I’ve been reading a lot about rape, as I try to finish my thesis, which deals with sexual violence as well as institutional violence. I’ve listened to and read a lot of survivors’ accounts of these types of violence. It’s too much at times, because this is how I spend my academic life, my intellectual life, but it’s also on the news all the time. It’s in songs, in movies, on TV, in teen fiction, in casual jokes and everyday conversation, in political discussions.
There was a time not so long ago (2008, 2009) where I would’ve been astounded and pleased to see nation-wide media discussions about sexual violence. So much changed in the time I was gone. It still blows my mind that we are including things like bystander intervention training in college freshman orientations, or that the FBI updated its definition of consent to condemn sexual acts against an unconscious or drugged person as rape. This seems like massive progressive. Seems like we’re headed in the right direction. Then why the fuck am I filled with anxiety, why am I drawn tight like a bowstring whenever sexual violence arises as a topic of conversation, a court case, a news story, a song lyric, a painted subject. Is it just because I’ve experienced it? Is it just PTSD, blah-dee-blah? Something tells me otherwise.
At certain times in the history of feminist theory and activism, some feminists have voiced the opinion that rape is a crime of violence, only, not a crime of sex. Susan Brownmiller has been cited as supporting a view of rape as a being about violence, not sex (see Cahill 2001, 16-28). While I was a SAC advocate and crisis counselor at the Listening Ear, I shared this view of rape. “It’s not about sex,” so the line goes, “it’s about power and domination.” Of course, this is coming from people who either cannot fathom an association between power, domination, violence, and sexual arousal, or who cannot admit to themselves that for many people, such a connection exists.
There are many people who associate violence, sex, and power. Sometimes this is enjoyable, and sometimes it is born of traumatic experience—undoubtedly sometimes it’s both. Many kinksters who associate pain and pleasure, and who derive enjoyment and arousal from playing with power dynamics. However, kinky sex is not rape, due to the fact that communication, consent, and mutual enjoyment are the central tenets of BDSM and fetish practitioners. Rape happens when genuine consent is absent, whether when a person says no, when a person is silent, or when a person feels that they cannot say no (e.g. because they are being coerced, threatened with the end of a relationship, etc.).
Something that strikes me is that among all these discussions of the relationship between violence, rape, and sex, something that never seems to come is the subject of love. Now, we know that the vast majority of rapes are perpetrated by people known to their victims. In fact, they are often the closest people to us. They are our friends, our parents, our pastors, our teachers, our siblings, our neighbors, our lovers, our partners. They are people for whom we often feel a great deal of trust…and love. This doesn’t strike me as coincidental. It is the people whom we love the most that can often get away with doing the worst kinds of things to us, because we cannot admit to ourselves, let alone anyone else (e.g. a court of law), that they would do something to us that contradicts our understanding of their love for us. This seems to cross boundaries of all kinds of love. The love felt between parents and children, teachers and students, spouses, siblings, and so on—these are all very different kinds of love. But it seems to me that all of these kinds of love (perhaps all kinds of love) are founded upon trust.
This is what makes rape so devastating. It is a violation of bodily autonomy, it is a violation of the mind, and it is a violation of trust and love. Even where trust is broke, even again and again, love remains… Maybe it gets chipped away, maybe it wears like beaches shaped by waves, maybe it erodes into nothing, over time. But when it comes to the people we love most, we will suffer the worst kinds of betrayals, even more than once. We tell ourselves whatever is necessary to endure this kind of abuse: we put the people we love before ourselves, that is what true love is; we keep faith in them even when they fuck up, because love conquers all, and through love they will change and improve; love doesn’t always come easy, sometimes it requires work, maybe it even requires sacrifice; we can’t betray love, even when the people we love betray us.
I feel compelled to say something that I have suspected before, that makes my stomach turn and that I know the thought of which makes many people feel ill. Rape and love are connected. I won’t claim to understand their relationship. Either rape and love are connected (hence why it is most often the people we love who perpetrate our rapes), or we do not yet understand rape, or love. Quite possibly I think it is both. I suspect that until we better understand both rape and love, sexual violence will always be a normative aspect of our culture. Even as we say, “Rape has nothing to do with sex, rape has nothing to do with love,” we lie to ourselves that our rapists—our parents, our pastors, our best friends, our partners—love us. Maybe it is not a lie… Maybe they do love us. Maybe we do love them. Then we’ve got it wrong… Rape and love have something to do with each other. It seems fucked up, it seems unimaginable. But we also say that rape, itself, seems unimaginable. We say bizarre things about rape: “I’d rather die than be raped”; “I’d kill anyone who raped you/me.” We say sensical things about rape: “I can’t believe that person committed rape”; “I don’t understand how that person could have rape their best friend/spouse/child/classmate.” All of these utterances seem to me to indicate a serious lack of understanding about rape, but also love.
Something that we fail to talk about and to really seek to understand are the motivations of rapists. We pass them off as deviants, as psychos, as one-offs, as aberrations, as monsters under the bed, as strangers in the shadows. When it’s the people we love who fit this description, it’s like they become unknown, unknowable to us. It stops making sense. Our relationship stops making sense. Love stops making sense. Our bodies stop making sense. Our will stops making sense. It’s unfathomable, it goes against everything our culture has taught us about love, it goes against everything we feel and understand about love, about relationships, about ourselves, about the people we love. This isn’t how it’s supposed to work, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s incoherent, it’s like living in a horrific faerieland where nothing makes sense, nothing ever coheres.
It makes no sense to me whatsoever that a person whom I love and trusted very much raped me repeatedly. They made me feel like I was wrong for refusing them. They made me feel that I was saying “I don’t love you” whenever I said no. They made me feel that I was hurting them by saying no. They made me feel that they had a right to my body—more than that, they had a right to my bodymind and they had a right to believe I enjoyed it. Eventually I ran away from them because I felt like I was going to die—on some level I believed that it was me, or the relationship. One of us was going to end. I had come to believe that it was my destiny to kill myself, and that I wasn’t deserving of love, and I believed everyone who made me feel that my partner was ‘putting up with me’ and that I was abusing them. Probably most of those people had no idea what my partner did to me for more than two years. Sure, a lot of them knew that that person had jerked me around and gone out on me, had manipulated me and lied to me and so on and so forth. All part of the game that is college relationships, I suppose. But they didn’t know that my partner would touch me against my wishes, even in public places, like work. My partner wasn’t afraid of consequences, I think; I suspect that they felt they were in the right. They made me afraid to be alone at work with them. They made me afraid to walk up the stairs first. Eventually I couldn’t let anyone walk up a flight upstairs behind me, because I’d start having a panic attack. Of course, I wouldn’t figure out for a long time that that’s what they were.
Despite all this, I loved my partner so much, I couldn’t imagine my life without them. They were so smart and considerate and creative and funny and good-looking, they were going places, they had a good head on their shoulders, they were kind, everyone said so. Many people said I was lucky to be with them. I believed this. But in order to keep my partner happy, I had to do what they asked. If that was holding hands, or kissing, or letting them touch me, or having sex, then that’s what had to happen. It took almost four years for me to figure out that all of that was wrong, was not my fault, and the sex we had wasn’t ‘sex’, it was rape.
The part that is now very difficult for me to get my head around is that that person thinks they didn’t do anything wrong. No, scratch that, I can get my head around that. We live in a culture that tells some groups of people they’re better than other groups, that they are entitled to things from groups which are beneath them. Shrug. I can understand that. I read books and shit. What I can’t understand is how that person can live with themself, because they work in a place that is directly involved in people’s sexual health. What makes them think that they have even a modicum of understanding about sexual health? They made me feel that there was something wrong with me, with my body, when I didn’t enjoy having sex with them. Having sex you don’t enjoy over and over again—this is the opposite of healthy.
Writing helps… I’m feeling a bit better for having written this. Writing is a Lens of Clarity in faerieland. Maybe now I can get back to my thesis…