(Heads-up: parts of this post are fairly explicit when it comes to detailing rape and abuse.)
One of the more interesting (and by interesting, I mean ridiculously ignorant) responses I have seen in a few places discussing the I Was Raped project and my input was my statement on the news that the first time I was assaulted — at the age of 11 — I did not know what had happened to me and was without any language to even express it.
This is being met with some measure of disbelief by a few folks, or the assumption I was on drugs or had been drugged or that I was simply stupid. My personal favorite was that I’m a young girl who only called my rapes rape after being brainwashed by Jennifer and feminism, a newfangled notion she apparently just clued me into. Who knew I was such a late bloomer, and that I was somehow able to grow up in the 70’s in a progressive Chicago neighborhood with a single mother, an activist father, and managed to never hear about feminism? Wowza.
I think people forget that in the early 80’s and before, we were without SO much awareness about rape and all other kinds of abuse. (And other things: I also had attraction to women before then, and a girlfriend before I knew bisexuality was a term for what I was. I was actively dating both men and women for a few years before, as detailed in one of my teenage journals, there was an entry that simply says, “Huh. It seems that I’m bisexual.”) That’s hardly to say we’re living in an acutely aware world now, but that things really have changed pretty substantially in a relatively short period of time. I was an exceptionally intelligent child, in many ways precocious, and also being a compulsive reader, I knew a whole lot about a whole lot, including having some knowledge and understanding about sex.
However, even for plenty of people who know something about sex, who are smart and relatively informed, figuring out what sex is and what rape is aren’t so easy, particularly when you’re raised female. Even if we look at classical literature - much of Greek mythology, all sorts of folktales, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the Bronte Sisters, you name it, and this was the kind of reading I did as a kid — it doesn’t take a genius to notice that usually, when rape happens, it’s often presented as sex or, at best, “sex by force.” It’s rarely, if ever, called rape. In that literature, in religion, in common parlance, in romance novels, in films, in family gossip young women have for eons been taught, more than not, that we are passive sexually, that sex for us is something a person “takes” or we “give” (rather than as something shared), and that often enough our sexual awakening is supposed to be about men deciding to indoctrinate us. Many of us were, have been and still are taught, overtly or covertly, that rape is only rape — and even then may not be — if we’re screaming no at the top of our lungs, if there is a knife at our throat, a scary-looking stranger who is scowling (not getting off and smiling or laughing), a dirty alleyway. Even then, we hear about what women in that situation did to deserve it, ask for it, incite it. As I’ve said before, with my rape that came closest to that, at the age of 12, I heard that kind of backlash from the mouths of the police.
My first assault happened with a man I trusted — my family trusted — the man who cut our hair for years. When he asked me to go back into that shampoo room with him, I earnestly thought nothing of it. When he told me how pretty I was getting, I was marginally uncomfortable, but then I always had been with compliments. When he started getting closer and closer to me as he said this, then started talking about my breasts and my legs as he backed me up against the wall, I became very quickly and acutely uncomfortable, but I was taught by one of my parents and all of her family that you trust adults, and that’s just that: that when you feel uncomfortable around them, you don’t yell out or tell them to get out of your face, or tell them how much their breath in your face makes you want to throw up. I was taught that it was more likely I would misunderstand the well-meaning actions of adults than be correct in knowing when they were doing something wrong. When his hands went everywhere he could possibly put them, I was in such a state of shock that this was happening to me. Part of that was that while I had developed a bit early, for the most part, I did still feel pretty childlike, and what was going on very much did not feel like what happened between an adult and a child. Another part of that was that from everything I knew, this was not unlike how, when sex happened, it was described. I didn’t want it, I didn’t feel aroused — I felt incredibly repulsed and before I walked home, wound up throwing up in the alley several times — and yet, it’s not like anyone had ever talked to me about how sex was supposed to feel, emotionally, or like I hadn’t seen enough representations of sex where it clearly was not about the woman’s wants, initiation or boundaries. What I was looking for, later that day and for years afterwards, was a rationale of why that happened to me, how, somehow, something I said, did or wore would have given the impression I wanted that or was available for that. For a couple years, I blamed my developing body: pulled hair out of it that had grown in, tried to make it go back to my childhood body, cut it up with a razor.
I did not tell a soul what had happened to me then. I was cut off from my dad at the time, and I was living in a household with a stepparent who was verbally and emotionally abusive, and who, since I had started puberty, had used that to humiliate and torment me. One of his favorite taunts during those years was to tell me, in lurid detail, how he might cut my breasts off. I think it’s also entirely possible — remember, these are memories which are now 27 years old and which are also made murky by a lot of trauma in a short time - I was worried that having my stepparent know this man had done this to me would give him or any other man the feeling they could do the same. Telling my mother would have meant he was told — my privacy was never respected in that home (the only place I could assure that was a closet I rigged to lock from the inside, where I spent a whole lot of time for a few years), and I was often treated as the interloper to what would have been, apparently, an otherwise idyllic existence. I had no idea what telling anyone else would mean, but I didn’t think it would be helpful. I was already a bit of a misfit at school and we had just moved, so all my friends were very new friends — and didn’t want to say anything which would cement my status as a freak further.
Again, there wasn’t any precedent for this back then, when it comes to telling. There were no talk-TV shows, no magazines, no books, not hotlines, no PSAs telling you to tell, or letting you know that telling could be a big help. There were only an onslaught of messages telling you to shut your trap and pretend nothing happened. My clear assumption at the time was that I must have done something to deserve this or make this man think I wanted this: I was often blamed for so much I did not do in my childhood that I had no reason to think otherwise. I was used to being found at fault. I wasn’t about to tel anyone about this thing which felt so wrong and get sorely punished for whatever I did.
There’s something else people seem to forget. I was more educated in many ways than a lot of girls my age, but I work in sex education right now, not in 1981. And every single day we get questions from people of a wide range of ages, from a wide range of nations, who very clearly would not — or do not - know, either. We hear from people who do not know the names of their own body parts, or do not know what the most “basic” forms of sex are. We hear from people all over the globe in their teens and twenties who do not know the basics of reproduction, or when sex has even happened. We work with a population who is frequently told that ANY sex is wrong for them, and so they tend to expect sex — wanted sex, sex of any kind — to feel wrong. We hear from people all the time who have been forced into sex or other kinds of abuse and do not know what happened to them; know that it was rape or abuse and it was not something they asked for or are responsible for. In other words, things have improved, but we still have a loooong way to go, and there are lots of things which inhibit people from knowing they have been abused which have little or nothing to do with rape at all.
Back when I was running my alternative pre-kindergarten and teaching in other classrooms, the few times I had a student I discovered was being abused in some way, figuring it all out was very tough, because children normalize whatever their normal is, and they are also very easily manipulated by abusive adults into believing that when they say a given thing is okay, that it is okay, even if it hurts, even if it doesn’t feel right, even if every part of them initially — in time that intuition is often worn down to nothing — knows it isn’t okay. I had a student once with a babysitter who, as it turned out, had a husband who punished the children they cared for by burning their mouths with a lighter (you can guess, sadly, when this all played out, how little happened to this man — as I understand it, the only consequence of all of this was that the woman doing home daycare got a limit placed on how many kinds she could have, and stupid DCFS told them who made the report, so the child and his mother were harassed by phone at their home for weeks by these people). I only found this out after my young student had told me all day his mouth and throat were sore. I had given him water and juice, and finally took him in the bathroom to look back in his throat… and saw that the roof of his mouth was literally charred black. I knew well enough by then that you have to be careful how you talk to kids about this stuff — again, it’s very easy to lead or influence them — so it took everything I had to try and ask questions cool as a cucumber when I was mortified and heartbroken, knowing something awful had happened to this child. In asking where he’d been lately, what he’d done over the last few days, he finally volunteered, with a shrug, that “Maybe that happened when Mike put his lighter in my mouth. He does that sometimes.” He said it as if he were saying, “Maybe I’ll have eggs for breakfast this morning.” Mike put a lighter in his mouth, sure, and it later came out that Mike liked to physically “discipline” him in other ways, but Mike also played ball with him, told jokes, was his friend. These kinds of situations are confusing for children, confusing for teens, confusing for adults.
See, sometimes we don’t know we’ve been abused because the person who raped (or otherwise abused) us isn’t supposed to be someone who can harm you: a boyfriend, a teacher, a parent, a clergyperson, a friend. If people who are supposed to care about you, who say they care about you, who others you trust invest trust in assaults you it surely must have been something else, because people you love aren’t supposed to do you harm. Sometimes we don’t know because the person who is assaulting us tells us, quite plainly, while they are doing so that we like what they are doing, that everything feels so good, that we are so special, that they are our friend and would never hurt us. They’re smiling, the way we see them smile all the time, not looking scary or yelling or calling us bitches or sluts. Sometimes we don’t know because what we are told or shown in sex and what we are told or shown is rape so closely resemble each other: my personal feeling over the years is that one thing that makes healing so hard for a lot of survivors is that so much of the consensual sex they are having is still pretty rape-y in a lot of ways. Sometimes we don’t know rape was rape because we have heard so much more about how women are temptresses (or, for male survivors, how men and boys always want any kind of sex from anyone) who lead men into the things they do to us, who cause men to lose self-control — this kind of talk loomed large among my mother’s Irish Catholic parents, for instance — or we hear about how dirty and filthy and bad we are from birth, no mater what we do or don’t do, no matter what is or is not done to us by others.
Let’s also not forget that often, our psyches do us a profound favor with traumatic events where they can kind of turn off and tune out our minds so that our memories of a traumatic event are murky and even nonexistent. This is not some kooky idea people came up with in order to prove imaginary traumas, it’s something very well documented, and one very typical aspect of PTSD. In my case, while I remember much of my first assault very clearly, my second is one where a whole chunk starting where I was forcibly grabbed and pulled into the van and ending where I somehow had gotten myself back into the bathroom of the ice rink where I started, shivering and shaking and bruised, is just missing. I’m very well versed in this point of therapies for missing memories, things like RMT, and of the big flaws in them. Before I even knew how flawed approaches like that could be, I had no interest in trying them (and the one therapist I had who I stuck with in my teens was very down-to-earth and never suggested them): I never wanted those acute memories, nor did I, personally, need them to know what happened to me and to work through it. All the same, when you have memory loss with trauma, it can make figuring out what happened right at or around the time it did a challenge, especially when you factor in the very typical desire for denial of trauma.
One of the biggest bummers of the last couple of weeks is that I wish so many of these conversations could have been had only with rape survivors, in spaces that felt safe, where survivors could really talk and where those who were not could just freaking listen. Every time I read one of these bouts of en masse ignorance, it was usually dovetailed by comments about how we don’t need rape awareness, how everyone knows all they need to know, and how anyone who wants to talk about their rape can with no problems and full support, which is an obvious and sad irony. If we didn’t need that awareness, survivors would feel and earnestly be safe to share their stories and all the prototypical myths — like the idea that everyone knows when they have been raped and knows that’s what to call it — wouldn’t be anything we still had to counter. If people could just listen to survivors — and put aside that sometimes, what we have to say is going to make people feel uncomfortable and is going to challenge certain worldviews profoundly — we’d have come a lot farther by now both in reducing rape and in having a better environment for survivors to heal in. It’s really tough sometimes to even figure out which is more traumatic: a rape itself, or the aftermath of rape, living with rape, trying to work through it all in a culture which is so hell-bent on enabling rape and blaming or silencing survivors.
So, no: I didn’t know that two of my rapes were rapes for the first few years after them, or even when they happened. I wasn’t drugged for any of my assaults, nor was I on drugs or any other substance. I have never been stupid a day in my life. They were not wanted, consensual sex which I only decided to call rape when a bunch of feminist women brainwashed me. I was not atypical in this respect, even though my not-knowing isn’t universal, either. The biggest reason I didn’t know is that, like many, many people then and many now — including some getting the message loud and clear from some of the discussions which have happened over the last couple of weeks — I was taught in a million different ways not to know.