The Reality of Rape
When you hear the word rapist, what comes to mind? A wild-eyed stranger lurking in the shadows?
That’s a common perception. But it’s at odds with reality. The fact is, most sexual assaults—approximately two-thirds, according to national studies—are committed by someone the victim knows.
Jasmine*, a student at a university here in Coastal Virginia, learned this the hard way. In the autumn of 2013, she became friends with a fellow student named Michael*. Having just broken up with her boyfriend, she appreciated the platonic nature of the friendship. “It was nice to have a guy in my life I could just talk to,” she told me during an interview for this article.
Pretty soon they were hanging out several times a week, chatting and listening to music after class in his off-campus apartment. “He was so sweet,” she added. “I felt I could trust him with my life.”
One afternoon in mid-November, during an especially stressful day, she went to his apartment and told him she had an upset stomach.
“Let me get you some ginger ale,” he said.
Jasmine drank it quickly and momentarily felt better. But a few minutes later, she began to feel light-headed and drowsy. As she grew more and more disoriented, she felt Michael’s hands on her shoulders, then her breasts. Then he began unbuttoning her shirt. In her half-conscious state, she told him to stop, but she was too weak to fight him off. Soon she was naked and flat on her back, with Michael on top of her.
“I guess I blacked out after that,” she recalled, “because the next thing I remember is waking up in his bed and hearing the shower running. It was very dark, but I managed to find my clothes and my bag and leave.”
Over the next few weeks she struggled to come to terms with the trauma—the sense of betrayal, the violation of intimacy, and concerns that she might have contracted a sexually transmitted disease. But she told neither her parents nor her friends what had happened.
“I thought they would judge me,” she said. “I was worried that they’d think it was my fault.”
It’s a common reaction among rape victims, according to counselors. Indeed, 60 percent of sexual assaults are never reported to the police, according to Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)—and on college campuses 95 percent go unreported to authorities.
The reluctance is understandable, given that rape victims are often greeted with skepticism at best. What were you wearing? Were you drinking? Did you lead him on? These and other questions implying that the victim must bear some responsibility are frequently the first words a woman will hear after telling someone else about a sexual assault.
This fact was starkly underscored recently, during a rape trial in Texas, involving a 14-year-old girl. The rapist confessed to the crime—but the judge, a woman, gave him only 45 days in jail and 5 years probation on the premise that the girl was promiscuous and therefore “wasn’t the victim she claimed to be.”
The light sentencing sparked outrage nationwide—but was it really an aberration? There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the answer is no—that judge’s attitude is widespread. Last year, for example, after two high school football players were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl in Steubenville, Ohio, tennis star Serena Williams commented in an interview that the girl “shouldn’t have put herself in that situation.” And a collection of Twitter comments assembled by the website Buzzfeed.com suggests that Williams’ attitude was widely shared. “The whore was asking for it,” one person wrote. “Those poor boys,” commented another. “Their lives have been destroyed.”
It’s hard to comprehend how anyone would not put concern for the victim first in cases like this. But in some sense, the boys were victims as well—victims of what rape-awareness advocates called “rape culture,” which is exemplified in everything from the comments of that Texas judge to a popular Hardees commercial implying that women are just pieces of “meat.” Victims, in other words, of conditioning from an early age.
As a result, advocates say, many young men are growing up thinking that rape—that is, any sexual act committed without consent—is perfectly acceptable, or even desirable. And that in conversation, it’s something to joke about.
In 2011, for example, a fraternity at the University of Vermont circulated a survey among its members asking, “If you could rape someone who would it be?”
Closer to home, a male student at the College of William & Mary recently expressed his misogyny in a mass email assessing college culture as he saw it:
“There’s beer to be drunk, porn to view, and sluts to f***,” he wrote. “Let me reiterate that last point: sluts are everywhere … That vagina needs you. Never mind the extremities that surround it, the 99 percent of horrendously illogical bull**** that makes up the modern woman [emphasis added]; consider only the 1 percent, the snatch.”
Author Michael Kimmel explores this cultural mindset more deeply in his book Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men, a study of today’s males between the ages of 16 and 26.
Many of the young men Kimmel interviewed were quite forthright about their behavior. Take Bill, for example, a recent Yale graduate.
“I know this isn’t PC and all,” he said, but a couple of times I’ve pushed girls’ heads down on me, and like one time this girl was so drunk she was near passed out, and I kind of dragged her into my room and had sex with her. When she sort of came to a little bit, she was really upset and started crying and asked me why I had done that. I think I said something like, ‘because you were so pretty’ or some bull****, but really it was because, well, because I was drunk and wanted to get laid. And she was, like, there.”
Kimmel found that such attitudes were common among young men with whom he spoke. “Is it any wonder,” he noted, “that rates of sexual assault are so high?”
He was quick to add, of course, that not all guys are like Bill. The problem is that guys across the board get mixed signals: the “no means no” speech from one quarter, and the “sluts are looking for it” mentality from many of their peers—not to mention a wide range of messages in the mass media, from internet porn to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.”
“It’s really confusing,” one young man told Kimmel. “I mean, like, really confusing. On the one hand, like every other week you have some dorm seminar or lecture on sexual assault … and on the other hand, you go to a party … and [you’re confronted with] everything they said to avoid …”
Adding to the confusion is that in today’s “hookup culture,” many young woman have embraced the one-night stand. But double standards persist. In my own conversations with men of all ages (and women, for that matter), I still routinely hear women called “sluts” if they sleep with a lot of men, whereas men who do so are “players.” Indeed, it seems irrefutable to me that a virulent strain of misogyny and a sexist double-standard remain pervasive in our society. (If you want an example of the double standard, look no further than the reaction to Miley Cyrus’ notorious twerking performance. While countless people were outraged over her “slutty” behavior, Robin Thicke got a total pass.)
Such reactions underscore an essential point: that the problem of sexual assault in our society is a systemic cultural problem. Or as Jackson Katz, another prominent awareness-advocate puts it, “This is not about individual predators. That’s a naïve way of understanding what’s a much deeper social problem.”
Larissa Sutherland, education and outreach coordinator at Samaritan House, a domestic violence shelter and resource center in Virginia Beach, agrees. “It’s discomforting to realize that abusers are people we interact with every day wherever we are,” she said during an interview. “We can’t spot a rapist, like a tiger in the wild, but we all know someone who has committed a sexual assault—even if we don’t know that we do. We all know, as well, someone who has been the victim of someone else’s abuse—but these are crimes that thrive in silence. [Emphasis added.] They’re happening in far too many relationships, but we are socially more comfortable looking for the rapist in the bushes than for the person next to us at the movies.”
Because the problem is systemic, Katz argues that sexual assault—and the related issue of non-sexual domestic violence—should not be seen as a “women’s issue.” Indeed, he says, “it’s a men’s issue.” After all, he points out, “What about all the boys who are profoundly affected by what some man is doing against their mothers, themselves, their sisters? The same system that produces men who abuse women produces men who abuse other men.” (Incidentally, Katz’ TED Talk is worth watching in its entirety.
Indeed, it’s important to emphasize that women aren’t the only victims of rape. National studies have found that one in six men has been sexually abused, many before the age of 12, and most have been abused by adult men.
Rape-awareness advocates also emphasize that whether the victim is a man or a woman, rape is not about sexual attraction. “It’s ultimately about power and control,” Sutherland said, “even when it’s occurring in marriages or dating relationships or through casual sexual encounters. It is one person taking away the basic human right of autonomy from someone else. It is about exerting dominance.”
With this in mind, advocates urge men and women alike to focus on changing the ways in which boys are socialized and manhood is defined. And men have an especially important role to play in this revolution of thought and behavior.
As Katz puts it: “We need more men who have the courage and strength to start standing up and saying some of this stuff.”
Joann Bautti, assistant director of Old Dominion University’s Women’s Center, agrees. A big part of the center’s mission is raising awareness of sexual assault. With this in mind, staff members from the center meet with first-year members of the football team each fall.
“We try to bring a man every year because men have a certain credibility that women may not have,” she told me. “We also have a lot of male volunteers in the center, facilitating discussions among other things. A lot of these men have seen the effects of sexual assault [on women they’ve known] and want to make positive changes.”
Bautti said that reaching out to sports teams—and fraternities—is especially important because of the tendency toward “groupthink.” But she was quick to add that it’s important to avoid falling into stereotypes. Indeed, when she and other staff members meet with groups of students, they make a point of talking about stereotypes and how to rise above them.
One tool they use is something called “the man box,” an exercise adopted from yet another man—Tony Porter—who travels the lecture circuit trying to raise awareness of other men.
Using an actual box, male participants in seminars write on the sides characteristics associated with manhood. Incidentally, I’ve done this exercise in some of my classes, using just lists, written on a whiteboard, of characteristics the students associate with men and women. Most (including a lot of the women), echo what Porter says he learned as a boy growing up in New York City: “We were taught that men had to be tough, had to be strong, had to be courageous, dominating—no pain, no emotions, with the exception of anger—and definitely no fear; that men are in charge, which means women are not; that men lead, and [women] should just follow and do what we say; that men are superior; women are inferior; that men are strong; women are weak; that women are of less value, property of men, and objects, particularly sexual objects.” [Emphasis added.]
We need, Porter says in his talks, to teach boys and young men a different vision of manhood—“that it’s okay to not be dominating, that it’s okay to have feelings and emotions, that it’s okay to promote equality, that it’s okay to have women who are just friends and that’s it, that it’s okay to be whole, that my liberation as a man is tied to your liberation as a woman.”
The presence in this crusade of men like Katz and Porter—both former football players—is a sign of hope that attitudes may eventually change.
“It’s inspiring to see so many men taking up the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault as human rights issues,” Sutherland said.
Meanwhile, though, victims need help. The good news is that people who have experienced sexual trauma in Coastal Virginia have a variety of services available to them to help them cope. (See help resources on final page.) Students at ODU, for example, can stop by the Women’s Center and talk to a staff member or a professional counselor—on site—from the YWCA.
“Our first priorities are ensuring their safety and helping them get proper medical care,” said O’Neill Hunter, the YWCA counselor assigned to the Women’s Center. “Beyond that, we want them to understand that they have a lot of support.”
People from the general public who have suffered sexual trauma can get the same kind of support directly from the YWCA, which is located at 5215 Colley Ave. in Norfolk. Through a program called RESPONSE, the organization offers comprehensive services for victims of sexual assault—and a 24-hour emergency hotline.
In spite of the availability of services, getting victims of sexual trauma to open up can be a challenge. Indeed, many women are reluctant to tell anyone about what happened. Jasmine, for example, waited months before seeking counseling, partly out of fear of being judged and partly because she was uncomfortable simply revisiting the incident.
Bautti, however, said it’s important for women to know that counseling sessions at ODU and elsewhere are strictly confidential.
“We don’t contact parents,” she said. “I do encourage them to report the incident to the police, but we don’t pressure them to do so.”
Challenges remain, though, even after women take the step of seeking counseling.
“Some women we see are very quiet—they’re emotionally numb,” Hunter said. “Others are restless, angry or depressed. They may be experiencing sleep disruption, or have thoughts of suicide—or they may have turned to substance abuse.”
In light of these realities, helping victims overcome the trauma of sexual assault can take time. But counselors—and victims who have sought counseling—say the important thing is to take the first step.
“This is a safe place,” said Bautti of the ODU Women’s Center. “But it’s more than that: It’s also a place to begin the healing process. I’ve seen students come in, and their whole body language spells ‘defeat,’” she added. “But by the time they leave, they are a little more empowered—and have a little more hope.”
* Note: The names of the victim and perpetrator mentioned in this article have been changed.
Help for Victims
– 24-Hour Crisis Helpline: (757) 226-YWCA (9922)
– 24-Hour Crisis Line: (757) 430-2120
– 24-Hour Crisis Statewide Hotline 1.800.838.8238