If you are triggered by graphic descriptions of rape, self-injury and body horror, you may want to skip this post.
To put it bluntly, men are raised to be incredibly ignorant of rape. Male socialization systematically devalues the trauma and pain of rape and leaves those raised to be men painfully and insultingly misinformed on the subject. That’s not to say that men can’t learn—just that an understanding of rape, with all its irrational anti-patriarchy implications like empathy for the survivors, is not included in the syllabus.
What’s interesting, and infuriating—and will doubtless get me called a transphobe, again, because I’m not self-interested enough to selectively ignore the realities of a gendered society—is that male-socialized blindness to rape is only limited by firsthand experience. Which is to say, the ignorance and misunderstanding of rape is universal among people who have been socialized as male, unless they have directly experienced rape or empathy for a rape survivor, as a person—not as property or them-by-proxy. An adequate understanding of rape is not created by considering the theory of rape or by rejecting either stereotypical manliness or by identifying as a different gender; you can only grow one by either being a survivor yourself or by deeply caring for a survivor.
It’s been bothering me lately how flippantly men speak about rape, and how lightly they use it to refer to something without the concrete characteristics of rape; that’s why I’m writing this post. Rape 101, right here, folks.
I. Concreteness of Rape
The concrete reality of rape is this: first, that rape is committed by a specific person; second, that rape is committed against a specific person.
Any other definition of rape deliberately obscures what actually happens in rape. It does not “simply happen,” you aren’t walking down the street and trip over a rock and get raped. Someone does the raping. A rapist isn’t epheremal; there aren’t rapist particles floating around in the air, lurking around particularly sharp dips in the sidewalk.
When rape happens, it happens because a specific person is a rapist, or because several specific persons are rapists. This is part of assigning accountability—when several boys get together and gang-rape an eleven-year-old, they are rapists. They weren’t “drawn into” anything—they are rapists; without an actual, real, concrete rapist, rape does not exist.
The second part of that definition is the counterpart to assigning accountability: it’s assigning harm. Rape is experienced by a person; it doesn’t happen to no one for no reason. A person—someone who can feel and think and experience what is or was done to them—suffers rape, because that’s the meaning of the fucking word, and because the widespread misunderstanding of the experience of rape is what makes men so comfortable with using rape outside of an injustice, against a person, perpetrated by another person.
This is part of what I’d like to submit as a basic guideline for radical feminist questioning of atrocities:
1. Who is targeted? Who is suffering from it?
2. Who is committing the atrocity?
3. Who benefits from the atrocity—i.e., why is the atrocity happening? What use does it have to the Kyriarchy?
Too often, rape is spoken about—by men, but also by people being excessively gentle with men’s feelings—as if it’s this mystical woo-woo magical thingy that just kind of like, happens. “Rape is an epidemic in the Congo…” By who? Against who?
Because the concrete reality of rape, right now, in this universe—not the universe of The Spearhead or Larry Flynt or whatever—is that men rape, and it’s largely women, children, animals, transfolk, and disenfranchised men who are raped on the basis of not being male enough—which also means not being human enough, which also means not being worthy enough. It is an ongoing tactic of rape culture and rape apologists to obscure these realities of rape: who suffers from it, who is perpetrating it.
II. Men Speak Casually About Rape
K’naan, in the song My Old Home: Justice has been raped in my old home…
Emmanual Jal, on his album Warchild, has a song entitled Vagina. It speaks of how Africa is exploited and sabotaged by the Western, white world, but it appropriates sexual violence against women to fight racism… on the same album, Jal talks in Skirt Too Short about how the way women are or are not dressed magically makes him incapable of respecting them.
And have you heard Date Rape by Sublime? It’s a disgustingly upbeat song that describes a near-stranger rape, a rapist who admits he’s a rapist—”If it weren’t for rape I’d never get laid,” sez he (since, obviously, it’s so horrible and life-destroying to accuse a man of rape without his permission)—but never fear! The members of Sublime have no allegiance to such a silly thing as reality; his victim takes him to court and wins and gets him put in prison! And, as a final fuck-you to feminism, the end of the song has the (male, need I point out) singer gloating about how her rapist gets raped in prison, lolololol! Rape is so funny when it happens to people who deserve it! HOORAY EQUALITY.
Nine Inch Nails, too, joins into the fray when Trent Reznor sings in Animal, “you let me violate you/you let me desecrate you.” Of course, it’s really about pain and agony and obsessively needing someone—so sexual violence is really your only answer when you are trying to expressed your tortured manly maliness!
There are more, of course, from AC/DC to Led Zepplin, not to mention the entire genre of gore metal and the “romantic misogyny” of emo, but I’ll leave off the musical references with a shout-out to a classic: Rape Me by Nirvana. Sure, Kurt Cobain was never actually raped, but that doesn’t mean he can’t co-opt the soul-destroying violation for his self-important angst!
Literature is a goldmine of men speaking casually about rape, too.
In this one book I got a few years ago—I am honestly sorry I don’t have the name, but it was so forgettable that the few details I can recall aren’t nearly enough to find the title with—by some Eric Whatshisface manages to write a rape into the first few chapters of one of the few female characters he introduces, and the first native woman on a planet invaded by a species whose language is completely nonsensical when Eric translates it into English (for some reason he thinks having three letters in a row—like “tiiirn”—can work, ever). She gets pregnant from it, and is chastised for even considering abortion by one of the
Great White Masters ultra-superior demigods of the invading race—I’m not even exaggerating—because he knows her better than she does.
This Ubermensch, who is masculine, tells her, “but bleeding was never enough, was it?” Implying that she should be thankful for being raped and impregnated, or that being raped and impregnated occured because of her mystical woo-woo womanliness. Because it made her “whole.” This is near the end of the book; strewn throughout are patronising lectures about why animals are not people—Eric has apparently never noticed that animals do change in personality over their lifetimes, which neatly ties off his justification of women not being people either. After that, he has another female character gang-raped and stabbed to death, by the man who raped the native woman earlier (main character’s love interest, naturally). Which is like, fine, because you never develop any emotion for her; she’s evil but she’s in love with one of her rapists, so it’s just another random act of violence against women. Just more to develop male characters as evil (rapist) or as good (rapist-by-proxy by forcing you to carry a fetus to term).
And who could forget good ol’ Chuck? Bukowski, the sainted fucking classic-writer, thinks of women literally as props: they reflect on men, are there for men, to tell the reader things about men, to be used to move men’s stories along. Sexual violence and sexual exploitation is merely a way to progress the story—barely even a fucking plot point.
And Julia Serano, whose Whipping Girl definitely qualifies as fiction, albeit of the likes of Ayn Rand, and who was raised and socialized to be a man, writes this:
When I was a child, I was sexually assaulted, but not by any particular person. It was my culture that had his way with me.
And one of my best friends, who survived several rapes throughout zeir life, shivered and snorted when zie read that. “That’s not how rape happens. That’s not what rape is,” zie said, pissed off that someone who’d never been raped could ever fucking be allowed to say that kind of shit.
Then there’s this: “Trans women are raped by our own bodies.”
You can only say things like this when you don’t understand what rape is… or when you want to trivialize the suffering of those most likely to be rape victims: women who were forced to be women. Which also includes FTMs. Because by the same standard—that no FAAB person “chose” to be a woman, they had that gender role forced on them—women are raped by their bodies, too. Or, if you’re going by the standard of severe body dysmorphia (which not all transfolk have!), fat people who don’t accept themselves are raped by their bodies; people with eating disorders are raped by their bodies.
No. Rape does not occur without a perpetrator. It does not merely happen.
And how many of you have not heard this from men (or have thought this about rape)? Shere Hite, The Hite Report on Male Sexuality, published accounts of men who said they wanted to be raped on pages 794-5. Here is one example:
I have not been raped by a woman yet, unfortunately. But I am patiently waiting for such a moment because it would make me feel sexual if I caused a woman to attack me out of lustful desire. Female motorcycle gangs seem to fascinate me. If I were in a large city where female gangs existed I would like to flaunt myself in hope of being raped. I have not sexually attacked a woman and never plan to.
I chose to display that one specifically because it’s so difficult to justify it as “just a fantasy.” He clearly believes that rape would be a sexual action, and far beyond the idea that men can’t be raped because they “want it” all the time, it’s actually very telling in terms of what men believe about rape victims. That rape is sexually pleasurable; that you are “begging” for rape if you “flaunt” yourself (as defined by what could possibly turn men on—which, as far as I can tell, is basically anything); and that rape is caused by sexual desire for someone, instead of an inability or unwillingness to understand that no one owes anyone the use of their body, whether for gestation or experimentation or orgasm.
George Carlin, whose death I am not particularly saddened by, thought that anything was funny—even rape. Rape just needed the right target to be funny, like an old man. Of course, George Carlin wasn’t raped; it could be funny to him because he never had any reason to know what rape actually was.
Then, of course, there’s the fucked-up shit that went on with PennyArcade. Recap: two white men made a rape joke. Rape survivors thought this was inappropriate and callous and said so. The two white men complained about censorship—which is quite an interesting claim when you are actively behaving in a way that will silence already oppressed people—and along with more white boys, but not only white boys, commenced the twisting of the knife to show how badass they were. Also cue one hundred bazillion dudebros and dudebro-identified women mansplaining why the joke wasn’t about rape, it just used rape as a way to make the joke funny. Yadda yadda, the survivors got death threats and rape threats—but threats and silencing only started mattering once the two white men got ’em. Then it was all like “hey yo, truce man, back off” and everyone forgot about it except for the survivors who now irrevocably knew they were not safe or supported within their community.
And Palaverer believes that rape does not matter when it happens to women when zie says:
[T]he abuse transgender individuals suffer…is, statistically, far, far higher than what women collectively suffer.
Because those who identify themselves as transgender make up, at best, 10% of the population; those raised to be women make up 51%, of which every one out of three will be raped, sometimes more than once. Not even if every single transgender individual was raped would that statistic hold any kind of water. The only way you can claim that is if you do not believe rape—a violation overwhelmingly directed at female-bodied people, and even more overwhelmingly young female-bodied people, and even more overwhelmingly young lesbians—is as bad when it happens to women.
When Julian Assange was arrested for rape—several months after the reports were filed, just in case Swedish women didn’t understand that their country hates them—Michael Moore and Keith Olbermann deliberately and intentionally lied to discredit the women accusing him and the validity of their charges. Assange’s own lawyer lied and said that he was being charged with having sex without a condom, which is a crime in Sweden (except, not); that he was charged with “sex by surprise”—which is, you know, rape, because if someone doesn’t consent then you’re raping them.
Assange’s lawyer made fucking rape jokes on TV; Assange claimed that he was being personally persecuted and oppressed by “the Saudi Arabia of feminism.” And yet I am still expected to be “reasonable,” to not necessarily believe that he is a rapist, when he has shown every indicator—masculine outrage, a fondness for rape culture, a putrid contempt for women’s concerns and wishes, and hatred of feminism—of being a rapist.
Men fictionalize rape in ways that do not even begin to grasp at women’s experience, or in ways that specifically reject women’s experience as ridiculous in favor of what a man thinks rape should be. Men speak casually about rape because they don’t understand it: they may use it to refer to something horrible, but the vast majority of the time they trivialize the experience of rape by stereotyping why it is horrible for women. And honestly, it’s almost worse.
Oh yeah, rape is horrible ’cause, like, you can get pregnant. ‘Cause you’re not a virgin anymore—you’re dirty and used up and since women are objects, not people, nobody will want to buy you from the store and you’ll end up getting put on the discount rack to be bought by some cheapass uncle for his nephew that he doesn’t really care about. ‘Cause you feel like you cheated on your
owner husband/boyfriend/predestined Mormon Vampire Soulmate. ‘Cause you can get a VD. ‘Cause you can have, like, physical discomfort (getting torn up).
Look at those reasons. Look for the pattern within those reasons. They’re shallow, sure; they’re fucking awful. But there are two common threads within male socialization of rape culture on Why Rape Is Kinda Sucky For Girls. Do you see ’em yet? Secret fucking eye, c’mon now.
All those reasons revolve around one of two things:
2. Physical pain or inconvenience.
And that doesn’t even begin to cover it.
III. Rape as an Experience
I speak as a survivor of rape.
When I was raped at the age of eighteen, by a man in his thirties who had informally expressed interest in hiring me, I barely registered what was happening. Sometimes I think that the realization of what was going on would have been so intensely painful that my mind refused to acknowledge it; I dissociated automatically, instinctively. I can still barely remember it, the same way I can barely remember my worst panic attacks—I get the gist of what happened, I remember a few details in an indistinct way, but I can’t dredge up anything more. I don’t want to dredge up anything more.
I remember that he had a green wall hanging and that he offered me one of those disgusting Sunkist sodas before he took my pants off. Why do I remember that? I can’t fucking remember how my body felt when he raped me, for Pele’s sake; I just went completely numb, like I wasn’t really there.
I got dressed and went home and he contacted me again for a second interview, which I went to, of course. He told me he didn’t think I’d be a good fit and gave me his private cell number and told me to call him if I “ever wanted to meet up again.” I don’t even know what I thought about it at the time or what I did with it, but two years later I found it in my closet and gave myself a thick scar on my right wrist; I lit it on fire with a lighter and set it on the back of my wrist and kept relighting it, letting it smolder out against my skin.
I thought I was fine. When I figured out that I’d been raped, I felt almost relieved—like, I was one of the strong ones; I didn’t want to curl up bawling in the shower, the way men write rape victims on Law & Order SVU. But at the same time that fucked me up—the idea of rape victims, I mean—’cause I never really recognized on any kind of deeper level that it was rape, and that it fucked me up really bad. I just thought that because I wasn’t one of those victims, that it didn’t really mean anything for me—sure, it was technically rape, but it clearly wasn’t real rape because I didn’t completely fall apart, you know?
It took me four years to figure out that the little terrors—my inability to cope with being watched while eating or drinking, my incessant urge to start stripping off layers of my skin, my need to purify something from my body (hair, lip skin, fingernails, toenails, dandruff, hangnails, skin tabs, pimples)—were actually symptoms of PTSD. The ways my mother had abused me had been so thorough and desensitizing that I had trouble noticing that I was upset, panicky, anxious, triggered, that a lump was forming in my throat, that the urges I felt weren’t just urges. I’d long before dissociated emotionally; by that point I was almost completely incapable of recognizing that I felt anything except “fine” and “bouncy” and “angry,” let alone being able to name or explain the sensations. I thought I was strong; I was just fucked up.
Even now I can’t even go around one of those stores without getting the nerves; I all of a sudden just get antsy. I bite my nails until they bleed; I pull out hair by the roots and pick out dandruff until my scalp bleeds; I run my hands over my upper arms and neck, looking for something to grab at, scrape out or off. If you saw me doing it you’d think I was just jumpy; I act the same way abused dogs do when they get anxious or triggered. A lot of erratic movements and watchfulness, a lot of wary edginess.
But even that doesn’t provide any kind of glimpse into what my life became. I became a raw nerve: seemingly random shit triggered me and after I got triggered once, it would last for days or more and then everything would trigger me.
And now I need to stop and explain something.
When rape survivors speak of being “triggered,” we aren’t talking about being upset or angry or depressed or anxious or offended. To even begin to grasp what being triggered means, you need to understand what rape does to you: it destroys your protection, the line between “you” and other people, the silhouette that distinguishes within from without.
You can picture it more vividly by using one of Aslan’s metaphors: take a human being and peel it like a banana.
Skin is symbolic to a human, in a lot the same way that claws are to a cat: protection, security, safety, identity. It holds you together—makes you distinct from the rest of the world. Andrea Dworkin wrote specifically of the preoccupation of male writers with skinning as a part of sex in Intercourse. They thought it made you more intimate, unable to hide, completely open to your lover; they’d also never been raped.
Being triggered is the sudden overwhelming recognition that you have no skin. It’s not that you’re naked. You have no skin. You have no protection from anything; you are not you; you are not anything except horrible fucking roiling pain and terror and horror. Cut yourself with a knife and pour lemon juice and pat garlic on the wound and that sensation is your entire body and soul.
You become suddenly and unavoidably aware of how shamefully vulnerable—at risk, in danger, threatened—your body is, and you could almost feel pity for the pathetic, defenseless thing except that it’s the thing allowing the rest of you to be threatened, too. You want to scratch your skin off, you want to destroy your body—you want to get the fuck away from this trap that’s so transparent and weak. Your body is a trap that forces your mind into a constant, stinging contact with the world, and there are times when you feel like you’re literally going out of your mind; you’re breaking out of your skin and you contemplate suicide just to free yourself from your body, because through the interface of your raped body the entire world is just one overwhelming violation.
It’s not romantic. Men have a tendency to believe that vulnerability is romantic, sexy, intimate. People who’ve been trained to get off with BDSM tend to do the same thing—to glorify danger, being at risk, being helpless. But this is something entirely different from the vulnerability they adore: in sex, there’s no risk involved because you are sharing, not having something taken from you. Feeling as though everyone can see inside you—that you’re transparent—and knowing that they see something ugly and painful and horrific because that’s what it feels like inside you—is not sexy, not romantic, not hot, not intimate.
And at first I was oblivious—barely, in the way that you kind-of sort-of know but not really—that I felt this way. I’d go through entire weeks feeling vaguely on-edge in a way I couldn’t place, uneasy—not wanting to be bothered but not wanting to be left alone—and I’d stay inside all the time because it felt like everyone was watching me. Not that they were; I just had the unshakable conviction that there was something horribly fucking wrong about me and that everyone else in the world could see it. And I wanted to deal with my pain on my own—I was never comfortable with sharing my feelings with my parents; my father traveled and my mother always managed to make me end up feeling humiliated and inferior for ever feeling anything except “fine.” I’d learned by the time I was six or seven never to confide in her. So feeling skinless—see-through, unprotected, unsafe, insecure—reinforced the idea that sharing any negative feelings with other people would inevitably end up making me feel worse than I’d started out.
I never admitted it to anyone, except my best friend and roommate, Aslan, and then it took so long because zie’d been so horrifically fucking abused that I thought claiming rape would be pretentious—I clearly didn’t suffer like zie did. This is the first time I’ve written about it in detail, ever. It hasn’t gotten better with time; I’ve just learned better tricks, ones where I can ignore a minor trigger in a way that makes it not bother me.
The physical sensations are often the most minor part of rape, especially in the face of emotional turmoil so intense that it actually manifests as physical agony; more than once I’ve woken up in the middle of the night because my entire body was cramping from the tension. It is a peculiar sensation, feeling like it hurts just to be inside your head. It is even more peculiar to be waiting for the crosswalk to turn and suddenly you find yourself seriously considering stepping out in front of a passing car, automatically making calculations on which car will be able to best kill you based on its speed and size. Looking around to make sure no one’s watching you, because you feel like everyone is constantly looking at you, consuming you because you haven’t got any kind of distinguishing line between you and the rest of the world. Punching the wall to make yourself feel the pain because it gives you something to center on and ignore the way your nerves jangle in warning and alarm.
But that’s not what men are taught about rape.
It’s a lot harder to say the things that men are allowed to if you know what rape is: after all, you’re a target.