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.
Very very powerful. Essential reading. Masterfully written but that is nothing new. Thanks.
Thank you, Jacques.
Whew! Once again you have identified the problems I’ve had with how the responsibility for sexual aggression has been assigned and how that has evolved AND helped me to understand why the easy explanations are not. Thank you.
What worries me here is that rape is not sex…so it is not a sexual experience. Secondly, in the author’s story, there was nothing, not one thing, that may have indicated to the four beasts that assaulted her that she was consenting to the assault. She was with a friend, a male friend. What other precautions could she have taken? One must differentiate between violent assault by predators, and mixed or confused social cues. While I have two daughters, and have voiced the opinion that teeny tiny skirts, low, low shirts send a message of availability, still it does NOT ever indicate consent to assault. No does mean no.
Hi Diana –
I agree with you strongly that we must differentiate assault by preditors from mixed or confused social cues, and maybe i didn’t differentiate that well enough here. But I could have been more cautious. In a similar situation some years back, I chose not to approach a group of young men on an isolated beach and instead moved toward a more populated area. I don’t –and even then didn’t –blame myself in any moral sense but I do think I could have been more cautious.
Thank you Diana. Rape is about power differences and control much more than about sex. Even with date rape. Unfortunately some people find this arousing. I don’t agree with Valerie’s follow up comment–at all. It is a convenient mental distinction not a real difference.
Barb, for me the real issue is my daughters being as safe as they can be. That includes reducing the likelihood that males will be sexually aggressive and increasing the likelihood that they can avoid risk.
Thank you so much. I tried and tried to tell my daughter that in an ideal world, no, rape is never the victims fault in ANY sense of the world. I tried to tell her the world is far from ideal and that she would need to be ever vigilant of risk factors both in AND out of her control. She told me I was too old to ‘understand how it is now’ and ignored me. She knew about my rape at age 20 and discounted my experience.
She now speaks of being raped at least a half dozen times; once when tricked into a party of older boys….when she expected parents on scene and was utterly in over her 14 year old head. But the rest? When she was 18 and up and at parties she was invited to knowing it was all young adults; each time she drank to the point of passing out and awakened with her skirt up or pants down. I am heartbroken for her, and feel a sense of failure that I could not sufficiently prepare her for a reality rooted in a rape culture.
So heartbreaking. You must feel desperate sometimes for her to take care of herself, and mother-bear crazy toward the horrible people who would take advantage of her.
It’s a race betwixt the bear and mere crazy some days.
There are apparently battles no mother can win, no matter how mother bear….or tiger she is.
I can sympathize with your daughter, but yet understand your feelings of not preparing her for reality too. It’s hard, esp when you’ve experienced it to talk about it with your offspring. For me, it was my father and my sons’ father. It’s also a shame she didn’t learn not to get drunk to the point of not being able to remember details after the first time. However, IMO, I must agree, that when someone is that drunk, no one should take advantage of them. It’s nothing more than caveman mentality to do so, IMO.
Unfortunately, the cavern don’t care about our opinions.
Thank you Valery. A powerful post. More power to you! Vera
Thank you for sharing this, Valery. I’m curious to know what you think about anti-rape devices: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anti-rape_device
Hi Katharine –
The chances of any woman having unwanted sexual penetration on any given day is exceedingly low, even in someplace like South Africa. So, it’s hard for me to imagine women wearing such devices. I do think that living in a high risk place makes long acting contraception even more valuable. A woman with an IUD or implant can at least know that she is protected against a rape pregnancy. The Population Council is developing a year-long vaginal ring that offers dual protection against pregnancy and HIV. Like the longer acting contraceptive methods, it will at least reduce some of the negative consequences of sexual vulnerability.
One thing that my sons have learned is that when I say no about something, anything, I mean no. I’ve taught them that no means no and even said it many times to them growing up concerning candy, going to a friend’s house, video time, etc. and they learned what “no” means. They didn’t understand why I tried to drill this into their heads concerning when they could play video games, go to a friend’s house, get candy from the store, etc., until they asked about their grandfather on my side of the family, who never listened to me. Slowly they started to learn why I take the word “no” very seriously and soon learned it also carries over to when a date says “no” to take it very seriously and not ever ignore it.
Then my older son started asking questions, after he saw his birth certificate a few years ago, about their father’s name not on his birth certificate, and why we weren’t married when he was conceived or born. At first, when I explained it to him, he blamed me for being with his father and going out to a nightclub with him, which somehow justified the push on my family’s side to marry. It was like my older son snapped when he heard I had two glasses of wine, wished I had ordered a Tequila sunrise instead, and then trusting his father that I’d be OK to have the tequila anyway, only to find out 7 weeks later I was pregnant and didn’t know if it was good or not- the sex, not the pregnancy. The only thing I had going for me, is I went out with his dad and woke up with his dad. Then my older son dropped the subject, still lost and disoriented mentally about how he was conceived. Something about not being planned seemed to disturb him, despite knowing that I love him. After he was born, the hospital wouldn’t allow me to put his father’s name on the birth certificate because we weren’t married at the time of his birth and that is what started the whole conversation. My older son believes he’s a bastard because his father’s name is not on his birth certificate, despite me insisting he is not.
However, that wasn’t as traumatic as what his grandfather, who he never met, and doesn’t want to meet, put me through most of my childhood. The situation with his father concerning my older son’s conception wasn’t violent either. It just wasn’t memorable and some people say it was wrong to take advantage of someone when they are drunk, calling it rape when one does, but I can say it was the only time I ever did that and vowed not to do it again. I would rather remember it, regardless of what some people call it.
My younger son, never seeing his brother’s birth certificate, just recently inquired. He knows about his grandfather and what he did to me. Like his brother, he doesn’t want to meet his grandfather, which makes me happy, because I haven’t seen that man since he lost custody of me, but never told my sons about what all their father did. My younger son thought we’d been married a few years before his brother was born and was shocked that his father and I only knew each other a few months and it was my family who pushed for marriage after his brother was conceived and born. Unlike his brother, he got really quiet. Maybe he was putting all the pieces together concerning why we married after his brother was born, but before he was conceived, and what led to our divorce, knowing there was some abuse in his father’s and my relationship.
The only detail neither one of them knows, is that their father would call me frigid and say, “I take what I want” and then just take it, insisting I needed to get over what my father did to me while I was crying over what he had just done to me. Oddly enough, their dad told them that he hurt me really badly, in many ways, what he did was wrong, and he regrets it. The older one, now 24, seems to have given up on trying to get us back together. The younger one, who is 21 and just recently found out, may also give up now that he knows. I don’t know, but now that they are older, they seem to be putting the pieces of the puzzle together, including why I have always insisted that they listen to the word “no”, no matter what no concerned, even it was “no you can’t go to Johnny’s house right now” or have candy before dinner.
Sorry, my reply is so long, but I think it is possible to teach our children the meaning of the word “no” from a VERY early age and as they get older, we can teach them why we take the word very seriously and how it carries over to sex. We don’t have to give explicit details concerning the sexual abuse that happened to us, but we can still tell them why it is important to listen when someone says “no”, esp and including concerning matters of sex. It’s not easy to tell them why it’s important, but when they start asking questions, like in my case, why they never met their grandfather, why I divorced they father, why their father isn’t on the older one’s birth certificate, why we don’t get back together, etc they get little pieces of the puzzle and eventually, even while disturbed, they put the pieces together and figure out why mother insisted the word “no” be listen too.
I think girls can even figure out why mother wants them to learn to be careful, protect themselves, and stay safe too. Pre-teens, teens, and young adults are not stupid, even if they get information, that’s uncomfortable for mother to talk about, a little at a time. The details don’t need to be explicit. Just knowing incest, rape, sexual abuse happened to their mother is sometimes enough.
That’s just my two cents on the subject and again, sorry it’s so long.
Thank you for taking the time to share your experience, Mriana. There are so many things we learn through hardship. I think that when we talk about our experiences it maybe allows other people to learn vicariously instead of having to go through the same things.
I agree, but sometimes we’re not ready talk, even to the person who needs to learn and/or the listener isn’t ready or mature enough hear. Even when they are mature enough and ask the right questions in which to hear the answers, it can still disturb them greatly.
Reblogged this on An Open-Minded Journey.
I appreciate your blog and you really got me thinking. I am having trouble with your concept of “owning responsibility”. As I see it, we can do everything we can to decrease risk and increase safety, and if we make a mistake and choose something that increases risk and become victimized that doesn’t make the behavior of the rapist our “responsibility”. So many things increase our risk for rape. Being female alone increases risk, going to college, joining the military, etc. I’m having trouble with this idea of living like with awareness equating with being responsible if something wrong happens.
Rape happens because men, predominantly, rape. We don’t ask victims of other crimes to :”take responsibility” for those crimes. Rape will be prevented when men become more active in shifting the culture we live in. When men stop raping.
I support teaching children skills for prevention, Skills that help them feel their power. I teach preschoolers sexual abuse prevention skills. I have taught and will continue to teach my daughter how to protect herself, but if one of my students, or my daughter, gets raped, molested or hurt in anyway, I will not send them a message that they have responsibility for causing that hurt. I will support them in recovering, having an identity that includes more than their genitalia and sexuality and experiencing hardships as only a part of what makes them who they are, as you so eloquently described in your post.
Thanks for taking the risk in writing this and sharing it widely. I do enjoy reading all your posts.
Hi Sara –
You are not the only one, and I am glad you took time to write out your thoughts. Here is how I think about it. If I leave my husband’s laptop on the seat of my car and someone smashes the window, I do feel responsible–not morally, mind you. My responsibility in no way reduces the culpability of the person who stole the computer. But I had some capacity to manage risk, to increase or decrease the likelihood of such an event, and to my mind power and responsibility are, essentially, two sides of the same coin. If I don’t recognize that, it may happen to me again. Here is another example. Suppose it was my young daughter who I left in a risky place. Sometimes an addicted or otherwise impaired mother will leave her child with a known abuser and the child gets hurt. Is she responsible for the abuse? Yes, to some extent. Does her responsibility in any way reduce the responsibility or the moral culpability of the abuser? Absolutely not. As a psychologist one of the tools I found helpful was to imagine having an inner child and considering what it means to care for my (or your) inner child in the same way that I care for my daughters.
However, it is never the child’s fault if someone molests them. A parent is responsible for a child, but an abused women, married to the abuser has a harder time than the drug addict mother, in part because she is often unaware that the father is molesting the child until the child says something, she walks in on it, or both. Once she knows, then it’s her duty to get her child away from the incestuous father (of course, this sometimes works the other way around too) and stop the sexual abuse of her child. It doesn’t always work that way, esp in Xians home, where the molesting parent goes up to the alter etc etc, only to be given another chance to molest the child again, which shear stupidity in my book. Maybe telling a child that it was not their fault is simplistic, but sometimes it can be helpful.
Valerie, I’ve been thinking about what you said concerning “It’s not your fault” statements being too simplistic and not helpful. I must say again, that with children/adults, who were victims of incest, which is very much a form of rape, albeit maybe somewhat different psychologically, hearing from a psychologist, LCSW, LPC, etc “You were just a child. You didn’t do anything wrong. It wasn’t your fault” are powerful words to hear, because your very existence made your fault and Xian dogma, in some Xian families, makes the abuse worse, by insisting that the victim of incest has to ask for forgiveness, must forgive the perp, and that God will take care of the perp, not allowing the victim to press charges because of this idea that God will punish people. Thus, a person, who’s sexuality, emotional growth, etc was stunted at say the age of 7, for example, because of incest, needs to hear that it wasn’t their fault, despite it’s simplicity. I don’t think simplicity is unhelpful and/or necessarily disempowering. It gave me more power and determination to make every effort not to allow it to happen to my children and teach them to say something, no matter what the perp told them, if it did happen. Sort of makes one a tigress when it comes to protecting her children from abuse, BUT (and this is where things fall short sometimes) it doesn’t help in keeping the woman from marrying someone who is similar to the father-figure in their life. In that last respect, the sooner one receives therapy for any form of rape, the better, IMO, and if it happens in childhood, getting them help as a child is better than the person waiting until adulthood, after sexual abuse happens again- which, as I mention, I may be talking about a whole different area of psychological and emotional damage from a form of rape, than an adult woman who was raped in adulthood for the first time. Women raped in adulthood, might not have feelings of being a concubine or what have you, after the traumatic event, and yes, as a child from a Xian family, I knew the word “concubine” very well, but not incest, rape, or other like words. They might even believe that that is just the way it is concerning men, if they come from such Xian homes too, thus victimizing them even more and feeling as though it doesn’t matter what they say when and if it happens in adulthood, esp if the sexual abuse comes from their husband.
Am I talking about a whole different set of psychological issues in such cases or are the issues actually the same with adult rape as they are with incest or child rape? Does the Xian perspective, esp Fundamngelical ones, also change the issues in such cases too?
Just something I’ve been thinking about, since reading your article, Valerie.
Hi Mriana –
I absolutely agree with you that “it’s not your fault” is an important message for abused children. Each of us can be responsible only to the extent we are capable or powerful. Children have extremely little ability to protect themselves from abuse of any kind, which is why adults who do have power are assigned legally and morally to be their protectors. The power of an adult protector may also be limited–by her size, her psychological state, her community, or the situation itself. To my mind, power and responsibility are two sides of the same coin. We are only as responsible as we are powerful. Responsibility goes with capability.
Capability is also different from moral culpability, which I think that is an important distinction for adult women who are violated. Claiming your power and the corresponding response-ability to care for yourself is different from deserving blame. Embracing your ability to protect yourself, to avoid or stop unwanted sexual contact, can be healing and empowering. (So can knowing the limits of that power–refusing to let anyone make you feel responsible for something you weren’t powerful to control.)
That is different from the question of who if anyone is behaving in a way that is immoral–that knowingly violates compassion and wellbeing. I think part of what makes this topic difficult is that we have trouble separating the two.
Yes, that makes sense, including the adult protector being limited by her size, psychological state, community, etc and sometimes the mother, may also be in an abusive situation in a community that’s not very helpful, but rather does more damage to both mother and child. I think the community also (sometimes) share responsibility and moral culpability in such cases, sometimes also taking control away from said protector and not just the child. As Bishop Spong, of the Episcopal Church, once said, “Churches don’t like people to grow up, because you can’t control grown ups” adding that’s why they teach them to be think like children. The subject concerned hell, but I think that ideology and dogmas that go with that spreads into things that endangers and damages both women and children, which is something was are seeing now with people in congress and religious institutions trying to deny women health care and saying things like, “Real rape does not lead to pregnancy”, women who use birth control just want to have sex/disobey God [concerning childbirth] (or whatever it was), and other stupid things like that. These things, pumped into the society (the larger community) take control away from women, as well as children.
What be most helpful, on top of teaching good ethics, is telling children how to deal with these situations. Telling them how to handle what happens even if it’s family. A lot of times parent’s will use very vague terms like “don’t let a stranger touch you in a naughty place, say ‘no’ and run away.” The child automatically assumes the perpetrator will be a big dark shadow chasing them around and doing who-knows-what. A simple anatomy lesson would be helpful, as well as making them aware of grooming tactics, telling them to suspect ANYONE who tries to get unnaturally close to them.
In a way, it’s like early (not Grimm) versions of the Red Riding Hood story, where the wolf is assumed to be her grandfather (and she’s either eaten or manages to run away without a huntsman). In that time period in Europe, it was common for family members to sleep naked or nearly naked in the same bed, especially since beds were fairly expensive and clothes were often fairly dirty. That kind of situation would quite easily open children up to grooming from older males. The only change might be that now, women may also need to be included as possible perpetrators as that becomes more common.
I agree and I think I made this clear to my sons at an early age or at least tried to teach them that it’s not always a stranger, but someone who has power over them, such as a parent or a minister. I can remember feeling horrible for days after telling them the truth about who the majority of such perps of such crimes are and that my bio-father was not a rare or unusual perp for molesting children. For some reason, and at the time I was still stuck in religion, I felt as guilty as sin for telling them these things and I didn’t know why, still don’t. Yet a female priest in the Episcopal Church told me, because of some priests violating children, there are rules, such as not closing the door when they counseling a child alone, without their parent(s) and other safety issues in a effort to help prevent sexual molestation of children. When she told me this, at least my older son, if not both my sons, were in the room at the time. In some respects, I felt forgiven for telling my sons the truth about some of the people we know and trust, even though I never told her that I told my sons to tell someone if she (or any other priest, male or female) or any other person ever touched them in any way that made them feel uncomfortable or that they knew was wrong. I also added that such telling is a very serious thing, told truthfully, and should only be done if someone really is doing such things, never done just because they are angry and want to get that person in trouble. The fact that she stated this in front of one or both of my sons somehow supported what I told them and somehow took away the guilt of telling them that the person(s) most likely to molest them was someone they feel. believe, or are told they can trust. Of course, telling them this also put me, their mother, who would never dream of doing such a thing to them, in that category of trust, which also felt bad and contributed to feelings of guilt for telling them this information.
However, I think in the long run, giving them this information and telling them about their maternal grandfather actually built more trust, as well as our relationship, between my sons and me. It wasn’t a case of “I’m your mother, you must trust and obey me no matter what” or “this is a priest, doctor, teacher, etc. you must trust and obey them”, but rather something else that apparently didn’t demand trust, but probably earned trust. Never once did I insist they must trust and obey anyone I placed in trust of them either, but rather I told them if it isn’t going to harm anyone, including you, then do it, but if it will cause harm or it doesn’t feel right, you can say, “no” and insist on that no, backing it with your reasons (esp as they got older), dealing with the consequences, even if it is a phone call to me for disobedient behaviour, later. I literally gave them permission to say “no” to anyone, including me, which also made me feel bad for a while too. It was like I gave them permission to be in control, instead of being the parent in control.
Now that I write and think about this subject, I don’t think I was giving away my parental control, thereby letting my sons control things, but giving them power and control over their own bodies. They certainly were not prey for predatory child molesting ministers or teachers and yes, I sometimes received phone calls from the school because they were stubborn and refused to do something, which of course led to the principal, teacher, and myself having to discuss with them why they refused to do something, but I don’t think they were ever molested.
What has always been helpful to me, still growing up at 73, was told me by my mother when I was 7 or 8: “No one should get or deserves your respect without earning it. This works both ways.” This meant that I didn’t have to follow blindly those in authority or who assumed authority over me. I mentally thank her often for this.
Thanks for this, Valerie. First thing I did was message the link to this to my 14-yr-old daughter. You illustrate the problem in a way I could not ever, being a man and all.
I wish there was a thumbs up or a like button for your post perrero62. :)
MOST RAPES, OVERWHELMINGLY, ARE COMMITTED BY PEOPLE KNOWN TO THEIR VICTIMS.
What do you have to say to those victims, Valerie?
And what exactly do you think you did “wrong”, anyway? Walk on a public beach? With only one friend?
If you had been raped, Valerie, would you still be telling other women to “take responsibility” for their rapes?
No. Just no. We do not need to teach our daughters to restrict their freedom in order to manage their safety.
We need to teach our sons not to rape.
Sadly, this is such a revolutionary concept even you, Valerie, seem to find it difficult to wrap your mind around it.
I don’t think she was saying sons should not be taught not to rape. She has daughters and I have sons and if she were saying that, I would be one of the first to debate that subject, because I believe sons should be taught not to rape women and to treat women with respect and dignity, just like any other human and non-human creature.
Secondly, I think we’ve seen some of what she has to say based on her responses to my comments concerning victims of incest. I don’t think she was talking about responsibility in the way you think she was talking about it. I think you would see all of that if you read some of the discussion happening in the comments section.
Lastly, while the vast majority of rapes happen by people the victims know, not all do, so who’s to say she wasn’t raped by strangers in South America? Have done any research on how dangerous that part of the world is, esp for women? Did you read anything in her article that said “women should not where skorts, mini skirts, or spaghetti strap tank tops” as a means of taking responsibility?
Based on your level of anger, I’m wondering what your story is, because it seems to me her article pushed some painful buttons.
The problem I see is that every time we try to deal with the reality of rape, talk inevitably turns to how to “better educate” our women about risk factors or about sexual agency. The discussion around rape is (and has been historically) heavily weighted on the victims of rape, and yes, I do think that the messaging is all wrong here.
Rape, at its most basic level, is an unwilling power exchange. It’s about TAKING AWAY sexual agency. I’m not sure “preparing” women for the possibility of rape (by telling them to dress conservatively, watch their drinks, learn to say “no”) has any effect on decreasing their probability of getting raped. I’d really like to see that study.
Anecdotal evidence to the contrary: I grew up in a very sex-positive environment, had a liberal sex education, and went to women-centric anti-rape programming in my teens. I knew how to say no. I knew how to talk about consent. I’m not sure how much more “prepared” I could have been.
Did it help prevent my own rape? No. Despite all my empowering sex education, when it came down to it, I was not able to stop my own rape, or even recognize immediately that what had happened was not okay, was not consensual, and could not have been construed as consensual. I thought that rape was something that happened to women who didn’t know how to say no, women who made bad choices about the company they kept, women who weren’t sexually liberated. I thought that rapists were evil men in shadows, not our lovers or coworkers.
In some ways all that liberal sex education did help me come to terms, afterward, and that IS an important consideration. But the truth is that if someone who wields power over you really wants to take your agency away from you, you can’t do a damned thing about it.
So, if we really want to prevent rape in future generations, we have to move the focus AWAY from the victims, and start dealing with the predators themselves.
Let me be clear: It’s not that we shouldn’t learn to be self-aware; it’s not that assertiveness and sexual agency shouldn’t be taught. There are a great many uncomfortable situations in life where assertiveness and sexual agency are key. Learning to say “no” explicitly is important. But when we talk about giving victims greater agency in the causality of rape, we misdirect. It creates a window of ambiguity that many exploit in order to lay blame on the victim.
Let’s please stop talking about victims in relation the causality of rape. If you want to talk about empowering sexual agency for young women, then talk about empowering sexual agency. Please don’t conflate it with rape prevention.
Instead: let’s ostracize the rapists and sexual predators among us; let’s teach men that the absence of “no” is not consent; let’s teach our friends that yes, it is okay to talk about what happened.
Rape must seem like a trivial thing to the guys doing it. Oh, it’s just sex, they probably think. And seems rape is getting a lot of publicity with the Indian cases. But here is something that kind of stunned me. Anybody see that Direct TV ad where the blow up guy grabs the lady off the street, turns her around and flings her down on all fours and starts raping her doggy style? He gets one good thrust in b4 it cuts away. My question: How can this depiction of rape (albeit by a non-human) STILL be showing 7 or 8 times a night every night? How do you get away with depicting rape as a joke in a commercial? This is simply unacceptable. We live in a messed up world of unthinking, unethical people. Just sad.
I so appreciate your postings, Valerie. I just discovered your blog, and am reading through your older ones. All this discussion of exactly WHO is the victim, WHO is to blame, and to what degree, is very hard to assess in so many situations. The courts must decide these things, of course. But for the rest of us, I believe it is most helpful to look at ALL the issues involved, as you are doing (The young man who has never been given an honest, serious, detailed look at the potentially life-altering consequences of his five-minute act! Or the young woman who has not been taught the effects of her dress and actions on a testosterone-driven male). If the bottom line is to reduce the incidence of rape and unwanted pregnancy, I believe complete and thorough SEX EDUCATION is of utmost importance (including the woman’s right and responsibility to say NO! And to abstain from compromising positions to the extent that she is able). So thanks for your message!
(For myself, I experienced an unwanted pregnancy as a young single woman–and got an abortion six months prior to Roe v. Wade. I would say the single most cause-and-effect reason was having been raised in a religious household where the word “sex” was sort of a no-no. I was so naive!)
Thank you — both for your kind words and for sharing your experience. There are so many of us on similar journeys. Warmly, Valerie
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And what of Women who tell men they can’t get pregnant “The Dr told me i have endometriosis and well, i can not get pregnant! Then become pregnant!! you know the rest! this is perhaps best called Financial, emotional, Hostage taking! or “Male Rape”
My friend’s son had something like this happen to him. I think it’s a shame that we don’t have a long acting reversible contraceptive for males so that no one ends up in this situation. Many men wisely protect themselves as well as their partners with condoms. But one in eight couples relying on condoms gets pregnant each year. That’s less than a tenth of the risk without, but still rather scary when you think about how much is at stake.
Because of events in my own life I find I am constantly telling my own girls “how not to get raped” It’s a disgusting state of our society that as parents we feel we have to do that. Very well written!
A wonderful post. I agree with you on the responsibility side and I say this as someone who also has direct experience. Acknowledging the wrong choices I made, and the wrong choices of the people I was with, does not negate the crime, but to deny them is being disingenuous. My actions, my choices did have a part to play, much as I may have liked to wish they hadn’t. Accepting and talking about the fact that there are circumstances in which we as individuals make ourselves more vulnerable to the actions of others is NOT victim blaming and nor is it an apologist stance on behalf of rapists.
*Interestingly I can’t read all your posts as some appear to be blocked by the censors here!
Nice content and informative that everyone can refer through it. Rape should not be tolerable in many ways and we should prevent it.