Respecting the Victims: How to Discuss Rape, Address Survivors, and Dismantle Your Privilege

Last summer, I wrote a very passionate plea to those who have not experienced rape, asking them to respect those of us who have. It was a very personal post, inspired directly by the disrespect, assaults, gaslighting, and threats I’d received in the weeks leading up to it. I don’t retract any of my words in that post, but I would like to revisit the issue, and bring about some new points that I was too upset to reflect upon the first time around.

First, let me make this very clear: This post is a feminist critique of rape culture, which means that I will focus on the rape of women, at the hands of men. This is not only because this is how I was raped, it’s not just that this is the most common manifestation of rape, but also because that frequency is the direct result of rape culture, a social consciousness that actively harms all women.

As I’ve said before, I am a survivor of rape. I have never openly discussed the details of my rape, and I doubt I ever will. Conjecture over those details is derailing, belittling, and misogynistic. If you wish to dismiss my experiences because you believe my rape wasn’t violent enough, wasn’t traumatizing enough, or that I simply wasn’t raped enough, congratulations: You are a complete scumbag. It is not your place to demand that a victim share such details; a rape victim deserves respect as a victim, full stop, whether she was assaulted after several drinks by her boyfriend, or whether she was drug into a dark ally by multiple assailants on her walk home from school. Rape is rape. You do not get to pass judgment on a victim based on how she was victimized, or how she responded to that violation. And yes, this extends to fellow rape victims; all power to you if you weren’t traumatized by your attack, but you do not have the right to expect or demand others to respond as you did.

All of that said, there are some details I feel free to discuss. One such detail is that it took me years to speak out about this, because I actively repressed it for most of my adult life. It was too much for me to handle, at a time when I was already emotionally overwhelmed, and so my brain decided to just not think about it, ever. This only changed because finally, my life reached a state of calm that let me feel safe enough to open that hidden door. But, safe as I felt to make that first step, waking that sleeping dragon was devastating. It was like I’d just been raped that day. All those emotions were fresh, my nerves were raw, and my body shivered and crawled with a physical sensation of violation. I completely shut down, I took off from work, I pulled away from everything and withdrew to privately struggle with this revelation.

During the months following that acknowledgement, I was very easily triggered. I was struggling with overwhelming fear, mistrust, and the resulting delicacy of mind and emotion. I shared this in my last entry explaining how I struggled through recovery, through triggers, through the seemingly innocuous events in life that chipped away at my sense of safety. Because of this, I’ve had critics accuse me of being “too sensitive,” of being “ridiculous” and “crazy” and “way too fucked up.” So, I’d like to address these comments, and other criticisms held against me, and discuss how deeply troubling such objections are:

1. “No one should be this fucked up by their rape. You’re just crazy and need therapy.”

Well, first, I already receive therapy. Initially I sought help through a center devoted to victims of domestic and sexual violence, though I’ve now transitioned to a general practitioner. I’ve made great strides in recovery, and am now much more capable of handling triggers, emotionally taxing encounters, and just daily life. So if you’re truly concerned for my mental health, rest easy: I’m pluggin’ along.

Yet, I know these sorts of criticism aren’t about whether or not I’m in therapy, whether or not I’m a steady, sane, happy person. These people aren’t hoping I’ll get help, they’re gaslighting me, and delegitimizing my experiences with bigotry. Using “crazy” as an insult–particularly when tied with such gaslighting–is ableist to its very core. “Crazy” is a relative term, and if it wasn’t so stigmatized, there would be a lot of people calmly admitting, “Yeah, I’m crazy.” I don’t wish to support that stigma, so I don’t flinch at the possibility of clinical diagnosis, but just at the bigotry inherent in the way that word is used. Just like I fully admit to being queer, I wouldn’t want someone writing off my experiences with homophobia because I’m “just a dyke” and so I must be blowing things out of proportion. This is not an acceptable way to approach discussions of minority oppression.

Secondly, I’d like to look at the horrifying notion that anyone would deem themselves worthy of declaring anyone “too fucked up” by their trauma. Sadly, this happens all the time. Parents who lose a child are given a couple months for grieving, then are told to “move on,” and stop letting their lives be destroyed by their tragedy. People struck with sudden disability are given a modicum of sympathy before people burst out with demands that they “not let their disability define them.” People seem to think there is an arbitrary time limit for how long you’re allowed to be affected by tragedy, and a measurable cap on how badly it’s allowed to affect you. But real people don’t work that way, and even if you have lived through a similar experience, you do not have the right to demand that anyone else process, accept, and cope with their tragedy as you did yours.

2. “You’re just a misandrist. Why don’t you talk about male victims? It’s not right to ignore them.”

No, I don’t talk about male victims, and if you don’t understand why, then you shouldn’t be here. I have never said that men are not victims of rape. I have never said that women cannot be rapists. Yet people read what I do say, somehow infer those falsehoods anyway, and hold them aloft as conclusive proof that I don’t care about men. Do you write to Cat Fancy to call them cynophobes, and demand they devote half of their pages to pooches? Or do you understand that magazines, like blogs, often have a specific topic, and write to a specific audience? I wonder if I could publish a crochet blog without being accosted by angry knitters.

Also, as you may have noticed, I write from personal experience. This is a social justice blog rooted in my individual experiences as an oppressed person. Male rape is not something that has impacted my life, and so I have no personal experience or anecdotes to build from. Perhaps someday I’ll write a teardown of the misogyny that dismisses male rape (as that misogyny affects me, too), but that day is not today, and if you’re on pins and needles waiting for it, I highly suggest switching to a more comfortable seat.

3. “I’ve been raped, and I’m not as upset as you are. Get over it.”

I’m truly happy that you weren’t as traumatized by your rape. I say that with absolute sincerity, because I don’t wish torment upon victims. But your own status as victim or survivor does not give you any authority to pass judgment upon others who have suffered similar experiences. There is no room for Oppression Olympics when we’re talking about individuals, about the delicacies of trauma recovery. There are women who have handled rape with far greater ease than I have, and there are women whose struggles dwarf my own. All responses are legitimate, regardless of where they fall on the coping spectrum. All aspects of life are approached in different ways by different people; there is no reason why trauma recovery should be any different. You never have the right to tell a victim to “get over” their victimization.

4. “If you’re that easily triggered, you just shouldn’t interact with people at all.”

First, you seem to be having some trouble with the SJ basics, so let me help you with that. You’re welcome.

Second, this argument is ignorant at best. I should confine myself to my basement without an internet connection because I have the unmitigated gall to be recovering from trauma? Do you say that to women who have suffered stillbirths? Widows and widowers? Victims of gun violence? Any survivor of severe trauma has some kind of trigger, and it is ridiculous to demand that they isolate themselves, when the compassionate answer would be that we as a society stop being such giant fucking assholes. I try extremely hard to not say or do bigoted, oppressive things. Sometimes I fail. But I keep trying, because I don’t think it is the responsibility of those I am privileged over to take my crass bullshit in stride. It is my responsibility to try and be a better person. Join me?

So much of this boils down to the very simple issue of respect. Show some sympathy, some empathy, and when in doubt, tread lightly. It’s not that hard to stop telling rape jokes, honest. And people won’t find you less funny for it, as you’ll now free up time for fresher material. Hell, it’s an election year–if you can’t come up with a good Obama/Romney joke, you’re just not that funny to start.

Continue that respect linguistically, and expand your vocabulary beyond the R-word. By using “rape” out-of-context, you minimize the reality of the word. You’re taking a word loaded with horror to try and shock your audience, to convey that what you’re speaking of is full of so much absolute destruction that it bears direct comparison to rape. But your very motivation here should tell you how inappropriate this is. If you use the word “rape” to demonstrate how something is unequivocally horrifying, why can’t you understand that rape itself is devastating enough that victims shouldn’t have to hear about it all the time?

Simply put: Rape is not a metaphor. You cannot rape an inanimate object, and nothing is raping you with its high prices or stringent standards. “Rape” is not a synonym for “dominate” or “destroy,” though rape victims do suffer those indignities. Rape is not a funny threat to make against someone who antagonizes you.

Rape is a hate crime. It’s a manifestion of misogyny, violence, and hatred that far too many women are forced to suffer. It’s a crime granted social acceptance through a culture that blames the victim, and rarely punishes her attacker.

With this in mind, I demand sensitivity from people when they discuss rape. And this goes beyond “please don’t make rape jokes,” though I do believe such things are tasteless. What I’m asking for is sensitivity toward victims, sensitivity that allows them to feel safe in voicing their opinions. In all discussions of oppression, it’s the privileged person’s responsibility to let the oppressed minority have their voice. This means, in discussion of rape culture–a construct that is built utterly and completely with the bricks of misogyny–men do not speak over women. It means in discussion of rape, non-victims do not speak over victims. I may disagree with a woman’s opinions on rape, I may think her experience shouldn’t be held as an example for how all victims should respond to their attacks, but I will never demand that her own opinion about her own rape should be silenced. Every victim deserves a voice, though that voice should never demand conformity or silence from other victims. It’s not really that complicated: Victims should have a voice. Period.

Non-victims simply don’t have the perspective on this that we survivors do. They’ve not had to struggle through the violation of safety, trust, and bodily autonomy. They’ve not lost sleep from flashbacks, lived through the paranoid hyper-vigilance, or struggled through the repetitive nightmares. They’ve not had to rebuild their sexuality after having it used as a weapon against them. They’ve not had to suffer through rape kits, disbelieving police officers, skeptical friends, and public condemnation.

And no, a victim does not have to suffer through each these steps to deserve respect, to deserve a say on the subject of rape. Not every victim is the same, not every victimization is the same. There is no right or wrong way to be victimized. But there is right and wrong in the debate about rape, and that moral judgment relies entirely upon respect. It is right to allow all victims a voice, even if you disagree with them. It is wrong to dismiss, silence, gaslight, or ridicule a victim because you handled things differently, or because you think they’ve been too weak.

There is no victim/survivor dichotomy. There is no one reaction that makes you a cowardly victim, and no other specific reaction that makes you a brave survivor. You are who you are, and only you can decide where you fall on that spectrum of being. Reacting with strength does not make you better than the woman who crumbles under the horror of her violation. Being swallowed by your pain does not make you less than a woman who picks herself up and moves on. Exactly one person is wrong in this scenario, and that is the rapist.

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About bunnika

shout at the brick wall; if it doesn't hear you, shout louder
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3 Responses to Respecting the Victims: How to Discuss Rape, Address Survivors, and Dismantle Your Privilege

  1. Berisha says:

    Editor’s Note: This comment will be moved soon, but I wanted the discussion available here for the original poster. Trigger warnings for this comment: RAPE, RACISM.

    It seems to me the so called Feminist movement these days is way too obsessed with rape. As terrible as rape is, it is not the only problem women face or the world in general faces. It may seem that way to white upper class women who have faced little to know adversity in their life. Ironically the obsessing on rape I see most “radical” Feminists do as the one and only issue isn’t very “radical” at all. Its a rather moderate agenda to demand a world where there just isn’t rape. It kinda lets men out there who don’t commit rape but still have a lot of sexist notions off the hook thats the vast vast majority of men. And to be honest the ultra Feminists do seem like they are trying to implicate all men or at least say we are all suspects. I was just born, I am not responsible for a society with a long history of male supremacy, or for some other guy who commits a rape. I am far from being some kind of sniveling MRA, I just went to college and I saw this wing of Feminism and its delusional path. Many of the young women in those classes actually went around thinking they are magic goddesses. Rape is a terrible crime but it is already illegal and a lot of arrests are made, including in many cases of innocent people. Holding a sign and yelling “fuck rape” or telling me I shouldn’t rape as if I was a rapist (or I was at least thinking about it) just because I am a human being who looks like the kind of person who probably has a penis isn’t going to change anything. I think we have to attack the cultural and economic roots of a male dominant system while also attacking a racist system and a system based on the exploitation of one class by another. I for one am not in the mood for upper class white women who think they are all so oppressed and all men, even like a homeless man of color who can’t get a job because he was forced through the criminal justice system and what the hell raped in prison is more privileged than you. Gender does not primarily define who we are in my opinion, and I see a disturbing trend on the part of some Feminists to return to gender essentialism.

    • bunnika says:

      There is some stuff in this comment that hedges on violating my comment policy, but there is a lot that deserves discussion, so I’m temporarily approving it and replying to it here, but will have it transferred both as a text dialogue and a screenshot within a week, so as not to leave potentially triggering material in what is specifically a safe-space post.

      As terrible as rape is, it is not the only problem women face or the world in general faces.

      No, it’s not. And it is not the only problem women face that I–or most feminists–discuss. But it is glossed over by society at large, and thus it very much deserves the attention and discussion it receives.

      It may seem that way to white upper class women who have faced little to know adversity in their life.

      You’re talking to a poor, queer, wheelchair-using single mother. Yes, I’m white, and the feminist movement is notoriously horrible about excluding the experiences of women of color (and trans*women, and other minority classes of women). But because I’m white, I’m not really qualified to tackle those problems. Just as I don’t want men telling me what I should care about in feminism, I’m sure women of color don’t want me telling them what they should care about as women of color. I do my best to be inclusive in my feminist issues (and those other minority women are actually at even greater risk of rape than the “upper class white women,” so that argument falls flat here), but I will not speak to the WOC experience of feminism, because I do not and cannot live it. My job as a white person is to shut the fuck up when WOC are talking about their issues as WOC, and to pass on their words as I can.

      It kinda lets men out there who don’t commit rape but still have a lot of sexist notions off the hook thats the vast vast majority of men.

      You might have noticed that I take these men to task quite often. If you haven’t, I suggest browsing my blog more.

      And to be honest the ultra Feminists do seem like they are trying to implicate all men or at least say we are all suspects. I was just born, I am not responsible for a society with a long history of male supremacy, or for some other guy who commits a rape.

      I’ve tackled why this is an inappropriate response to feminist criticism before, and again, I suggest reading further in my blog to see why this is not an appropriate avenue of discussion.

      Rape is a terrible crime but it is already illegal and a lot of arrests are made, including in many cases of innocent people.

      You are very wrong about this, and again, I suggest browsing more of my blog, especially the comments in this post for statistical confirmation of your misinformation.

      I think we have to attack the cultural and economic roots of a male dominant system while also attacking a racist system and a system based on the exploitation of one class by another.

      Then you’d realize we are in agreement, if you read a little more of my blog.

      I for one am not in the mood for upper class white women who think they are all so oppressed and all men, even like a homeless man of color who can’t get a job because he was forced through the criminal justice system and what the hell raped in prison is more privileged than you.

      Then I think attacking the below-poverty-level queer cripple was not the best choice on your part. A man is more privileged than a woman based on gender, just as a white person is more privileged than a person of color based on race. Kyriarchy is complicated and real, and you’ve got no reason to argue with me about this. You’re taking offense to having one privilege called out, while demanding that all other privileges be acknowledged. That’s not how this works. Every minority has the right to call out the privilege of those who oppress them, whether it be a woman calling out male privilege, a POC calling out white privilege, a trans* person calling out cis privilege, etc. But talking about one specific privilege does not equal a denial of all the others. That logic would say I don’t care about poor people, or queer people, or disabled people, even though I am myself all of those things. You are looking at this from a very narrow perspective, and you need to realize that no discussion of oppression can be all-inclusive. I talk about what I can, when I have the spoons for it, and when I have the experience to discuss it. It’s all any minority can do, and to demand otherwise would be to silence all discussion of equality.

  2. robertsloan2 says:

    You’re cool. This is your story. I’m with you, friend.

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