Before the bombings in Boston and the explosion in Texas and the ricin-laced letters to the president and congressmen, two women quietly committed suicide, not I think so much because they had been raped — a traumatic enough event in itself — but because the crime had been broadcast all over the Internet by the perpetrators. The women in question had not only lost control over their bodies and their safety, they had lost control over their very privacy. Everyone knew what had happened to them and, sadly, enough of those “everyones” had blamed the women instead of the men who committed the heinous act.
The young woman in Steubenville whose life was upended by being raped by two high school football players might never have reported the crime had the event not been filmed and bragged about. Had there not been witnesses. Like many women who are raped or beaten or both — whether by strangers or people they know — she might have chosen to keep the crime secret: perhaps telling a friend or two, perhaps not speaking of it until years later. Because she was ashamed, deeply mortified, deeply frightened and in shock. Because she knew, if she did speak out it would be her word against the rapists. And without witnesses her word might have meant nothing.
As it was, she was shamed, blamed, and castigated for the rape: because she was drunk, because she was at a party, because she “ruined” the lives of the two young men who assaulted her. Because she made an entire town, and entire nation, have to think hard about its culture: a culture that puts the burden of proof on the victim to “prove” she was raped, that she tried to fight back, that she wasn’t in a dicey situation or wearing “provocative clothes.” The mainstream news media, in its inimitable fashion, spent less time on the victim than it did on the perpetrators, just as they did with the mass shootings in Virginia, Colorado, Connecticut. We can all reel off the names of the men who did the shooting but we need to search for the names of the dead and wounded. In the Steubenville case, the raped girl’s name should not be telegraphed, but certainly what happened to her should be: and what happened to her is far more heinous than the punishment meted out to the young men who raped her. In the case of the two girls who killed themselves, they meted out punishment to themselves that is irrevocable and plunged their families into endless grief.
There are hundreds of examples of judges, police and media figures shaming young women who have been raped. The most recent is that of Australian radio host John Laws whose interview of a rape survivor is so surreal as to be unbelievable. But those who have been raped believe it well: they have gone for years, decades, afraid to speak out about what happened to them for fear of the way it would be received.
At least 54 percent of sexual assaults go unreported.
I get that. I am one of those statistics.
In my mid-twenties I was raped on a date with a man with whom I had been set up. I did nothing other than tell the person who set me up that the guy wasn’t a good person. I felt helpless and stupid. He was in my house, I had invited him in, I had, at that time, more than 30 years ago, no tools with which to figure out what to do. I tried to fight but I was terrified.
A couple of years later, a man I was dating, a veteran of the Vietnam War whom I knew had mental health issues, beat me in a violent rage after I told him I was having lunch with an old male friend the next day. The beating, clearly a sexual assault, did not go as far as rape, although my clothes were ripped from my body and there was clear intent. Luckily, he was drunk and I managed to escape and lock myself in my bedroom. I called my best friend. She came and got me and I went to the hospital where I actually told the doctor I had fallen down the stairs. He did not press me. I did not tell the police. I did call the man’s mother and his therapist. But that was as far as I went.
Just by telling these stories I know I am opening myself up to accusations that I have lousy taste in men. Which is why very very few people in my life know anything about these events. Had the telling of these events been taken out of my hands by their being broadcast to the world, I have no idea what I would have done. Although I was a little older than the girls I talk about above I was not yet fully formed, I harbored the same insecurities and doubts that all young women do, I was strong only on the outside: my inner turmoil I kept confined to journal entries and only the closest of friends. Had my privacy been so violated I can well imagine feeling as desperate and lost as the two girls who committed suicide.
I lived with what happened to me for many years. I never told my parents or friends about the rape. When I told my father about the beating he offered, in good faith I assume, to get a couple of guys he knew to teach the man a lesson. He then tried immediately to fix me up with a man he knew, even as the left side of my caved-in face was still covered inexpertly with makeup. I did not tell my mother who would have, I expect, asked me “Well what did you do wrong?” That was her usual response to me when I told her about things which had happened.
I have a 20-year-old daughter who is as cavalier about her safety as most young women; she thinks she is invincible. Her heart has been broken, yes, but never, not yet anyway, her body. I fear for her every day. I have tried to talk to her about watching men who might put something in her drink, about putting herself in situations she can’t quite get out of, about trusting the untrustworthy. I have told her more than once that she cannot go out in the outfit she has on, that it telegraphs signals which may then spark behavior that she may not be able to fend off. But I also told my son at puberty, when the sex talks had long been had, that “no” always means “no,” and that women should be treated with respect and kindness and decency at all times. I told him that he should imagine every woman he dates is his younger sister and treat them as he would wish her to be treated. I know I have not always been successful in counseling either of them; they have both taken risks that frighten me.
I personally know far too many women who have been raped or abused. I have heard their stories even if they have chosen not to tell them to the world. I would not advise them to do so. But today our world is far different than it was 30 years ago. We have lost our choice about who to tell about what happens to us when everyone has a cellphone with a camera and the internet can make even the most intensely private act public in a matter of seconds. Which is why we have to control, as best we can, who we tell and how and why. And we have to keep telling and telling until the boys who tell our stories for us — without our permission — no longer have power over us. No longer have the kind of power it took to destroy Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott.
Rape has always been about power, not about sex, despite the myriad misunderstandings about the crime itself and the shaming of the victims by describing how they were dressed, where they were walking, how much they had had to drink, how pretty and desirable they were. But the power of rape is magnified exponentially when the act can be broadcast everywhere.
So I say we give up our privacy in the fight for justice, for education: in the quest to take back some of the power we have lost by being attacked. The world is always in our business so we should make it our business to defuse the bomb of shame and to stand up to those who would shame us.
It has taken me weeks to write this article, nay, even years. But something in the stories of the women whose private horror was spread around the world has made me step up. We must report these crimes even if we take the risk that we will be blamed or that our stories will be telegraphed around the world. We must tell our stories even if we fear that our own actions will place the blame on us rather than those who raped or abused us. We must be willing to bear the shame of telling for the benefit of putting our stories out there so that the millions of women who cannot talk about their trauma may be finally able to do so.