Content Warning: Rape
I’m sure everyone can remember their sex-ed class: separated by gender, a pamphlet on all the ways your body will change, and how sex is only defined as hetero penetration. For me, these types of classes happened only one week out of the year, from ages ten to fifteen, and after that sex-ed was all on you. I learned what rape was in middle school from an immature classmate who thought it would be funny to look it up in the encyclopedia. I laughed along with my other peers pretending I knew what they were talking about, then when everyone dispersed I looked at the definition. I don’t remember the version of the school library’s encyclopedia, so I can’t give you an exact definition from my experience, but Britannica.com defines rape as:
Rape, act of sexual intercourse with an individual without his or her consent, through force or the threat of force. In many jurisdictions, the crime of rape has been subsumed under that of sexual assault, which also encompasses acts that fall short of intercourse. Rape was long considered to be caused by unbridled sexual desire, but it is now understood as a pathological assertion of power over a victim.
As a twelve-year-old this was mind-blowing and overwhelming. The concept for rape was ingrained in my brain as something that is criminal and violent (which it is). When the words are right there in front of you, it is an easy black and white picture in your head, and because no one else really tells you otherwise, it becomes the only picture.
Media portrays rape as something that is violent leaving the victim with bruises, scars, afraid of a man’s touch, feeling like soiled goods. Rape is an “act of sexual intercourse with an individual without his or her consent through force or the threat of force.” But in real life, force does not have to mean violence.
Ever since reading that dictionary definition of rape, I knew what to look out for. And I knew that I was one of the lucky ones. I’d never been raped. Sure, I had some sexual experiences that I wanted to lock in a closet and never think of again, but I’d never experienced the violent trauma that so many women live through.
And then last fall, the #MeToo Movement started playing out across our Twitter feeds, and then Facebook, and then real-life conversations, and then the newspapers. The more stories and accusations that come out, the more the stories seemed somewhat familiar. And that terrified me. My news feed overflowed with #MeToo stories: those of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and rape. And I realized an experience I had, that had been eating away at me for over a year, was maybe more than it seemed. That the reason it had been slowly eating out my insides was that it was more than “my mistake,” or “a situation I shouldn’t have gotten myself into.”
To give a little backstory, my ex had cheated on me and broke my trust. We shortly (not soon enough) broke up, and I was left completely heartbroken. I spent an entire year waiting for a call, an apology, some sort of sign that I wasn’t nothing to him. But what I got was—nothing.
But the next summer, we both ended up working on a show together. We had been somewhat ignoring each other until one day he actually spoke to me and there was some flirting. You know that thing where you realize why you liked them in the first place, but forget the bad stuff? We laughed and caught up. We ended up in my bed watching some short films he had made. My heart wouldn’t stop racing because I knew where this was going. We were sort of cuddling, it was getting late and he started kissing me. At that point, I stopped him and told him: “No. I don’t think this is a good idea. It’s taken me a year to get over you. I don’t want to do this.” But instead of stopping, he started kissing me even harder until somehow we were having sex. The only details I remember from that night is the chain of events that led him to my bed and the image of him on top of me. I remember the feelings though. I remember the pain I was in. I remember the confusion. I remember feeling like I was nothing.
I didn’t think much of my experience. I mean, yes, I thought about it all the time, and it ate away at me. But I assumed it was normal. All exes hook up once after they’ve broken up, I figured, and this was our hookup. Just one that left me feeling like nothing.
It took me a solid year after the incident to even realize it was non-consensual. Because sure, I said no, but I was the one who ended up cuddling in bed with him, and I assumed I should’ve tried harder to get him off, so clearly it was my choice somehow. Rape never even crossed my mind. He just took advantage of me. That’s it.
Sexual assault was taught as something that happens to women in college who drink too much. That wasn’t my experience, so how could I even call it sexual assault? By calling it that, I felt I was taking away from someone else’s trauma.
But I hadn’t realized that sexual assault doesn’t always look outwardly violent. And I hadn’t realized that the language of sexual assault is just another way to mitigate the relentlessness of rape.
The #MeToo Movement has created a place for conversation, but it shouldn’t stop there.
Part of the conversation needs to be the destigmatizing of the language and depictions of rape. Many women assume their experiences must be fine (even if they feel anything but) because there are so few outlets that educate what a violation of one’s humanity and identity looks like.
It has taken me writing this article to call my experience for what it really is: rape. He raped me.
So let’s start the language shift. Rapists need to be held accountable, and we need to stop blaming the victim, and stop using other phrases to explain away what is happening. Common language is so vital to the education of the subject and the healing process for survivors.
Being raped made me feel small, violated, and out of control of my own body and mind—completely powerless. He had all the power over me. He took away my agency. He dehumanized me. But when I posted #metoo on my Facebook wall, when I finally let myself use the word rape, I took it all back. I am in complete control now. I have all the power.
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