Carelessness does not make sexual assault an expected outcome any more than self-protection necessarily prevents it.
often think about the times I wasn’t raped.
Once, in high school, I left a drunken party with a handsome bad boy to go to his mom’s house to spend the night. She was out of town. He and I had been flirting for weeks, and we’d already made out once. I got into bed with him that night and we started tipsily making out again. I can’t remember what items of clothing I took off or didn’t, how far we went. When I said I didn’t want to have sex, he said OK. He rolled over and went to sleep. He didn’t rape me.
My boyfriend of that era was big and muscled, a football player, a bruiser, really, and a couple years older than me. We’d been quite hot for each other. We’d steamed up the windows of his pickup truck on many occasions. We’d pawed at each other on couches and floors. He’d broken my hymen with his thick fingers while pressing me against the kitchen cabinets one afternoon when we were alone in my house. I didn’t notice the blood until later, and I was thrilled by it. And then he graduated. Off to college he went, on a football scholarship. We talked long distance. We sent each other letters. I mailed him the pamphlets I’d gotten about birth control from Family Planning because I thought I might be ready but we needed to discuss this first. We discussed. Then I drove down to see him. We went to a fraternity party where we drank and drank and drank some more before we went back to his room, vacated by his roommate so we could be alone. But I ended up not wanting to have intercourse—not on that overnight visit or any of the others. We slept nearly naked next to each other without consummation. He didn’t rape me.
Between sophomore and junior year in college, I hitchhiked from Philadelphia to San Francisco and then up to Seattle with a different boyfriend. The following spring, he and I bummed rides around Europe. Through it all, he was obsessed with the danger of me being raped. He sat tense and rigid next to each new guy we met. He measured every man’s glance at me. At night he awakened from dreams in which I was being gang banged against my will by truckers. Once in the predawn he admitted these scenarios bore some relation to pornography he liked, which made him uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable, too, in my dual role of lifelong wanna-be adventurer and bearer of a vagina that needed to be protected with a special-service urgency. But although we hopped in and out of dozens of strange men’s vehicles and sometimes slept among newly met men on floors of the homes of friends-of-friends who let us crash, I was not so much as groped on those trips, let alone raped.
I attributed this to the presence of the boyfriend, who wore about him an air of menace that made him desirable as a partner in rough travel. But sometimes that energy was directed at me, and eventually it manifested physically. He kicked me in the stomach. He punched me in the arm. A week or so after that bruise had faded I snuck away from him in Barcelona, hiding in the train station until it was time to board, slouching in my seat until the train started moving. Heading back to England where I had friends, I rode overnight in a compartment filled with mostly men. I disembarked in Paris and bumbled across the city to find the bus that would take me to the ferry. No one tried to rape me, as I’d half-expected they would without my boyfriend’s protection. In fact, people were kind.
A few years later, I set off on my own for a long trip to Southeast Asia. I had decided to travel there instead of Central America because I gathered I would be safer as a woman alone. Despite the increased odds of safe passage in this region, the Lonely Planet guidebook was filled with safety suggestions for solo women travelers, notes about things like examining locks and checking for peepholes before signing on to rent a room. I ended up breaking all of them, along with many of the implicit universal rules of rape avoidance. I stayed in accommodations that were not secure. I shared beers and whiskey and weed and opium with strange men. I shared rooms with fellow travelers who were male. I shared beds with men with whom I didn’t want to have intercourse. I stopped moves towards intercourse when I had planned to have it because I insisted on condoms and there were none in the room.
One of those instances stands out. A handsome man approached me in the post office, where I was waiting in a long queue to make a call. After we chatted, I accepted his invitation to meet him back at his hostel. After we shared a beer in the lobby, I accepted his invitation to go up to his room. We took off our clothes and started going at it. He did not have a condom, and I refused to go forward. He was annoyed but tried to be patient.
“What are you afraid of?” He asked, “AIDS or getting pregnant?” He told me he’d been tested for HIV repeatedly. He said that in Sweden, where he claimed he’d been going to school, they had a male pill to prevent conception and that he was on it.
“You’ve got to be joking,” I said. We had an argument about why I was sure he was lying. He lost. He sighed and went off to get a condom. He was a liar and a con man willing to impregnate me and put my health at risk, but you know what? I won the bet I made with myself when I went up to his room: He was not a rapist.
Most men aren’t. The clearest study I can find on the matter estimates that six percent of all American men have attempted or completed a rape—or, to be more precise, an average of 5.8 rapes apiece.
But when you’re talking about something you absolutely don’t want to happen, six percent of a total is a lot. After reading the anecdotes I’ve listed, are you surprised that I’ve never met up with one of that number? That I’ve never been raped?
So am I, sometimes. Thus the counting them off on my fingers—all the times it could have happened to me but didn’t, based on conditions that common knowledge holds can increase the odds or blur the lines: drunkenness, leading a guy to expect, having a change of mind, introducing an unexpected condition, being vulnerable, being promiscuous, being beholden, being bold, being broke, being on the road, being a lone woman among men, being a girl in the world at all. (Forty-two percent of female rape victims were raped for the first time before they were 18.)
Do you think it’s been stupid to do the things I’ve done, even if that’s not something you’d ever say out loud?
I count that off, too: what people would think about me if I’d been raped and said so. Asking for it, if they’re not enlightened. Stupid. Risk-taking, with eyebrows raised. That’s why I never… with an intake of breath. In some of the instances, maybe a But is that even really rape? And a thousand versions of Oh my God that’s terrible, but what did she expect?
Although I know better, I might have said some of those things to myself, too. As I moved from adolescence to adulthood my awareness of rape increased, but early beliefs are hard to dislodge.
Sometime during high school I shifted from thinking that rape was by definition a rare and random violent attack to understanding it also as a form of bullying brought on by perceived sluttiness. Then I went to college, where I was introduced to the concept of rape as a commonplace crime that all men, given the right conditions, were prone to commit and to deny or justify with society’s support. I saw plenty of evidence that confirmed the existence of a rape culture, but the notion of every-man-a-rapist ran counter to my instincts and lifestyle and produced a cognitive dissonance so great it sometimes gave me nightmares and caused me physical pain. I got a headache as I strained to guard my body while also opening it up to pleasure. I got a skin ache when I had to decide between trusting myself and playing it safe. And when I heard yet another story of a friend or acquaintance being raped by someone we knew, I got a muscle ache from knowing I would stand silently by at a mutually attended party or nod when he crossed my path instead of attacking him as my body’s response to the news of any sex crime urged me to do.
In college I had a boyfriend who had a sticker on his guitar that claimed “You can’t rape a .38.” The saying resonated for me. I wasn’t about to go out and buy a gun, but I did want to wield a weapon for my own protection, to fight back against how powerless I felt about sexual assault. Over the years, I’ve gathered talismans that I believed could allow me to do as much as I wanted in the world without getting raped, starting with remaining a virgin longer than I probably would have otherwise. After I gave that one up, I saw my shield and weapon in some combination of straightforwardness and self-confidence, the big boyfriend, the youthful binge drinking that taught me to hold my liquor, my disinclination towards macho-type men, and my good taste in friends. I’m a survivor of child sexual assault, and for a long time I told myself that my early experience had gained me a hard-won armor, a sort of fool-me-once instinct that served me well as a sexually curious teenager and adult. Good job! I’ve congratulated myself on occasion. I’ve been known to count off all the times I haven’t been raped as proof that my strategies have worked.
But my methods required me to remain alert to the omnipresence of rape, and in so doing my belief in the ability of a metaphorical (or an actual) .38 to avert invasion has been problematized, to say the least. The more information I gained, the more research I did, the more stories I heard from my friends and acquaintances, the less likely it seemed that I had protected myself. Virginity as some kind of shield? Or the string of serious boyfriends? Many women’s first experience of intercourse is through rape, and most women are raped by their intimate partners and in their own homes. My history of abuse as something that provided me with special radar? Child sex abuse survivors are actually more likely to be targeted by predators, not less. My choice of a frat-free campus and arty milieus? As it turns out, rape happens within those environs as well. There are no cultural signifiers that mark someone as not a rapist. Cool kids can be rapists too. In the face of these facts, my talismans have ended up looking about as powerful as a horseshoe hammered above the door. They were superstitions, not much more. Mostly I’ve just been lucky enough not to run into a rapist, not to have mistakenly trusted an ex or boyfriend or friend or acquaintance or stranger who turned out to be one. Lucky enough not to have had one break into my house in the night—the kind of scenario that accounts for only a small percentage of rapes but that does sometimes happen, as it did to my neighbor a few years ago.
In truth, the times I wasn’t raped don’t actually correlate to what appears on my personal list of didn’t-happens, which represent instances when I stepped outside the boundaries of respectability as most people around me understood them. Instead, the could-have-beens are countless and most of them are mundane. In light of the statistics and the anecdotes I’ve collected, they include every time I’ve been alone in the presence of a man or men as well as times when I haven’t been alone, too. (My neighbor was lying beside her sleeping daughter when the rapist attacked her.) When I realize this, I experience a kind of survivor’s guilt. Why not me? It makes no sense. Others’ stories sink into my skin and cause me a fury of panic, despair, and defiance.
Yet the stories I tell myself about all the times I wasn’t raped can serve a purpose beyond congratulating myself on my instincts or nervously counting my luck. They can show how normal it is not to rape someone, even for men with a lack of restraint or morals, such as the boyfriend who became violent and the man who lied about being on birth control. No matter what the situation is, a typical human male does not try to stick his penis where it isn’t wanted into anyone at all. We’d all be better off if we’d quit implying that not raping under certain conditions is what’s unexpected. Instead of only looking at the actions and attitudes of girls and women as the basis for reducing sexual assault against them (which also contributes to the relative silence around the sexual assault of boys and men), let’s ask what the fuck is wrong with that six percent that commit the crime. Let’s insist more strongly as a society that they change.
We have started to do that to some degree, thanks to the work of enlightened law enforcement agencies and anti-rape activists. In Canada, a campaign called Don’t Be That Guy sought to educate men about rape and is credited with cutting the sexual assault rate by 10 percent. On campuses, instead of educators talking so much about what young women can do to protect themselves—keep their hand over their drink at parties, don’t sip from their cups beyond the point of mild inebriation—there is an increasing expectation that these institutions should talk more about what young men can do to help prevent assault. Yes, they can listen more carefully when a woman says no and not push sex when she’s unable to consent, but they should also accept wider responsibility for helping to thwart the relatively few in their midst whose intention is to overpower a woman’s will.
Sometimes I think about the time I came closest to experiencing rape. I was in eighth grade, at a make-out party in someone’s basement. Before the lights went out, I was presented with a choice of two boys to couple up with. I chose the bigger of the two because he was bolder in his 10-minute courtship. I’d already figured out I liked kissing, and he was pretty good at it. There was a moment when I thought this was going to be fun. But almost instantly he became octopus-armed. He had no interest in getting under my shirt; his hand went right down my pants. I pulled it out. He put it back in. I pulled it out. He stuck it down the back of my jeans and cupped my vulva. I tried to squirm away. He was on the wrestling team, and I felt like his vanquished opponent, although if this were an actual sport we would never have sparred because of our difference in weight classes. I fished his hand out of my pants again but it went right back down from another angle. His finger went up my vagina. Nothing had been there before. I vacated my body and laid as if dead.
When I wouldn’t talk to him after the lights went up, he looked at me with puppy dog eyes, as if genuinely hurt. When I wouldn’t accept the phone when he called, I could hear him through the handset sounding perplexed. After a couple attempts to reach me he quit trying.
What did he turn out like? I’ve often wondered. Was my body pinned underneath a rapist-in-training? What were his manuals? Did he ever get a clue, and if so, how? In high school he settled into a long-term relationship with a slight, gentle girl who did well in school. But that doesn’t mean anything.
My college boyfriend eventually gave me his sticker-embossed guitar. I still have it; it’s my guitar now, but I mostly leave it in my closet. A .38 would not be useful in preventing the vast majority of rapes. Where are you going to keep it when you’re naked in bed with the man who refuses to wear a condom? How are you going to find it if you’re so drunk you’re seeing double? How are you going to point it at your boyfriend, your coworker, or your friend’s fiancé when you’re so stunned by the turn in them that you can’t feel your arms?
I have a teenage son and I think it’s appropriate for him to start overhearing the discussions about sexual assault that my husband and I sometimes have. “But how can anyone know what the truth is if no one else is there?” he asked recently. “What if she says it happened but he says it didn’t?”
I explained that most of the time someone reports being sexually assaulted they are telling the truth. It’s difficult to pin down an exact statistic about the likelihood of false testimony, but I acknowledged that yeah, sometimes the accuser lies, or sometimes there is a disagreement not about what acts occurred but whether they constituted a rape.
“That’s why you have to be careful,” I told him. “You have to think twice about who you do what with. You have pay attention when a girl says she isn’t into it. You have to not try to take advantage. I hope that’s not something I even have to tell you—I know you’re a nice person—but you can help other guys make good decisions, too. You have to watch out.”
When the time comes for my younger daughter, I’ll give her a similar warning: Be careful; watch out. But I’ll also tell her not to hem herself in with fear, not to apologize for going as far out into the world as her heart calls her to.
With regard to rape, I hope that both my children have long lists of didn’t-happens, and no other kind.