Stop Saying that Raped Women are Damaged for Life. Just Stop.

Phoenix tattooGirls 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.

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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27 Responses to Stop Saying that Raped Women are Damaged for Life. Just Stop.

  1. Beth Caplin says:

    Generally speaking, I agree with you. I remember having a conversation with a former roommate about our fears, and her biggest fear was rape: “I just can’t imagine a bigger life-ruining experience for a woman.” She didn’t know that about me, or else I doubt she’d have said it, nor did I think that was the right moment to volunteer that information. Interestingly, I felt this compulsion to argue her point: yes, it’s terrible, but you can still live! You can still have a successful, fulfilling life!! It almost felt like a personal dig, even though it wasn’t: like she didn’t think my life was salvageable.

    But honestly? While I agree with you overall, I don’t think that statement “rape victims are damaged for life” is true in *my* life. Even nearly a decade later, there are consequences in my marriage, my anxiety and depression levels, my ability to trust people. I’ve been in counseling and on various anti-depressants and can’t imagine the longer road ahead of being medicated and fighting off flashbacks for the rest of my life.

    Sorry for rambling.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Michelle Castleberry says:

    Yes, this. Thank you, thank you.
    Don’t people who write realize that when they talk about the life of a woman being ruined after she has been raped it equates taking a woman against her will with taking her life? I am not happy with my wording here, as I do not in any way intend to discount the seriousness of, as you say, “Forcing, coercing, exploiting or manipulating someone for the sake of sexual pleasure”, but cannot figure out a decent way to word what I mean…
    And I am also by no means intending to discount the importance of mental health. My words are falling short here: Thank you for this post. You are articulating something that desperately needs to be said.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Rick Hart says:

    Thank you so very much. I sent your wonderful article to my daughter.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Lorie Lucky says:

    Excellent column, Valerie. I, too, was raped in my 20’s. It occurred after a New Year’s Eve affair the first year I came to Seattle (1967), a date rape. It was brutal, and it went on and on (though I at first screamed, and no one in my small apartment building ever called the police…did they even hear me?) for about 3 hours until he finally got up and left. I understood during the rape how mentally ill he was, because as he forced himself on me he looked down at my face and said “Now tell me that you love me”. Because of that knowledge of some severe mental disorder, and the fact that I wasn’t losing my virginity, I walked away from the episode just totally relieved to be alive and without any lacerations.
    I’m embarrassed to say that I didn’t file a police report, because in those years there was no such thing as rape kits or DNA, and the police usually asked you if you’d also been drinking and were you wearing provocative clothes, and by the time you left the police department you weren’t a victim but a consensual participant. In the years afterward I worried about how my failure had put other women at risk, but I had no confidence in a positive outcome at the hands of a U.S. police force in 1967.
    Unfortunately, the book “Missoula” by Jon Krakauer suggests that in many towns and cities in America women are still at risk at the hands of their local police departments if they pursue a rape charge. Perhaps fewer women would suffer lingering psychological scars if they were treated with the same respect as any crime victim. As a friend recently said, ‘Do the police question the veracity of someone who reports a mugging, a robbery or a burglary, or an assault on the street?’ Why are rape victims the ones that are suspect?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Valerie, well done!!! Your perspective is essential. We all have or can develop resilience. But most importantly is the “Fuck Off Fund”. I love this piece. We need to develop the resources that will allow us to walk out when we need to. My husband #1 was emotionally abusive… When I chose to leave, I had to take out a loan! So, now, it is essential to always have an exit capacity. Taking care of our financial resources gives us POWER.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. mriana says:

    I agree with much of what you said. My body belongs to me and no one else. I may share my body with my husband, but it’s still mine, not his.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Diane G, says:

    Completely agree! And you are so right about the prevalence, yes, near inevitability of sexual attacks women will face in their lifetimes. Too many women, esp.young women, are buying into the victim culture. I tell my daughter that it’s much healthier to get mad rather than sad. Stand up for yourself, speak out, and go on with your life. (While at the same time acknowledging that emotional turmoil is perfectly natural when under and after attack.)

    Liked by 1 person

  8. jjtoner says:

    Brilliant article. The traumatised victim is a stereotype.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Reblogged this on Life Weavings and commented:
    To add anything to this would be to diminish it’s importance, so I will simply and continually support the message: “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.”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Charlie says:

    If I remember my European history correctly there was (and still is) a stark difference between the peasants and the titled people. Titled men could only force themselves upon peasant women not upon ladies of the aristocracy, their peers or their sisters and cousins. Titled men were free to ‘take’ any peasant woman without even a seduction, just take her.
    This was one of the rules of chivalry. Ladies in their own class must be treated ever so kindly though.
    The peasants were essentially a different species. This is also how they justified slavery. Slaves were not ‘human’ as were their owners.

    Like

  11. Michele says:

    At eight years old, it kills/breaks a part of your spirit, I’m fifty nine, my spirit is still broken. It’s hard to find the joy, I once had.

    Like

  12. bscritic says:

    I fully agree with your important point. I’m also a psychologist. Treatment for all types of PTSD can be very effective. Trauma, including sexual assault, can have life-long effects, but those effects are not inevitable, and survivors are not permanently damaged. No trauma, even rape, defines a person.
    Thank you for another well-written article.

    Like

  13. Colleen says:

    I, too, am a successful, married middle aged professional woman. As a child I suffered terrible sexual abuse for years (aged 5 to 11) by a sadistic uncle (who went on to serve 13 years for rape of another woman) and despite the outward happy person I present to the world, I am still very much broken in many ways. I suffer self image problems, have deep intimacy issues and have used weight as a shield to prevent unwanted sexual attention my whole adult life, all things I learned later in life that are fairly common to sexual abuse survivors. I know I am not the only one, as once I had enough courage to talk about it with friends, I was shocked to hear how many had also suffered sexual assault at the hands of their fathers, other family members, trusted friends, etc… Your article seems to say that we victims should not “assume” we will suffer scars for life (and by implication that our trauma is somehow just a self-fulfilling prophesy we chose). You leave out that often responses to certain triggers are not conscious choices, but completely involuntary. That doesn’t mean we lack “girl power”. The truth is that this is a vastly under-reported crime precisely because men (sometimes even women), police, family members and the entire justice system often minimize and deny the impact of sexual assault and they SHOULD know this can be a lifetime sentence for many women. Having you minimize it here just feels like one more person conveying “See-the unwanted touch of the “almighty penis” isn’t that bad- women can just choose to move on”. Great. One of the most powerful things the Stanford letter did was to allow people to see just how traumatizing it was for her. She did it in a way that other people could picture it and put themselves in her shoes. Most of us are not so eloquent. Try encouraging more of that, please.

    Like

    • Hi Colleen –
      It wasn’t my intent to diminish or in any way invalidate your experience or that of many woman who carry the burdens and scars of past trauma–or the very individual journey of healing that can feel complete or can leave residual damage no matter how much a woman may work at it.
      I just want people to stop assuming that this is necessarily the experience of all women who are violated, because this is such a damaging message to send to young women. Trauma and wounding vary tremendously. Not all assaults are alike, and no, not all women are able to move on without lasting pain that they must then find ways to live around. Some are, though, and when that is possible it is a gift.
      I honor your courage in speaking the truth of your own lived experience, because I know that, as careful as I tried to be, there are other women who will have felt invalidated by my words, as you did.

      Like

  14. Honey Badger says:

    I have been raped six times. I have done several types of therapy. I am currently in therapy. The last time I was raped was in the military by a third class petty officer. I was retaliated against, my career was ruined. I was emotionally abused by chain of command. I could not get away from the people that were constantly abusing me. I was told over and over again that I am nothing more then a walking mattress that deserved to be raped. I was told this when I was 11, 19, 23, and 25. Then in 2013, I was told once again that I do not matter when he sent me an email straight up admitting to raping me and NCIS still did nothing. I want nothing to do with being a woman. I want nothing to do with men. I want nothing to do with sex or sexuality. So, please do not tell me that I am not screwed up for life when it is a truth of mine that I am. After being raped six times and society telling me over and over an over and over and over and over again that what these men did to me was perfectly fine do not sit there and tell me that I am not screwed up. I have Complex PTSD, have been suicidal, have cut and burned myself several times. I am afraid of being raped again. I have nightmares, flashbacks, cry and the memories do not stop.

    Like

    • Honey Badger says:

      I do not like my body. I do not want to be in my body. I have been changed forever and this is my truth.

      Like

    • Your experience sounds like a nightmare. And I’m very sorry that my article felt like it invalidated your reality or your strength and courage, because that wasn’t all my intent. I was in no way trying to say that a sexual assault *can’t* be damaging for life, just that it is not for every woman. Like any trauma, the level of wounding and scarring depend on aspects of the situation and also varies from victim to victim. Repeated experiences of assault like you have experienced add damage to damage. I broke my knee very badly, and with the help of a skilled surgeon I am able to walk and run without pain. But I can’t imagine that would be the case if it were broken six times. My heart goes out to you.

      Like

      • Honey Badger says:

        Thank you for writing your article and your response. I just wanted you to know that it is completely different when it happens repeatedly. When they do nothing even after there is a clear email and after having my career ruined, finding out that he has his career still, been promoted, sent to another command to continue this and once again told since I am a woman that this is fine. Also, it’s a lot different when you cannot get away from the retaliation and abuse. The pain is very deep and has affected everything in my life.

        Like

  15. As if the sexual assaults themselves weren’t bad enough, you got hit over and over by people you turned to for help or justice or protection. What a horror.

    Like

    • Gunther says:

      Yeah, especially when the American military claims that they are the last bastion of good old American values and are always crying about the declining moral standards in this country when many of these service members help contribute to the decline in the first place whether they are in the military or leave the military.

      Like

  16. Pingback: I’m reading: Native American Cultural Appropriation Is a War of Meaning | Sioux Chef | Woven Tale Press | Mr. Hornaday’s War | Rape Culture | lara

  17. David Miller says:

    I agree that telling someone that they will be damaged/destroyed by an negative event in their life can be a bit self-fulfilling. In the case of rape, victims should be encouraged to be resilient and perpetrators should be prosecuted fully.

    Like

  18. Gunther says:

    “Titled men could only force themselves upon peasant women not upon ladies of the aristocracy, their peers or their sisters and cousins. Titled men were free to ‘take’ any peasant woman without even a seduction, just take her.”

    What I find ironic is that people from one ethnic/racial treated people from other ethnic/racial group as inferiors except when it comes to rape or prostitution. It begs the question, if you are treating a group as inferiors, then why do you rape them or prostitute with them since you feel that it will poison and contaminated your “superior racial/ethnic” DNA gene pool if you had married them instead? You look at how the Japanese feel that all the other Asian groups were inferior; however, did not stop them from establishing sex brothels using Korean women instead of their own women during the Second World War. Some of our slave plantation owners had illicit affairs with their black female slaves despite the fact that they were viewed as racially inferior. You also look at how many bigot American white males had sex with various racial/ethnic women when they were stationed in overseas since the end of World War II. Yeah, these women were only good enough to have sex with you when you had raped them or they were prostitutes; however, they were still not good enough to be treated as human beings with equal rights like you.

    Like

  19. Anne Harvey says:

    I don’t believe it is possible to state that not all women are permanently scarred for life without inherently demeaning the many who are. While I agree that the notion of a woman being “damaged goods” is cruel and medieval, the facts are that life is never the same after a rape. It changes you, it hurts you terribly and it teaches you that violence and strength will always win out. You are correct that women have always lived and thrived within the specter of rape. It is to our extreme credit that we do.

    Like

  20. Gunther says:

    It is amazing how some people in the tech industry complain about the lack of skilled workers in their professions and about the decline of morals in society; however, these same people don’t want to help and invest in people to give them good paying tech jobs and rather keep these people as sex slaves and help contribute to the decline of morals in society. Disgusting.

    Like

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