Uhm, when a guy is inserting his penis into your vagina without your consent, he is taking away your worth as a person.
Why do you think most victims of rape or molestation feel so fucking terrible about themselves after it happens? That is the most common reaction of a victim: not "I'm still totally awesome even though I was just used as a cum bucket!" That type of reaction can take months, years, therapy, or may never come...
This is the response of a self-identified feminist to my assertion in a recent online discussion that: "It's a vagina, it's not who you are, ffs. If you get raped, it will always be something bad that happened to you, but shit, it isn't who you are. It has nothing to do with your worth as a person. No one can take that unless you let them."
Later in the discussion, she dragged out that most useful and well-worn of feminist silencing devices:
Wait, have you been raped before?
Whether you have or you haven't, you should probably be quiet.
You can't tell anyone else how they should feel about being violated and that is the bottom line.
Let's set aside for now the glaring fact that she had only just finished telling me how women (including myself, I suppose) should feel about being violated--like a "cum-bucket"--but she had also just told me that a woman's worth (and MY worth, presumably) as a person is, in fact, taken away when a man rapes her. You can imagine how relieved I was that the attempted rape I experienced as a 14 year-old virgin didn't culminate in that whole "inserting his penis into [my] vagina without [my] consent" thing, since this is all it takes, according to some feminists, to erase every positive character trait a woman has.
My assault happened in a playground at about 10:30 on a Sunday night. I had just taken up smoking a few months before, and was craving a cigarette, but the corner store was closed. On the drive home from a visit with my grandparents, I'd spotted two boys, whom I knew smoked as well, hanging out near my neighborhood's Catholic school, and I decided to take my dog for a walk and see if I might be able to bum a cig off one of them.
I didn't know these boys other than by name. I knew their names, because they had a bad rep around school, but I hadn't seen any of the bad behavior (fights, stealing, etc) they were rumored to have engaged in, and like any young teenager, I had the typical overblown sense of my own immortality and invincibility--bad things happen to other people, not to me.
I found them in the playground sitting on the swings. It was very dark, and I didn't realize right away that they were passing a mickey of vodka back and forth between them, but they had cigarettes and gave me one. I stayed and chatted--only polite, right?--and tied my dog to one of the posts of the swingset. They offered me a sip of vodka, and I accepted--again, it seemed the courteous thing to do, and I was neither a teetotaler nor a teen drunk.
I'm not even sure at what point I began to feel uncomfortable. It was dark enough that I couldn't see their faces--any leers they might have worn went unseen by me. But the conversation became incrementally more stilted, and the space between us grew heavy with a sense of febrile expectation. I made my excuses, "It's a school night, and my folks are probably wondering where the hell I am," and started to leave.
Next thing I knew, I was on my back in the sand under the swings, my shirt over my face and my arms pinned over my head by boy 1, while boy 2 tried, unsuccessfully, to get my pants down. It amuses me to this day that in my case, a rape was prevented by an example of 80s fashion so absurd it paled in comparison to such staples as shoulder pads, or the mullet--that of the waist-to-hem, double side-zippered jean.
I was lying there, my face covered, while boy 2 pawed ineffectually at the top of my jeans, looking for a front-fly that wasn't there, pondering the farcical nature of the situation with a detached calm, even as I struggled and repeated the phrases my mom and the media had taught me to use: "No. I don't want this. I mean it, no." I wondered what kind of person would do what they were doing to someone so young she hardly even had breasts. Hell, I hadn't even started menstruating at that point, and though I wasn't scared of sex, I sure as hell wasn't ready for it.
I've always had a fair ability to remain calm in a crisis, and it has served me well over the years when dealing with my children's illnesses and injuries, or friends in trouble. The time to be upset and break down is when, for good or ill, the immediate crisis is over, right? But while it was all happening, all I could think was how ignoble it was that my virginity was about to be forcibly taken by two Neanderthal buffoons who were not only ugly but stupid, and I was going to get a butt-crack full of sand into the bargain. That their justification for what they were about to do was that they'd given me a cigarette and a sip of vodka, and I therefore "owed them" something. And that what would save me, if anything, were those ridiculous jeans.
What saved me, in fact, was not the jeans, the intricacies of which boy 2 finally managed to unravel. It was a passerby, walking along the other side of the park, whose attention was drawn by our voices and my barking dog just as boy 2 was working my panties down my legs.
Boy 1 let go of my arms and muttered, "Oh shit." I sat up, pulled my shirt down, and we all peered across the playground at the silhouette of a man now halted near a copse of trees, who was, in turn, peering back toward us. I seized on the boys' sudden unease and told them, "It's really late, I bet my dad's out driving around looking for me by now."
They helped me up and dressed, all apology now that the prospect of discovery was made real to them. Boy 1 told me they didn't want me to get in trouble with my dad. I almost laughed at the projection inherent in that statement. They didn't want me to get into trouble? They helped me straighten my clothes and pressed a few more cigarettes into my hand as if that made up for everything, before skulking off into the dark, in the opposite direction from where the passing man stood.
I stayed for a moment to collect myself and dusted as much of the sand out of my hair as I could, and waited for the man to continue on his way. As I untied my dog and started walking, reaction set in. My legs shook so hard they almost couldn't carry me. And the entire time, I kept asking myself "What the hell do I do now?"
My recovery was surprisingly short. It took about fifteen minutes, actually. Fifteen minutes where I played out the entirety of what my parents would have told me, were I to tell them what had happened.
First would come the hugs and reassurances that everything would be okay, that it wasn't the end of the world even if it might feel that way, that they'd do whatever they could to help me get past what had happened. That despite what had happened, I was still the same bright, beautiful, wonderful girl I was a few hours ago, because no one has the power to change something like that other than myself. That no one has any right to do what those boys had done to me, and that they wouldn't rest until those sons of bitches were put in juvie where they belonged--at which point my dad would have muttered under his breath, "if they live that long..." And then?
Well, then they'd make me own my part of it. Maybe not right away, but eventually.
"Oh, honey! How could you do something so stupid? And over cigarettes? What were you thinking? You knew those boys were bad news, yet you hung out with them alone in an unlit playground? Even after you realized they were drinking? Haven't you listened to anything we've told you? In a perfect world, you should be able to walk down the darkest alley, pissed-drunk and buck-naked, and be safe from rape, but we do not live in a perfect world. If we did, we wouldn't have to lock our doors at night, or have bouncers at bars or drunk driving laws. We do all those things because we can't dictate the behavior and decisions of other people. We can only dictate our own."
As feminists are so fond of saying, we don't exist in a vacuum. We are never the sole arbiters of our fate. Other people will sometimes have their way with us if they can, and we need to make our decisions with the understanding that not everyone lives by a code of ethics, not everyone will respect our right to decide what we wish to do with our property or our bodies. But I have by far a greater effect on the direction my life will take. I have the biggest say.
That night, my parents told me three things without even having to speak:
That I can't make decisions for other people, only for myself.
That my decisions can't completely dictate the course of my life, but I am an effectual human being.
That there is a difference between taking blame for something bad that happens to you, and taking responsibility for yourself and your decisions.
I was raised to believe that my self-worth is exactly that--mine. And though we all measure ourselves against others in order to determine just how worthy we are as people, the opinions of bullies, assholes, and fucktards don't count. As that feminist I quoted above had told me, rape is often about dehumanizing a victim, that someone who disregards your right to autonomy and ownership of your own body is indeed indeed telling you your personhood is worth nothing to him--but guess what? No one's personhood is worth anything to someone like that, and the opinion of a piece of shit, waste of skin rapist as to what I'm worth as a woman and a person doesn't count. He doesn't get to tell me how I will see myself.
And on my walk home, with my parents' voices echoing in my head, I internalized the other lessons they had taught me all my life. I owned my part in what had happened. I owned the fact that had I made any number of different decisions that night, I could have avoided the assault. I could have stayed home and gone without a cigarette rather than seek out two older boys I knew had a bad rep. I could have left as soon as they handed me a smoke. I could have not taken that sip of vodka and lingered to talk. I could have not tied my dog to the swings, but continued walking toward the street while chatting, so as not to seem rude while at the same time maneuvering us all into a more safe, public place.
I had a part in the sequence of decisions that had led to my assault. I was not to blame--those boys were to blame. No one deserves to be sexually assaulted. But I had to own some of it, too. And the more I thought about this, the stronger my legs got as they carried me home.
I can't control what other people do, but I can control what I do. I was not a passive victim of my assault, I was a participant in it. There were decisions I made and actions I took that affected the outcome of that night, and if I was smart enough, I could learn from the errors in judgment I had made and make it less likely that something like that would ever happen to me again. Owning my part in what had happened didn't make me feel like it was my fault. It made me feel strong. It made me feel effectual. It made me feel like a whole person, an active participant in what happens to me, good or bad. When you don't own your life--all of it, even the parts that suck--you walk around feeling powerless, as if everything that happens is simply happening to you, as if you have no say whatsoever. And though there have been times in my life that sucked ass and I felt a very human urge to blame anyone and everyone else for my troubles, the times I've succumbed to that urge have been the lowest of my life, and things never improved until I accepted appropriate responsibility for my circumstances.
By the time I got home, I decided I didn't need to tell anyone about what had happened. I didn't need to have that conversation with my parents--I had already had it with myself. Did I want those boys to pay for what they'd done? Certainly. But they were young and stupid and drunk, and by the time they'd left the playground, they'd been as scared as I'd been. And maybe, just maybe, they were having a similar conversation with themselves on their way home--"What were you thinking? Shit, no one's going to give you a slap on the wrist over rape, because rape is some fucking serious shit. You almost got caught, and it wouldn't be community service if you did, the way it was when you were caught throwing rocks through junior high school windows. Man, if she tells her dad, you are in for a world of hurt."
I slept peacefully that night, and woke the next morning feeling fine. I didn't wall myself inside or start dressing in sweatsuits or stop wearing make-up or stop talking to boys. I continued to explore my sexuality, had make-out sessions at parties, hung with my mostly male friends, continued my habit of walking my dog at night. I didn't avoid the Catholic schoolground, even when it was dark. But I did become more aware of everything around me. Fear is unhelpful, but acknowledging risk certainly is. I've since lived a life of calculated risk, and nothing like that has ever happened to me again.
Over the next few months, those two boys avoided me like the plague. But I didn't avoid them. Whenever our paths crossed, I made sure to catch their gazes, look at them long and hard, and then smile that kind of evil, unpleasant smile that tells someone you know something that has the potential to destroy them. By the end of the school year, they looked like they were going to shit their pants whenever they saw me. And you know what? That helped me feel stronger, too.