Get Real! My Best Friend Was Raped: What Can I Do For Her?

Heather Corinna

A young woman wonders if there is any "grey area" in the story of her friend who says she was raped. Heather is clear: people disbelieve victims of sexual violence for every reason under the sun but consent isn't just the absence of "no." It's an enthusiastic and strong "yes."

Suze asks:

First off, thank you for this site. It’s wonderful. Now, I’m a just-graduated senior, and my best friend went with a big group to Florida for their senior trip. She called me wasted and crying, upset and saying that this guy I’ll call E wanted to have sex with her, she told him no, and he did it anyway. His side of the story was that she didn’t protest. Sounds like rape, right? But she’s known for teasing guys, and people might not believe her. And they liked each other a while back–E never displayed any signs of being likely to take advantage of someone.
I have no idea how to handle this situation because there’s so much gray area. How can I help my best friend?

Heather replies:

It’s actually, in my book, not grey at all.

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I’m a very talented cook, and my friends love it when I cook for them. Some crave my meals intensely. If I have a friend over, and I have them smell some fresh basil I picked up at the market, show them a beautiful tomato from my garden, does my doing that oblige me to cook something for them with those ingredients? Have I promised, committed or consented to doing so? Could we reasonably say that if, after showing them those things, they forced me to cook against my will with the rationalization that I "teased" them with those ingredients, that they’d be in the right and that forcing me to do something I didn’t want to do was anything but an exploitation and an abuse? Even if I did at some point say I was going to cook, and then decided that I just wasn’t in the mood, would it be okay for them to force me to, anyway, because I "made" them hungry, and thus, am somehow obligated to sate them?

People disbelieve victims of sexual violence for every reason under the sun: based on how we were dressed, the way we walk, the way we talk, what our color is, what our social class is, what our gender is (this is a biggie with male survivors), what our sexual orientation is, if we’ve been sexually active before or not, if we wear our hair this way, if we have this size of hips, breasts, thighs, penises, if we’re disabled, if we’ve enjoyed consensual sex before or not…you name it, it’s been used as a way to rationalize sexual violence. But there’s not a one of those things which justifies it or ever has. The fact that your friend flirts or is sometimes seductive when she’s feeling that — if she is at all, since often reputations aren’t even based in truths or reality — doesn’t make her victimization any less valid than it would for someone who isn’t flirty. Flirting is not consent, nor is a person being flirted with somehow being given permission or the right to so anything or everything sexual they want to do to that person.

You’re rarely going to come across someone who rapes who says anything BUT that their victim wanted it or didn’t protest.

The idea that people who rape will stand right up and say they raped someone, rather than say anything and everything they can to make it their victim’s fault, it false. Some of that is because no one wants to be exposed as a rapist, and some of that is based on the fact that part of the motivation to rape someone is about proving you’re more powerful then they are, and making rape the victim’s fault — especially if you can get that victim to believe it herself or himself — is part of that power dynamic, as well as yet another way, beyond rape itself, to debase a victim.

Too, a person not protesting — even though in this case your friend did protest — still isn’t consent. Consent to sex isn’t just the absence of a "no." Consent is an enthusiastic, strong yes: an expressed wish, physically and verbally, to share a mutually felt desire. The desire for sex is not passive or weak, so it doesn’t make a lot of sense for anyone to suggest that the expression of that desire would or should be. In fact, if you want one way to spot someone who is a potential rapist or a rape enabler, pay attention when you hear a person say that not saying no to sex is the same as saying yes. And know that were the shoe on the other foot, and were some man forcing himself on them, they certainly would not say their lack of protest was equivalent to consent.

Even her reputation for "teasing guys," may well be based in part on sexism and the idea that women being flirtatious without giving men what they want justifies dissing, dehumanizing or assaulting someone. Pinning someone with a reputation as a "slut" or a "tease" also often results in socially isolating a person, which makes it easier to abuse them. If you deconstruct those ideas a bit, you’ll see that they’re based in some pretty profound double-standards and kinds of entitlement, especially since often when men get flirty with women, and consensual sex does happen, that sex still is sometimes more about men getting what they want or desire (ON women or TO women rather than WITH women or FOR women), and far less so women. If men flirt with women, and don’t "deliver" sex, do people tend to think about women as having been wronged in some way, or being robbed of sex they’re entitled to because a man flirted?

Not all men behave that way, mind you, but there is a sizeable group of men who do, and a pretty darn big group of men who enable that dynamic, where sex is about something they "get," rather than about something truly shared. Either way, women are on the losing end of this idea, and men are only so benefitted by it. Either way, women are often unlikely to have their desires respected OR met — whether that’s about being denied the right to say no, or about the sex they’re having consensually still being primarily about what men want, with female partners secondary or barely taken into consideration at all. And either way, men also lose — even though some may think they have won, and even though even when they lose it still hurts the women or men they treat this way — if they either rape or come to sex only as conquest, because they’re not really having sex, sharing sex, with another person: they’re raping or masturbating. Neither of those things, when another person is involved, hold a candle to what real sexual partnership can offer us. I’m not by any means speaking to how all men, or even a majority, operate, nor am I saying it’s impossible for women to behave the same way, were the power balance shifted between men and women in the world. However, this is all very pervasive, and unfortunately, many people do still subscribe to this kind of thinking, some quite self-aware of it, some totally unaware.

All of that also means, tough a pill as this can be to swallow, that there’s not a single thing a one of us can do to guarantee we will be believed, or to prevent harassment after assault. I was 11 years old when I was first assaulted, and as someone who is very public about being a survivor, I will still occasionally get letters from people I don’t even know telling me why I deserved to be abused, or that I must have done something to "ask for it." Every few weeks here, because we do talk candidly about rape and sexual assault here, and because we do support victims and protest rape and enabling rape, I’ll get a letter from some guy explaining to me — and he’ll usually frame it as that: as doing me a favor to inform my silly naivete — why it is that women deserve rape and what it is we do to make men feel they have no choice but to rape us. It’s ugly and depressing, it’s horrendously ignorant, and but some degree of it is also sadly inescapable. People’s attitudes have been changing, people are getting more informed, but we’ve still a very long way to go.

But as someone who is in a support position, while you can’t protect your friend from backlash, what you can do is make clear that YOU believe her and that YOU support her. You can make clear that there isn’t any grey area here. She said no, this guy raped her, purposefully dismissing her no to get what he wanted against her will. She was violated and abused by this person. That’s not murky: it’s incredibly clear-cut. It can be helpful to try and let go of terms like "taking advantage," too. He didn’t take advantage. He raped. Using phrases and words that make something violent, terrifying, abusive and harmful seem less so or benign not only can feed into enabling those things, it can make it a lot tougher for victims of abuses to turn into survivors, and put the blame where it belongs, calling a spade a spade. A lot of those phrases we hear — like "taking advtantage," "grey rape," or calling any kind of rape sex — come from a cultural desire to deny or dismiss abuses; from the desire of those who abuse or enable abuse to shirk responsibility.

Because we like someone doesn’t mean we want to have sex with them, want to have a given kind of sex with them, or want to have sex with them yet or at this moment. It certainly does not mean we want them to rape us. You can remind your friend of that. You can also remind her that she didn’t have sex: she was raped, and that liking this person doesn’t mean she can’t ever trust her judgment again. People don’t tend to show us their ugliest stuff right off the bat, so it’s entirely possible she had no way of knowing the person she liked was a rapist. The idea that any of us can know with clarity who will and won’t rape isn’t so sound: all kinds of people rape, and there often are not easy signs to look for. The ones that can appear, too, are often things we’re socialized to believe are normal and benign, not signals of violence or hatred. Watch how many people sit in cars at a stoplight bopping their heads while the radio croons out a sweet little ditty about "bitches and hoes" to get one simple idea of how amazingly unaware many people are when it comes to their attitudes and those of others.

But mostly, you can listen to her and be responsive to what she expresses as her needs. Listening might be hard for you, especially since you care for her. For instance, particularly given all the victim-blaming afoot in the world, it’s normal for a rape survivor to blame themselves for a while, and that can be hard to hear when you know it’s not her fault and when you see how blaming herself hurts her. She’ll likely have a range of emotions as she works through this: some will be tougher than others to deal with. Just know you also get to have healthy limits: you can still support her even if sometimes, you need to ask for some time to yourself, or for her to let you help her find additional sources of support so that you don’t get burnt out. She might also express that she wants to talk about anything else, or to have some time for herself. Just know that she’s the expert on her own needs, and the ones she expresses which you can help with are the ones to help her with if you also feel capable of doing that.

You can ask if she wants help from you in reporting her rape, or in seeking out STI testing, pregnancy testing, emergency contraception or help should she have become pregnant or acquired an infection. You can see if she wants to try going to a support group for survivors, and if so, if she wants your help finding one, or would like you to come with her. You can offer to go to a bookstore with her and find a couple good books on surviving rape.

And you can just love her a whole, big lot. You’re here asking what to do to help her, so it’s clear you feel that already. So, keep on doing exactly what you are with that love and care.

I’m tossing in a couple of links for both you and she should they be of use:


Roundups Sexual Health

This Week in Sex: The Sexually Transmitted Infections Edition

Martha Kempner

A new Zika case suggests the virus can be transmitted from an infected woman to a male partner. And, in other news, HPV-related cancers are on the rise, and an experimental chlamydia vaccine shows signs of promise.

This Week in Sex is a weekly summary of news and research related to sexual behavior, sexuality education, contraception, STIs, and more.

Zika May Have Been Sexually Transmitted From a Woman to Her Male Partner

A new case suggests that males may be infected with the Zika virus through unprotected sex with female partners. Researchers have known for a while that men can infect their partners through penetrative sexual intercourse, but this is the first suspected case of sexual transmission from a woman.

The case involves a New York City woman who is in her early 20s and traveled to a country with high rates of the mosquito-borne virus (her name and the specific country where she traveled have not been released). The woman, who experienced stomach cramps and a headache while waiting for her flight back to New York, reported one act of sexual intercourse without a condom the day she returned from her trip. The following day, her symptoms became worse and included fever, fatigue, a rash, and tingling in her hands and feet. Two days later, she visited her primary-care provider and tests confirmed she had the Zika virus.

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A few days after that (seven days after intercourse), her male partner, also in his 20s, began feeling similar symptoms. He had a rash, a fever, and also conjunctivitis (pink eye). He, too, was diagnosed with Zika. After meeting with him, public health officials in the New York City confirmed that he had not traveled out of the country nor had he been recently bit by a mosquito. This leaves sexual transmission from his partner as the most likely cause of his infection, though further tests are being done.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)’s recommendations for preventing Zika have been based on the assumption that virus was spread from a male to a receptive partner. Therefore the recommendations had been that pregnant women whose male partners had traveled or lived in a place where Zika virus is spreading use condoms or abstain from sex during the pregnancy. For those couples for whom pregnancy is not an issue, the CDC recommended that men who had traveled to countries with Zika outbreaks and had symptoms of the virus, use condoms or abstain from sex for six months after their trip. It also suggested that men who traveled but don’t have symptoms use condoms for at least eight weeks.

Based on this case—the first to suggest female-to-male transmission—the CDC may extend these recommendations to couples in which a female traveled to a country with an outbreak.

More Signs of Gonorrhea’s Growing Antibiotic Resistance

Last week, the CDC released new data on gonorrhea and warned once again that the bacteria that causes this common sexually transmitted infection (STI) is becoming resistant to the antibiotics used to treat it.

There are about 350,000 cases of gonorrhea reported each year, but it is estimated that 800,000 cases really occur with many going undiagnosed and untreated. Once easily treatable with antibiotics, the bacteria Neisseria gonorrhoeae has steadily gained resistance to whole classes of antibiotics over the decades. By the 1980s, penicillin no longer worked to treat it, and in 2007 the CDC stopped recommending the use of fluoroquinolones. Now, cephalosporins are the only class of drugs that work. The recommended treatment involves a combination of ceftriaxone (an injectable cephalosporin) and azithromycin (an oral antibiotic).

Unfortunately, the data released last week—which comes from analysis of more than 5,000 samples of gonorrhea (called isolates) collected from STI clinics across the country—shows that the bacteria is developing resistance to these drugs as well. In fact, the percentage of gonorrhea isolates with decreased susceptibility to azithromycin increased more than 300 percent between 2013 and 2014 (from 0.6 percent to 2.5 percent).

Though no cases of treatment failure has been reported in the United States, this is a troubling sign of what may be coming. Dr. Gail Bolan, director of CDC’s Division of STD Prevention, said in a press release: “It is unclear how long the combination therapy of azithromycin and ceftriaxone will be effective if the increases in resistance persists. We need to push forward on multiple fronts to ensure we can continue offering successful treatment to those who need it.”

HPV-Related Cancers Up Despite Vaccine 

The CDC also released new data this month showing an increase in HPV-associated cancers between 2008 and 2012 compared with the previous five-year period. HPV or human papillomavirus is an extremely common sexually transmitted infection. In fact, HPV is so common that the CDC believes most sexually active adults will get it at some point in their lives. Many cases of HPV clear spontaneously with no medical intervention, but certain types of the virus cause cancer of the cervix, vulva, penis, anus, mouth, and neck.

The CDC’s new data suggests that an average of 38,793 HPV-associated cancers were diagnosed each year between 2008 and 2012. This is a 17 percent increase from about 33,000 each year between 2004 and 2008. This is a particularly unfortunate trend given that the newest available vaccine—Gardasil 9—can prevent the types of HPV most often linked to cancer. In fact, researchers estimated that the majority of cancers found in the recent data (about 28,000 each year) were caused by types of the virus that could be prevented by the vaccine.

Unfortunately, as Rewire has reported, the vaccine is often mired in controversy and far fewer young people have received it than get most other recommended vaccines. In 2014, only 40 percent of girls and 22 percent of boys ages 13 to 17 had received all three recommended doses of the vaccine. In comparison, nearly 80 percent of young people in this age group had received the vaccine that protects against meningitis.

In response to the newest data, Dr. Electra Paskett, co-director of the Cancer Control Research Program at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center, told HealthDay:

In order to increase HPV vaccination rates, we must change the perception of the HPV vaccine from something that prevents a sexually transmitted disease to a vaccine that prevents cancer. Every parent should ask the question: If there was a vaccine I could give my child that would prevent them from developing six different cancers, would I give it to them? The answer would be a resounding yes—and we would have a dramatic decrease in HPV-related cancers across the globe.

Making Inroads Toward a Chlamydia Vaccine

An article published in the journal Vaccine shows that researchers have made progress with a new vaccine to prevent chlamydia. According to lead researcher David Bulir of the M. G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research at Canada’s McMaster University, efforts to create a vaccine have been underway for decades, but this is the first formulation to show success.

In 2014, there were 1.4 million reported cases of chlamydia in the United States. While this bacterial infection can be easily treated with antibiotics, it often goes undiagnosed because many people show no symptoms. Untreated chlamydia can lead to pelvic inflammatory disease, which can leave scar tissue in the fallopian tubes or uterus and ultimately result in infertility.

The experimental vaccine was created by Canadian researchers who used pieces of the bacteria that causes chlamydia to form an antigen they called BD584. The hope was that the antigen could prompt the body’s immune system to fight the chlamydia bacteria if exposed to it.

Researchers gave BD584 to mice using a nasal spray, and then exposed them to chlamydia. The results were very promising. The mice who received the spray cleared the infection faster than the mice who did not. Moreover, the mice given the nasal spray were less likely to show symptoms of infection, such as bacterial shedding from the vagina or fluid blockages of the fallopian tubes.

There are many steps to go before this vaccine could become available. The researchers need to test it on other strains of the bacteria and in other animals before testing it in humans. And, of course, experience with the HPV vaccine shows that there’s work to be done to make sure people get vaccines that prevent STIs even after they’re invented. Nonetheless, a vaccine to prevent chlamydia would be a great victory in our ongoing fight against STIs and their health consequences, and we here at This Week in Sex are happy to end on a bit of a positive note.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: Republican National Convention Edition

Ally Boguhn

The Trump family's RNC claims about crime and the presidential candidate's record on gender equality have kept fact-checkers busy.

Republicans came together in Cleveland this week to nominate Donald Trump at the Republican National Convention (RNC), generating days of cringe-inducing falsehoods and misleading statements on crime, the nominee’s positions on gender equality, and LGBTQ people.

Trump’s Acceptance Speech Blasted for Making False Claims on Crime

Trump accepted the Republican nomination in a Thursday night speech at the RNC that drew harsh criticism for many of its misleading and outright false talking points.

Numerous fact-checkers took Trump to task, calling out many of his claims for being “wrong,” and “inflated or misleading.”

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 Among the most hotly contested of Trump’s claims was the assertion that crime has exploded across the country.

“Decades of progress made in bringing down crime are now being reversed by this administration’s rollback of criminal enforcement,” Trump claimed, according to his prepared remarks, which were leaked ahead of his address. “Homicides last year increased by 17 percent in America’s 50 largest cities. That’s the largest increase in 25 years. In our nation’s capital, killings have risen by 50 percent. They are up nearly 60 percent in nearby Baltimore.”

Crime rates overall have been steadily declining for years.

“In 2015, there was an uptick in homicides in 36 of the 50 largest cities compared to the previous years. The rate did, indeed, increase nearly 17 percent, and it was the worst annual change since 1990. The homicide rate was up 54.3 percent in Washington, and 58.5 percent in Baltimore,” explained Washington Post fact checkers Glenn Kessler and Michelle Ye Hee Lee. “But in the first months of 2016, homicide trends were about evenly split in the major cities. Out of 63 agencies reporting to the Major Cities Chiefs Association, 32 cities saw a decrease in homicides in first quarter 2016 and 31 saw an increase.”

Ames Grawert, a counsel in the Brennan Center’s Justice Program, said in a statement posted to the organization’s website that 2016 statistics aren’t sufficient in declaring crime rate trends. 

“Overall, crime rates remain at historic lows. Fear-inducing soundbites are counterproductive, and distract from nuanced, data-driven, and solution-oriented conversations on how to build a smarter criminal justice system in America,” Grawert said. “It’s true that some cities saw an increase in murder rates last year, and that can’t be ignored, but it’s too early to say if that’s part of a national trend.” 

When Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, was confronted with the common Republican falsehoods on crime during a Thursday interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, he claimed that the FBI’s statistics were not to be trusted given that the organization recently advised against charges in connection with Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.

“According to FBI statistics, crime rates have been going down for decades,” Tapper told Manafort. “How can Republicans make the argument that it’s somehow more dangerous today when the facts don’t back that up?”

“People don’t feel safe in their neighborhoods,” said Manafort, going on to claim that “the FBI is certainly suspect these days after what they did with Hillary Clinton.”

There was at least one notable figure who wholeheartedly embraced Trump’s fearmongering: former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke. “Great Trump Speech,” tweeted Duke on Thursday evening. “Couldn’t have said it better!”

Ben Carson Claims Transgender People Are Proof of “How Absurd We Have Become”

Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson criticized the existence of transgender people while speaking at the Florida delegation breakfast on Tuesday in Cleveland.  

“You know, we look at this whole transgender thing, I’ve got to tell you: For thousands of years, mankind has known what a man is and what a woman is. And now, all of a sudden we don’t know anymore,” said Carson, a retired neurosurgeon. “Now, is that the height of absurdity? Because today you feel like a woman, even though everything about you genetically says that you’re a man or vice versa?”

“Wouldn’t that be the same as if you woke up tomorrow morning after seeing a movie about Afghanistan or reading some books and said, ‘You know what? I’m Afghanistan. Look, I know I don’t look that way. My ancestors came from Sweden, or something, I don’t know. But I really am. And if you say I’m not, you’re a racist,’” Carson said. “This is how absurd we have become.”

When confronted with his comments during an interview with Yahoo News’ Katie Couric, Carson doubled down on his claims.“There are biological markers that tell us whether we are a male or a female,” said Carson. “And just because you wake up one day and you say, ‘I think I’m the other one,’ that doesn’t change it. Just, a leopard can’t change its spots.”

“It’s not as if they woke up one day and decided, ‘I’m going to be a male or I’m going to be a female,’” Couric countered, pointing out that transgender people do not suddenly choose to change their gender identities on a whim.

Carson made several similar comments last year while on the campaign trail.

In December, Carson criticized the suggested that allowing transgender people into the military amounted to using the armed services “as a laboratory for social experimentation.”

Carson once suggested that allowing transgender people to use the restroom that aligned with their gender identity amounted to granting them “extra rights.”

Ivanka Trump Claims Her Father Supports Equal Pay, Access to Child Care

Ivanka Trump, the nominee’s daughter, made a pitch during her speech Thursday night at the RNC for why women voters should support her father.

“There have always been men of all background and ethnicities on my father’s job sites. And long before it was commonplace, you also saw women,” Ivanka Trump said. “At my father’s company, there are more female than male executives. Women are paid equally for the work that we do and when a woman becomes a mother, she is supported, not shut out.” 

“As president, my father will change the labor laws that were put into place at a time when women were not a significant portion of the workforce. And he will focus on making quality child care affordable and accessible for all,” she continued before pivoting to address the gender wage gap. 

“Policies that allow women with children to thrive should not be novelties; they should be the norm. Politicians talk about wage equality, but my father has made it a practice at his company throughout his entire career.”

However, Trump’s stated positions on the gender wage gap, pregnancy and mothers in the workplace, and child care don’t quite add up to the picture the Trumps tried to paint at the RNC.

In 2004, Trump called pregnancy an “inconvenience” for employers. When a lawyer asked for a break during a deposition in 2011 to pump breast milk, Trump reportedly called her “disgusting.”

According to a June analysis conducted by the Boston Globe, the Trump campaign found that men who worked on Trump’s campaign “made nearly $6,100, or about 35 percent more [than women during the April payroll]. The disparity is slightly greater than the gender pay gap nationally.”

A former organizer for Trump also filed a discrimination complaint in January, alleging that she was paid less than her male counterparts.

When Trump was questioned about equal pay during a campaign stop last October, he did not outline his support for policies to address the issue. Instead, Trump suggested that, “You’re gonna make the same if you do as good a job.” Though he had previously stated that men and women who do the same job should be paid the same during an August 2015 interview on MSNBC, he also cautioned that determining whether people were doing the same jobs was “tricky.”

Trump has been all but completely silent on child care so far on the campaign trail. In contrast, Clinton released an agenda in May to address the soaring costs of child care in the United States.

Ivanka’s claims were not the only attempt that night by Trump’s inner circle to explain why women voters should turn to the Republican ticket. During an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Manafort said that women would vote for the Republican nominee because they “can’t afford their lives anymore.”

“Many women in this country feel they can’t afford their lives, their husbands can’t afford to be paying for the family bills,” claimed Manafort. “Hillary Clinton is guilty of being part of the establishment that created that problem. They’re going to hear the message. And as they hear the message, that’s how we are going to appeal to them.”

What Else We’re Reading

Vox’s Dara Lind explained how “Trump’s RNC speech turned his white supporters’ fear into a weapon.”

Now that Mike Pence is the Republican nominee for vice president, Indiana Republicans have faced “an intense, chaotic, awkward week of brazen lobbying at the breakfast buffet, in the hallways and on the elevators” at the convention as they grapple with who will run to replace the state’s governor, according to the New York Times.

“This is a party and a power structure that feels threatened with extinction, willing to do anything for survival,” wrote Rebecca Traister on Trump and the RNC for New York Magazine. “They may not love Trump, but he is leading them precisely because he embodies their grotesque dreams of the restoration of white, patriarchal power.”

Though Trump spent much of the primary season denouncing big money in politics, while at the RNC, he courted billionaires in hopes of having them donate to supporting super PACs.

Michael Kranish reported for the Washington Post that of the 2,472 delegates at the RNC, it is estimated that only 18 were Black.

Cosmopolitan highlighted nine of the most sexist things that could be found at the convention.

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) asked, “Where are these contributions that have been made” by people of color to civilization?