on rape and being a woman
(trigger warning: rape/sexual assault)
around the time i got my learner’s permit to drive my mother came home from a PTA meeting where a deputy from the local police department had spoken with them about teaching their daughters self-defense. they were given a few techniques and then sent home with a self-defense tool. that evening my mother presented me with a white, plastic kubaton and demonstrated how to use it.
“if a man comes to sexually assault you hold the kubaton like a javelin. make yourself as big as you can and then scream and growl in a deep and threatening manner. like this: haaarrrrrroooooggggwwwwrrrrrrr!!!! then rush at him and jab him in the throat. this will collapse his trachea and then he’ll die!”
if you know my mother you would understand why this is perhaps the most ridiculous thing i had ever seen and being the ever gracious teenager i let her know exactly this. but i carefully noted what she told me because i was already afraid…and i am still afraid. despite how ridiculous i thought my mother was all those years ago, there is a kubaton on my key chain today.
when the Todd Akin story broke on Sunday night mr. mraynes and i had an interesting and lively conversation about rape and rape culture. because mr. mraynes is a good man and because he has a wife, daughter, mother, sister-in-laws, students and many female friends who he loves, he truly wants to understand rape culture and women’s experiences in it.
for example, he didn’t quite understand why feminists get upset about women being told how not get raped rather than men being told not to rape. he thought it is common sense to do both. i’m not going to hash it out in this post how and why society fails to tell men not rape, that is a topic for another time. and I don’t really want to belabor his first point that women should be instructed on how not to be raped because in reality those instructions are worthless in the face of a determined predator. and because women already know.
women know inherently that the world is not safe for them. while men breeze through their day never looking over their shoulder, women are constantly vigilant to threats. by the time they are teenagers, young women have either been taught or have just picked it up from the ether that they are at risk of being raped whenever and wherever. i saw this stand-up routine earlier this year where the comedienne goes through a variety of typical scenarios and ends it with, “heeeeerrrre’s your raaaape!” and my reaction was, “yep, that’s pretty much how it is to be a woman”–you are just waiting for that moment when you run out of luck and become a statistic. (note: i enjoyed the first half of this sketch but was made uncomfortable by some problematic and unnecessary racial stuff towards the end.)
because it is luck if you are a woman and are not sexually assaulted in your lifetime. 1 in 6 women will be a victim of sexual assault and this number is based off reported rapes so you can bet the actual statistic is even more horrifying. we all know the “conventional” wisdom on how to increase your chances of not being raped: don’t walk alone at night, don’t dress like a slut, don’t drink, don’t go to frat parties…the advice goes on and on. while a lot of us do these things in hopes of keeping ourselves safe, the truth is it often doesn’t matter. a rapist will rape whether you’re dressed in a tube top or a burka.
if men like Todd Akin or my husband want to truly understand what it is like to be a woman they have to imagine living in a world where you never feel 100% safe. i have never been raped or sexually assaulted but i understand that feeling of primal panic when a man has crossed my boundaries–my heart jumps into my throat, my stomach drops and i search desperately for a way to escape–and unfortunately this experience is a common occurrence. to understand the experience of women you have to understand that this primal fear is an all too constant reminder that you do not have full control over your body.
Eve Ensler wrote a fantastic piece in the Huffington Post entitled, “Dear Mr. Akin, i want you to imagine…”
Here’s what I want you to do. I want you to close your eyes and imagine that you are on your bed or up against a wall or locked in a small suffocating space. Imagine being tied up there and imagine some aggressive, indifferent, insane stranger friend or relative ripping off your clothes and entering your body — the most personal, sacred, private part of your body — and violently, hatefully forcing themself into you so that you are ripped apart. Then imagine that stranger’s sperm shooting into you and filling you and you can’t get it out…
women have no problem imagining this, but i think a lot of men do. i don’t know why this is but i wonder if it isn’t because men experience sexuality, these intimate acts of connection with another, outside of their bodies? most men cannot know what it is like to have your most sacred space penetrated, allowing somebody inside of your body is an act of complete vulnerability. i have a healthy and fulfilling sex life, one that is based on trust and respect, and sometimes it is still hard to invite mr. mraynes inside of me, to be that vulnerable with him…now just imagine what it does to a woman if she has not allowed it.
this applies to pregnancy as well. a man may love his unborn child, honor the work that his partner is doing to bring this life into the world, but he cannot understand what it is like to grow another human inside of you. it is more than just the physical burden, the morning sickness, the heartburn, the not being able to bend over. even when the child inside of you is a wanted and invited presence, knowing that your body doesn’t fully belong to you is a burden…now imagine if that presence was unwanted and was there because of an act of hate.
if men like Todd Akin truly understood the burden that sexuality and reproduction place on women they would not say the things they say and could not legislate the way they legislate. what makes this situation worse is that this controversy erupted because of a profound misunderstanding of rape and women’s bodies, not to mention the willful invalidation of women’s feelings and experiences. it is disheartening to say the least.
i don’t have the answers to solve the epidemic of sexual assault in this country. what i do know is that those who do not understand, who do not want to understand, what it is liked to be raped or to be constantly in fear of being raped have no business defining what is and is not legitimate rape. just as they have no business making the most intimate choices a woman can make in regards to her own body.
there is a lesson to be learned from the Todd Akin fiasco and it is this: keep your mouth shut when you have no idea what you’re talking about.
Thanks for writing this! Well done!
Thanks, I’m glad you liked it!
Precisely! I have always had a hard time with what it is about sex that makes me a little uncomfortable… I love my husband and I like having sex with him, but the boundaries are still crossed and it is still so raw. Have you ever read Catherine MacKinnon? She writes about how no women want sex and it is always a dominant, violent act. While I don’t agree with her conclusions, a lot of her theoretical framework is very thought-provoking.
I have read Catherine MacKinnon and, like you, find it thought provoking but not entirely convincing. I think what you describe is a fairly common experience of women in regards to heterosexual vaginal sex. It is the reason why the”f-word” is a bad word, why pop culture jokes about women and their headaches, and why some mothers advise their daughters to “lie back and think of England.” But it is a difficult truth to articulate. Human sexuality, reproduction and rape are complicated issues–thankfully most people recognize this which is why politicians like Akin and Mourdock were soundly defeated.
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