Twenty-three years ago – when I was 17 and had just graduated from high-school – someone broke into my house while I was sleeping, came into my bed, climbed on top of me, held a gun to my head and raped me. My father was asleep down the hall and my two cats were doing whatever it is that cats do in the middle of the night. The man who was raping me told me that if I yelled, or made any attempt to look at him, he would kill my father and my two cats. And then me. I did not yell, and did not move for half an hour after he left, as I was instructed. The only thing I saw of my attacker were his hands in surgical gloves. He left no fingerprints. He left no DNA at all. Even at the time, I was grateful that he used a condom.
I was also grateful to be alive. Even at the time, I saw that as a choice that I made.
In the 23 years since that happened, I have written and spoken extensively about the aftermath of rape. It is part of what made me who I am. I can’t say that I think about my rape on a regular basis, it has just become part of the primordial goo that curses through my veins and makes me who I am.
Every now and then my rape comes up in conversation. I can tell, by the look on their faces, that other people think I talk about it too casually. I don’t mean to. But I don’t really give it that much weight. After all, I didn’t do it. I didn’t earn it. I didn’t ask for it. I didn’t cause it. In some ways, it really and truly had nothing to do with me. It certainly doesn’t define me.
Now, how I chose to survive it? That’s mine. And it’s something I claim, proudly.
The simple truth, however, is that most of the time, I honestly forget that I was raped.
My family and I were having breakfast the other day and the morning news was on. There was a teaser for an upcoming show in which someone was referring to rape as a devastating and crippling crime that ruins the lives of countless women. I snapped at the TV and said, “not all of us, my life wasn’t ruined!” My daughter looked at me, in shock, and said, “what do you mean, mommy? Were you raped?” It never occurred to me that she didn’t know. I just forgot.
Now, before I get accused of being flippant, let me be clear. My rape, just like the other 250,000 rapes that take place each year in the US, was horrible. I was a teenager, I had a gun at my head, and I was in a place that I felt safe. I don’t think that I slept through the night for more than a year afterwards. (I still can’t sleep very well if I am home alone, and, as a 40 year-old, often have slumber parties to avoid it.)
In the immediate aftermath, I floundered around and tried, in desperate ways, to reclaim my own fledgling sexuality by engaging in behavior that, upon retrospect, looks an awful lot like raping myself – a promiscuity with the kind of men that make my skin crawl when I see them now, preying on equally insecure young girls.
It was a rough few years. For sure. But thanks to incredible friends and family – and my own bizarre and innate ability to rationally get to the bottom-line of a situation – I just kept on with my life. I chose to travel Europe alone – and each day that nothing bad happened, I got stronger. I worked as a rape crisis counselor in hospitals – and each time I met with a survivor and congratulated her for surviving, I gave myself the same praise and strength.
Eventually, I was living, loving, going to college, having sex, and building a future just like everyone else. My own violent past just became an imprint on me.
It is from this perspective that I think about, and react to, the discussion of rape, rapists and rape survivors in our modern media. I listen to stories and interviews and am often aghast at the senseless and shallow way that this incredibly violent crime is treated.
Perhaps the worst of it, for me, was an episode of Oprah. Oprah was interviewing a woman who had fought off an armed attacker who was attempting to rape her. (Fighting off an armed attacker, for the record, is incredibly foolish and dangerous.) The woman was speaking about the struggle and how she prevented herself from being raped. Oprah’s response – on national television – was to congratulate her and say, “I would rather be dead.” Or maybe it was, “I would rather have died.” Regardless of what her exact words were, her message was clear: rape was worse than death.
I was stunned. It would be better to be dead than to be raped? Really? I know that it was a knee-jerk reaction on Oprah’s part, and that probably isn’t really what she meant. But, you hear things like that thrown around all the time, and while they may not mean much to someone who hasn’t been raped, they are brutal to someone who has – 1 in 6 women has. And really, I am pretty glad to be alive. I think there are a lot of other people whose lives are better because I’m in it. All in all, if I had the choice of being raped at gunpoint by a stranger or being dead, I’d still choose the rape and life. Just as I did 23 years ago.
So, when Oprah, the defacto leader of our collective conscience, is this confused about the role that rape should play in our lives, I think we’ve got some thinking to do about rape.
There are several things that we, as a society, must do in order to help rape survivors live long, healthy, happy and sexy lives. They are the same things that any individual needs to do in order to start the healing process, so let’s do them together.
1. Separate Rape From Sex
Sex is a consensual act between adults. Rape is a violent crime. There is no sex in rape.
This is the single most important thing that we need to understand. Rape is about power and violence, not sex. Unfortunately, sexual organs are the necessary weapon in this crime, and this triggers all manner of body shame, sexual taboo and fear, all of which make talking about and understanding rape even more difficult.
Because the sexual organs were the weapon used in the violent attack, the act of having sex in the future – even with a compassionate partner – can trigger memories stored deep in the body and mind.
Denise Clay, a Licensed Master Social Worker who provides psychotherapy and counseling services to individuals and couples in Manhattan and Brooklyn, offers the following insight. “Awareness about what is happening is key to tolerating the feelings. Also, it is quite important to have open dialogue with your partner and to create boundaries. Reclaiming your sexuality after a rape is a constant balancing act of gently moving yourself forward while also allowing yourself to process your emotions as they arise.”
It is vital that we change our dialog about the nature of rape both as a society and as individuals. We must remove the shame and taboo in order for people to be able to clearly discuss their boundaries and desires.
2. Put The Blame Where It Belongs
Far too often people discuss the circumstances of rape as if they matter, as if they caused it. This allows us to blame the victim – and imbue ourselves with a false sense of security, as long as the circumstance is not one we would put ourselves in.
There is only one person responsible for rape, and that is the rapist.
Although it is easy for us to say that we blame the rapist, our language often says something different. According to Dr. Elizabeth Lombardi, a clinical psychologist, physical therapist and author, we often use victim-blaming language, even when we don’t mean to. “Any comment that could be interpreted as ‘it was your fault’ can be devastating to the victim. ‘You shouldn’t have been out that late’ or ‘I hope you never go to a fraternity party by yourself again’ are inadvertently telling the person they are at fault for the rape. A rape is the fault of the rapist.”
3. Talk Openly and Honestly About Sex and Boundaries
By understanding that sex is a consensual act between adults, and that each of us are empowered to set our own boundaries, we will help people to speak out when they feel their boundaries are being, or have been, violated.
This is increasingly important when you realize that as many as 77% of rapes are committed by people who are known to the victim. We all need to remember that our bodies are our own, and no one has the right to touch us in a way we do not want to be touched. This does not put the responsibility to NOT be raped on us, but it does make far clearer that the rapist violating those boundaries is the one who is responsible.
MOVING PAST RAPE
Despite our best intentions and deepest wishes, rape still happens. Moving past it can be a long and arduous process, but it does happen. The farther away I got from my own rape, the more I began to wonder why we never hear stories about people who have gone on to live lives full of both love and sex. I put out a call for stories about rape survivors who feel that they have completely moved past it and live full and happy lives.
I was amazed – and moved to tears – by the large number of responses that I got. Again, I don’t want to belittle the intensity of this trauma, or make overcoming rape seem as simple as getting a manicure, but I think it is time to look at the positive future, rather than just at that terrifying past.
One of the women who responded to me, Caroline Blair, said something that sounded so familiar, and is something that I hope everyone can say eventually, “There were so many times I felt like my grief would never end, that there would never be a day that I didn’t think about being raped. I can now safely say that a month or more could pass where it doesn’t cross my mind. It absolutely is part of who I am, but it is only a small part of how I define myself.”
The question quickly becomes, “how do I move past this?”
Healing from rape can be, in many ways, very similar to the grieving process of any major illness, death or loss. And it can’t be rushed. As Dr. Lombardo explains, “When dealing with a rape, it is vital to go through a grieving process – to grieve the loss of innocence, of the sense of safety that you once had, of the life you had before or the life you expected to have were it not for the rape. And yet, sadly, many women do not give themselves permission or see the importance of this.”
Denise Clay also emphasizes the importance of fully grieving the loss, and adds that time alone cannot heal all wounds. “There is no exact recipe for how to heal – but, it’s important to give yourself permission to take as long as you need. It is equally important to play an active role in your own healing process. Perhaps most important after experiencing a trauma of any sort is to seek outside support. Sometimes, our instinct can be to isolate, self medicate, or act out – but the fact is, there is lots of support and help available for survivors. The combination of individual therapy and group therapy is one that I strongly recommend.”
Just as important as the process of healing is recognizing some of the common behaviors that can actually slow the process of healing from rape. As Denise Clay explains, “There is no denying that many self destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, stealing, and eating disorders can be linked to trauma. When someone is sexually violated it disrupts their whole system and the person is forced to come up with coping strategies. Although intended to protect us from experiencing painful memories, these coping strategies, unfortunately, can be quite harmful and damaging to our overall well being. If we can shift our perception toward these self destructive behaviors and come to think of them more as common responses to trauma, we create more room to grow and heal – rather than continuing the cycle of pathology and shame.”
This resonated profoundly for me, as I look back at the string of questionable sexual encounters that followed in the first few years after I was raped. At the time I told myself, as so many people do, that I was asserting my own sexuality. But I wasn’t, I was running. Retrospectively it seems so obviously flawed. I mean, if you’re hurt because someone stabbed you with a knife, you wouldn’t repeatedly stab yourself with a knife in order to feel better.
Although there are larger discussions that need to be had, Elizabeth Lombardo brings it back to a few simple things that we can all do when someone we know is raped. “Offer unconditional love that helps to build the person’s sense of worth. Encourage them to talk about it if they want and offer to get them help if they need it. Keep an eye out for red flags, such as suicidal comments, severe depression (e.g., crying, not doing things they used to enjoy, staying in bed all the time) and get help if you see these signs.”
While I’m not about to suggest that you can just “love” someone back to health, I can tell you that without my friends and family, and the freedom I feel to speak about it now, I would not have healed. And that is a sentiment that I heard from everyone who responded to my call for stories.
Caroline Blair credits her family for supporting her recovery, “They encouraged me to take the time I needed, asked me the right questions to provoke thoughts, recognized when I was ready to take the next step in healing, and gently encouraged me to consider therapy.”
That sentiment was echoed by LaRita Jacobs, “My family was there for me and I was immediately hooked up with a trained rape counselor. My husband (Kurt) was gentle and never, ever treated me as anything but the victim of this crime. I felt violated, but he ever treated me as unclean or anything like that. Kurt went to counseling sessions with me at times.”
How are Caroline and La Rita now?
Well, it was a long process, but some of the things they shared with me are very powerful. When I asked LaRita about the process of becoming fully sexual again, she actually credited the extreme violence of her rape with helping her.
“That took awhile. I wanted to be held and cuddled as if a child, but if Kurt got aroused I would panic. Our counselor was comfortable talking about sex with us and she helped us relearn making love as different from anything related to the violence of rape. It was probably ‘easier’ for me and Kurt because I was seriously injured when I tried to fight back. I had deep wounds in my head resulting in nearly three dozen stitches. That was ‘proof’ and a constant reminder of the violence that rape really is. It was months before I could handle any sexual contact and probably a year before I could regard sex with enjoyment. A loving sexual partner that wants mutual enjoyment makes all the difference. Kurt always took things at my pace.”
Caroline was in a different place, but her wisdom is still quite powerful. “At the time I was raped, I hadn’t really had a sex life. It wasn’t easy, but a few years after being raped, I realized that rape had nothing to do with sex and everything to do with power and control. This helped me move from bad consensual experiences to positive, meaningful experiences. I’m now able to connect with someone on an intimate, emotional level without replaying the rape in my head.”
Where am I? At 40, I think I’m approaching my prime. I feel stronger and sexier than I ever have. And yes, I have a fabulous sex life. Most of the time, I forget that I was raped. When I do remember, I seem to automatically focus on the fact that I chose to survive it and thrive. I honestly think that choice set me on a new course, a good one.
I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. Really. But I wouldn’t give it back either. It’s part of what made me who I am.
All in all, I think Elizabeth Lombardo put it best, “You cannot change the past. But you CAN change your present and future. I have worked with countless women move on after rape to lead happy lives. It is possible and you ARE worth it!”