Trigger warning- sexual assault
I was raped when I was fourteen years old. Before the assault I was a socially engaged kid, marching in “Take Back the Night” rallies, listening to And Difranco and Tori Amos, solemnly absorbing the rape stories they sang and understanding their experiences weren’t universal, but at the same time, they were. I thought I was protected from rape by my awareness of it. I thought I knew how not to get raped.
It turns out there is no foolproof “How Not To Get Raped” education, just as there’s no foolproof way not to be struck by lightning, or with cancer.
At fourteen years old I believed I was complicit in my rape for a litany of reasons.
I was drinking. At a party. With boys.
I agreed to go to a second location.
I didn’t scream.
I didn’t fight back.
Because of this first list, a chain reaction began, compounding my self-blame and reaffirming it.
In the minutes after my assault, he started telling people our encounter was consensual, and I didn’t contradict this lie.
I didn’t tell my friends.
I didn’t tell my parents.
It snowballed from there. Because I had no support network to rely on who understood what had happened to me, I didn’t report my rape to the police.
I didn’t seek help for the rapid deterioration of my mental state.
I attempted suicide.
I dropped out of school.
None of these things meant I hadn’t been raped, but all of them repeated a story I’d been told by movies, television songs, music, and the news. In our culture, the assumption is nearly always the innocence of the assailant*, and that the accuser has ulterior motives. The narrative is, “If she was REALLY raped, she would have been beaten bloody, she would have screamed and fought back until she was physically subdued, she would have never been in the place doing the thing where she was and that she was doing when she was raped, she would have immediately gone to the police, she would have immediately sought justice.”
Sexual assault is routinely used for comedic relief in our media, and we adore “reformed sinners,” which is to say, rapists who go on to do impressive things in other areas of their lives. In the years before my assault I loved films like “Revenge of the Nerds,” which features a scene in which the main character rapes his love interest, and rather than a healthy response to this invasion, she falls in love with him.
If that wasn’t rape, it wasn’t hard to figure out that what happened to me wasn’t, either.
Only they both were.
The story I told myself about my rape again and again, for more than five years, was that I had royally messed up. That my rape was my fault for all the reasons listed about. It took being raped a second time for me to begin to understand how little agency I actually had in the process.
This public preference for known assailants over alleged victims, for preemptively forgiving and forgetting rather than ever seeking justice, is Rape Culture. It’s all around us, from the structure of our legal system to the way we advertise deodorant. Our whole society is bent towards discrediting victims and excusing even the most egregious assaults as “mistakes” or, in the case of Brock Turner who was caught red-handed assaulting a woman behind a dumpster, “twenty minutes of action.”
It’s one of the reasons it’s hard for survivors to come forward. They know that if they speak up they will become the enemy of a public narrative, the story that well-liked men are noble and strong, and women who say otherwise are bitches and sluts.
Rape culture is when GOP State Rep Todd Akin said, “If [a rape] is inevitable, just relax and enjoy it.” It’s when the president of the United State’s lawyer defends him against accusations of spousal rape with the fortunately false response that marital rape isn’t a crime.
I live with the repercussions of being raped every day, with chronic anxiety and PTSD and physical health concerns that stem from my sexual assaults. And beyond that, I, and every survivor of sexual violence in this country lives with the constant reminders from our culture of our relative value. Every day we have to fight the story told to us, that our assaults were our fault, and that the lives of our assailants are more valuable than ours.
By speaking out about what happened to us, we can change the story. By telling these stories, we can help future victims understand they are not to blame, and they deserve the care and justice we never got for ourselves.
*with the exception of white women accusing men of color.
Lea Grover is a writer, blogger, and speaker in Chicago. She published her first poem at nine years old, a sonnet inspired by Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain.” Through adolescence she was often included in poetry journals, but began studying prose after admission to college at the age of fourteen. While following her polymath interests through seven universities and several years of national service, she continued to publish poems and short stories inspired by her observation of human nature and the complex struggles facing people she encountered while working for the Chicago Housing Authority, living in an artist community, and as a vocal survivor of repeated sexual trauma.
In 2010 she began a parenting blog, Becoming SuperMommy. Her lyrical and approachable style attracted a dedicated readership base, and opened the door to her freelancing career.
Lea writes for The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Esquire, Good Housekeeeping, The Establishment, Cosmopolitan, Chicago Parent, Yahoo!, Scary Mommy, YourTango, and the many corners of the internet. Her writing is featured in a dozen anthologies and textbooks, including “Listen To Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We’re Saying Now.” She speaks about sex positivity parenting and on behalf of the RAINN Speakers Bureau.