Absorbing the Smallest Amount of Light

Absorbing the Smallest Amount of Light June 30, 2016

smallest_lightA friend recently revealed to me that she was upset about having sex on the first date with a man she met online. She didn’t remember having sex, or even going to the man’s house. She simply woke up in his bed without any clothes on. She remembers having two drinks… then nothing. She wondered if she had been drugged, but she didn’t want to accuse him or even admit that she couldn’t remember the evening he seemed so happy about. So what did she do? She accepted his invitation to breakfast.

When I first decided to bring up the topic of rape on my personal blog, it came after months of deciding not to. Not because of any pain I might feel, but because I didn’t want to be that girl. I will choose funny over serious every day of the week—and rape jokes are tricky. I had, in fact, only allowed myself to be that girl during my time as a missionary, when I happily offered up my very personal story in the form of a Christian testimony shared with strangers across America. When the tour was over, I vowed to go forward and leave that girl behind forever. And for two decades I never brought it up to anyone.

Then I changed my mind.

Why did I do that? Because I finally realized something important: my rape story had been a lie. I had held back details about my own behavior which I thought made me less sympathetic, and in the process had convinced myself that my experience was a very mild case. And that, specifically, is the part those strangers needed to hear the most.

As a writer, I suppose it was inevitable I would want to put my revelation into words, but what really convinced me to share my story was remembering how common the situation is. I know there are women in my life who may never tell me it happened to them, and sharing this insight might change their perspective. This could be my only chance to say: I thought those things, too. 

I believed I was finished talking about it. I mean, surely I have made everyone uncomfortable enough by mentioning it at all. And then Brock Turner took over my social media.

If Rapists Were Obvious, Fewer Women Would Find Themselves Alone with Them

I know Brock did not go to that party intending to hurt, entice, or overpower anyone. That is not in his nature. It has never been. — family friend, Margaret M. Quinn

How on earth can Margaret know a thing like that? My guess is the only thing she knows is that Brock has always seemed friendly around her. But I doubt she has ever been unconscious behind a dumpster with him. How many examples will it take before we recognize that likable people commit horrific crimes?

The victim was unconscious, but there are still people who empathize with her attacker out of a belief that “these things happen” when alcohol is involved. We jump to conclusions even quicker when the rapist seems like a “nice guy.” There is an assumption that she must have been giving him mixed signals. She was walking alone with him, wasn’t she? Of course, all of that becomes irrelevant when she reminds us of this in the letter she read in court:

Next in the story, two Swedes on bicycles approached you and you ran. When they tackled you why didn’t you say, “Stop! Everything’s okay, go ask her, she’s right over there, she’ll tell you.” I mean you had just asked for my consent, right? I was awake, right? When the policeman arrived and interviewed the evil Swede who tackled you, he was crying so hard he couldn’t speak because of what he’d seen.

I wonder if Brock’s friends and family could have predicted that was in his nature? How can anyone hear this story and still care about what she wore, how much she drank, or even whether or not she seemed to like him before passing out? The questions should all be directed toward her rapist.

It Has Nothing to Do with Sex for Him, Either

Rape is confusing in the way it resembles sex, especially if you started out having sexual feelings for your rapist. But most men would not be aroused by having sex with a girl who is protesting, or who is in visible pain. Or unconscious. A rapist has an unusual reaction to a person who won’t give him what he wants. When that reaction is triggered, it no longer has anything to do with sex for him, either. It is about control.

Unfortunately, many victims are easily intimidated into submission. Others are drugged. And still others are simply chosen because they look like the easiest target. A rapist is looking for someone to control, and that desire is not a side effect of drinking alcohol. Alcohol is not the problem.

A victim should never be held responsible for another person’s violent need for control. Convincing victims they made a mistake is how the abuser gets away with it in the first place. That is an abuser’s number one strategy. Much like an abusive husband who lectures his battered wife on all the ways she “asked” to be hit—a large percentage of the misinformed public will point the same finger at rape victims. Victims themselves will think: I should have known better. I shouldn’t have pushed his buttons like that.

We are constantly sending the message that abuse is okay as long as there is evidence the victim has made even the slightest error in judgment. We must stop ranking victims according to their behavior.

Sexuality Without Shame is Complicated

In a post last year called “I Was a Purity Culture Failure” I wrote about being raped by a friend:

For me, the physical act itself wasn’t the hard part to get over. It wasn’t long before I felt practically nothing about it. But that didn’t seem like the correct response. I never did get that part right, which in my head meant all sorts of things. It was my pride that was hurt, and I despised myself for mourning my lost friend more than I hated him. I almost let him back in a thousand times. Life is complicated. Our thoughts are complicated. And inviting god into that mental situation was a mistake.

What is it that most rape victims are ashamed of? If a stranger broke into my home and attacked me, I would no doubt experience trauma and fear from the attack. I also imagine the statistics on women who report this type of rape is close to 100%. Other sexual assaults, like date rape, are different. A victim may not fear for their life at all. It’s the shame that hits hardest—and what we are really ashamed of is our belief that we are not the ideal, innocent victims we are required to be.

It’s strange. I don’t feel anything about it now. No emotion. No hate, anger, fear, guilt, self-pity, sadness… nothing. But twenty-five years later, I do remember every detail. That’s an advantage I have over Brock’s victim. Not knowing would drive me insane.

Most vividly I remember wanting to be turned on. I kept thinking, “If only I could relax, maybe he could stay inside me easier and it wouldn’t hurt so much.” And so I closed my eyes and tried my best not to fight it—in hopes of avoiding worse physical pain. It happened so fast I couldn’t fully grasp the gravity of what had changed between us, and my mind raced for ways to return to normal. Was it too late to pretend I wanted this? 

These are the things I thought about while I waited for him to finish.

Blaming the Victim Won’t Keep You Safe

The following are taken from survivor stories found at www.endcampusrape.com:

I was raped when I was in college at the University of Iowa. At the time, I did not consider it rape because I had been drinking and went into his dorm room with him so I thought it was my fault. However, when I told him to stop, he did not, even though he knew I wanted him to stop. I knew I could not break away at that point in time. He was too strong for me. He forced himself on me. For years, I did not consider that rape. I blamed myself. I thought I asked for it. Even today, many years later, I have to remind myself that if it had been the other way around and he told me to stop, I would have stopped. He did not. He raped me. — Anonymous

I’ve never felt more like a liar than the times I have talked about sexual assault and rape. I’ve never felt more vulnerable, alone, silenced – not in the process of being assaulted, but in the aftermath when I told my family and friends. Why couldn’t I have kicked or screamed? Why did I drink so much? Was I wearing a miniskirt to that party?  I was asking for it. I shouldn’t have gotten drunk. I shouldn’t have gotten into bed. I should have been able to avoid every instance of rape and assault by the various individuals who have come for me. The constant wagging of fingers and shaming and being put at fault – it was my fault. — Lisa Sendrow

My detective spoke with the rapist, who claimed I consented while I was intoxicated, and concluded this wouldn’t be admissible in court.  I tried my hardest to reason with him, to explain that there is no consent when you are too intoxicated to think clearly or when you are drugged. It was clear that he did not comprehend the most basic definition of consent in regards to North Carolina law. In a later conversation, he told me that he thought the rapist was a nice guy who seemed upset when spoken to about the situation. “He doesn’t have a record, he is a good kid, and didn’t mean anything malicious by it. I don’t think he’ll do it again.” With that, my case was essentially closed. — Elizabeth Willett

It has been my experience that almost everyone who speaks out about sexual assault has, on occasion, been greeted by the deluxe combo platter of blame, disbelief and minimization. There is, however, a special stigma sauce for those who have been assaulted more than once, as though it’s indicative of a character flaw within us. Many of us, I think, will pick the “worst” incident and talk about it as though it’s the only one. I usually do. Partly out of misplaced embarrassment, partly because I can’t stomach another fight against the usual response: I wonder what she’s doing to bring this upon herself. After all, most women are never raped, right? So, someone who has been assaulted more than once must be doing something wrong. — Alex Arnold

I get why people blame the victim. It’s because if it’s somehow the victim’s fault, then it can’t happen to you, right? Because you’ll dress appropriately, and not drink too much, and never walk alone at night. Distancing yourself from the victim by making it her or his fault keeps you safe. — Erin McCamley

Sometimes When We Need the Most Support, We Become Invisible

I am glad to see the anger against Brock Turner turning my social media into a storm of awareness for sexual assault and consent. It’s wonderful. So at first I was confused about why I couldn’t shake the feeling of disappointment at all the enthusiasm. Then I saw someone share their own story on Facebook (no doubt finding courage from the outpouring of support for the Stanford victim)—and almost no one responded. I thought: of course they didn’t.

Seventy thumbs up for the photo of your cat… but no reaction to your story about the time you were raped. Keep that to yourself. 

And more often than not, we do keep it to ourselves.

Imagine sharing your rape story with friends who aren’t even interested enough to read it, only to see those same friends become vocal supporters of rape victims who aren’t you. They share videos and memes. They demand everyone read the Stanford victim’s “important and powerful” words. They are important. And powerful. And you want to believe all the outrage is genuine—but you don’t. Instead, you begin to believe you might be invisible.

I am angry on behalf of that Facebook friend because I feel it, too. Suddenly I am being told again and again how important this is, while what I have to say is still just as unimportant as it was last week. Nothing has changed. But I am writing this anyway, for the ones who are reading this now and saying: I thought those things, too.

When the Stanford victim says to girls everywhere that she hopes we have “absorbed a small amount of light,” I know it’s the most she feels she can do. And offering our own small light is an emotional risk we are not all ready to take, because it may go completely unnoticed.

We say, “Let’s teach our children about consent.” But we don’t. We throw out statistics on the number of women who have been assaulted while avoiding eye contact with the ones sitting next to us. And we wonder how rape culture persists. Do we really care, or are we only interested in expressing our brilliant opinions on a current topic?

At some point we have to ask ourselves: Why do we go into a frenzy over one stranger’s trending story while ignoring the similar stories playing out in the lives of those closest to us? 

Change doesn’t spring from a week of petitions and angry memes. It begins with us caring about the people in our own backyard. Listening to them. Learning from them. And believing them. Even when it isn’t popular.

How have religious beliefs about sex affected your own perception of rape and consent? Join the conversation and leave a comment!

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