Recently I participated in a brief exchange on Facebook on the topic of sexual assault. The person who initiated the discussion was upset by the comments following an article at Jezebel.com written by a woman who had been sexually assaulted on the street. Apparently the nature of the offending comments were of the “I would’ve broken his hand!” variety. My friend’s premise in her Facebook update was that this kind of attitude is harmful to the victims of rape and sexual assault, and only serves to perpetuate the problem. She stated “Okay, actually, I get it: they are trying to comfort themselves with the idea that they are invulnerable. The problem with this is that they are implicitly blaming the person telling the story for, basically, being incompetent to defend themselves. This reinforces rape culture, because it reinforces the conception that the onus is on people (mostly women) to NOT GET RAPED.”
I couldn’t agree more, and, like my friend on Facebook, I understand the “It couldn’t happen to me because I would have killed the son-of-a-bitch” response. But I also know it is a totally unrealistic delusion, and it is one that is extremely harmful to a victim of sexual assault or abuse. Like my friend, I believe that it perpetuates and reinforces this kind of crime. Unfortunately I know this from experience.
When I was a 19-year-old college student, I spent a semester of my junior year in France. My best friend and I bought Eurail passes and spent some time traveling through various countries including spending a week in Rome. Rome was not a safe playground for a naïve but adventurous young American girl. One night, in a restaurant, feeling vulnerable and recovering from a narrow escape from a dangerous situation the night before, my friend and I were joined for dinner and wine by several young Roman men from the table next to us. One of the men seated himself next to me, and we discussed the sketchy happenings of the previous night. In broken English he confirmed that Rome was indeed a dangerous city, but he reassured me that there was no need to be worried with him, as he was “polizia”…
After eating, drinking, and conversing for a short while, he invited me to go for a ride on the back of his motorbike to “see the city”. Unwittingly I accepted, and told my friend I would return shortly. I climbed on the back of his motorbike, and he drove us straight up into a huge park on one of Rome’s famous hills and parked the bike under a big, old tree. There in the cold November darkness, with not a soul in sight, with the lights of the city twinkling far beneath us, this man, this so-called police officer whom I had known for less than two hours, grabbed me and began to smash his mouth against mine in a grotesque exaggeration of a kiss. He groped me and forcefully pushed his body against mine. With my heart in my throat and the realization of the gravity of the situation settling in, I pushed him away and politely but firmly demanded he return me to the restaurant at once. He flared into an angry outburst of words and gestures, and the more I rejected his advances, the angrier he became. He began to yell and gesture at me violently, pacing around in circles under that foreign tree. He threatened to leave me there in the darkness of that giant, cold, ancient park, miles from my friend, in a city where I knew no one and didn’t speak the language. Then suddenly and mercifully he stopped yelling and seemed to have a change of mood, and he directed me to get back on the bike. I gratefully did so and begged him politely to take me back to the restaurant.
But he did NOT take me back to the restaurant. Instead, after experiencing a few moments of sweet relief thinking we were heading back to safety, I realized with horror that he was entering the on-ramp to a freeway. He then took us miles out of the city, away from the light, to a giant concrete apartment building surrounded by dark nothingness. I followed him through that darkness into his apartment where he raped me. I didn’t fight back physically.
At some point on the back of that motorbike, with the unfamiliar, ancient, polluted Roman air molecules blowing hard against my face and the light disappearing rapidly behind me, I steeled myself and made a decision. I decided that I would do whatever it would take to get through the rest of the experience as safely as possible so I could survive and get back to my friend and back to my life. I didn’t know him, I was afraid of him, I had no idea what he might do if I further protested, and I wanted to live.
Because I didn’t fight him, he became less aggressive with me, and began to treat me as if this were a romantic encounter I had chosen. Much to his displeasure, I lay lifeless, closed my eyes and didn’t say a word. Let me just say that I endured the next few hours until the light began to come again. I had no words for him then, and no words to say to anyone about it for a long, long time, including myself.
As dawn was breaking we climbed back on his bike, and he returned me to the restaurant which was near the hotel where my friend was anxiously awaiting my return. Naturally she was upset with me for abandoning her. Again, I had no words or reasonable explanation for what had happened other than the feeling that all of it was my own fault. I was embarrassed and terribly ashamed but mostly I was just confused and shut-down. The anger and sadness would not emerge until later. And even then, for a long time the words would not come.
Seventeen years later, in the year 2001 at the age of 35, I made my first confession, or, as it is now known in the Roman Catholic Church, my “sacrament of reconciliation”. This involved an extensive “examination of conscience”, or as was the case for me, a painful journey through my past examining the ways in which I had caused harm to myself or others. It was the first time in my adult life I had ever reflected on this experience in Rome with any kind of acknowledgement of the serious impact it had on me, and suddenly it was glaringly obvious. Most distressing ultimately was the realization that I had never forgiven myself for “allowing” it to happen, and that I was still deeply sad about it. Because I had never honestly acknowledged that I was raped, I did not feel like a victim, I felt like a participant, perhaps even a “slut” – impure. Wouldn’t I have fought back harder physically if I truly were a victim? Wouldn’t I have screamed or kicked him and run away? Was this a sin? Should I confess it? I looked at the stations of the cross and saw the depictions of Christ’s agony as his body was crucified. I saw the resignation on his face as he carried the cross on his back towards his certain death. I saw his acceptance of his suffering at the hands of those who would crucify him. Was Christ a victim? A willing participant? Why was his face depicted in such an undisturbed manner, and why was he helping to carry the cross? This was a dark time for me.
Dear Reader, I know the truth now. It has been 10 years since my last and final confession in the Catholic Church. However, I will confess to you here my “sin”, or that which separated me from healing and wholeness. The true sin I committed was to punish myself for this violation by being silent and ashamed and by holding on to even a glimmer of belief that I somehow deserved what happened to me for innocently climbing on the back of a motorbike with a man I didn’t know and not fighting back harder physically. Somewhere inside I believed I deserved what happened because I didn’t do something violent enough to him to stop the chain of events that occurred EVEN THOUGH I begged him to stop, EVEN THOUGH I pushed him away, and EVEN THOUGH I asked him repeatedly to return me to safety. Looking back with the wisdom of time and maturity, I know that getting on the back of that motorbike with a stranger in a foreign land was a foolish and risky thing to do, but it was NOT a justification for what came to pass. Now as I am able to reflect back on my young, innocent self, I can see that I did the best with what I had and that the decisions I made were reasonable for me and were made out of self-preservation. I wanted to come through it alive. I knew I could get through a rape, but no one survives a murder, and I had no way of knowing what this man would do to me.
There are several reasons why I am choosing to tell this story now, including being inspired by the Facebook post I mentioned at the start. By allowing myself to be ashamed and silent about it for so many years, and still, at the age of 46, to have any shred of guilt that I didn’t fight him violently, makes me feel like a participant in the culture that allows these crimes to flourish - “the culture of rape”. I have far too much life experience now to believe it is this simple. If by being open and honest here just one other person is given some insight, spared some shame, or has the opportunity to speak on her own behalf and not let someone who doesn’t understand speak for her, then I am grateful enough for that.
But I am also moved to tell this story now because I am shocked and alarmed by the utter lack of clarity and insight on the part of some politicians recently on the subject of rape. I needn’t run down the list of outrageous remarks made in recent weeks. Just Google the phrases “legitimate rape” or “what God intended” if you’ve been living under a rock. Rape is never legitimate, nor is it EVER what “God” intended. It is an act of violence pure and simple, and it does not come with easy options for escape.
This post is my absolution.
Note: Yesterday, after reading my draft, my friend elroyjones was inspired to write her rape story, and posted it here in her blog. I also bumped into this post recently, which I thought was very helpful.
- I knew I could get through a rape, but no one survives a murder. ~ Christine List (elephantjournal.com)