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Dec 5, 2016
A World Without Rape
If we really want to end sexual violence, we need to think more about support and less about punishment.
Two weeks ago I saw the man who raped my best friend. I hadn’t seen his face since right before it happened a year and a half ago, and I looked up and there he was, talking to some friends. My body reacted before my brain had a chance. I dropped the bag I was carrying as my whole body started shaking and my vision blurred. I had spent the past year and a half at Rita’s side while she learned to live again after he raped her- through her loss of identity, the blank look in her eyes, all the moments that she wanted to die, her fear of her own body and sexuality- and now I was looking at the man who caused it all.
As far as I was concerned, he might as well have been the devil. But there he was, talking and laughing as if he were human. I only hesitated for a moment, walked around in a few manic circles, then I went right up to him, tapped him on the shoulder, looked him straight in the eye, and said, ‘Hi, Tacho? You don’t remember me? You raped my best friend.”
GROWING UP IN RAPE CULTURE
I was raised to think that rape wasn’t a big deal. My liberal parents never mentioned it or anything else that they would rather not think about, leaving me to be educated by the media and in school. In high school, my friends and I had drunken hookups all the time. As relatively socially outcast teenage girls, our self esteem was so dependent on male sexual attention that we felt lucky for whatever we got. Usually, we were too intoxicated to give informed consent, had sex we didn’t want, or were outright coerced into it.
All of my high school hookups were so centered around pleasing my male lovers that I actually thought there was something wrong with my body that made me incapable of feeling sexual pleasure.
Only twice did close friends actually use the word ‘rape’ to describe their experiences. The first time was when we were 15, on the same night that I lost my virginity to a complete stranger while blackout drunk (which I was thrilled about). Nick, a popular hockey player, tried to get Alexis to have sex with her and when she said no, he locked her in a room and raped her. When she told us the next morning as we were excitedly gossiping about our various sexual exploits, I remember saying, “well, at least you got laid” before brushing it off. If I hadn’t also had sex that night, I can guarantee I would have felt jealous. Not only did the boys our age, their sex education vacuum being filled by the porn industry, learn to feel completely entitled to women’s bodies, but we as girls learned to desire sexual exploitation. I never knew what happened when my friend Lindsay got raped because I never asked.
We had one day of rape education in health class my senior year of high school. We watched a 60-minutes episode about a popular senior boy in Michigan who was accused by three freshman girls of getting them drunk and raping them on separate occasions. The girls received death threats from their classmates and were forced to change schools. The boy was expelled and locked up for a few months, maybe just weeks. The general reaction of my class was impassive; they probably weren’t paying attention, and we didn’t discuss it at all.
I, however, felt shocked. How could these girls ruin this boy’s entire, promising life just because they got drunk and had sex with him? (Sound familiar?) I remember going to lunch after that period and proclaiming loudly the ridiculousness of it all to my friends- If that was rape, then how many times had I, had we all, been raped? I said it as if that clearly proved that the case in the video was not rape. Both the accusers and the accused were simply performing a routine that we all knew too well, a routine in which girls were assumed to want sex, especially from older and more popular boys. It felt like the girls in the case were exempting themselves from the rules of the game by crying rape when the guy was just playing his part, a part he had probably played countless of times before.
Though I didn’t recognize it at the time, I was describing rape culture.
People throw the term ‘rape culture’ around a lot, but I’m not convinced that most actually stop to think about what it means. What does it mean to say that something is a culture? I think of a culture as being an amalgamation of stories. We are told stories about sex, gender, our bodies, and our sexualities from birth by the media, the porn industry, older kids, our parents, and teachers. Then we, at a very young age, start repeating those stories to one another and ourselves until they become second nature and the original sources of the stories become obscured. They no longer even feel like stories, they just feel like reality, part of the air that we breath.
While I was told that my value as a woman depended on pleasing men, my male friends were told that their value as men depended on conquering women’s bodies. We can think of infinite messages that cultivate and enforce these stories- How young girls are taught to think of their appearance in terms of what guys do and don’t like, how young boys are called gay, or a pussy, or a woman, if they don’t participate in objectifying girls.
I am not sharing my experience because I think that it’s extraordinary, but rather because I think that it’s painfully typical. Rape has defined my life from age 15, and even younger if I’m honest with myself, and by sharing my story of growing up in rape culture, and in particular being honest about the ways that I participated in and perpetuated that culture, I hope to challenge some of the ways that we who proclaim ourselves feminists or anti-rape think about and fight against sexual violence.
CALLING FOR JUSTICE
Going to college was like being dropped into a different world. I chose a small, progressive liberal arts college in Massachusetts because of its professed commitment to social change. Our freshman-year orientation was largely focused on consent. I learned that consent can not be given under the influence of substances and that if there is not an active and enthusiastic ‘yes!’, it’s rape. I pushed the common saying that I had always laughed at in high school- ‘yes means yes, no means anal’- out of my mind. The orientation leaders, second and third-year students who I thought were infinitely cool, seemed to take this consent thing really seriously. I didn’t totally understand, but I went along with it, immediately adopting the new ideology.
All of a sudden, I was vocally anti-rapist. This was at a time when the anger about the impunity of perpetrators on college campuses seemed to explode. People who came forward as survivors of rape or sexual assault were- and still are- put through horrific, retraumatizing processes, forced to prove that they were raped to administrators trying to avoid scandal. Perpetrators were- and still are- let off with a slap on the wrist, forcing survivors to continue attending school alongside their rapists in a state of emotional terrorism leading to isolation and mental illness, often forcing them to drop out of school.
The system denied survivors justice, so we created our own justice.
At my college, it happened the same way a handful of times. Someone would write a blog post entitled, ‘X IS A RAPIST!’ chronicling their assault, the administration’s lax response, and the ensuing compounded trauma. They would post it online, usually Tumblr, where it would make the rounds, being shared hundreds of times by other students, often with notes like ‘watch out for this person!’ or ‘Do not let this person into your scene!’
Then the news that this person, who many of us knew or were friends with, was a rapist travelled around swiftly. There was a social law that no one should talk to or engage with the rapist or anyone who continued to engage with them. And that law was enforced. If you did continue to talk to the rapist, you were considered a rape apologist and similarly socially exiled. Even questioning this informal justice system was not an option; transgression meant risking everything. It meant seeing your own name in bold shared around the internet. It made perfect sense to me- talking to perpetrator= you’re not angry enough= you don’t think rape is a big deal= you are complicit= you need to be taught a lesson.
Things started feeling a little less clear when my close friend, Nahla, was raped while studying abroad. She was living in an apartment with our other close friend, Meredith, and when she told her what happened, Meredith was less than supportive. She got way less male attention than Nahla and she was jealous. Instead of supporting Nahla or even recognizing what happened, she shamed her for making out with the guy in public. Nahla was so traumatized and alone that she had to come back to the States months earlier than she had planned.
She didn’t realize the magnitude of the betrayal until months later when she had a flashback to the rape, after which she cut Meredith off entirely. Though she never said it explicitly, she expected me, the third member of the previously inseparable trio, to do the same. And I did. I was furious with Meredith for how she had dropped Nahla when she needed her most, and I cut off our friendship almost entirely.
But while I tried to convince myself that this was what accountability looked like, I was forced to admit to myself, for the first time since I took up the anti-rapist banner, what I had done to my friends in high school. I was forced to admit to myself that I knew what it was like to be jealous of rape, to be so deeply dependent on male attention that when your best friend gets raped you drop her. I understood that this was another way that rape culture hurt us as women: it drove us to hurt each other. Meredith stopped being a clear villain in my mind, especially because three years earlier I would have done the exact same thing.
NO MEANS NO, YES MEANS…?
And then it happened to me. All of a sudden this thing that I was raised to think was no big deal, and then understood only in theory, happened. It left me knocked over, immobilized, dead in the eyes, the whole nine yards. I hyperventilated while my friends held me and whispered ‘fuck him’ in my ear. I even crashed my car when I saw him walking down the street. I started to go through the motions that I had learned would bring justice and accountability; I told everyone who would listen that he was a rapist, I shunned him, I prepared to make a public denouncement. However, I found that what I really wanted, what I needed, was for him to truly understand what he had done to me and repent. I needed him to change.
When I confronted him about it, he didn’t puff up his chest and deny what he had done, he didn’t walk away, he didn’t tell me that I was overreacting. He broke down. He told me about the sexual abuse that he had experienced as a child, that he struggled with sex and love addiction and that what for me was rape, for him was a relapse, that my body was another casualty of his addiction. He told me about all the people who had hurt him and all the people he had hurt, about all the friends who had left him because of his addiction. He told me about the four different support groups that he went to on a weekly basis and how hard he had to fight every single day to keep going, how hard he was fighting to change.
My empathy for him was so strong that it became my life purpose to prove to him that he deserved to be loved. My own sex trauma had left me feeling so worthless and undeserving that I think I really needed to prove it to myself. This launched me into a two-year relationship sustained by the never-ending cycle of him hurting me and then breaking down and professing his commitment to changing. I depended on the moments after the hurt, after the violation, after the rape, when, after breaking me, he would hold me together, if only for a moment.
I was trapped in this cycle by isolation. Alejandro was so deeply terrified that his friends, his community, his family would dispose of him if they found out about his addiction that he didn’t tell anyone else besides the people in his support groups. We were in the same social justice organization together and called that community our family, but only one person knew Alejandro’s secret besides me, and he held it like it was a liability, a bomb that could go off and bring down the organization at any time, instead of a complex and wounded part of his brother and comrade that required support and compassion.
This meant that I was his sole support. Each time I confronted him about pressuring me into sex, touching me in my sleep, manipulating my emotions, he would spiral into an emotional breakdown, often to the point of suicidal ideations, and I was the only one there to pick up the pieces. He depended on me entirely to convince him that he wasn’t a rapist, that he wasn’t a monster, that he deserved to be loved, that he deserved to live. Needless to say, I spoke up very rarely, and less over time, knowing the cost of doing so was more than I could bear. Mostly, I stayed silent.
I never called what he did to me rape. Even that first time when he tossed my body around like a rag doll, so dissociated that he didn’t even realize what he was doing, I only felt the full weight of rape for a few days and then left that self, the Nina who was raped, behind to take care of him, the Alejandro who raped. Because if I admitted that he raped me that meant that he was a rapist which meant, by the cultural logic, that he deserved to be disposed of, and I loved him too much to do that. He never held me down, I never fought him off, he never threatened me. But there were so many times when we had sex that he didn’t even look in my eyes to notice that I had swallowed my ‘no’, that I wasn’t present, that he was fucking my lifeless body like an object, like a sex toy that he could extract an orgasm out of. Each time that this happened it felt like a part of my soul, my identity, was stolen and this, to me, is sexual violence.
The definitions of rape and consent that I learned in college just don’t cut it for me anymore. It makes perfect sense to me why we fight for ‘yes means yes, no means no’ when this has been and continues to be denied to us by the legal system, the media, and the overwhelming portion of society. In a world where so few even bother to ask, I understand why people fight for verbal consent.
However, our abilities to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are constructed and molded our whole lives by a culture that tells women that their only value is in pleasing men, and that tells men that their only value is in exploiting women. Where did this definition of rape leave me all the times that I said ‘yes’ for fear of the consequences? What about all of the myriad ways that people are violated without penetration? And how many people have belittled or shaken off their experiences because they didn’t say no, or maybe they did but not loudly enough, or maybe they screamed it but they could have fought back, or they came so they must have really wanted it, and there’s no way he could have known that they didn’t… and so the cycle continues, and will continue, until we adopt a truly inclusive understanding of rape and sexual violence. This should not diminish the weight of rape, but rather include the weight of sexual coercion, manipulation, and exploitation.
In the face of rape culture, we must construct a culture of consent. By understanding consent as a culture, the responsibility and accountability deepens. It’s not as simple as getting your ‘yes’ and proceeding to do what you like. Rather, true consent means building the trust and confidence to ensure that every ‘yes’ is genuine and in line with the person’s true desires, independent of power dynamics and emotional coercion. In order for a culture of consent to be constructed within a relationship, this process must be supported by friends and the wider community. That means that we must collectively work to subvert and transform the stories that we are told about sex our entire lives.
IT TAKES A VILLAGE
About a year into my cycle with Alejandro, things turned nightmarish. Azula, a former ally of the organization and close friend of mine, got into a petty fight with Alejandro and decided to use my experience of violation, which I had confided in her months earlier, as the basis to get him kicked out of the organization. This organization was our family and our support network. Although no one knew what was going on in our relationship, their love made it all feel tolerable. When the allegations came out, however, no one knew what to do. They got scared and stopped talking to us almost completely in fear of Azula’s threats that she would tell our funders and the larger community that the organization was harboring a rapist. Knowing that this would be a death blow for our tiny non-profit, which hundreds of people depended on, they started treating Alejandro, and me as his partner, as a liability.
No one, it seemed, realized that by turning away they were leaving me completely alone with Alejandro, with whom I lived, and who was in a state of mental crisis. I remember when the allegations first came out, how he hyperventilated and cried in bed, unable to form words, and once again, I was in the position of convincing him that he was not a rapist. The day before the allegations came out, I had been working up the courage to confront him about a particularly bad spell of sexual coercion, but I now had to leave this process behind. I feel that it would be easy for someone on the outside to say that I should have just left, but being stuck in abusive cycles is not something that you just have to be strong enough to escape from. You need support to leave, and I had none.
After about a month of this isolated anguish, I finally broke down and reached out to the members dealing with the allegations. I told them that I needed to be heard, that this process was torture for me, that they couldn’t imagine what it was like to be Alejandro’s sole support through this. I didn’t tell them about the sexual violence, but I wanted to, if only they could prove to me that they wouldn’t use it against him, that they actually cared what I was going through. I asked them if they had any questions for me. One woman, who I considered a close friend, looked me in the eye and said, “the only thing we want to know is if you have ever felt unsafe around Alejandro.” That’s when I knew that they weren’t willing to support me or him, they were just there to extract corroborating information to prove that he was a rapist and dispose him from the community.
What were my options here? If I told them the truth, they would exile him from the organization, which would unleash his trauma on a level that I knew I was incapable of handling, and would lead to more isolation and sexual violence. If I said yes, that meant that he was a villain, making me, by default, the victim. And I was unwilling to be seen as a victim after everything I had been through, everything I survived. They gave me no choice, ‘No. Never,’ I replied. And I walked out of the room. That was one of the most dehumanizing and invalidating moments of my life. The thing that really gets me is that the allegations were that he had violated me, but they were so focused on vilifying and criminalizing him, that they sacrificed me entirely.
Finally, even after I had sacrificed my dignity to save myself, the board gave into the threats and decided to kick Alejandro out anyway. The allegations of sexual violence had been thrown out, but they decided to kick him out ‘because of his sexism’, they said, pointing to a few remarks that Azula had brought up. Really, they just needed the whole situation to go away. If I hadn’t been crying so hard, I would have laughed. They thought they were expelling sexism from the organization, when their actions were directly putting me in a position of more sexual violence. The fact that everyone had just enough idea of what I was going through to choose to close their eyes and walk away was the ultimate betrayal.
Even so, I can understand the difficulty of their position. All of a sudden they were told that their friend, their brother, was a rapist and that they had to expel him, or they were condoning his actions and, more generally, rape. Choosing to reject this cultural logic by supporting and humanizing him would mean, on the personal level, demonization and possibly exile, and on the collective level, a destroyed reputation and loss of resources. Just like I was incapable of leaving him because of lack of community support, they were unable to support us because of the larger community’s definitions of justice and accountability.
This is when it all hit rock bottom. My community, which I cared about with all of my heart, had abandoned me, leaving me more alone with Alejandro than ever. He got a new job as an organizer in LA, so we moved across the country, where neither of us had any friends. At this point, my body stopped working. I had no energy, I couldn’t move from bed, sometimes for days. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. I dropped from 150 pounds to 115. I would fall asleep multiple times at work and even while driving. I blamed it on an illness, insisting that there was something wrong with me, with my body. I dreaded sex and didn’t know why, I blamed it on the illness and apologized profusely to Alejandro for not meeting his sexual needs. Once I even insisted that he have sex with my body while I slept.
Only months later when I finally left him and my health was restored did I realize that my symptoms reflected the impact of continued sexual exploitation. I now believe that I had trained my body so well to remain passive while its boundaries were being violated, that it stopped responding to me altogether.
I was finally able to leave him only after a long period of physical distance, massive support from my friends and an incredible therapist. I realized, with their help, that asserting that I couldn’t support Alejandro did not mean that I thought he was unworthy of support. I realized that my fundamental obligation was to my own safety and that sacrificing that for him only hurt both of us. I learned that calling what he did to me rape did not have to mean that he deserved to die, that I could prioritize the parts of me that were violated without sacrificing my empathy for his pain and trauma. This was the hardest part.
IT’S THEM, NOT ME
I now firmly believe that vilifying and criminalizing people who perpetuate sexual violence leads to more sexual violence and ends up hurting more women. I know several men who, after being accused of rape and dropped by all their friends, became alcoholics. I know the response to this is supposed to be “boo-hoo, they deserve what they got, we need to stop focusing on perpetrators and focus on survivors.” But I want to flip that question: are these people more likely to rape when supported by their community, or when isolated and drunk? To me, the correlation is direct: the more isolated someone is, the more they rape.
The thing is, when we dispose of people who abuse and rape, they don’t disappear, they just move. That means that we also need to consider the wellbeing and safety of their friends, their families, and their partners. So we need to ask ourselves, what is it that we really want? Do we want vengeance or do we want to stop rape?
If our answer is the latter, a culture wherein people who rape are vilified, criminalized, and disposed of should not be our objective. This does not mean that criminalizing and expelling perpetrators is not a necessary step in many situations. Yes, it was necessary to protest Brock Turner’s appallingly short prison sentence because it sets a legal precedent for the dominant cultural beliefs that rape is not a big deal and that white men are always innocent. However, confusing that necessary step with an end point, and allowing the tactic of punishment to co-opt our vision of a world without rape has dangerous consequences, especially when this tactic is transplanted from the public and legal sphere into intimate family and community spaces, where the context is entirely distinct.
Not only does does the culture of criminalization lead to more sexual violence, but it also scapegoats certain individuals for an entire culture, leaving everyone else in impunity. By this I mean that by singling out and punishing a few individual rapists, we invisibilize all of the infinite ways, both micro and macro, that sexual violence is perpetuated outside of these publicized cases and release everyone else from accountability. And since we are all told the stories of rape culture our whole lives, we are all at risk of perpetuating sexual violence. We all need to be held accountable.
When students at my school, including many cis-men, started wearing ‘Expel the Rapists’ t-shirts, my reaction was, ‘does that mean that you’re not one? Does that mean that you think you don’t perpetuate sexual violence?’ And then I realized, that’s exactly what they mean. In a culture where rapist/not rapist is seen as a dichotomy, the priority is not to be critically aware of and honest about your past and present actions, but rather to signal as ardently as possible your membership to the ‘not rapist’ camp; To prove to yourself and others that it’s THEM, not me.
The culture of criminalization actually discourages honesty and makes transformative accountability impossible. If someone’s options are telling their friends that that think they raped someone and face losing everything or denying their actions, they will almost always choose the latter. Especially for people who care deeply about consent and respect, admitting your actions when this means accepting that you are a rapist (i.e. evil, a monster, unworthy…etc.) is not actually possible. It’s beyond human capacity. This culture, then, pushes people to convince themselves and others that they did nothing wrong. Even for the few, like Alejandro, who do accept their actions and therefore their rapist identity, this does not actually help them transform or be more accountable. Rather, they are pushed into a state of further disembodiment and dissociation from where they are less capable of true respect and consent.
I recently read a shocking article on CNN about a groundbreaking rape-prevention program in Alaska (the state with the highest rate of sexual violence in the country). Instead of exiling rapists and abusers, the program does the exact opposite. It places them in a rehabilitation program and then returns them to their homes where hundreds of community members have volunteered to act as a ‘safety net’ to stop them from offending again. Each perpetrator is surrounded by five direct support people, who are surrounded by a larger community network of at least 300 ‘safety nets’. It’s like concentric circles of support with the perpetrator in the middle.
This model puts a transformative way of thinking about sexual violence into action. It admits that rape is a cultural problem that needs a participatory, community-based solution. As the author says, “All of us have a role to play in perpetuating or ending the violence.”
In the book, The Revolution Starts at Home, communities share their experiences of trying to practice what they call ‘restorative justice’. None of the authors romanticize the process, but rather honestly chronicle the complexities, obstacles, and heartbreak inherent in trying to rebuild what is destroyed through intimate partner violence. By opening up a cultural space to validate, appreciate, and learn from their efforts, we can make this crucial work easier and more fruitful.
Five months after ending my relationship with Alejandro, and three days after yet another non-consensual sexual encounter (just to emphasize, once again, how horrifically common rape is), I walked up to the man who raped Rita. I stared fiercely into his shocked eyes, fully expecting him to tell me that he hadn’t raped anybody and to leave him alone. He didn’t. His own eyes filled with tears. His hands started shaking. He looked straight back and told me that he knew that he made a horrible mistake and that he carries that pain around with him every single day; That the experience had completely transformed the way he relates to himself, others, and the world.
What shocked me most were his eyes. I had heard this speech a million times from Alejandro, but his eyes always looked dissociate, like he was a million miles away. When I looked into Tacho’s eyes I saw genuine pain and vulnerability. They were so unmistakably human. I saw those eyes every time I closed my own for days afterward.
But I don’t want to talk about Tacho, I want to talk about his friends, particularly his women friends. After he raped Rita, he told me, he spiraled into a deep depression. He was ready to leave the movement, his community, everything, because he thought he was evil; He thought that he was everything that he had spent his whole life fighting against and that the best thing he could do was disappear. His friends didn’t let him. “If you leave,” they told him, “You’ll never recover from this.” When he told them what he had done they didn’t tell him that it was okay, or that she had overreacted. They really made him understand what he had done. But they never stopped loving and supporting him. Their love alone made him capable of being open to transformation.
Understanding and reconciling his actions will be a lifelong journey, he was the first to admit this, but because of his community’s support, he is able and willing to embark on this journey. He thanked me profusely for confronting him and told me how much he appreciated being able to understand Rita’s experience more deeply. This was a revelation for me: what if being confronted about rape was not seen as a curse because it meant losing everything, but as a gift because it meant being able to transform into a better, more respectful person? How many more people would reach out for support if they knew they would be given this gift?
When I told Rita, she said that it felt like the pain from the past was melting away. A large part of her suffering after the rape was thinking that Tacho was pretending like it had never happened, fearing that he was raping more women. For me, after two years of trying to single-handedly save the man who raped me, it showed me that the type of transformative accountability that I had been denied might actually be possible, but it takes a village. While our community, by vilifying Alejandro, made him more closed off to the harm he was causing, Tacho’s community, by supporting and loving him, allowed him to be honest with himself and embrace change. I want all survivors to have this opportunity to witness the pain, remorse, and empathy of the people who have hurt them and be assured that they will commit themselves to changing. This brought me infinitely deeper healing and peace of mind than punishing all the men who have hurt me ever could.
The idea that vengeance will bring justice is not ours. Somewhere down the line we adopted it from a criminal justice system that does not really serve us. After this system denied us its brand of justice countless times, we made it our mission to obtain it. But when we adopted this vision of justice, we also adopted its limitations. We need to learn to make demands on this system without limiting our objectives to its objectives. Because we deserve more.
Survivors deserve the right to envision a world without rape, a world transformed through the power of community. We deserve the right to fight for that world.
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