Thank you to Carmen Speer, an absolutely shrewd and wonderful writer, for letting me publish this essay she just wrote. I hope you enjoy.
Much has been written about the strange cognitive dissonance of both believing rape to be one of the most heinous crimes a man can commit and outright socially excusing and justifying it, a cognitive dissonance which as a culture we confront on a daily basis. In olden times, rape was a property crime against a father or a husband; as a woman’s body was her greatest value, she was “spoiled” by rape, no longer chaste or virtuous, her pedigree and that of her children no longer certain. In modern society this horror of rape as the ultimate property crime against another man still persists. This is why we insist that rape is always a crime of deviants in bushes, punishable by extreme sentences, when the reality is that rape is usually a crime of anger and entitlement committed by an assailant known to the victim and that often what she wants more than anything is empathy, and an apology.
I could quote to you statistics about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, cortisol suppression, flashbacks, nightmares, the terrible psychological torture of trying to come to terms with a new understanding of humanity after being hurt in such an intimate way. I could tell you stories of wartime victims of rape that remember it decades in the future and still exhibit the symptoms of rape-related PTSD while having long forgotten much of the wartime strife surrounding. I could tell you that researchers have long known rape to be an especially traumatic crime, more traumatic even absent a great deal of force than more violent non-sexual assaults; I could tell you that they cannot quite put their finger on why, except that it has something to do with the perversion of an act that one researcher has called “the single human act with the greatest capacity for both good and evil.” I could tell you that it has something to do with shame, with self-blame, with a distinct lack of social support, with not fitting the right scripts when it comes to the image of good victim. I could tell you that it has something to do with losing a sense of trust and safety in those people and institutions you have been led to believe your whole life that you should trust the most. I could tell you that as a woman it has something to do, deep down, with knowing how men really think of you, with knowing how constrained and imperfect any definition of you really is (if you perform your femininity perfectly your best reward is scorn). Yes, what it really means to be female, a condition most of us would not give up despite the constant rain of shit upon our heads.
Compounding this fundamental understanding about what it means, as a woman, to be raped, is the deep unspoken knowledge of women that translates into the ignorance of men about what it means to be raped again and again. Being pegged as bad early on becomes a kind of living death for a lot of women; throughout their lives rape is their punishment and their reward for resisting but not well enough. The cumulative weight of every sexual assault in the end holds a mirror up to your face of what these men want you to be: how diminished, how hollow, how pretty and still.
I can tell you what impact sexual assault has had on me. I can laugh off most of the men who preyed on me when I was young; little went far, and none of it seemed malicious; it would strike people mainly as “creepy” now if I told them. The man in his forties who rented me a hotel room with “three foot thick walls” when I was seventeen (I escaped him), the man in his late thirties that same year who walked me home, sobbing drunk, after our mutual friend’s funeral and went down on me on the hood of my mother’s car, another blip on the radar. A little more scary the man who molested me in the movie theater when I was thirteen, the men on the beach when I was nine, the man who gave me panties and kisses when I was six, the man who backed me into corners, snarling, when I was sixteen, backstage of the production I was assistant-directing, whenever he caught me alone, “fat assssss” hissed between his teeth as he grabbed for it; but at seventeen it was the man who flattened me to a shower wall and made me bleed in a place I’d never bled like that who made the greater impact; how much he thought it was his right. How little he cared for damaging my body. How little he cared for me as a human being when I could instead be a plaything.
There were others, after that: a boyfriend who loved me, who coerced me and hit me. A lover who put down my body while he couldn’t get enough of what he wanted from me. Men I thought were my friends who got me drunk and tried to tag-team me, and why—because who was I—this fragile, fierce, self-loathing woman, who only wanted to be taken seriously, but always fell short of that one word, “pretty?” (And why did I think that meant the same as “worthy?”)
I can tell you that, at age thirty-two, when I fell in love, all I wanted was for someone to see me, and yet still I didn’t know how: to have sex without doing it to please, to untangle my desire from my desire; to fuck and to be seen, to make love and to be a human being. And I can tell you that when I made a boundary—a clear boundary—after I grew more and more uneasy with the way that he saw me—the way he could not extricate the body he could control from the self he couldn’t—and he held me down and broke that boundary forcibly, I can tell you what it’s done to me: how hard it is for me just to wake up. How hard it is for me to put a face on it. In my daily “life” the world expands and contracts, swoops in and out of focus, cracks and refracts, kaleidoscopic and dizzy; in front of a class my students distort and waver like ghosts, but I am the ghost, or nearly, dead from a wound that’s necrotic in how my spirit fled me in the moment he had me and no begging would save me. How far away I went, and how so far there is no retrieval.
I can tell you about the waves of senseless panic that roll over me, of the fragility of a good mood these days. Of how I have hidden out from the world, of how I never want to date again for fear of becoming a painted canvas instead of a three-dimensional being. I can tell you how afraid I am now of even the gentlest man. I can tell you about how gentle he was before he did it, curled up in front of the television with his head in my lap.
I can tell you how rape has shaped my life. How impossible I find it to trust, how I drink to soothe my nerves, how much I hate myself and believe the distorted image men have created of me in the Expressionist mirror. I can tell you that real love and children now seem like a far-off dream, and I am only hoping to stumble from one day to the next and how I catch myself hoping there won’t be a next day at all. I can tell you how on a beach in Mexico I shattered my ankle rather than face the threat of rape and it’s a limp that I have still.
I could rattle off for you the laundry list of physical and mental ailments over the course of a life that might blight a rape survivor, once the more pressing fear has passed: depression, borderline, high blood pressure, heart attack, diabetes, dementia, lost work, lost love, lost life. I could try to describe the cost but the closest I could really get is a grievous soul attack that some survive and others don’t. I could tell you until I’m out of time and out of line what’s so bad about rape, but because it’s simply the most intimate and visceral form of what’s so bad and so invisible—so invisibly bad—about being below in the first place, you might not understand me; because of the deliberate manner in which rape without “unnecessary violence” is an ingenious form of psychological torture, a way to kill and stay out of prison, you might not understand me. You might not understand the betrayal when it’s someone you have invited (like a vampire) past the cautious door: that sense any moment that someone who claimed to love you might kill you is what I’m left with, a sticky residue I can’t wash off long after the ceiling spins away and my mind averts its gaze from the lurid tableau.
I have dreams of smiling death and of dark water. Every night I arrive at the same conclusion, and every morning I awake in the torment of how wrong I am: that is my fault, so it’s okay then; that it is not, that I did nothing to deserve this beyond somehow, in some essential way, escape him.
I can tell you all these things, but you still wouldn’t believe me. Because for the born lucky rape’s special power is to instill the deepest sense that one is nothing in the person who has everything, and when I look in the mirror I can see that I still do: I am still attractive, I am still smart, I still have heart, I still am, I.