[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.