[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)
PSA: Abusive commenters will be deleted and banned, so kindly piss off in advance. (Comment Policy)
Last fall  when the GOP was falling all over itself to determine who in their ranks could make the most asinine comment revealing their ignorance about rape and biology and pretty much everything, Soraya Chemaly wrote this article on HuffPo reminding us of some very relevant (sourced) facts re: rape. I’ve chosen a few I think are particularly interesting/topical/important/timely to explore a bit. (See the above article for additional sources.)
Most Rapes Go Unreported
Many, many survivors do not report their rapes. The Department of Justice estimates that fewer than 50% of rapes are reported each year, and gives a low estimate of 300,000 yearly rapes nationwide. The Center for Disease Control has placed their high estimate at 1.3 million. I’m inclined to go with the higher number since, of my rapes, I’ve reported fewer than 50% myself (only one went to arrest/prosecution), and none of the many cases of child molestation (some of which were absolutely rape or attempted rape, and yet see how I still make a distinction) were ever reported to the police.
Most Rapists Never Serve Time
The statistic says that 97% of rapists never serve time. That’s based on the following from RAINN:
Of the 46 rapes (out of this statistical 100) that are reported, only 12 of those reports lead to an arrest. Let’s think about that for a moment:
In 34 out of 46 instances, when a rape victim files a police report regarding his/her rape, the police don’t even bother to make an arrest.
Consider that statistics have also shown that most rapes are not, in fact, stranger rapes, but are committed by someone the victim knows. And then remember the hundreds of thousands of rape kits that sit untested on shelves in police department evidence lockers across the US (one of mine in Dallas, TX). Because prosecuting rape is clearly not a priority in this country.
From Wikipedia via the National Institute of Justice:
“18 percent of unsolved alleged sexual assaults that occurred from 2002 to 2007 contained forensic evidence that was still in police custody (not submitted to a crime lab for analysis)”; 2) One major challenge is that 43% of law enforcement agencies “do not have a computerized system for tracking forensic evidence, either in their inventory or after it is sent to the crime lab”; 3) On average, 50–60% of kits test positive for biological material that does not belong to the victim; 4) Survey responses indicated that there may be some misunderstanding of the value of biological evidence. 44% of the law enforcement agencies said that one of the reasons they did not send evidence to the lab was that a suspect had not been identified. 15% said that they did not submit evidence because “analysis had not been requested by a prosecutor.”
So, we don’t bother testing rape kits if no one asks us to, or because we haven’t identified a suspect. Wait, I watch cop shows—isn’t DNA one of the ways cops ID suspects who have raped before? Oh, for that to work they’d need to test even more rape kits, and in this country, we’re way too busy with the war on medical marijuana to worry about justice for rape survivors.
32,000 Women Become Pregnant Resulting from Rape Each Year
That’s right, Todd Akin: According to the National Institute of Health, rape results in 32,000 pregnancies yearly. In fact, in a 2003 study, scientists found that pregnancy occurs twice as often as a result of rape than of consensual sex.
Our analysis suggests that per-incident rape-pregnancy rates exceed per-incident consensual pregnancy rates by a sizable margin, even before adjusting for the use of relevant forms of birth control.
And yet, right-wing politicians who think their hearts are in the right places believe it’s perfectly ok to restrict Plan B, the “morning after” pill to “emergency rapes.” You know, those stranger rapes that happen more often on television than they do in real life. Thanks, GOP.
In 31 of these United States, Rapists Have Parental Rights
Imagine for a moment that you’re a woman who has survived rape and become pregnant. Should you desire an abortion, 24 states require a waiting period. Should you decide to keep the child, the rapist can sue for parental rights in 31. This is a nightmare I can’t even bring myself to imagine for more than a moment. And yet thousands of women face this in our country each year–hundreds of thousands live with it even as I write.
Here’s a handy graphic from Huffington Post showing how each state rates when it comes to laws regarding pregnancy resulting from rape:
Most Military Rapes Go Unreported
The Pentagon estimates that in the US Armed Forces, 80-90% of rapes go unreported. In 2011, 16,500 rapes were reported. I’ll let you do the math. Estimates place the number of male rape survivors in the military at anywhere from 8-37%—much higher than in civilian life (but possibly lower than in the prison system, depending on who you ask).
Also, I’m going to quote this one directly from the list:
I have no words for how fucked up that is. <—Except those ones.
Prison is a Rape Culture All Its Own
It is estimated by some that prison rape is one of the most underreported forms of rape. Some will tell you that when it comes to rape culture, prison has the outside world beat hands down. Personally, I don’t see it as a competition, but I am well-aware (as are most of us, I think) that prison rape is a huge problem not only in our prisons, but for our society. Our “correctional system” breaks people and then releases them back into the world where they’re completely unequipped to survive and thrive. At least 20% of prison inmates experience rape, and if you’re LGBT, your chances increase significantly.
From the Bureau of Justice Statistics:
- An estimated 4.4% of prison inmates and 3.1% of jail inmates reported experiencing one or more incidents of sexual victimization by another inmate or facility staff in the past 12 months or since admission to the facility, if less than 12 months.
- Female inmates in prison (4.7%) or jail (3.1%) were more than twice as likely as male inmates in prison (1.9%) or jail (1.3%) to report experiencing inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization.
- Among inmates who reported inmate-on-inmate sexual victimization, 13% of male prison inmates and 19% of male jail inmates said they were victimized within the first 24 hours after admission, compared to 4% of female inmates in prison and jail.
- Among heterosexual state and federal prisoners, an estimated 1.3% reported being sexually victimized by another inmate, and 2.5% reported being victimized by staff (table 8). In contrast, among prison inmates with a sexual orientation
other than heterosexual (including bisexual, homosexual, gay or lesbian, or other), 11.2% reported being sexually victimized by another inmate, and 6.6% reported being sexually victimized by staff.
- Similar differences were reported among jail inmates, with heterosexual inmates reporting lower rates of inmate-on-inmate victimization (1.1%) and staff sexual misconduct (1.9%) than nonheterosexual inmates (7.2% and 3.5%, respectively).
Rape as a Weapon of War
Again, I’m going to take these directly from the list. These numbers serve as a startling reminder that rape—especially male-on-female rape—is and has always been considered a good way to humiliate your enemy and reward the troops for a job well done.
- Number of rapes noted in commonly used World War II statistics: 0
- Number of rapes of WWII concentration camp inmates: Untallied millions
- Number of rapes of German women by Russian soldiers at the end of WWII: between 1m and 2m
- Number of women raped in 1990s Bosnian conflict: 60,000+
- Number of women raped per hour in Congo during war: 48
Actions vs. Words
The above only scratches the surface. There is so much work to be done. A reader commented today on Always Aware that we need less talk and more action. I’m in total agreement, and yet I feel paralyzed in the face of all this to do anything but read and learn and write and discuss and try to understand what it is that will turn our culture around—to understand what actions I can take out in the world to make real change.
I’m planning a road-trip sometime in the future, and I’d like it to be a thing of action and not just words. I’ll be thinking more about what that means, but if you’ve got any suggestions, please let me know.
- Most Victims Know Their Attacker – National Institute of Justice
- Female Victims Of Sexual Violence, 1994-2010 – Bureau of Justice Statistics
- Rape-related pregnancy: estimates and descriptive characteristics from a national sample of women – National Library of Medicine
- Sexual Victimization In Prisons And Jails Reported By Inmates, 2008-09 – Bureau of Justice Statistics
On the Web:
- Why I Won’t Publish Your Comments About False Rape Accusations – Rethink the Rant
- Is the United States the only country where more men are raped every year than women? – Feministe
- Sexual Assaults on Female Soldiers: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell – TIME
- Always Aware: Keeping Our Eye on the Meaning of SAAM – The Sin City Siren
- A Brief History (the Bad Parts version)
- Always Aware
- I Am Jane Doe
- Letter from Another Jane Doe
- Bree’s Story
Respectful discussion is welcome and encouraged. When in doubt, see the Comment Policy.