You Want to Know What It’s Like to be Raped? Here You Go…
It’s to have your soul murdered.
It feels like someone taking a knife and stabbing your soul over and over until nothing is left but the bloody remnants of what was once self-worth and self-love. At least it felt that way for me.
I spent the next years trying to pick up the bloodied pieces of my self-worth while trying to not shame myself for being in such a state. It took me fourteen years to admit I couldn’t do it on my own.
The pain of rape has nothing to do with bumps or bruises, cuts or blood. The pain you experience from being raped doesn’t correlate to the number of cuts or punches or verbal threats to your life you received.
The pain rape causes you can last a lifetime. It’s remarkable how every rape can be unique, but every rape victim I’ve ever met, including me, struggles with the same issues months, years or even decades later. We develop different coping methods, but we show remarkable uniformity in the types of struggles we deal with.
What do we struggle with?
When someone rapes you, it’s not so much about the physical pain you feel. This is not to discount the experiences of people who have been severely wounded during rape but to acknowledge that many of the wounds of rape aren’t physical. Most rape victims disassociate and experience the whole rape like an out of body experience. Disassociation is a survival mechanism, natural to all humans. Sadly many rape victims stay disassociated for the rest of their life. They may fluctuate in the degree to which they disassociate; what was a tool for surviving their rape becomes a learned coping strategy.
For me, it meant I couldn’t feel things in the moment. People always remarked at how calm or cool I was, but it was because I had developed a way of living my life so that I was always somewhat removed from the experiences of my surroundings. At times it could be helpful as it was a way to numb pain but it also meant I couldn’t experience joy either. I was living my life with a glass wall between me and the rest of the world.
A Profound Loss of Trust & Sense of Normalcy
Your trust in the world and belief in right and wrong is shattered too, at least mine was. Before you were raped, you understood if you didn’t go down dark alleys at night you wouldn’t get raped. You knew rape happened, but you also knew it wouldn’t happen to you because you knew what a rapist looked like. In America that stereotype is a black or minority male or if a white male he would be covered with tattoos. You knew where rape happened too, in those dark alleys and dangerous looking places, so you just had to avoid those places.
Much of our society clings to this feeling that we can prevent rape because we know how to avoid it. We think we know what rapists look like and where rape happens. It’s why judges give clean-cut white male offenders lenient sentences because it couldn’t have really been rape or at least not a “bad rape” if he doesn’t look like a rapist. If our society actually started handing out equal sentences to all rapists a lot more clean-cut looking men and women would be behind bars. Our society would have to grapple with the idea that anyone can be a rapist, and that’s a pretty scary place to live.
My rape occurred at college, as many do, and I remember the feeling of excitement as we danced together. I was young and the idea that somebody might actually like me was completely new and exciting to me. I spent my high school struggling with self-image as many girls at that age do, so for someone to suddenly maybe like me was thrilling. I went back with him to his place thinking maybe we would kiss and lightly fool around and that was it. Maybe it would lead to a relationship, and he would even call me his girlfriend! I trusted him and why shouldn’t I? He didn’t have a knife; he seemed nice, no tattoos, we enjoyed dancing together. But what happened when I got to his place was not what the world told me was supposed to happen with a nice looking clean-cut young man who seemed interested in me.
My sense of trust and order in the world was shattered because now I couldn’t tell anymore who was good or bad and my world wasn’t safe or orderly anymore. Many rape victims struggle with a sense of hyperawareness. They are always on the alert and often startle easily. Rape taught me that the world didn’t abide by a sense of law and order and that the world was a random and dangerous place. I also learned that the nice normal course of life wasn’t to be mine anymore. Normal was a privilege that was no longer mine.
For years I carried with me a sense that I would be dead by 35 because that notion of a normal life sure didn’t fit me anymore. I’ve only seen this feeling of a shortened life expectancy mentioned as a PTSD symptom of rape a few times, but many rape victims I’ve spoken to have told me they carried a feeling like this or similar to this with them too.
Sadly, what is often seen as abnormal behavior to people who have not experienced abuse now seems like completely normal behavior to people who have experienced abuse. Their world has shifted in a way that people who haven’t experienced abuse can’t understand. It’s like looking at the world through two different lenses. Someone who’s never experienced abusive behavior might leave at the first inkling that someone could be an abuser, but if you have experienced abuse you say to yourself well that’s just how the world is, that is normal. Even more sadly, it means once you’ve been abused one time you are more prone to be abused again because you accept as normal behavior that would raise major alarm bells to someone else.
Loss of Self-Worth
Many rape victims struggle with a severe blow to their self-worth. If they don’t completely lose their self-worth, many often end up in a never-ending battle, struggling to maintain self-worth. Someone just treated you as less than human. They had no care for your feelings, for your fear or for the pain you experienced in the encounter you just had with them. They just treated you as an object to fulfill their need for power or control or dominance. That feeling of not even being worthy of being seen as a human being can stay with you forever. It stayed with me until I got professional help.
Many of us develop coping mechanisms to numb this profound feeling of the painful loss of self-worth. When you have no self-worth what you do have is self-hate and disgust. Alcohol, drugs, sex, or any other kind of high can numb you of the pain and disgust you feel for yourself. My body used to feel disgusting to me, it felt fleshy and gross, and I couldn’t look at it in the mirror. Severely restricting or controlling your food and your body can also give you a feeling of control, a feeling you lost when someone raped you.
How can we move forward?
We need to stop qualifying rape and qualifying pain. Not every painful experience is rape. Yes, some rapes cause more long-term physical and psychological damage than others, but that’s due to a myriad of factors including the strength of your support system, whether you’ve experienced past trauma, whether you were made to feel even worse by cops or loved ones, and so on.
But simply because you did not have the worst rape/sexual assault/sexual harassment/domestic violence experience that ever existed in history does not mean that your pain or experience is invalid.
If we keep qualifying our rapes with labels like “legitimate” or “not really rape,” we will just continue to let the majority of rapes go unreported because we will only focus on a very small percentage of the problem.
We need to stop pretending that rape only happens in dark places by men in hooded masks. The high rates of rape persist in our society because we refuse to face the reality of how prevalent rape is and how people who look like Brock Turner commit a lot of rapes in this country. Rapists come in all shapes, sizes and colors and we need to stop pretending that all rapists are black or brown or white men with tattoos or even male for that matter. Women rape too; my male survivor friends can tell you that.
We need to listen to and learn from survivors. While society may from time to time grapple with sexual assault, survivors struggle with these issues for years. Sadly instead of listening to and learning from survivors, society, facebook friends, co-workers, family members and the like often make it known they prefer survivors to just not talk about rape.
We need to stop accepting painful interactions, like the Aziz Ansari story, as normal experiences in our sexual relationships. If the end goal is healthy relationships, the beginning goal has to be treating each other as humans.
We also really need our society to learn that there are as many different reasons for why someone doesn’t tell anyone about their rape until years or decades later as there are different rapes. It can be shame, fear, denial, confusion, self-blame, memory loss; the list goes on. We need to stop punishing survivors for not speaking up right away. We need to work to hold rapists accountable even if the accusations come decades later because the damage a rape can cause can last just as long or longer.
I try to write about my experiences because I hope it will help society to understand rape and trauma better in the hope that one day there will be fewer rapes. I can’t speak for every survivor, so I’m guessing some will disagree with me. I can only write about my experiences, but I can say that I’ve met survivors all with different rape stories and when we share our struggles pretty much every survivor in the room pipes up, “Me too.”
April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month and today, Wednesday, April 25th is Denim Day. Denim Day is an international day of support for rape survivors. Peace Over Violence in Los Angeles is one of the leading organizations behind Denim Day. The Peace Over Violence website explains:
For the past 18 years, Peace Over Violence has run its Denim Day campaign on a Wednesday in April in honor of Sexual Violence Awareness Month. The campaign was originally triggered by a ruling by the Italian Supreme Court where a rape conviction was overturned because the justices felt that since the victim was wearing tight jeans she must have helped her rapist remove her jeans, thereby implying consent. The following day, the women in the Italian Parliament came to work wearing jeans in solidarity with the victim.
If you want to support survivors or learn more about sexual assault visit the Peace Over Violence website or look for a sexual assault or domestic violence crisis center near you.