Girls need to know that a sexual assault doesn’t have to mean a lifetime of suffering.
As a mother of two daughters and as a psychologist who has experienced sexual assault, I find myself troubled by some of the language that feminist women (like me) and progressive allies deploy to fight rape culture—in particular the way that those who have been violated are sometimes assumed to have psychological scars that inevitably will screw them up for life.
Let me be absolutely clear: Forcing, coercing, exploiting or manipulating someone for the sake of sexual pleasure is immoral because it is harmful and dehumanizing, and it’s long, long past time that we made it a social outrage.
For most of human history, women and children have been treated as possessions of men—as economic assets, trophies, slave labor, and objects of sexual gratification—rather than full persons with preferences and rights, starting with control of our own bodies. This view is so deeply embedded in culture that the concept of sexual consent is wholly absent from the Bible, which continues to profoundly shape modern culture. In Bible texts, virgin females are given in marriage by their fathers, traded as slaves, kept as war booty, and sold as damaged goods to men who have raped them. The Quran is no better. This month, Pakistan’s Council of Islamic Ideology proposed legislation giving men the legal right to beat their wives “lightly,” as taught by the Prophet. A teen who turned down a marriage proposal was tortured and then burned alive by the family of the rejected man, who felt entitled to her.
In most of the world today, a married woman doesn’t have the right to “a headache,” and many of these “women” are actually girls who are married off to older men whether they want to be or not. One in three girls in developing countries—15 million a year—become wives before they have finished growing up, legally bound to a man who has conjugal rights to their bodies on whatever schedule he wants. More than 200 million women and girls have had their genitals cut in a culturally-embedded practice that has roots in male desire to reduce female sexual pleasure and ensure that each female’s husband, aka “owner,” maintains exclusive rights to her body.
Women are bought and sold across international lines as sex slaves. In Washington State, where I live, investigative journalists recently exposed rampant sex trafficking, with as many as 500 teens working as sex slaves on any given day—often serving men in Seattle’s tech industry. Even for women who have escaped the worst of these horrors, those who have the legal right to choose marriage and divorce and contraception, who can leave their parents or religion or city of origin, and earn money and generally manage their own lives—unwanted sexual contact is the norm.
As a middle-aged professional, I mostly find myself in the company of women and men who have loving, intimate partnerships; warm, intellectual friendships; and mutually-respectful collegial relationships. That doesn’t change the fact that virtually every female friend whose history I know has experienced one or more kinds of sexual violation—a hand in the crotch on public transit, an uncle’s incessant innuendo, intercourse pressured by a boyfriend, a brother in the night, date rape, a French kiss by a pastor in the church library—or worse.
In my family, we are three sisters. One sister’s first childhood exposure to sex was a demented grandfather showing her his penis while he played with it. Another, as a young adult, got tricked into the car of a serial pedophile who thought she was underage because she was small. While in college, I had a gang of young men pull a knife on me, force me to the ground and tear off my bathing suit on an isolated stretch of beach.
I am not saying that these kinds of violations are equivalent. They are not. Nor am I saying they are acceptable. I am saying that they are ubiquitous.
The repulsive misogyny of fraternity culture may be what has finally captured public attention: cocky Wall-Street wannabees keeping tallies; drunk-off-their-asses bros humping equally drunk or passed out or trapped women; intoxicants supplied by aging good-old-boys who feel nostalgic about their own sexual exploit[ation]s. But rape culture is something much broader than girls getting pressured, forced or drugged on college campuses. Fraternity gender scripts like women are conquests, taking them is our right echo a pattern that is ancient, global and deeply systemic—one that degrades both women and men—and it’s going to take lifetimes to eradicate it, if ever we can.
It is precisely because sexual violation is so horrendously pervasive and pernicious that I worry about some of the language and framing deployed in our angry and anguished outcry against it. In both criminal court and the court of public opinion, one of the most powerful tools against offenders is sympathy for those they have harmed, and so it is tempting for litigators and advocates to foretell a future that is as dark as possible. But when we talk about psychological damage, the stories we tell can become self-fulfilling.
As a psychotherapist, I once worked with a child whose family had been in a devastating car accident. To get the best settlement possible, her lawyers wanted a report that, within the bounds of integrity, painted a dire picture of her psychological status and her future. But as her therapist, what I saw was a child who had a lot of resilience, thanks in part to the support of two loving parents who instinctively drew out her strengths even as they healed from their own injuries. And my perspective as a therapist was that she needed to know that. Was she an accident victim? Yes, absolutely. But she was also much, much more. So are we all.
In a recent rape case that made national headlines, advocates decried the six-month sentence given to a Stanford athlete convicted of sexually assaulting a passed-out woman after a fraternity party. Outraged commenters contrasted the man’s short jail term and his father’s comments about a “20 minute” crime with the plight of the woman who, some said, would “suffer for the rest of her life.” Perhaps she will, but to assume so risks making it true, and it sends a terrible message to other young women, most of whom will experience some kind of aversive and unwanted sexual contact.
Blithe predictions of lasting scars from rape may be particularly harmful because they play into the very same misogynist narratives that have created and perpetuated rape culture: the idea that women are defined by our sex organs and reproductive capacity; that the touch of a man’s almighty penis can leave a woman permanently soiled; that a raped woman—even though she can no longer be sold to her rapist in the West—is damaged goods.
People don’t have to be scarred for life—or scarred at all—for bodily violations to be morally wrong or assailants to be held accountable. Boys need to be taught that sex without freely given consent is unacceptable whether or not they think someone is going to be harmed by it. Judges and juries need to prosecute sexual violation even if the victim is dry eyed and calm. Young women themselves need the right to say no, even if playing along might not feel like a big deal.
But for the foreseeable future, girls also need to hear that no matter what they do—and no matter how much this harsh reality sucks or how much we fight it—they most likely are going to experience unwanted sexual contact. They need to know in advance that when it happens to them they will still be normal, and not alone.
That’s why the message I have given my daughters about consent and rape has two parts:
No one has a right to your body without your consent. Ever. You may make mistakes or use poor judgment sometimes. We all do. But don’t think you’re going to be the exception, even if you are careful. Yes, you can and should watch out for yourself. Your choices are consequential. You should know who’s watching your back at parties. You should have a fuck-off fund, and avoid dark streets, and try to be a clear as possible about what does and doesn’t fit for you in any given sexual encounter. But assume it’s probably going happen, because this thing is bigger than you or me.
That’s Part One.
And Part Two is this: Whether the violation is one time or repeated, ambiguous or violent; whether you were one of two drunk strangers or betrayed in a cherished relationship; whether you thought you might die or just felt slimed afterwards; whether you feel confused or angry or stupid or traumatized—your experience is your own.
Don’t let anyone tell you that you shouldn’t be wounded. Even small traumas sometimes stir up things we aren’t expecting, and a sexual violation or assault can shake your core sense of yourself or the world around you. You may beat yourself up about every little thing you could have done different, even if you know rationally that it’s not your fault. Your sleep and emotions and feelings about sex may get screwed up. You might need either medical or psychological treatment. Both are available, and both can be powerful tools for healing.
But also don’t let anyone tell you that you must be damaged, especially for the long term, because that simply isn’t true. Around the world, every morning, millions of people who have experienced some kind of unwanted sexual contact get up and scrub up and find ways to go on. You are descended from generations of women who lived with sexual coercion in their most intimate relationships, who were traded by their fathers, taken by feudal lords, raped during conflict, and fucked at will by husbands whose conjugal rights were ordained by God—and who despite this loved and worked and raised healthy children and lived their lives in the sun. If they hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here.
That long lineage of strength it is as much a part of your heritage as the culture that tells us women’s bodies belong to men. Never forget it.
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 about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.