In the summer of 1983, I was ambling along a beach in Ecuador talking and flirting with a local high school boy. We rounded a curve. The long open stretch we had been walking disappeared from sight and we were alone—or almost alone. Ahead of us on a rocky outcropping four guys sat, watching the shore. As we approached, they hopped down and sauntered toward us. Then one of them grabbed my companion while another put a knife to his throat. The other two grabbed me, knocking me to the ground and fighting off my bathing suit while I kicked and bit and my companion yelled, “People are coming. Let her go. People are coming.” They panicked and released us and took off up the beach. I staggered into the water to wash their fingers out of my vagina and the blood off a bite mark on my hand, and then we ran back in the direction we had come.
My experience is remarkable only because it is so shockingly ordinary. In a CDC survey of American women, one in five reported that they had experienced a rape or an attempted rape at some point in their lives. But until that day on the beach, rape simply wasn’t on my radar. What I lost in that incident was the assumption that it couldn’t happen to me; it is a lesson I have never forgotten.
My daughters are now approaching the age I was back in 1983, and as a mother who wants to send them into the world empowered and confident, curious and bold, but with a strong self-protective instinct, I have wrestled with what to tell them about my experience—or that of my sister, who got into a car only to find that the passenger handle had been removed by the serial rapist at the wheel; or that of my friend for whom the fingers weren’t those of a young tough on a beach but those of a pastor in a church library.
For this task, meaning the task of preparing two daughters for life in the big wide world, the frenzied public rhetoric about rape and rape culture seems woefully inadequate. “No means no,” may be what we need to tell our sons, but our daughters need another message. They need to hear that no can mean no; and—fuck the Right for saying so—but historically it can also mean yes; and there are many, many nonverbal ways to signal consent whether you intend to or not. And sometimes your lack of consent, no matter how clearly stated, isn’t going to protect you.
The relationship between female helplessness or coercion and sexual arousal for our species is hard wired, and it’s not going away. It can be modified and constrained through education, culture change, and legal sanctions, and should be. But it can’t be punished out of existence. We could have a public stoning of the Steubenville offenders, and my daughters would still have to deal with this complicated reality. Pretending this isn’t the case while millions of women discover newfound orgasmic thrills in bondage fantasies would be laughable if it weren’t dangerous.
Sexual and behavioral norms are changing, which is one reason that explicit consent to sex is more important now than ever. In the past, women were protected from male sexual impulses by patriarchal rules that kept us off the streets unaccompanied or kept us covered from neck to ankle in layers of fabric or made courtship a formal negotiation between males who, essentially, owned us. Most women would rather manage our own safety, thank you very much, but that means we have to manage it. In this regard, the BDSM community offers an interesting edge case. BDSM, at some level, is about playing with the limits of sexual vulnerability, getting the maximum arousal out of a certain kind of tease, without crossing a line. At another level, I think this is the game our whole culture is playing—from Hollywood to music, to dance, to fashion. This means that a bunch of cues that used to mean “yes” actually don’t anymore, and the potential for aroused, judgment-impaired minds to misread nonverbal or ambiguous communications is enormous. BDSM communities deal with this by clarifying up front what’s okay and what isn’t—by requiring explicit verbal or even written consent, and increasingly we all need to do the same.
But in the world outside the bondage room, such advance communication isn’t always going to be there, whether a woman is in a room full of strangers or in her own bed. Between intimate partners, sexual inquiry often takes the form of tentative sexual contact. Between strangers, the call and response is primarily body language. It is this complicated reality that my daughters must navigate.
In trying to weave a safe course among these shades of gray, the phrase “it’s never your fault,” seems too stark and simplistic to be useful. Worse, it may be disempowering. It implies that the choices women make are meaningless, irrelevant; that whether we are careful or conservative, drunk off our asses among jerks with poor judgment or choosing to stay in control of our faculties has no import; dressing ordinary or dressing to arouse male attention and desire has no power. It is, to my mind, yet another permutation on the helpless female, the idea that all of the capacity to determine the course of our lives, for better or worse, lies in the hands (and dicks) of males.
Undoubtedly someone is going to scream that I am playing the role of the assailant’s defense attorney, blaming the victim, giving new voice to old canards like she asked for it, or boys will be boys, or if you act like a slut, you deserve what you get. I would answer that it’s not a question of deserving. It’s a question of complex causality and of recognizing, owning and consciously wielding whatever power we have in that equation. Power and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. Absolving women of responsibility denies us response ability.
In recent years public outrage about victim shaming and victim blaming has erupted. Women have come together through events like Slut Walk to demand that society stop denigrating victims and put blame where it belongs, on perpetrators. We are, finally(!), reacting to the eons that Western culture has spent at the opposite end of the continuum, shaming and blaming victims while letting violators off the hook, and we are appropriately outraged at the lingering residual: Commentators who appear to care more about football than females. Priests who molest children and get paid off by bishops whose “moral authority” still buys them a seat in the White House. Politicians who vomit rape apologies. Policy proposals that would force women to bear rape babies. A Bible that never once says or implies that a woman’s consent is desired before sex and yet still gets touted as a perfect moral guide. . . . Our collective surge of compassion and anger is long past due.
But I think there is a dark side to our insistence on absolving victims of responsibility along with blame. Yes, it corrects a long-standing wrong. But by refusing to acknowledge the victim as a thinking, capable person, we perpetuate the same traditional mindset that promotes rape—the idea that a woman’s sexuality is the core of who she is, that we women are, as Martin Luther put it, “made for childbearing” and as such are passive vessels of our fate. A rape victim is damaged goods, so damaged that we don’t dare wound her further by considering her role in her own violation. In comment threads and on Facebook, outraged men and women have expressed their feeling that the Steubenville perpetrators should have their lives ruined—just like they ruined that girl’s life. Is her life ruined? Let me ask the question underneath that one. Is she ruined?
My assault on the Ecuadorian beach took place during a summer study program. When I told my professors what had happened they were traumatized. Did I need to go home? Did I need reassurance about my virginity? Did I need a therapist? What else could they do? Oddly, they were more damaged than I was. There are experiences in my life that have shaken my sense of wellbeing to the core, driving me to depression or even suicidal thoughts—and to therapy. Having someone force me to the ground, clamp a hand over my mouth and shove fingers up my vagina was not one of them. The bite mark on my hand faded and I got on with healing older, deeper wounds left by the crazy dynamics of a mentally ill sister, parents that didn’t like each other, and a religion that taught me that I deserved eternal torture.
It could have been worse. My assailants could have been more bold, or I could have been more vulnerable. Even so, I believe that two things helped to minimize the damage: I knew, even as an Evangelical nineteen year old, that I was not my vagina. And, while it was absolutely clear who was morally in the wrong, I knew I could take better care of myself in the future because I saw what mistakes I made the first time. Not that the experience left me unscathed. For years, when I went out running alone I pictured myself kicking the shit out of anyone who touched me. Recently I saw a preview for a movie in which three women fight back and destroy men who are stalking them on a small island. “That looks like a satisfying fantasy,” I commented. My companion gave me an odd look that reminded me not everyone has my programming. But the upside of my heightened fight-flight readiness is that I pay really close attention when my situation gets anywhere close to dicey.
I have two daughters. One in five women gets sexually assaulted. The odds that one of them will have to go through it are almost fifty-fifty. That they will experience some kind of unwanted sexual contact in their lives is a given. None of us are ever prepared, but as a mother who has been through it, I want at least to arm them with these few bits of hard-won knowledge: You are vulnerable. What you do matters. You will make mistakes. Owning responsibility and deserving badness are two different things. When bad things happen they won’t always have to be a big deal. You are smart and strong, and way, way more than the sum of your sexual experiences. And if you ever need to talk about it, I’ve been there.
Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles can be found at Awaypoint.Wordpress.com.