Trigger warning: this article contains graphic descriptions of rape.
Popular media has very specific ideas about how rape is portrayed. The victim is female and the rapist is always male. The assault is violent and the victim resists physically and usually verbally. The victim is hyper aware that she is being raped and is highly distressed both during and immediately after the act.
I have seen this played out countless times in TV shows and movies. It is incredibly distressing and triggering for me to watch, and yet it barely resembles my rape. It took me until the next day to even realise I had been raped, because my brain put my body into a state of complete numbness. It wasn’t until I started hysterically sobbing on my train home that I realised that it hadn’t just been bad sex. I had said ‘no’ so many times. It was rape.
Note: for a long time I referred to the crime as sexual assault because it was easier for me to wrap my brain around and reduce my trauma. However, over time I have come to terms with my rape and I am comfortable calling it by its correct name. I use legal definitions from the information booklet that I was given at Yarrow Place Rape and Sexual Assault Service.
Rape facts: rape is unwanted oral, anal, or vaginal penetration.
A sexual activity is not consensual if:
- obtained by force or threats;
- the victim is asleep or unconscious;
- the victim is too intoxicated to give free and voluntary consent;
- the victim was unable to understand the nature of sexual activity;
- the victim was mistaken about the identity of the person
- they consented to having sex with; or
- the victim was being unlawfully detained
- the victim withdraws consent to the sexual activity. (Source)
Coercion is common and emotionally devastating.
Consent is not valid unless it is freely given. Rapists use a variety of threats and emotional manipulation techniques to coerce their victims into having sex with them. I initially consented to my rapist and then withdrew consent when I discovered that he was trying to film me. I was also quite intoxicated and so in no legal position to consent to sexual acts.
I said ‘no’ to my rapist upwards of 50 times and received these kinds of replies:
- “But you said before that we could have sex”
- “But you came home with me”
- “But I’m really turned on”
- “But I can’t go to sleep when I’m this hard”
- “But you don’t have to move at all”
This argument went on for 20-30 minutes and it was the most demoralising experience of my life. I eventually realised that he would never quit, and I had no idea how to get home, and I just lay there until he was done. I even helped him out towards the end because I couldn’t bear the feeling of him inside of me any more, and I just wanted it to be over and go to sleep. I felt numb and completely detached from my body.
You never feel so small as you do when you realise that someone truly doesn’t see you as another human being. They just see you as a vessel that they can use for their own needs, and they don’t care whether you enjoy it or want it. When someone can bully you into doing something that opposes your human rights, it makes you feel like they see you as inhuman. It took me a long time to feel like an autonomous human being again.
It’s not just fight or flight. Brains also freeze.
A lot of people asked me why I didn’t just leave when my rapist started to coerce me. I have struggled with this question for a very long time, and it has haunted me in my darkest hours. Looking back, I can rationalise it. I had no idea where I was or how to get home. Was locked inside of a house that I didn’t know how to get out of. I was drunk and more than that, I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep.
However, on a physiological level, the ‘freeze’ response is also a valid reaction to trauma or perceived threat. This can be easily understood by thinking about how deer freeze in the path of oncoming headlights. They could save their lives by running away from danger, but they are frozen in place.
“The freeze response is applicable in situations where, realistically, there’s no way you can defend yourself. You have neither the hormone-assisted strength to respond aggressively to the inimical force nor the anxiety-driven speed to free yourself from it. You feel utterly helpless: neither fight nor flight is viable, and there’s no one on the scene to rescue you.” (Source)
Not every rape survivor wants to report their rapist.
There are many reasons why a survivor might not want to report their rapist. I was explicitly told by counsellors at my local rape crisis centre that my case wouldn’t hold up very well in court. Unfortunately, many rape cases are a “he said, she said” kind of deal, and without witnesses, or extensive physical damage, it is incredibly hard to prosecute a rapist. The law operates in a way that a rapist has to be proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt, and this is incredibly difficult in so many cases.
Other victims have other reasons for not reporting, like their rapist being in their social circles or even their romantic partner, ongoing feelings of shame, or blaming themselves.
So what does this all mean?
Rape is so common, and in Australia alone, our rape rate is double the global average. I personally know more than half a dozen women my age who have been raped, and I don’t think that I’m an anomaly.
Rape is so prevalent in our communities, and yet I constantly see and hear people claiming that there is no rape epidemic, or that women are making it up for attention or revenge. A tiny, tiny proportion of rape cases are false claims, and the majority of people are not lying about their assault. Our experiences are valid, and we deserve to be heard.