No, this is really about how painful it can be, as a rape survivor, to hear these stories. For me, it’s not the reminders that it happened to me. It’s not the descriptions, some of which are so similar that I can actually smell my own assault.
Nope. It’s about the well-intentioned statements, meant to show solidarity with survivors, that amount to “he ruined her life.”
I remember the first time I heard it. Someone I told, shortly after I was raped, talked about wanting to find the guy and punish him, because he ruined my life. I was 17. I had been stalked and raped at gunpoint in my own bed by someone who broke in while I was sleeping. I was terrified, and I knew it. I was unable to sleep, and I knew it. I couldn’t feel clean, and I knew it.
But that was the first time it ever occurred to me that my life was ruined.
“He what?” I asked. “That man ruined your life, and he should be punished.”
Even as a 17 year-old, I was taken aback. I mean, ruined? No. That didn’t seem possible.
Looking back now, nearly 30 years later, the nature of that statement hurts more and more. I am able to intellectualy brush it off, but I have 3 children, and I don’t, for even a moment, want them to hear that if a rapist rapes them, it is on them to carry the burden of “ruined” forever.
If someone, heaven forbid, gives them a black eye in bar brawl, are they ruined? No, that’s absurd. If someone robs them at gunpoint, are they ruined? No, patently ridiculous. If someone steals their car, do we mourn that driving has been ruined forever? No.
Only with rape do we suggest that the victim carry the title of “ruined” with them for the rest of their lives.
I will never forget watching Oprah congratulate a woman who had fought of an armed would-be rapist by saying, “I’d rather be dead.” Dead. Dead is better than raped? While I think I can safely say that Oprah didn’t really mean that, the fact that it was said in such an easy and off-handed way shows how carelessly we say these things. But if you’re one of the 1 in 6 women, or 1 in 33 men who has been raped, it can be hard to shake off a statement that someone would rather be dead than be you.
I get it, it’s intended as a shorthand way to say, “what that person did to you was unimaginably horrible.” And it is. However, we, as a society, have to find a way to express the enormity of this violent crime for what it is, without letting it taint the men and women who survive it.
It is also, of course, not lost on me that the difference is that rape is a crime in which our own bodies are used against us in an act of violence to render us powerless. But that same reality can serve to remind us that rape is a crime of power and violence, not sex.
Rape is not sex. If I had my way, we’d stop conflating sex and rape. We’d stop using the phrase “sex crime” because sex is not a crime, and rape is not sex.
Sex is a consensual act between adults. Without consent, it is rape. There is no overlap here. The fact that it might look like sex is horrible. The fact that our bodies absorb trauma and can be retriggered by smells, sounds and touch is tragic. It is absolutely true that the trauma of rape is often stored, like the most pernicious PTSD, in our bodies to be ignited in the times when we least wish for it.
But we are not ruined.
As a society, we have to understand the depth of the trauma, and help survivors heal, by reminding them that they are not ruined. They are not broken, destroyed, crazy, weak or worthless.
They are survivors, just like everyone else who has survived a violent crime. Or an accident that hurt them badly. Or a disease that threatened to ruin their life. But didn’t.
Because when you’re trying to regain your sense of control and power in the world, the last thing you need to hear is “your life is ruined.” While it’s true that they may never be “the same” again, life does not have to be ruined. And neither does sex.
There is enough fear and shame in rape already. It is hard enough to come forward when you face a sea of doubt. Why would anyone come forward if they know they will now also have to wear their rape like a scarlet letter? Into a world that looks at them as damaged goods? Less than? Defective?
Every well-intentioned instance of “they ruined your life” needs to be replaced with “this was not your fault. This does not reflect on you. You will get through this.”
The only people who should spend their lives with rape attached to them are rapists.