to what was going on, that the only variable was whether or not in his mind it counted as premarital sex that god would disapprove of... that I didn't even bother any more to *say* no most of the time. I knew, sometimes, it would only end in a longer, more drawn out episodes that would result in me being forced to play psychologist and prop up his ego for having to deal with his "overpowering emotions" and the existence of me as such a difficult to deal with girlfriend. And other times, the sexual activity came on SO suddenly that I froze up completely before retaining the ability to express any sort of lack of consent at ALL. Fugitivus wrote a blog post about how women who are dealing with a rape may not fight because the obvious crossing of boundaries scares her into wondering what is possible-- literally anything-- if she were to fight back, it could be much worse. For me, it seems, that line was crossed so much earlier with things that NOBODY considers "sex" that by the time the "sex" rolled around.... I no longer even tried to say no.

Regardless.... my lack of consent WAS real, it WAS present, and if it weren't for the immense selfishness expressed by this man, would have been OBVIOUS, whether or not I was actively saying "no," that I was no active participant in any of these episodes, in fact, resembled more of a waking-sleep type state. Still..... it is VERY hard for me to really label these incidents as "rape." They don't fit ANY sort of script of what rape is... except the fact remains, it was activity I consider sex (the law agrees, btw.) and to which I did NOT consent.

Kristin Craig Lai said...

Thank you for this. I've been thinking for a while about writing a post about this very thing. I've always known that what happened to me wasn't about him exerting his power over me. It was about him feeling entitled to me and my body, it was about him having a distorted sense of what love and intimacy should look like. It was about him not being able to empathize with me as a human being. Our culture creates the conditions in which boys and men feel entitled to the bodies of girls and men while girls and women feel the pressure to not make a fuss and avoid being labelled a slut or a troublemaker. So you wind up with boys who don't understand mutual consent and girls who don't begin to know how to take ownership over their own sexuality.

After reading the comments I was faced with a painful reality so I blogged about it: http://andtheycalledmefreak.blogspot.ca/2012/09/i-never-called-it-rape.html

I wish all of you who have posted here the best on your journeys of recovery and healing.

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