It’s Not a Movie and We’re Not Buffy
[Trigger Warning for discussion of rape.]
Why didn’t you fight back?
There was a hammer nearby—why didn’t you use it to defend yourself?
Why didn’t you scream? There were houses nearby—someone would have heard you.
You were carrying a knife—why didn’t you stab him?
These are questions people have asked me about my rapes. Regular people asked. Cops and lawyers asked. All of them asked because they were skeptical about what happened to me or it was their job to tear me apart (or to get the answers to all the obvious questions before shelving my rape kit and pretending the whole thing never happened). It’s no secret that many people believe that if you don’t fight back or scream or act in the ways we’ve been taught rape victims act, then it’s not really rape.
I’m here to tell you that there are dozens of reasons a rape victim might be unable or unwilling to fight or scream. And there are some very good reasons why she (or he) might not fit the profile television and movies have created of the perfect victim–one we can get behind because there’s no question in our minds that she is a victim. She fights tooth and nail, screams until her voice fails, and perhaps most importantly, she remains the perfect victim for the proper period of time after the rape. She looks the way you expect her to: pale and stunned. She behaves the way you expect her to: timid and shaken. And there are rules.
I recently rewatched the first season of Game of Thrones. Among other things, I was struck by the scene in which Tyrion, Bron, and Shae are playing drinking games and Tyrion reveals the sad story of his brief marriage to a woman he and his brother rescued from “rapers” who turned out to be a “whore.” Shae tells him he should have known:
“A girl who is almost raped doesn’t invite another man into her bed two hours later.”
Just so no one is confused: this statement is bullshit. It seems to be an assumption on the part of the show’s writers—I don’t believe it’s one that the character, Shae, would ever make (although I allow that she might). Because if you’ve ever been raped (or almost raped) you know that things don’t play out in real life the way they do in our assumptions. Our assumptions are based on the rape victims we see on tv and in movies—those perfect victims I described above. There are no rules about what a woman (or man) who has been raped or “almost raped” will do, how she will behave, or whether she will decide to go ahead and fuck an entire soccer team later that night. There are no rules because none of those things are indicators of whether she was “really” raped and assuming that they are amounts to blaming the victim.
I wouldn’t blame you (much) if right now you’re asking, “But Rosie, why didn’t you scream? Why didn’t you use the hammer or the knife?” The point of this post is to explain those things and hopefully squash some of these assumptions like ticks. So, I’ll tell you why.
The first time I was raped the rapist told me if I made a sound he would take that hammer and bash my brains in. So I didn’t scream, and it never even occurred to me to use the hammer against him.
Because it wasn’t a movie and I wasn’t Buffy. I was a twelve-year-old girl whose mind simply could not conceive of what was happening to her. And I wasn’t the perfect victim, either, because a few days later when a neighborhood boy rushed up to console me I found myself wondering, at first, what he was on about. I had been raped, spent a night in the ER and with the cops, spent a couple of days at home, and now I was back at school and back to running around the neighborhood with my friends. My mind was attempting to let me be a kid again, but don’t think for a second that it helped—it only made people suspicious. “It’s your word against his,” they told me, because like most rape victims, my rapist was someone I—and everyone else in my neighborhood—knew.
The second time I was raped I was in an apartment where children were sleeping in the next room. I didn’t want to wake them to my nightmare. So I didn’t scream. And yes indeed, Officer Helpful, I did have a knife on me. It was a sort of dagger thing and I have no idea where I picked it up, but a friend had made a sheath for it and I loved it. But I had never used a weapon in my life and I don’t even think I thought of my knife as a way to protect myself. It was just a cool thing I had. It honestly never crossed my mind to figure out whether it was even within reach. If it had been, would I have plunged it into the man on top of me? I don’t believe so.
Because it wasn’t a movie and I wasn’t Buffy. I was a sixteen-year-old girl being raped for the second time and all I could think to do was survive it.
Some victims don’t scream or fight back because a type of paralysis sets in and prevents them from doing anything at all. Some don’t react the way they imagined they might because they can’t wrap their heads around the fact that it’s even happening. Some don’t realize that what’s happening to them is rape because they’re making out with their boyfriend and all the sudden he’s inside them and they believe that they somehow “gave the wrong signal” or otherwise brought it on themselves and it can’t be rape if it’s your boyfriend, can it? It can’t be rape if you were making out, can it? What if you’re drunk?
The only question should be “did sexual contact occur without consent?” and if the answer is “yes,” then guess what? It was rape.
The point is, it doesn’t matter what a rape victim did or didn’t do before, during, or after the rape. The only thing that matters is consent. So if you came to this post carrying assumptions about perfect victims who behave like you think they ought to and scream when you think they should and fight like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m hoping you’ll leave with a better understanding of how those assumptions hinder your ability to empathize with me and other survivors. If you know someone who harbors these assumptions, I’m hoping you’ll share this with them and maybe help them understand that the only rule is there are no rules when it comes to how rape victims behave.
This is not a movie and we are not Buffy. We are individual men and women and there’s no telling how any of us will react in a given situation. And in a situation like the one we’re discussing, all bets are off.
Let’s put our assumptions aside and choose empathy, shall we?
Note: Rape happens to men and women and people all over the gender spectrum. The tropes and assumptions I’m addressing here are mostly about rape victims who are women, so I have often used the female pronoun.
- The Toughest Woman You Know Has Been Raped (snipe.net)
- A Brief History (the Bad Parts Version) (Make Me a Sammich)
- I Am Jane Doe (Make Me a Sammich)
- I Didn’t Know it was Sexual Assault (Make Me a Sammich)
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