Why Rape Is Not a Women’s Issue

by Lara Naughton

I was kidnapped and raped on a warm July evening in a tropical forest beside the Caribbean Sea. Like so many experiences, this one was heavy with complexity and contradiction, nature’s lush beauty juxtaposed with a brutal act of human violence, one thing out of place with another. I was on vacation, and the man who raped me pretended to be a cab driver. It didn’t occur to me to question my safety when I hopped in his vehicle expecting to be driven to my cabana in a small fishing village not far up the road. I believe in people’s true good nature, even his, but that day he was so disconnected from his own worth and well-being that he was capable of harming me.

No doubt he harmed himself, too. He may have been the perpetrator and I the victim, but we were the only two people in the remote jungle where he drove me, and we both experienced his violence. He must have had the insane notion that hurting me would somehow soothe him, but of course that never works. Rape stems from hurt and causes more hurt which breeds further hurt. Our rape culture is a cycle of suffering for both survivors and offenders, in different ways, yes, but there’s also shared pain. When I finally made it to my cabana that night, it was hours later, and I was forever changed. I’ve never seen my rapist again, so I can’t know with certainty, but I believe he must have been changed too.

My rape threw me into a different orbit, and spun me around and around what I thought I knew about sexual violence. Once I regained a sense of equilibrium and assessed the ways I was altered, I recognized I had two new convictions. One: Rape is not a women’s issue. Two: If we want our rape culture to dissolve, we have to attend to the pain and suffering of men.

When I was in the jungle with my rapist, I couldn’t run or fight. Compassion for him was my only defense.

After I was raped, I was sensitive to the literature and dialogue about sexual assault. It suddenly seemed odd that rape is considered a women’s issue. My rape affected me profoundly, but I’ve never felt it’s my issue. Rather, I was on the horrible receiving end of his issue.

It’s true that in the United States, one in six women will experience a sexual assault or attempted sexual assault. Put a name, face, and narrative to each of those women and the statistics become not just horrifying but heartbreaking. These women are our sisters, friends, cousins, classmates, colleagues, dates, doctors, professors, on and on. I’m in that number, and, though I hope not, maybe you or a woman you know are too. But sexual assaults aren’t limited by any category, including geography, age, race, income, education or gender.

Across the world, people of all genders are raped and all genders rape. Men, however, make up the overwhelming majority of people committing sexual assaults, and women the overwhelming majority of their victims. All victims who experience a sexual assault, including rape, deserve to be acknowledged, cared for with resources designed to help them move from trauma to well-being, and given a safe place in the judicial system free from blame and shame. But those measures are reactive to the issue — they’re not the issue itself.

Victims and potential victims should not be handed ownership of the rape issue. Vulnerable groups should not be expected to solve, fix, eradicate, heal, reveal, reverse, prevent, cure, or combat the problem. Survivors shouldn’t receive the blow then have to stop the fight. People will stop getting raped when men stop raping. Men are the only ones who can cease the abuses they themselves commit.

There are, of course, men who are actively working within their communities to dismantle the mentalities and behaviors that lead to rape. At the same time, it still appears that rape is being primarily addressed by women, for women. We’re enraged, scared, betrayed, fierce, and brave. We strategize about protecting ourselves. We plead, preach, teach and protest. But we haven’t, and likely won’t solve or dissolve the rape culture because rape begins and ends with the issues that are trapped in men like toxins.

We know what happens with disease: it grows more pronounced, spreads its pathology to otherwise healthy parts of the body until the problem is so severe it can’t be ignored. The same is true with rape. It’s a global epidemic. Too many men are unwell, but they either don’t recognize the warning signs, or they don’t know where to get help, or they’ve never been taught to pay attention.

I wonder what would happen if we, all of us, shifted our attention to men and held them accountable, not with blame but with compassion. Compassion is recognizing someone’s pain, wishing for it to be relieved, and being willing to help.

When I was in the jungle with my rapist, I couldn’t run or fight. Compassion for him was my only defense. His emotional agony was so palpable it was clear I needed to attend to his needs if I wanted to get out of the situation alive. He didn’t have the skills to deal with his pain so he was trying to expel his pain through violence toward me. Under the dark sky of the jungle, as I listened to my rapist rant about the troubles of his life, as I counseled him, held his hand, and prayed over him, I watched his anger calm. It didn’t happen immediately and I didn’t walk out of the encounter untouched, but I walked out alive.

What, then, if we apply compassion on a much larger scale? What if we start asking men what is hurting so many of them, and then be truly willing to listen as they investigate their pain and complexities, their power and powerlessness, their anger, disappointments, fears, strengths, hopes and insecurities? What if we place rape — the issue — back in their hands, then simultaneously hold them accountable and offer support as they do the hard work of moving in two directions: toward understanding the root cause of sexual violence, and toward finding an effective solution.

I’ve rarely experienced deep lasting change as a result of someone telling me how wrong I was, how terrible or flawed. I seek people in my life who can help me see my greatest potential and support me as I reach toward my higher good. What happens if we agree to be this for each other, even when it’s difficult? Maybe especially when it’s difficult.

Just as hurt breeds hurt, compassion expands upon itself. I believe if we’re willing, we’ll find there’s room for compassion in hard places, including at the center of rape.

Lara's memoir The Jaguar Man debuts July 12 via Central Recovery Press.