Originally published on Penny Red
by Laurie Penny
This post comes with a trigger warning for rape and sexual assault that should be visible from space.
Rape. From the Latin, ‘rapere,’ to take or snatch. Usual meaning: to penetrate another person’s body sexually without their consent. From the Sexual Offences Act, 2003: “A is guilty of rape when A intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of B (the complainant) with his penis; B does not consent to the penetration; and A does not reasonably believe that B consents.” It’s such a small, simple, violent word, and right now, thanks to Julian Assange, George Galloway and Todd Akin, the entire internet and substantial portions of the internot are arguing over what it means.
Over the past few days of following the Assange case, standing in the crowd to hear him deliver his Evita speech from the balcony of the Ecuadorian Embassy, debating with men and women online, I’ve heard a great many people from all sides of the political spectrum tell me that the women who accused the Wikileaks founder of sexual assault were lying, or they were duped, or they were ‘honey traps’, or, most worryingly and increasingly often, that their definition of rape is inaccurate. The people saying this are not all prize bellends like Galloway or frothing wingnuts like Akin and other prominent Republicans who seem to want abortion to be available only to virgins, a position that seems curiously and specifically unChristian. Some of them are just everyday internet idiots who happen to believe that if a man who you have previously consented to sex with holds you down and fucks you, that isn’t rape. If you were wearing a short skirt and flirting, that isn’t rape. If a man penetrates you without a condom while you’re asleep, against your will, that isn’t rape, not, in Akin’s words, “legitimate rape”.
Old, white, powerful men know what rape is, much better, it seems, than rape victims. They are lining up to inform us that women – the discussion has centred around women and their lies even though 9% of rape victims are men* – do not need “to be asked prior to each insertion”. Thanks for that, George, not that it’s just you. There’s an army of commentators who also believe that “that’s not real rape” is both a valid, useful defence of a specific political asylum seeker and objective truth. Women lie, they say. Women lie about rape, about sexual assault, they do it because they’re stupid or wicked or attention-seeking or deluded. The fact that the rate of fraud in rape cases remains as low as the rate of fraud in any other criminal allegation – between two and four per cent – does not impact. Women lie, and they do it to ruin men in positions of power. We shall henceforth call this ‘The Reddit Defence.’
This is not an article about Julian Assange. I’ve already written one of those, as, it seems, has everyone with keyboard and opinion. This is about rape, and what it means, and what we think it means. As a culture, we still refuse collectively to accept that most rapes are committed by ordinary men, men who have friends and families, men who may even have done great or admirable things with their lives. We refuse to accept that nice guys rape, and they do it often. Part of the reason we haven’t accepted it is that it’s a fucking painful thing to contemplate – far easier to keep on believing that only evil men rape, only violent, psychotic men lurking in alleyways with pantomime-villain moustaches and knives, than to consider that rape might be something that ordinary men do. Men who might be our friends or colleagues or people we look up to. We don’t want that to be the case. Hell, I don’t want that to be the case. So, we all pretend it isn’t. Justice, see?
Actually, rape is very common. Ninety thousand people reported rape in the United States in 2008 alone**, and it is estimated that over half of rape victims never go to the police, making the true figure close to two hundred thousand. Between ten and twenty percent of women have experienced rape or sexual assault. It’s so common that when someone reports an allegation of rape in the press, I often hear friends tell me: ‘that sounds like my rape.’ Not: ‘I was raped, too.’ ‘That sounds like my rape.’ Being assaulted or fucked without consent is so common that it’s more noteworthy if you happen to recognise similar specific circumstances. It’s so common that – sorry if this hurts to hear – there’s a good chance you know somebody who might have raped someone else. There’s a good chance I do. And there’s more than a small chance that he doesn’t even think he did anything wrong, that he believes that what he did wasn’t rape, couldn’t be rape, because after all, he’s not a bad guy.
The man who raped me wasn’t a bad guy. He was in his early thirties, a well-liked and well-respected member of a social circle of which I am no longer a part, a fun-loving, left-leaning chap who was friends with a number of strong, feminist women I admired. I was nineteen. I admired him too.
One night, a group of my friends held a big party in a hotel. Afterwards, a few of the older guests, including this man, invited me up to the room they had rented. I knew that some drinking and kissing and groping might happen. I started to feel ill, and asked if It would be alright if I went to sleep in the room – and I felt safe, because other people were still there. I wasn’t planning to have sex with this man or with anyone else that night, but if I had been, that wouldn’t have made it okay for him to push his penis inside me without a condom or my consent.
The next thing I remember is waking up to find myself being penetrated, and realising that my body wasn’t doing what I told it to. Either I was being held down or – more likely – I was too sick to move. I’ve never been great at drinking, which is why I don’t really do it any more, but this feeling was more profound, and to this day I don’t know if somebody put something in my drink that night. I was horrified at the way his face looked, fucking me, contorted and sweating. My head span. I couldn’t move. I was frightened, but he was already inside me, and I decided it was simplest to turn my face away and let him finish. When he did, I crawled to the corner of the enormous bed and lay there until the sun came up.
In the morning I got up, feeling sick and hurting inside, and took a long, long shower in the hotel’s fancy bathroom. The man who had fucked me without my consent was awake when I came out. He tried to push me down on the bed for oral, but I stood up quickly and put on my dress and shoes. I asked him if he had used a condom. He told me that he ‘wasn’t into latex’, and asked if I was on the pill. I don’t remember thinking ‘I have just been raped’. After all, this guy wasn’t behaving in the manner I had learned to associate with rapists. Rapists are evil people. They’re not nice blokes who everybody respects who simply happen to think it’s ok to stick your dick in a teenager who’s sleeping in the same bed as you, without a condom. This guy seemed, if anything, confused as to why I was scrabbling for my things and bolting out the door. He even sent me an email a few days later, chiding me for being rude.
When I walked home, it didn’t occur to me that I had been raped. The next day, when I told a mutual friend what had happened, the girl who had introduced me to the man in question, I didn’t use that word. By that time, I was in some pain between my legs, a different sort of pain, and I was terrified that I had AIDS. I had to wait two weeks for test results which showed that the man who raped me had given me a curable infection. I told my friend that I felt dirty and ashamed of myself. She said she was sorry I felt that way. Everybody else in that social circle seemed to agree that by going to that hotel room and taking off my nice lace dress I had asked for whatever happened next, and so I dropped the issue. They were right and I was wrong. The man that we all knew and liked would never take advantage of anyone, and suggesting such a thing made me a liar and a slag. Did I go to the police? Did I hell***. I thought it was my fault.
My experience was common enough, and it was also six years ago. Looking back, being raped wasn’t the worst thing that ever happened to me, although the experience of speaking out and not being believed, the experience of feeling so ashamed and alone, stayed with me for a long time, and changed how I relate to other humans. But I got over it. I rarely think about it. For some people, though, experiencing rape is a life-changing trauma.
Yes, even when it’s not “legitimate” rape. Being raped by a man who you liked and trusted, even loved – thirty percent of rape victims are attacked by a boyfriend, husband or lover – is an entirely different experience from being raped by a stranger in an alley, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less damaging. Particularly not if others go on to tell you you’re a lying bitch. Sorry if that hurts to hear.
You know what also hurts to hear? People telling you that your experience didn’t happen, that you asked for it. That you have no right to be angry or hurt. That you should shut up. That you hate men. That you’re against freedom of speech. That’s what hundreds of thousands of women all over the world are hearing when they hear respected commentators (I’m not talking here about Galloway or Alvin, although I’m sure there are a great many people who respect their opinions, god help them) saying that the allegations made against Julian Assange “aren’t really rape.”
The idea that fucking a woman in her sleep, without a condom, or holding a woman down and shoving your cock inside her after a previous instance of consensual sex, is just “bad bedroom etiquette” – thanks again, George – the idea that good guys don’t rape, that idea has two effects. One: it fosters the fantasy that there’s only one kind of rape, and it happens in the proverbial alley with the perennial knife and certainly not to anyone you know. That’s what’s most disturbing about the discussion going on right now. There are millions of men, some of them very young, most of them extremely well-meaning, all of them with their own unique sexual histories trying to figure out a way to negotiate boundaries without hurting themselves or others, and those men are being told that sometimes women say things are rape when they aren’t really. That people who say that consent is really very important indeed are probably on the same side as conniving governments who want to suppress freedom of speech and punish whistleblowers and truth-seekers.
Two: it makes any man or woman who has ever been raped by a nice guy suspect, yet again, that it’s all their fault, that they let it happen. It makes rape victims less likely to come forward and report. I didn’t report my rape. It took me months even to understand it as rape. I stopped talking about it, because I was sick of being called a liar, and I got the shut-up message fairly fast. I tried to stop thinking about it.
But this week brought it all up again. The vitriol being spewed across the internet, the discussions in every car and cafe I’ve stepped into about what rape really means, the acknowledgement that yes, lots of women do lie and exaggerate, they’ve made me feel infected all over again. Another friend told me she felt “psychologically poisoned, sick more than angry,” I’m definitely not the only one who’s been revisiting those scenes in my head, playing them over like old CCTV footage. I’m probably not the only one, either, who went quietly back to a few friends from the old days to talk again about what happened, to clear things up. And what one of those former friends told me was: I wish I’d taken you more seriously, because I think it happened again, to somebody else.
That was yesterday. And that’s why I’m writing this post now. I’ve actually written it three times, and deleted it twice, and I’ve decided to bite my lip and click ‘publish’, because this vicious drift towards victim-blaming must stop. It’s not about Julian Assange, not really, not any more. It’s becoming an excuse to wrench the definition of rape back to a time when consent was unimportant, just when some of us had begun to speak up, and it’s happening right now, and what’s worse, what’s so, so much worse, is that it’s happening in the name of truth and justice, in the name of freedom of speech.
If those principles are to mean anything, this vitriol, this rape-redefining in the name of conscience and whistleblowing and Wikileaks and Julian Assange, it has to stop. It has to stop now. Non-consensual sex is rape, real rape, and good guys do it too, all the time, every day. Sorry if that hurts to hear, but you’ve heard it now, and there are things that hurt much more, and for longer, and for lifetimes. Those things need to stop. Together, if we’re brave enough to keep on speaking out even we’re told to shut up, told we’re liars and bitches and we asked for it, we can make them stop. There aren’t many situations where all it takes to change the world is a lot of people standing together and refusing to be silenced, but this might be one of them.
*this figure, along with the overall rape statistics, is far, far higher in the United States if prison rape is taken into account, which it rarely is.
**I have used figures for the United States throughout this article – more information for the UK can be found at www.rapecrisis.org.uk
***I still haven’t, and I haven’t named any names or included any identifying information in this article, and that’s my choice, and I’d like you to respect that, because I thought long and hard about putting this out there, and now I don’t want to think about it any more. Thank you.