Last week I was leaving a comment at Corrente, referencing my own rapes and PTSD in response to a rape-minimizing, victim-discrediting post. As soon as I typed the word “rapes,” I was seriously tempted to hit the backspace key and erase the “s.” Because while virtually all victims who speak out about their rape have, at times, been greeted with that special combo platter of disbelief, blame, othering, and trivialization, an additional stigma frequently attaches to those who’ve been raped on more than one occasion.
It’s been my experience that even individuals who respond sympathetically to discovering that a woman was raped once, often have the following reactions upon hearing someone was raped on two or more separate occasions:
Response #1: “She is probably one of ‘those’ feminists; you know, the type that thinks of nearly all heterosexual intercourse as rape. I bet if I heard the details of those supposed rapes, they wouldn’t sound like rapes at all.”
Response #2: “I wonder what she’s doing to bring on these attacks; after all, most women are never raped, so someone raped multiple times is probably being extremely reckless/stupid/provocative/victim-blaming-adjective-of-choice” (note that response #1 frequently turns into response #2 once the individual is satisfied that the victim’s experiences don’t sound like consensual sex after all).
In the US, one in four women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape at least once in her lifetime. That’s an estimate based on victimization surveys, and it means that 75% of all US women will go through their entire life without anyone trying to rape them. So how is it that some women are raped not just once, but multiple times?
First, there’s the possibility that the one-in-four figure actually underestimates the prevalence of rape. Based on the women I’ve known, the numbers are closer to one in two, but I was prepared to attribute that to the fact that women in higher risk groups (more on that in a minute) are disproportionately represented among my friends and acquaintances. However, a woman I know who has a more “mainstream” circle of friends that includes many middle class college graduates cites a similar 40% figure (and of course that’s just the rapes she knows about).
Another reason I’m thinking these victimization surveys may be underestimating the prevalence of rape is that the same surveys put the reporting rate for rape between 25% and 37%, while our admittedly informal surveys found, at best, a 5-10% reporting rate. Some women said the reporting rate among their friends and acquaintances who had been raped was zero. I’m thinking there is a good chance that populations with a higher-than-average risk of being raped and a lower-than-average likelihood of reporting rape (due to distrust of the authorities, prior bad experiences, etc.) may be severely underrepresented in the victimization surveys used to arrive at our national rape statistics.
This brings me to the next point: Not all women are equally likely to be raped. Poor women, women of color, sex workers, drug addicts, and homeless women are just some of the groups with higher-than-average victimization rates. Partly because poverty (or homelessness or being a prostitute or drug addict) increases vulnerability (dangerous neighborhood, forced to rely on public transportation, can’t afford to fix windows or doors that aren’t secure, and so on) and partly because rapists know they are more likely to get away with their crimes if they attack women who are already marginalized due to their poverty, race, homelessness, drug addiction, immigration status, etc. Women who belong to more than one marginalized group face particularly lousy odds and often experience multiple rapes in their lifetime.
And then there’s the fact that having been raped once–or sexually molested as a child–actually increases the likelihood it will happen again. That, unfortunately, was my experience. I made it through the first 19 years of my life without being raped. When I was raped, it wasn’t just the rape itself that was deeply traumatic (made worse by my boyfriend’s involvement in facilitating the attack), but the reactions of my so-called friends. My friends were also my boyfriend’s friends, and they had been his friends much longer. I was still relatively new in town, having arrived in NYC less than a year before, while my boyfriend had grown up with most of these people. Plus, he came from money, many of them came from money, and I didn’t come from money. It was circle-the-wagons time. I didn’t want to destroy my boyfriend’s bright future by reporting to the authorities what had surely just been a misunderstanding, did I? Besides, we had both been doing coke and you know how that goes: Drug or alcohol use on the rapist’s part absolves him of responsibility; drug or alcohol use on the victim’s part destroys her credibility.
There is research indicating that the way people (friends, family, medical personnel, law enforcement, mental health professionals, etc.) respond to a rape has a profound effect on the victim’s ability to recover. A victim who receives neither justice nor support is a prime candidate for turning her anger inward. While there is no such thing as a typical response to being raped, many victims do experience a tremendous longing for normalcy. I remember throwing myself into the party and club scene, eager to prove to myself and everyone else that I was still the same person, that nothing had really changed. I went home with a couple of guys I probably wouldn’t have under different circumstances, just to prove that the rape hadn’t left me sexually dysfunctional or afraid of men. And while I was doing all this, my previously purely recreational drug use escalated into addiction territory. Instead of doing drugs for fun, I was using them to escape. That presented a real problem because I wasn’t making anywhere near the kind of money I needed to support my emerging drug habit.
I solved my problem by getting involved with a sociopathic drug dealer who took advantage of my despair and vulnerability to turn me into his personal property. I lived with him for over a year, and terms like “abusive relationship” or “domestic violence” don’t really begin to cover what he did to me. To be blunt, dude was a straight up sadist who got off on torturing me. We had an arrangement of sorts: I got to do all the drugs I wanted and live in luxury in return for which he expected me to look hot and do what he wanted. There were certain “ground rules”–stuff he agreed not to do to me. That lasted about six weeks, just long enough for me to get totally strung out on heroin and hence totally dependent on him. Of course I knew that allowing myself to become dependent on him would likely have very, very bad consequences for me. And yet I was unable to stop it from happening. Then again, if I hadn’t been completely messed up, I wouldn’t have been with him in the first place. There is no way in hell I would have agreed to anything even remotely like this “relationship” before the rape. And I know many people can’t understand how I could have agreed to it even after being raped.
The truth is that it wasn’t just about the drugs. He was offering me a way out. A way out of the apartment I shared with a roommate who thought the night I came home after having just been raped was the perfect time to lecture me about my drug use and “lifestyle” as she informed me that “something like this” was bound to happen the way I was going. A way out of the job I used to love before it became a painful reminder of the rape by bringing me into regular contact with my now ex and some of the “friends” who abandoned me when I needed them most. A way out of having to think and feel and process events I was not equipped to process. My involvement with this individual was a way to make all that go away. Sort of like suicide, only less permanent.
Despair, rage turned inward, self-blame leading to self-destruction, isolation from friends and family who consciously or unconsciously avoid the victim because they don’t know how to act around someone who was raped, turning to alcohol or drugs to numb the pain, hooking up with random dudes in an effort to recreate a feeling of normalcy–all of this can increase the likelihood of being victimized again. And there’s something else.
It’s a well-known fact that combat veterans who’ve seen extreme violence often feel profoundly uncomfortable and incapable of functioning when plunged back into regular civilian life. They can’t wait to get back to the front lines. If the war is over, they may join mercenary groups. And if that’s not an option, they may seek out an environment that reminds them of a war zone as much as possible. Not because they “love” violence or danger, but because that’s what they know; it’s what feels “normal.”
Something very similar happens to some rape, torture, and domestic violence survivors. It’s as if a wall goes up between you and all the people whose lives have not been touched by severe violence. They have no idea. They can’t even imagine. They go through life thinking they’re reasonably safe. You know better. No one is safe. Feeling deeply alienated from people who can’t even begin to conceive of the life-changing violence and trauma you’ve experienced, you seek out environments and people who are no strangers to violence and danger. Some of those individuals may be violent people themselves, but at least you speak the same language, share a common frame of reference.
And so it goes. The first rape–and the reactions to it–often sets the stage for subsequent assaults. When someone you know is raped, you obviously can’t undo the attack. But you can refrain from making it worse. Denying victims justice, minimizing the crime committed, blaming victims for their own victimization, looking for ways to disbelieve or discredit victims, making excuses for rapists, othering and excluding survivors–not only are you exacerbating the damage by doing these things, but you’re actually increasing the chances that the victim will be raped again.