Rape Culture, Victim Blaming, and the Fallacy of Ongoing Consent
Earlier this month, I posted My Story. This was meant to be my recollection of the important events in my personal sexual history. I posted it publicly, hoping that others would be helped by my words. I received numerous responses of support and admiration from friends and strangers for addressing these things in a public fashion. Please note, this post could be triggering to those who have experienced rape or sexual assault.
Unfortunately, not everyone was pleased. I tried very hard to portray my parents as two people who love me very much, but who made a couple of bad parenting decisions. I still believe this of my parents, and I love them very much. I never once pointed fingers, and I never said that they were to blame for the things that happened in my relationships. Memory is subjective, not objective, and our minds often change the narrative over time. For more information on how memory works, I would recommend this article from Wired.
My parents and my brother posted comments on my blog, not knowing that I moderate every single comment. I chose to not allow them to go live on the posts themselves, due to some of the hurtful things that were said in the comments, and because I believed that they were not conducive to the discussion I wanted in those posts. For those that would like to read them, you can find my mom’s comment here, my dad’s comment here, and my brother’s comment here. They intended these to be public, so I am acquiescing to their wishes, however, I have blurred or removed all identifying information. I am not going to respond to the individual allegations in each comment, as I believe that would de-rail the purpose of my blog. I intentionally omitted or did not elaborate on certain specific items they discuss in the interest of brevity.
I would, however, like to use an excerpt from my dad’s comment to illustrate two very harmful attitudes towards women: Rape culture and victim blaming.
Rape Culture and Victim Blaming
In part two of her story she talks about her first sexual experience and the issues that followed. She calls what happened rape and I don’t think I agree with her assessment. Just because she regretted it afterward does not make it rape. In the discussion after her first experience, she felt bad that it had happened and felt used because he left her shortly afterward. Again, that does not mean it was rape. I understand she did not give consent at the point of penetration but she didn’t try to stop him either. With as many other sexual acts were being performed with willingness, it is hard to put the onus on the young man to stop short of penetration. Sometimes you have to take responsibility for putting yourself in a bad situation.
Rape culture is a term that has come to the forefront of US consciousness in the past year, mostly due to the popularity of the Slutwalk movement. While Wikipedia has a great overview of the definition of rape culture, for a more in-depth explanation, I highly recommend reading this FAQ from Finally Feminism 101.
One specific excerpt that especially rings true: Rape culture is 1 in 6 women being sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Rape culture is not even talking about the reality that many women are sexually assaulted multiple times in their lives. Rape culture is the way in which the constant threat of sexual assault affects women’s daily movements. Rape culture is telling girls and women to be careful about what you wear, how you wear it, how you carry yourself, where you walk, when you walk there, with whom you walk, whom you trust, what you do, where you do it, with whom you do it, what you drink, how much you drink, whether you make eye contact, if you’re alone, if you’re with a stranger, if you’re in a group, if you’re in a group of strangers, if it’s dark, if the area is unfamiliar, if you’re carrying something, how you carry it, what kind of shoes you’re wearing in case you have to run, what kind of purse you carry, what jewelry you wear, what time it is, what street it is, what environment it is, how many people you sleep with, what kind of people you sleep with, who your friends are, to whom you give your number, who’s around when the delivery guy comes, to get an apartment where you can see who’s at the door before they can see you, to check before you open the door to the delivery guy, to own a dog or a dog-sound-making machine, to get a roommate, to take self-defense, to always be alert always pay attention always watch your back always be aware of your surroundings and never let your guard down for a moment lest you be sexually assaulted and if you are and didn’t follow all the rules it’s your fault.
Jezebel recently ran an article with a video of a female comedian in Chicago. You can find the article here. I recommend watching the video, as Ever Mainard perfectly illustrates how women are conditioned to expect that they will be sexually assaulted at least once in their lifetime, and that they are also expected to believe it is their fault for not being cautious enough.
It has taken me over ten years to actually say my first time having sex was rape. I did not use the term lightly, and I did not use the term because I “regretted” the relationship. When a person has said no to a specific sexual act, that means no, and to do that sexual act anyway is either sexual assault or rape, period.
Victim blaming is symptom of rape culture. As the Wikipedia article states: A typical infamous expression of victim blaming is the “asking for it” idiom, used in phrases like “a raped woman in a short skirt was asking for it.”
I had internalized the attitude that because I had put myself “in a bad situation”, I was to blame for the fact that he didn’t stop when I had already specifically said that I was not okay with being penetrated. I thought that because I had been okay with other sexual acts, it was my fault that he took the one thing that I had stated was not on the table. The fact that I spent time alone with James does not mean that I was asking for it. It does not mean that being penetrated against my will was my fault.
When most people think of rape, they think of a young woman being forcibly held down by a male stranger in a dirty dark alley, while she screams and kicks, and the male stranger beats her as he forces his way inside her. This is not the only acceptable definition of rape or sexual assault. In fact, this isn’t the most common form of rape or sexual assault.
Not all rape is immediately traumatic. Not all rape victims are left with bruises, or tears in the delicate tissues of their genitals. Not all rape victims are sobbing messes for days afterwards. But rape victims are told that because they did not exhibit all of these signs, they weren’t really raped.
As evidenced in the Rape Trauma Syndrome page on Wikipedia, there are several ways that a person responds to rape. I personally exhibited several symptoms of the acute stage, specifically numbness, bewilderment, and disorganized thought content. I also exhibited the later symptoms of phobias, panic attacks, and anxiety. But because I wasn’t physically injured and constantly crying when I came home, my claim of rape is not believed by those who were close to me at the time.
It is common in rape culture to believe that once consent to a sexual relationship is given, there can never be rape in that sexual relationship. This is patently false. If you allow someone to borrow your car once, does that mean that they would be justified in copying the key and assuming they can always have access to your car?
In my later relationship with David, I experienced another type of rape. After drinking so much alcohol that I fell asleep, David thought that it was okay to have sex with me, despite the fact that I was completely insensate. I awoke once during this non-consensual sex, and was unable to process exactly what was happening. I disassociated from myself, and tried as hard as I could to just stop being there. But again, because we were living together and clearly had a sexual relationship, the claim of rape is not believed, specifically by my brother in his comment. Consenting to sex with a partner while entirely awake and sober does not mean that a sexual partner has perpetual consent to sex.
A similar thing happened during my year of single-hood. One particular person that I was dating also thought that it was okay to have sex with me when I was clearly unable to give consent. I had not been drinking heavily that night, and I woke up the next morning, with my bottom half naked, and next to him in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar place. I did not remember most of the evening, and I did not remember how I got to this place. I don’t know if I had been drugged, or if I had somehow drank more alcohol than usual (during this time of dating, I would specifically limit myself to one drink per hour).
I do know that if I were to ever name this person, few people, if any, would believe my claim, and I don’t intend on naming him. We had spent a lot of time together in public, and were openly dating to many of our mutual friends. It would be assumed that we had an ongoing sexual relationship, when, in fact, this was the first sexual contact we’d had. I gave him the benefit of the doubt, but when the same thing happened with this man a second time, I ended things as quickly as possible, and took care to never be alone with him again.
Rape is never the fault of the person who is raped. No one is ever “asking for it”. No one ever “deserves it”. If consent is given to one type of sexual behavior, then it does not mean that consent is given to all types of sexual behavior. We, as a culture, need to stop placing blame on the victims, and start placing blame on those who commit rape.
Girls are cautioned against certain behaviors, and told that if they indulge in these behaviors, they are at fault for sexual assault and rape. When are we going to start teaching young men that they do not have the right to have sex with someone, no matter what has previously occurred in that relationship?