This topic is one that I have really wanted to talk about for a long time but have put off for several reasons. It tends to be a divisive topic on social media, often because character limits and/or lack of ability to articulate the full nuance of an argument. In this blog post, I am going to attempt to do so despite the fact I anticipate a lot of derisive and abusive responses. The reason I want to do so is because this is a topic that is important to me because of my own experiences. One of the reasons I don’t want to do so is because I know it will make me a target.
One of the most common topics of conversation in regards to rape is the precautions women should take in order to not get raped. This is an issue for many reasons. Firstly something that gets drummed into us via the media, our parents and other family members as well as our peers from an early age is that we must take precautions. Whenever the topic of rape is brought up in the media many people in both the media and the general public stress the importance of women taking precautions for their safety. While the advice of precautions in itself is not terrible advice, there is something that is overlooked when it happens. Blame.
When the rhetoric surrounding rape is almost solely about the victims taking precautions the message heard by rape victims is that they didn’t do enough to stop the rape from happening. At a time of great trauma when the mind is struggling to process what has happened to them the victim hears that they did not do enough to stop the rape from happening.
When victims feel like they did not do enough to stop the rape from happening, they feel like they are at fault for the rape. When they feel like they are at fault for rape; they are less likely to process, less likely to report the crime, less likely to recover emotionally. When the rhetoric is almost solely about what the victim can do to prevent the rape, it makes the problem worse. When rapists hear the media and others blame the victims for not taking enough precautions, they hear that they are not at fault. The victim shouldn’t have dressed so provocatively, shouldn’t have drank so much they passed out, shouldn’t have flirted with them.
One of the biggest reasons I have not yet told my story in full on this blog, is because I know I will be blamed for my own rape. I know people will tell me it was my own fault for not taking enough precautions. For many years I thought it was my fault. For many years, I thought I had given consent. For many years while I knew I was under the age of consent and my rapist was not, I felt like it was still my fault.
When I was growing up, I was always incredibly shy. I found it difficult to make friends because I was so shy. I had a close friend in high school but our relationship was complicated. There were many periods were we went our separate ways. Most of the time I didn’t know why. It was a struggle for me to find other friends to hang out with and as a result at 14 years old I became friends with a girl (lets call her Mia) in “the wrong crowd”.
She invited me to have a sleepover and during that sleepover to go drinking with a bunch of friends at a local sideshow carnival. I wanted to join in. I wanted to fit in and make new friends. So I went. I had never drunk more than a few sips of alcohol before. At this carnival this group of friends gathered under a large storm water drain nearby. They had a cask of wine which they were sharing around. I had probably a third to half of a small cup. I was not expecting to be so inebriated so quickly. I don’t know how much I drank after that point. I also don’t remember a lot after that point but there are several snippets of the evening that I remember vividly.
The first memory from that point on I still have trouble getting my head around to this day. We had moved to a grass bank at some point and were sitting there. I do not know why it happened or what instigated it but I remember an impact on my head and falling sideways landing on the ground. I felt no pain but I can only attribute that to the fact I was so inebriated as I know I hit the ground pretty hard. My next memory was heading to the women’s toilets and my friend telling me that a girl there was the one who had kicked me.
More loss of memory till the a point we were walking along the streets on the way to a friend (lets call her Nancy) of Mia’s place to sleep over. There was a boy (lets call him Peter) walking with us who was a friend of Nancy’s. He made it clear he was interested in me. At some point I found out he was 19. While we were walking along he asked if he could have sex with me. To this day I really don’t know why but I do know that I said yes.
My next memory is at Nancy’s house. I was lying in a bed in a bedroom and Mia was in the other bed in the room. I blacked out again. Next thing I remember Peter complaining that I had a one piece swimsuit on under my clothes. I blacked out again. Then I wake up to pain. I remember telling him multiple times that it hurts. It made no difference. I passed out again but not before I looked over and saw that Mia was still in the other bed.
The next morning I woke up and Mia was asleep in the other bed. I went to the toilet and found blood all over my thighs. I remember walking through the house thinking it strange that nobody seemed to know what had happened. Nancy’s mother was there and was talking to Peter. She had been in the house the entire night. Mia woke not long after I did and we went back to her house. I remember telling her what happened and while I did so she had a worried look on her face that at the time I didn’t understand. When I told her I was glad I was at least no longer a virgin that look eased a bit. At that point I very much felt I had invited what happened. I knew that I was younger than the age of consent and that he was older. I thought that because I told him yes and despite the fact that what he did was statutory rape, I still believed that I was at fault. The fact that I was inebriated wasn’t something I understood affected ability to consent at the time.
For many years I never thought about it again, at least not in depth. Then in my early 20’s I went to a see a movie in a boutique cinema. The movie was “Higher Learning” and I went with my husband and his best friend. It was about college life in the ’90’s and there was a date rape scene in a dorm room. That scene rocked me to the core. I cried like I had never cried before during a movie and felt intensely uncomfortable about being in such a small cinema with my husbands friend right next to us. I needed to tell my husband what was happening but couldn’t. He knew what had happened when I was 14 but aside from the first time I told him what had happened, we never really talked about it. He didn’t realise how much the scene in the movie was affecting me.
We had both grown up in the 70’s and 80’s where more minor cases of sexual assault were dismissed as nothing to be concerned about. Nobody took it seriously when someone pinched your butt or grabbed a boob without permission. A dirty look at the person doing it was about as far as it went. Nobody really considered that it was sexual assault.
After the movie and when his friend went home I told him why I was so upset. Once again, after that really never discussed it much for a while. Now more recently and with a teenage daughter we talk about that topic more again. She watched “13 Reasons Why” and while I had told her previously I was raped at 14, it brought the discussion forward again. I found the rape scene in 13 Reasons quite difficult to watch because it brings it all up again. That happens during any rape scene in a movie or TV show. When the topic of sexual assault comes up, it makes me think of it and the multiple other times I was sexually assaulted growing up. It stays with you. While I was able to compartmentalise and while it hasn’t had as much of an impact of my life as it has for many others it has always been there. I am reminded of it whenever the topic of rape comes up.
I am fortunate that I don’t suffer PTSD or depression or any other mental illness because of it. I am so lucky because for the most part, it has little impact on my life, but for many that isn’t the case.
For a long time I thought it was my fault because I was drunk. For a long time I thought it was my fault because I said yes when we were walking along to Nancy’s house. For a long time I thought the fact he was 19 didn’t matter because I had said yes. Rape survivors frequently blame themselves for things they should have done differently. Yes there are precautions I could have taken and didn’t. I was naive. I did not know how drunk I would get. I had zero understanding of how much it would effect my cognition. I had zero understanding that I didn’t have to say yes to be ‘loved’ or appreciated. I was the definition of angsty teen who wanted to fit in. I had no clue how peer pressure actually worked but thought I did know how it worked and that I was immune. I wasn’t.
When Peter raped me while I did say it hurt, I didn’t tell him to stop. It didn’t even occur to me to tell him to stop. While I wanted it to stop, articulating it was beyond me. I froze.
Three months later it suddenly occurred to me I hadn’t had a period. My periods had not long ago started and were not regular but all of a sudden it occurred to me that I might be pregnant. I had no idea how to find out if I was or what to do if I was. I didn’t have the money to buy a test and didn’t think at 14 that I could without a lecture from a chemist. So I told my Mum what had happened. She didn’t believe me at first. She thought I was mistaken at first because she didn’t realise there had been any opportunity. As far as she had known I had been on a sleepover that night. She asked if there was blood and I said yes. You could see that changed everything. She knew then that I was serious.
That evening my Dad came into my room and asked who he was. I wouldn’t tell him because I knew if it did he would report it to the police. I didn’t want to deal with the implications of that. I envisioned my friends being dragged to court and as a result my losing their friendship. I envisioned the story being gossiped about around the school and people calling me a slut and pointing their fingers at me. I envisioned social suicide. As if I didn’t have enough difficulty making friends. I think my Dad saw something in my face and understood because that was the last moment it was ever discussed between us. I was however grounded for 3 months. Not really a big deal since I wasn’t exactly a socialite.
The next day Mum came home with a pregnancy test and it came up negative. This was an enormous relief because I knew that if I was pregnant I had no other choice than to have an abortion. There was no way I felt remotely capable of going through a pregnancy while attending school. There was no way I was in any way in a position emotionally or mentally to raise a child. I was lucky.
I really need to repeat this part.
For a long time I thought it was my fault because I was drunk. For a long time I thought it was my fault because I said yes when we were walking along to Nancy’s house. For a long time I thought the fact he was 19 didn’t matter because I had said yes.
It didn’t fully hit me that it was rape, because I blamed myself. I thought it was my own fault. I thought my lack of precaution excused his actions. I was wrong on both counts. You can never fully take enough precautions. Yes you can minimise risk, but that does not make it your fault. I think it was a crime of opportunity. I think if he had been better educated on why consent is so important and how damaging his actions were he would have been less likely to do it.
The reason why I think that is because several months later I walked past him when I was entering a clothing store. I didn’t see him till I was almost past him but my friend saw him. (I was once again friends with my best friend.) She said he smiled at me. I was shocked he smiled at me. I have thought about that fact many times since. Why would he smile at me if he had known he had raped me? I don’t think he could possibly have known. He thought he had done nothing wrong. He had to have. What other explanation could there possibly be for him smiling at me? I haven’t been able to think of another possible reason in 30+ years.
I find it intensely frustrating that whenever the topic comes up on social media or in the media in general that so often women are advised to take precautions. I never hear people advising parents to educate their kids about the importance of consent. I hear people saying that consent is something everybody knows. Well very clearly as my experience shows not everybody knows it. Not everybody knows that consent to sex at the start does not mean consent to sex at the time of penetration. Not everybody knows that consent to kissing does not mean consent to fondling. Many people don’t know that freezing is a very common response in a rape scenario. Many people don’t know that a no may not be verbal. Not everybody knows.
When people constantly harp on about taking precautions a rape victim hears they did not do enough. When people rarely stress the importance of consent the rape victim hears the silence. When the majority of rhetoric focuses on precautions people need to take it feeds the rapists inner dialogue that says if she didn’t want to have sex she wouldn’t have dressed that way. It feeds the rapists inner dialogue that if she didn’t want to have sex, she wouldn’t have gotten drunk. It feeds the rapists inner dialogue that if she didn’t want to have sex she would have said no. If feeds the rapists inner dialogue that if she didn’t want to have sex she would have fought him off. People do bad things because they justify it in their mind as being OK.
When the rhetoric is more about precautions than consent the victim hears blame. When the rhetoric is more about precautions than consent the victim blames themselves. Yes often it is well meaning and yes of course it is wise that people take precautions. However how much do we have to restrict our lives in order to prevent rapists raping? Do we never drink? Never wear sexy clothes? Cover ourselves up entirely? Never go out? At what point is it enough? Do we really want to entirely restrict freedoms to the point of not having a life because assholes don’t know about consent or that they justify in their minds that rape is OK for them to do?
Now before you say you can’t stop rapists raping. Yes you can. Can you stop it entirely no, of course not. There will always be some sociopathic or psychopathic people who don’t care that it is the wrong thing to do. There will also be some who did it because they justified it in their mind because they decided they wanted it because they were drunk, or they wanted it because look how they were dressed or she said yes so that means it’s all gravy from go to end goal. These are the people that education about consent can help. If you educate kids from a young age you get to them before they are exposed to rape culture. If you educate them before boys rib each other in the locker room, some of them will make it clear that misogynist rhetoric is not OK when it starts and nip it in the bud because the kids realise it is not socially acceptable. Education on this is as much about knowledge as it is about social attitudes.
Consent needs to be verbally given before kissing. Consent needs to be verbally given before heavy petting. Consent needs to be given before penetration. A yes the start does not equal a yes at penetration. A yes before penetration does not always equal a yes to finish. If a no or stop is said before finish that is an immediate stop, not an after finish stop. This is a topic that has many facets, many situations and many circumstances. It is not a black and white issue like so many people seem to think.
Why do people not put more effort into talking about consent? At what point will people realise that the victim focused rhetoric is harmful to the victims and ultimately not very informative or practical. At what point will people focus more on fixing the problem of rape and less on blaming the victim for not taking enough precautions?
The dialogue is important. Education is important, vital in fact for reducing levels of sexual assault and helping victims understand they are not at fault. Victims are not at fault. It doesn’t matter if they didn’t take all the precautions. Victims need to hear that. They don’t need to hear that they didn’t do enough to stop the rape. They already blame themselves. They already wonder how differently it would have turned out if they didn’t have that last glass of wine, if they hadn’t said yes at the start, or hadn’t worn that sexy skirt. None of those things excuse rape. Only the rapist is at fault for rape. Victims need support, not blame.