I’ve been meaning to talk about rape culture and my experiences with it for quite a while, but something always puts me off. It’s not a ‘fun’ feminist topic. I don’t get to disclose tantalising details about my sex life and offer tips on how to try some of the kinkier stuff, and I don’t get to justify my writing with ‘this will help you have much better sex!’, as I do with so much else. But I think it’s something more than that. I am proud of my sex life, proud that I have managed to get to a point where I can talk openly about what I want and where I’m not ashamed of what I enjoy. In real life, I sometimes get accused of showing off, and while I don’t mean to, I can see how it might come across that way, because damn it, I have great sex and I know it.
I am not proud of being sexually assaulted. I am not proud of being raped.
Even typing those words took a lot more effort than writing that I enjoy being handcuffed down and lightly choked ever would. I still hesitate using that word. Rape. Was it rape? It didn’t fit into any of the narratives I’d heard all my life about what rape was, so I always assumed it wasn’t. I’m much more comfortable now saying I was sexually assaulted (that that least is certainly true), than of using a word I’ve been attacked for using so many times before. And while if anyone came to me and told me that something similar had happened to them, I would have no problem calling the perpetrator a rapist, somehow I struggle in relation to myself. There is doubt there. Am I misremembering? Did I just change my mind after the event, as so many people claim rape accusers do? Was it all just a big misunderstanding?
I got all of those excuses and many more when I was dealing with the aftermath. The first time, I was reminded that I’d been drunk that night, and that I’d been flirting with Tarquin and just about everyone else. The second time, well what did I expect, getting into bed with Domitian? And the third, Tereas and I were already sleeping together. We had been, for a year. I’d allowed him to handcuff me down, and I even gave in towards the end, begging him to go slower rather than to stop. Clearly it was all just miscommunication, a case of mixed signals, these things can be so unclear. Obviously he didn’t mean to rape me.
And just as obviously, the people telling rape jokes in my presence don’t mean to offend me. Of course it’s just a joke, clearly they don’t mean anything by it. I’m just being over-sensitive, failing to really understand.
And I tell them no. I tell them they have no idea when they tell those jokes whether or not their in the presence of a sexual assault survivor. They look at me oddly, as if I’m exaggerating hugely. I hold my ground. After all, I say, we don’t exactly wear badges.
This is the part of my identity that I most want to hide, and that I am least willing to. I watch eyes widen in shock, people around me stumbling over themselves to take back what they’ve said, desperately trying to reassess our relationship in the context of what I’ve just told them. I hold eye contact and refuse to look away, to laugh and take it back, to make a joke out of it. I get asked if I’m okay, if I want to talk about it. I say I got over it years ago. They ask why, if that’s the case, I choose to bring it up now. I wonder that myself sometimes. But the truth is, no one ever stops to consider whether the person they’re talking to might have suffered sexual assault, why a trivial joke might be more triggering for them than for the teller. The number of stunned responses I get when I admit that I fall into that group tells me one of two things. Either it’s never occurred to them that something like that might have happened to someone they know, which is statistically pretty much impossible, or it is inconceivable to them that anyone might admit it in public, might risk the shame and stigma that goes with it for no apparent reason.
Is it that I’ve been raped that shocks them, or that I refuse to hide and be ashamed and pretend it never happened?
I see where they’re coming from. I know a lot of survivors, and the vast majority of them would never mention something like this in public, among near-strangers. Some hardly talk about it at all. I am certain that I know more, who have never told me, or indeed anyone else. The reactions hurt. The shock, then, if you’re lucky, the pity. If you’re not, the interrogation, a barrage of questions to determine what, precisely happened, and whether it actually, you know, counts as rape. The assessment inevitably ends up being that it doesn’t. I would not ask anyone else to open themselves up to that, especially not someone who has already suffered the actual assault.
But I do it. And it is not because I am braver, or stronger, or more ‘over it’ than anyone else. It is because the only way I can overcome the total humiliation I feel at having let this happen to me, not once, not twice, but three fucking times, is to do my damnedest to try to make sure it doesn’t happen to anyone else. Part of that is writing this blog, and encouraging my friends to communicate better and have a clearer understanding of what they do and don’t want. But part of it is challenging others, even if I don’t know them that well. Part of that is saying yes, we exist, we don’t blend into obscurity and disappear just because it’s easier for you to think that no one you know could possibly be a victim or a perpetrator, so you can tell your rape jokes in peace. I’m not going to be silent so that you can feel better about yourself, and if my presence, my admission, makes you feel uncomfortable, maybe you need to reevaluate a few things.
It is not strength that makes me do this, it is pride. Fighting the urge to forget it all and pretend it was just ‘mixed signals’ and ‘a drunken mistake’, in the vaguest hope that maybe something I say might stop it happening to someone else. That is the only way I can overcome the humiliation and powerlessness that I still feel today. It still hurts, every time someone tells me it wasn’t ‘real rape’, or accuses me of overreacting and seeking attention. But it hurts a little bit less every time. And that too is something that I am proud of.