More words about rape

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.


Left Out

Today is National Left-handers Day. I know, you meant to give me a card.

When I began learning to write (actual making of letters not the making of books),  I was ambidextrous, switching from one hand to another. Had I been born a generation earlier, I would have been forced to become right handed. Fortunately I had a wise teacher who said, “Let her choose. She’ll decide which one works for her.”

I chose writing with my left hand, although I do the ambidextrous things from time to time. When I first started playing tennis I had no backhand – I just switched hands. If I’m painting a picture and working on the right side of the canvas, I may switch to painting with my right hand if I’m not doing detail work.

Neither my teacher nor my parents were afraid of my being lefthanded. That’s not always been the case. From a Wikipedia article on bias against left-handed people:

Western countries also attempt to convert left-handed children due to cultural, societal and religious biases. Schools tend to urge children to use their right hands, sometimes against the wishes of the child’s parents. In America until corporal punishment was outlawed in schools it was not uncommon for students to be physically punished for writing with their left hands:[25] “I was educated in the USA in Catholic school in the 60’s. My left hand was beaten until it was swollen, so I would use my right right [sic] hand” … “I had a teacher who would smack my left hand with a yardstick every time she caught me writing with my left hand” … “My fourth grade teacher […] would force me to use my right hand to perform all of my school work. If she caught me using my left hand, I was hit in the head with a dictionary. It turned out that she believed left handers were connected with Satan.”[37]

While I suspect that navigating the world is easier from a right-handed perspective (no pulling the left-handed desk out of the corner of the class, no ink smudges on your hand) I suspect these people were not acting out of a desire to protect their students from those challenges. They reacted strongly because left-handers were different. And differences tended to scare us.

They still do.

When you find yourself reacting strongly to someone, take a moment to ask yourself what is really fueling your ire. Is it because they are a threat to you? Or is it because they are different and thus feel like a threat to you?

One of the hallmarks of Jesus’ ministry is that he reached out to the people who were different, who were viewed with suspicion… the hookers, the IRS agents, women in general. He wasn’t afraid of them because he could see what was most important about them: they were a child of God, and so were his brother or sister.

What do you see?

Oh, and by the way, we left-handers may be a minority but we rule when it comes to modern presidents:

Of the seven most recent U.S. Presidents, four, including Barack Obama, have been left-handed, while a fifth is said to have been ambidextrous: Ronald Reagan, who was left-handed by birth,[36][37][38] became president after he defeated left-handed candidateGeorge H. W. Bush in the Republican primary election. Four years earlier, Reagan had lost the Republican presidential primary to incumbent left-handed President Gerald Ford. George H. W. Bush succeeded Reagan and later ran for re-election against left-handersBill Clinton[39] and Ross Perot.[38] Clinton’s second term opponents included Perot, and Bob Dole who had become left-handed when his right arm was paralyzed in combat 50 years earlier. Left-handed then-Senator Obama defeated left-handed Senator John McCain in his race for the presidency.[40]

Facing Change

I recently came across this very good article in Huffington Post on mindfulness. I’ve written before about what a valuable tool just paying attention is, how increasing our awareness helps us increase our capacity to deal effectively with the ups and downs of our lives.

“Don’t look for mindfulness to cure your anxiety, depression or addiction, look at it more as a new way of relating to life, a way of coming home, nurturing a healthier heart and opening up to the experience of being alive.”

More than once when a client comes into my office they are looking for a cure. After all, that’s what they seek from their medical doctors. They want to make the sore throat go away or the painful knee to stop hurting. I have to break the news to them that what our work is about is not so much curing them.

I can’t make it so that they will never be sad again. I can help them deal with and perhaps even transform sadnesses that they’ve carried for far too long. I can help them identify the feelings that really don’t belong to them, that are based on faulty beliefs or someone else’s pain inflicted upon them. And I can give them the tools to deal with sadness that comes  in the future.

But things like sadness, grief and even anxiety are part and parcel of our humanity. They are acknowledgements of the inevitable changes of life, the ebb and flow that is as relentless as the tides.

I was at the beach with my five-year old great-nephew. He decided that he didn’t like the tide coming in. “Make it stop, Aunt Peggy,” he said. I  told him that I didn’t have the power to do that. It’s  just what the ocean did.

And change is just what life brings to us. Some changes are better than other, more joyful than others. But mindfulness is one way that we can navigate with some grace the changes that come and the feelings that they bring.