If there’s been a theme to the national debate this week, it’s been talk about rape. More specifically, whether or not a woman who has been raped and becomes pregnant as a result has an option about whether or not she carries that pregnancy to term.
This is not a political blog. Heavens knows, there are enough of those out there. And today’s post is not a debate on abortion. Heaven knows, there is enough of that out there as well. It seems to me, however, that in this debate this week there hasn’t been enough discussion about what rape really is and what rape really means.
As a therapist who has worked with persons who are survivors of rape, this seems to me to be a potentially teachable moment.
While rape is a sexual act it is not a crime of passion. It is a crime of power. (One of the ways armies have traditionally asserted their control of a people is by raping the women. It is a tactic used to terrify people into submission.)
Rape is the ultimate expression of domination. Whether it is because she cannot fight him off or because she has reason to fear for her life, the woman cannot prevent the man from doing whatever he pleases to her body. It is violation of the most intimate sort. (I am well aware that men and boys are also victims of rape. However, for the obvious reasons of the context of this discussion I’ll be focusing on the experience of women.)
So one of the consequences of rape is a profound feeling of powerlessness. The woman does not have a choice about who invades her body.
Another aspect of rape is that it is a profoundly shaming crime. The rapist may humiliate and shame his victim. That’s part of the dominance. Because our bodies are wired the way in which they are wired and respond sexually to certain stimuli, a woman may actually experience physical pleasure even while being terrified. For most women, this is a source of profound shame, as if they must have wanted this to happen. They didn’t want to be raped, of course. Their bodies were just doing what bodies do.
Shame is one of the reasons that rape continues to be an underreported crime. Women are ashamed to have had it happen to them. They fear, and not without justification, that people may not believe them. They may be asked what they were wearing or how did they act to invite the rapist to attack them… if it really was an attack.
Yes, there are some woman who falsely cry rape, especially if the man involved is wealthy or in a position of power. But there are many, many more women who hide their victimization for fear of being victimized a second time in the telling of it.
If we are to have a national conversation (and not just the tossing of sound bites) about whether or not the victim of a rape has a choice about a resulting pregnancy these things need to be part of the conversation. Some women are able to make that choice and they should be rightly supported in that choice. But it is a choice for them – and therein lies a critical element.
We need to be aware that if we remove that choice we are in danger of re-victimizing women who have already been deeply hurt. These women are once again put in a position of being powerless over what happens to their bodies.
They also have no choice about keeping their own confidentiality. Despite the best efforts of TV producers dealing with actresses whose pregnancies are not part of the storyline, a pregnancy cannot be forever hid. People will know that something happened. The woman no longer has a choice about whether or not she tells. No choice. Once again, no power.
Survivors of rape often face PTSD – unwanted and intrusive memories, flashbacks, being easily startled or controlled by new fears. For the woman who is mandated to carry a child to term the rapist now is not only in her head, he is in her body.
As I reflected on that, I asked myself if this was any different from the victim of any other violent crime. For example, Rep. Gabby Giffords lives every day with the consequences of her attacker’s actions. I’ve come up at least one difference.
No one whispers that Giffords brought this on herself by being where she shouldn’t have been or doing something she shouldn’t have done or saying something she shouldn’t have said. No one suggests that she asked for it. No one asks what she was wearing that day. No one whispers that they heard that it wasn’t really a crime, that Giffords and that guy were fooling around shooting each other in the head and she had second thoughts about it and started crying wolf. No one calls her a slut for having been shot.
Before we make decisions about what rape victims can and cannot do, we need to understand the real dynamics and consequences of the crime. We need to open ourselves to hear the stories of those who are brave enough to speak, to hear what decisions they made and why.
These women deserve more than our soundbites.
As a therapist who has worked with survivors of rape, I see this as a potentially teachable moment. As a Christian, I long for the day when we can nudge this world closer to God’s kingdom a place where our sexuality is recognized for the gift that it is and all God’s children are recognized for the gift that they are, in which our model for living with each other isn’t based on domination and submission but rather the much harder work of community.