No matter how many technical definitions of the word "rape" we have access to in dictionaries and websites, it will always be a term that conjures up different memories for each sexual assault victim. It's not a rigid concept that only applies in certain contexts. There are many different forms of rape, and all of them are extremely harmful.
A few days ago, Bustle writer Laura Gianino published a brave personal essay called "I Didn't Say No — But It Was Still Rape." It was an honest description of the sexual assault she endured once; it happened in the midst of intercourse that started out consensually, but ended as anything but. Without looking for validation from anyone, she's clear that for her, what happened to her was rape, no matter how "gray and blurry and messy" her situation may seem to some people.
What came shortly after the publication of this article was a flow of support — but mostly hatred — in the form of comments on Bustle's Facebook page. Numerous people blamed her for what had happened, accused her of misusing the word "rape," and berated her for diminishing the experiences of "actual victims of real rape."
While many of these remarks were downright cruel and prime examples of Internet trolling, some of them were reminders that there is still a lot of uncertainty about what constitutes as consensual sex, and what doesn't. Often times, rape victims are asked why they didn't stop the assault in its tracks. Why didn't they say "No!" the second they felt violated? Why didn't they turn and run? The answers are a lot more complicated than you might think, and our culture of victim blaming runs deep.
Here are five reasons not speaking up during nonconsensual sex to say "no" doesn't make you weak, and why you should never blame a victim who doesn't.
1. You May Fear That Speaking Up Will Result In Violence
In the comment thread on Facebook about Gianino's article, one woman had this to say: "If I don't want a dude in me I'll push him off and say no." It's not always that simple, though. Even if you've entered a consensual sexual situation that starts off normally, that doesn't mean you will necessarily feel safe until the very end. Intentions might shift in the heat of things; important cues may be tossed to the side. In these cases, it could feel too dangerous to openly say no to your partner because there's a chance they respond aggressively.
Last year, Gloria Steinem raised awareness about domestic and sexual violence in the United States. She urged people to understand that the most dangerous place for a woman these days is inside the walls of her own home. That's where she's most likely to be beaten or even killed. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention concur, noting that a one third of women have been physically assaulted at some point, and nearly 20 percent have been raped.
There's bound to be some overlap between these two statistics, and there's no telling just how much they are linked to one another. Just knowing these numbers, though, informs us without a doubt that women face the threat of domestic violence every day, and there's no shame in recognizing that threat and doing anything you can think of to avoid it.
2. You've Been Programmed To Put Male Gratification First During Sex
Laura opened her personal account by telling us about how adamant her partner was about reaching climax. He told her he would finish soon enough, and he sounded irritated, like she was disrupting his orgasm by displaying her discomfort. There are probably a lot of other women out there who have been in similar situations, and they have either kept silent, or softly whispered a form of protest, because it's been drilled into our heads that it's ill-mannered to rob a dude of his climax.
Think of it this way. On average, a woman needs about 20 minutes to reach orgasm, while a man tends to come in less than five. And what's the average amount of time in which couples engage in sexual intercourse? Around seven minutes. That, in and of itself, speaks to just how male-centered sex generally is.
Adding to this way of thinking is most (but not all) pornography. You can see in most videos that the emphasis is primarily placed on the man's gratification. Also, in everyday conversation, we're used to hearing phrases like "She gave me blue balls" and "She's a tease." These sayings perpetuate the misconception that women are rude if they stop the man from reaching climax.
3. Society Told You That Sexual Aggression Is Supposed To Be Sexy
We're constantly surrounded by the kind of media that convinces us that rough sex is desirable, that it's attractive when a man can pull off the gruff kind of intercourse. 50 Shades of Grey, which some studies show promotes sexual abuse between couples, is just one of many examples. There are countless music videos, TV shows (hello, Game of Thrones), and comedy skits that subtly teach girls and women everywhere that we're supposed to love it when a guy takes control of the situation in a semi-violent way.
These lessons are taught in such small ways that, most of the time, we don't even realize they're being handed to us. So, no, it doesn't mean a woman is spineless if she doesn't demand her partner to stop because the sex is getting too painful. She is probably the victim of a systemically imposed belief that a rough man is a hot man, and that a "strong" adult woman should be able to handle that.
4. Rape Culture Has Taught You That You Aren't Allowed To Change Your Mind
Writer Sofia Lyons recently wrote a piece on this issue for the Huffington Post called "How 'What Do You Mean' Promotes Rape Culture." She dissects the lyrics to one of Justin Bieber's latest songs, highlighting a "sexual gray area of sorts," in which men become frustrated with a woman who can't definitively make up her mind.
There's this pressure to give one answer and stick with it, no matter what. Should a woman become wishy-washy in the slightest, the man gives himself the right to decide for her — or, in Justin Bieber's case, to badger her into deciding. He repeats the line, "Better make your mind" over and over again, set against the sound of a clock ominously ticking.
We may not be able to articulate this in the heat of the moment, but there is certainly a nagging feeling in the back of our minds that it's not kosher if we shout no, not when we gave our consent only a few minutes before. Obviously, this is not the case; every person should be granted full control over her body at any given time. It's just that our society doesn't tell us that truth often enough.
5. You're Afraid You'll Be Called Crazy, Or Worse
If you're a grown-ass woman you've probably been called a psycho at one point by some passing jerk. It happens a lot, way more than it should, and people usually say it right when you're doing something worthy, like standing up for yourself or stating a strong opinion. Yet as common as the "crazy" label is, it still hurts, precisely because it's meant to diminish your true feelings.
Even worse than being called unreasonable, though, is being called a liar. This is where we run into the trope of not believing the rape victim. In our society, a person who accuses a man of sexual assault must be 100 percent innocent. They must be flawless in their reports to the police and their family and friends. What we fail to realize, though, is that the imperfect rape victim is still a rape victim, and nothing should belittle their hurtful experience.
You can see this play out on the Facebook comment section, where Gianino is brutally attacked by both men and women. One guy said she was pawning off her responsibility on another person because of her own "communication failures." A woman blamed pegged the whole thing to her "self-confidence issue." It seemed to be a constant stream of finding fault in her actions, rather than condemning the guy for his.
With this kind of cruel rhetoric, it's no wonder there are women everywhere who remain silent in toxic sexual situations. Our best way of combating this silence is to listen to the stories of rape victims without criticism or blame. We have no chance of reducing the numbers of rape in our country if we continue to put the responsibility solely on the shoulders of the victim.
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