Rape culture isn’t a myth, regardless of the Rolling Stone story.
(Warning — this piece contains a description of sexual assault.)
“so, Rolling Stone feminists busted for fabricating #UVAHoax Feminists these days. #fuckingliars”
This was an unsolicited tweet I received today from someone I have never talked to online and don’t follow after it was confirmed that Rolling Stone would be retracting their story about campus rape, owing to a number of factual inaccuracies. I was frightened, then furious, then I realised I wanted to write about it.
I am very anxious about what the news means for rape victims and our rape culture. I know that many other people will seize the news and use it as evidence that neither thing exists.
In a way it doesn’t surprise me that we’re so bad at listening to women talking about rape. When I was raped I wasn’t especially interested in listening to myself. It took years for me to figure out what happened and how I felt about it, and to stop feeling isolated, alone and ashamed.
The Rolling Stone story retraction isn’t about rape. It’s about journalism, quality control and the damage that is done when professionals fail to fact check. But in some quarters it will be seen as proof that women are at best unreliable and at worst, vengeful. That we’ll sell our own bodies out from under us for the sake of a story. That rumours of rape culture have been greatly exaggerated.
I was raped when I was seventeen. I can’t remember very much about it but I have recounted it as clearly as I am able to.
It happened at my boyfriend’s grandparents house. He was desperate to have sex and I was desperately afraid of upsetting our hosts. I know it was the afternoon and we were upstairs in a bedroom playing Scrabble. I can’t remember how soon I said ‘no’ — he knew I didn’t want to, but I may have unbuttoned my jeans before I changed my mind. But I did say no, repeatedly, just before and at the point of penetration. And afterwards, crying quietly, I put it to him that he had raped me and he stopped speaking to me for the rest of the afternoon.
At the time, I told no-one. For years I wasn’t sure how to classify it. He was my boyfriend, we were in a bedroom, we’d had sex before. Why would I continue to date a rapist?
When I consented to have sex with him for the first time, had I agreed to have sex with him forever? His grandparents hadn’t found out — and this was why I hadn’t wanted to do it in the first place. What was I making such a fuss about? Yet I did want to make a fuss. I felt sexually silenced — that I was crazy for ever thinking my desires were part of the conversation. It was a confirmation of everything I’d been taught to fear. Sex should equal shame, and if you explore your body bad things will happen to you. At the time, I was too shocked and sad to be angry. I’d stopped feeling like I had choices to make. I stayed with him for another four years and I don’t think I know why beyond my sense that I had been beaten, something elemental was being slowly eroded and I wasn’t able to work up the strength to go.
If I struggled to convince myself that I was a victim, I can understand why he — and hundreds and thousands of men in his position — struggle to identify as rapists. I don’t think he got up thinking ‘I’m going to rape my girlfriend today’. I don’t think he wanted to cause me pain or distress — I don’t think he was thinking about me at all. There was a moment in time when he wanted something and my wishes were an obstacle to be overcome. I don’t think this is atypical. Of course, rape is sometimes a premeditated cruelty, but I believe that it’s also a symptom of a society that hasn’t yet come to terms with the fact that women are equal to men, or even human. Our free will is honoured and our refusals are heard only when it doesn’t inconvenience the people who believe, subconsciously or otherwise, that we’re there to serve them.
I wish my rape made me exceptional. I wish I could believe that I was a victim of a hurricane, a rare, unpreventable act of random chaos. But most women I know have a story, something along the lines of ‘I didn’t want to have sex. But we did.’ ‘I think I passed out, I don’t really remember.’ ‘He took the condom off half way through and I didn’t really know what to say.’ I think about the number of friends who have been followed home, clutching their keys and questioning their levels of paranoia, until, in one instance, someone had forced their way through her front door and had to be pushed out. I think about my sister, who used to dress in poster paint colours, butterfly bright. until a strange man in the street stuck his hand up her skirt and she spent the next few years in browns and greys. I think about the friend who kept turning her housemate down and discovering him in her bed anyway on the morning after a drunk night out. And the friend who told me she stopped using Valium on long journeys ‘because I woke up on the nightbus and some man had his hand inside my knickers.’ I think about the friend of a friend on holiday in Croatia who decided she was too drunk to go to a club and was raped in the taxi home. It took her three days to talk about it and no legal action was taken because she went to the police and was told ‘our taxi drivers are not rapists.’
For women, the conversations become choral, there’s a tidal wave of ‘me too’. Everyone has a tale about a time when someone else attempted to possess or repurpose their body without their permission. And we don’t know what to do about it, so we laugh, or shrug apologetically and talk it down. Maybe we made a mistake, we weren’t clear enough, we weren’t careful. We are, for the most part, kind to each other. We believe each other. I can be outraged on behalf of everyone but me.
Men, however — and as the meme expresses, not all men, but enough — are the first to express disbelief. Most want to demonstrate genuine compassion and horror. ‘I don’t believe it!’ is a figure of speech. They would never, ever want to make a woman feel that way. Rape is a bad crime done by bad men. Surely rapists are very rare and easily identified by their special capes and sinister theme tunes? Not their brothers, fathers and friends!
Only they might be. If you have a mate nicknamed ‘Shagger’, if you have an uncle who seems to make waitresses a little nervous, or a manager that has engaged you in an hilarious, ironic conversation about the bangability of your female colleagues, you’re not witnessing isolated incidents. These are all parts of the cultural puzzle that claims men are men and women are their rewards. And if you let that go unchallenged, you’re part of the problem.
So yeah, not all men. But a sizeable enough minority to poison the water supply, unless ALL men take action. And the biggest, bravest thing they can do is listen and believe. It’s about not making stats about false rape accusations part of the conversation about rape. It’s about asking why men rape instead of wondering why women want to talk about rape. It’s about understanding that women won’t have the language and autonomy to express their own desires as long as some men claim to believe they know best when it comes to what they really want. (Clue- If a woman is truly ‘asking for it’, no-one would ever have to justify their actions towards her with the words ‘she was asking for it.’
Rapists are frightening. But just as frightening are the men who will use the Rolling Stone verdict as proof that we are hysterical and unreliable. They will make millions of women feel scared, alone, ashamed and isolated by using words like ‘myth’, and ‘liar’, and ‘disbelief’. The only way to make rape into a myth is to fully accept the unacceptable — that right now it’s happening to almost every woman you know.