A new series by Joy Pedrow Skarka[Trigger warning] Day three of my freshman year of college, I had said, “No,” countless times. I went to his apartment (totally sober), not realizing the possibilities of what could happen. As the night progressed, I started to understand his plan.
“No, no, I don’t want to have sex.”
“Are you sure?” he persisted.
“I haven’t had sex before. I should go.”
“No, don’t go, stay with me. I promise we won’t have sex.” He put his hands around my hips and pulled me close to him.
It happened late at night, and I had just moved into my new dorm days earlier, so I had no idea how to get back home. “Okay, I’ll stay the night. But we should go to bed.”
We laid there on the tiny twin dorm bed. I drifted off to sleep.
Groggy, I woke up to find him on top of me. Having had less than three hours of sleep, I lost my mental abilities. Again, he told me he wanted to sleep with me. I said no, but he said, “But I already did it.”
“What do you mean?”
“We already had sex.”
How did I not feel it? Was I too sleepy to remember? Did he do it at night while I was asleep? He had raped me in my sleep. In a haze, I thought I was dreaming. My body could not move. My tired brain rationalized and thought, “Well, if it already happened, I should try and make my first time good.” As a virgin, I believed my first time should not be rape. In the moment, I convinced myself it wasn’t rape, not like the movies at least. I wasn’t tied down with a rope or choked with his hands. Then he raped me again.
Following the encounter, I stood in the mirror looking at my naked body. My alert mind began to understand what had happened. My hands traced my figure, trying to figure out if I was real. He walked over and started to rub my back. Together we stared at my body in the mirror. “You are beautiful,” he said.
This is my rape story.
I hate telling the details of this story because people ask questions like, “Why did you sleep over? You should have left!” “Why did you go to his apartment?” “How could you have let this happen?” “What were you wearing?” “Were you drinking?” “You continued to have sex, so how is that rape?” These questions are unhelpful. In fact, for years these questions blanketed my mind and body with shame. I believed the rape was all my fault. I hated myself. And such questions perpetuate rape culture—giving validity to the falsehood that rape is the rape-survivor’s fault.
Imagine if the people with whom I shared my story had reacted in a different way. Imagine if they empathized and said, “I’m so sorry that happened to you! How are you feeling? What can I do to help you begin healing?” Yet these are not the common reactions to rape stories.
Every 98 seconds an American is sexually assaulted. Women and girls experience sexual violence at higher rates than men and boys. Eighty-two percent of all juvenile victims are female, and ninety percent of adult rape victims are female. Sexual assault affects everyone around us, yet most of the perpetrators walk away. Out of 1,000 rapes, 995 perpetrators will not go to jail. Because of this fact and many other reasons which this series will cover, many people do not report crimes to the police. Only 230 out of every 1,000 sexual assaults are even reported to authorities. That means about three out of four go unreported.*
Rape is a crime, and rape culture is the world in which we live. The term rape culture describes a context of making excuses for or minimizing the behavior of a predator (e.g., he was drunk or young, so he should be forgiven), as well as emphasizing the victim’s behavior as inviting assault (e.g., she was wearing skimpy clothes and “asking for it”). Scholars use the term “rape culture” to describe the normalization and frequency of sexual assault, violence, and victimization. Rape culture is a system of oppression; it protects abusers and silences victims. Coined by second-wave feminists—some of whom were Christians—in the 1970s, rape culture describes the relationship between rape, popular culture, sexual violence, and the media.
To better understand rape culture, let’s define some key terms:
Rape: a form of sexual assault (not all sexual assault is rape). Legally, rape is sexual penetration without consent. The FBI defines rape as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”
Culture: a development or improvement of the mind by education or training; the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group. It is important to notice two words in this definition: “education” and “training.” These two words, applied negatively, perpetuate rape culture. To prove my point, think about whom the media portrays as rapists. Think back to the common questions people asked me after my rape. How is it that nearly every person asks these same questions? The questions are learned responses, results from cultural influences.
Currently, victims are left silent, alone, confused, and blamed, while most predators’ lives remain pretty much unchanged. Rape culture is not a “woman” issue, it is a “human” issue. And nothing will change until men join together with women to fight against its injustices.
Anyone can rape and anyone can be raped. But statistically, most rapists are male, and most victims are female. Consequently, this series will focus on the primary rape scenario, which is male against female; but it is important to remember that men can be raped, and women can be rapists. Failure to acknowledge this reality also continues the influence of rape culture.
Sexual assault: sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim. Some forms of sexual assault include: attempted rape, fondling (i.e., unwanted sexual touching), forcing a victim to perform sexual acts such as oral sex, penetrating the perpetrator’s body, or penetration of the victim’s body, also known as rape. Sexual assault is not a mistake, but is, rather, a crime.
Sexual abuse: anything that constitutes sexual assault, from touching a victim in a sexual manner to forcing a victim to touch the perpetrator in a sexual way to making a victim look at sexual body parts or watch sexual activity. Sexual abuse is usually used to describe behavior toward children in families or relationships, and is usually long-term or reoccurring abuse.
Sexual harassment: unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature in the workplace or a learning environment, that explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.
Force: not always physical pressure; perpetrators may use emotional coercion, psychological force, or manipulation to coerce a victim into non-consensual sexual activities. Examples of force would include emotional abuse, threatening to hurt loved ones, threatening to fire a victim from a job, or physical abuse. All rape, sexual assault, and sexual abuse situations involve force.
With these definitions in mind, I have some questions for men:
- When was the last time you felt afraid when walking alone out in public, especially after dark?
- Do you carry a weapon with you to keep yourself safe?
- Has someone ever told you that you shouldn’t wear a particular article of clothing when you go out? Have you ever had to rethink an outfit because it would garner too much attentionHas someone of the opposite sex ever followed you, cat-called you, or made you uncomfortable or worried about your well-being?
Why do I ask? Most women fear walking to their cars at night. Every time I walk to my car in the dark, my heart races, and I constantly look left to right. I hold my keys between each finger, as I was taught to do, and I walk briskly. Women must look in the mirror most mornings and ask themselves, “Is this too revealing?” Women have to deal with men cat-calling them across the street or whistling at them from behind.
All of these phenomena are a result of rape culture. By the end of this series, I hope that you will be able to see examples of rape culture in your daily life, understand that these cultural narratives dominate media, and take steps to help change these dynamics.
*Statistics from RAINN—the nation’s largest anti-sexual violence organization.