By Stormy Phillips
The seductive tinkle of ice in a cocktail glass. A jukebox playing old Mariah Carey singles and MGMT. High heels propped up against the backs of chairs; faded lipstick from a long day of conference calls. A table of young women are talking openly about being raped. It's just another night.
If the banality of rape talk sounds incredulous, it's because many of these women have spent years making excuses and chit-chatting the worth out of their own rape experiences.
When Rep. Todd Akin used the phrase “legitimate rape,” seemingly suggesting that some rape is maybe not really rape, he started a ferocious media dialogue.
Arguments have ranged from whether or not a man has any right to jurisdiction over a woman's body to what sort of uneducated men's club banter is going on behind the anti-abortion fence.
Famous female voices like the Vagina Monologue's Eve Ensler have spoken up against the delegitimizing of rape by Akin, saying that deeming a rape “illegitimate” is a form of re-rape.
Ensler is right. A rape experience twisted into a mere misunderstanding is sometimes more of a violation than the act of rape itself.
In our post-feminist society, one in which our grandmothers and mothers spent years building up equality for us, we are seemingly allowed to openly express our sexuality, whether that be virgin or whore, and given the ideological security of justice.
If a man touches us improperly, he is a bad man that the cops come and take away who never touches us again. Unfortunately, that is just a fairytale that the skeptical women of modern times are wary of. Often, we never report the big bad wolf in our beds because the subject is too emotional, too ambiguous, too weird or really, just too unbelievable.
From the dialogue we constantly hear from our female peers, it's not just that they don't think other people will believe them; it's that they don't quite believe in their rape themselves. Some, afraid to be deemed “sluts,” are still making excuses for their rapes or completely denying that what they experienced was in fact rape.
Truth is, many women are de-legitimizing their own rapes.
Common excuses include, “I was just really drunk. I don't remember what happened.” That's your friend who wakes up sore after a blackout and rushes to Planned Parenthood to get emergency contraception. She wasn't even awake to say yes or no. But because she doesn't want to seem like a drunken slut, she brushes it off. She just won't do that again.
Then there's the, “It was just a blow-job, no big deal.” This is your friend who goes on a first date with a man, a nice guy who buys her dinner. Everything is going so well, until the end of the night when the man expects some “payment.”
“Not tonight,” she says, and maybe she struggles a bit against his aggressiveness in the car, but ends up going down on him anyway. Every woman has given that obligatory post-dinner blowjob, right?
Your other friend talks about the 30-year-old man who took dirty pictures after deflowering her when she was a 16-year-old. She blushes as she laughs and says, “God, I was so young. Thinking back on it, it was really gross and I was totally being used. I didn't even really like it, but I wanted to seem cool. I told him 'no,' but then I just went with it because I just wanted to get rid of my virginity, you know? Plus, he was just, like, really cool.”
Sitting next to her is the girl who was raped by her biggest crush, who, knowing he could manipulate her into whatever he wanted, engaged her in a sexual act she was totally against. “I told him that I didn't want to have anal sex, but he slipped it in,” she says, sipping her drink, “And I thought, 'Well, it's just this one time.'”
And, after hearing the story of our friend who went through a similar experience and actually reported the rape, it's easy to see why women prefer to look at their rapes through an illusory haze.
Sarah*, a sweet, fresh-faced ingénue type, doesn't look like your typical Law and Order: SVU rape victim, the type that society lambasts as “deserving it.”
She doesn't party; she doesn't even go out that much. She barely drinks and wears modest clothing. But, a few years ago, after talking to a young man, she invited him over to her place for a drink. It began innocently enough, but ended up in a tragic rape that sent Sarah reeling.
Sarah decided to report her rape, if only to find some closure, but also hopefully to legitimize her experience in the eyes of the law.
“I was putting myself in a position where I was incredibly vulnerable,” says Sarah when asked about the Akin comment. “In some ways, as vulnerable as I was during the rape. And it still accounted for nothing. The guy who committed the crime was left free to commit it again, and of course I have no doubt that I was not the first woman he had done it to.”
In Sarah's case, she had a sympathetic female detective who pretty much got a full confession from Sarah's rapist, but that wasn't enough proof to make a case. Sarah says that the whole experience was heartbreaking although she is proud that she “took it that far,” especially when law enforcement explicitly tried to create a feeling of insecurity and doubt. They tried to make her feel like her rape wasn't “legitimate” enough.
“I know from my experience that no woman without a 'legitimate' mental illness would put herself through the reporting process without the crime actually having taken place,” explains Sarah. “It's really humiliating and the kinds of questions that law enforcement asks make you feel as if they don't believe you as well.”
She does concede they said it was a tactical device to prepare her for the disbelief of the jurors. “In my experience, anyway, they did say numerous times that they did [believe me], but they need to ask questions the way a defendant lawyer would. And they also said they know that most juries come in biased in some ways against the victim.”
Biased because many people, thanks to a society that perpetuates fear of exposure and vague boundaries on what rape actually is to a woman, think that the woman deserved it somehow. They might think that Sarah set herself up by inviting a young man over to her apartment and having a drink with him.
Oftentimes, if a rape is not considered forcible by a strange masked man, the victim could have done something to stop it. At least that's the common consensus by those who try to apply some rules of legitimacy to rape.
What has not been discussed in this whole matter is how being raped affects a male victim. Men are even less likely to be believed when they report their own rapes. How many of these rapes are going unreported because of a fear of legitimacy?
Some people, like Rep. Todd Akin, will always think there are magical caveats to rape, that the sweet girl-next-door won't get raped unless it's at gunpoint or for a reason that's her fault. By continuing, as women, to create excuses for misappropriations against our body, we only add to that delusion.
*name changed for protection