Commentary Violence

I Was Raped: Figuring Out What Happened and Why It Felt Wrong (*TRIGGER WARNING*)


If I heard this story about anyone else, even then, I would have zero hesitation in applying the label “rape.” But at the time, and for a long time afterword, I was unable to view my own rape for what it actually was.

Five years ago, I was raped. I have never written or spoken those exact words before now; though I have shared the content of this story with those I’m close to, I have always stopped short of actually applying such a label to the experience. This kind of denial is not uncommon, as rape culture functions to normalize sexual violence, turning harassment, assault, and rape into such ordinary occurrences, we learn to see them as simply an inevitable part of every day life rather than recognizing them as the atrocities they are. And in fact, it’s that very hesitancy to identify myself as a victim of rape that has taught me what living in a rape culture truly means.

The circumstances of my rape seem to have been, unfortunately, common ones. I have, in the years since, read or heard slight variations of my story countless times from other women. The man was a close friend, trusted by me and adored by scores of volunteers at the organization where we’d met. He was in his early thirties, a little shy, a little awkward, and most known for his deadpan wit. I harbored a crush on him for many months, but I was in a monogamous relationship at the time and never acted on those feelings. We went out one day for a few beers together, something we did many times. I drank an amount that was normally tolerable for me, but for whatever reason, that day, it was not. Back at his apartment, I threw up. He—perhaps slightly tipsy, but in full possession of his faculties—comforted me. And a short time later, we were having sex.

I realize that for many people, questions of drinking and sex and consent can be a thorny thing. I don’t wish to engage in a lengthy discussion or debate here about whether it is ever possible for one to consent while intoxicated, or how we are to consider circumstances in which both parties are equally impaired. I do believe that there are, sometimes, situations in which one partner does not realize the degree to which the other is intoxicated. But I think it should be uncontroversial to say that if one is drunk enough to become physically ill, there is no possible way she can be considered capable of meaningful consent. In my case, I was never even asked for any kind of consent, anyhow, never asked if I was certain I wanted to be doing this, if I was feeling okay, if I was clear-headed enough to make this decision.

It seems to me, now, so cut and dry. If I heard this story about anyone else, even then, I would have zero hesitation in applying the label “rape.” But at the time, and for a long time afterword, I was unable to view my own rape for what it actually was.

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Initially, I certainly did feel a strong sense of discomfort with what had taken place. It was surreal to think about how much mental presence I had lacked, as though I wasn’t fully inhabiting my body when it occurred. It felt as though I had been an object in the truest sense of the word, like my body had been used while I was not completely there. I knew that I had, at least to some degree, participated sexually. But it hadn’t felt like participation in anything other than a disembodied, robotic sense. The entire encounter felt like a thing that was happening to me, with all sense of my own agency removed from the picture—a sensation that remains haunting to recall. And yet, as I now realize is incredibly common for rape victims, I also felt ashamed. It is sickening to me, now, to recall that I was actually embarrassed that my legs and underarms hadn’t been freshly shaven, that I was self-conscious of what I could only assume was very sub-par sexual performance on my part. That I actually sent him a message the next day apologizing for being such a mess, thanking him for taking care of me when I was sick. Ironically, I was humiliated that he had seen me so weak and vulnerable.

I was unable to see him as any kind of predator. I thought too highly of him, cared about him too much. On some level, I recognized his behavior as wrong; I thought that as my friend, he should have at least tried to check in and make sure I was okay with what was happening. But I made excuses for him. I knew that I had been flirtatious with him, that he was probably aware of the feelings I had for him. I was in my mid-twenties, not a naïve teenager, and yet I believed that he would not have had sex with me unless he had feelings for me as well. Uncomfortable as the circumstances were, I still clung to some misguided notion that he cared too much about me to simply use me in that way.

Weeks later, when I confessed to him that I had feelings for him, he responded by ending our friendship. And though that certainly solidified my sense of being used and objectified, I was still unable, even internally, to name what had happened as “rape.” We continued volunteering together; I continued to witness how loved and admired he was by everyone around us. Whenever I heard someone gushing over how wonderful he was, I thought to myself: you have no idea. But I also knew that there was no possible way anyone would ever believe me even if I did want to come forward with the truth. They would believe what I still half-believed myself: that I had practically thrown myself at him, that perhaps, at worst, he’d had poor judgment in a moment of weakness.

Though my own definition of rape has never been one that necessitates physical struggle or force, when I actually thought about the idea of being raped, it felt like something I had no right to claim. No matter what my intellectual position was, deep down I still envisioned rape as a blatantly violent act, one which involved resistance and pain, one that felt terrifying in the moment. In spite of my utter lack of consent, I felt that it wasn’t really rape because I was not sufficiently traumatized, because I did not say no or put up any kind of fight, because he was someone I knew and was comfortable with and might very well have consented to have sex with while sober, not a stranger or someone I found frightening or revolting. And while I would never dream of applying any of those qualifications to challenge the legitimacy of someone else’s experience of rape, I spent years using them to delegitimize my own. This, to me, is perhaps the most frightening, pervasive, and powerful way in which rape culture functions: sexual violence is normalized to such an extent that we can become unable to identify it for what it really is even when we are victims.

I was, and remain, traumatized by my experience. But what upsets me the most, five years later, is not my memory of the actual events. What I find most disturbing, most difficult to confront, is my own denial, my own internalization of the social norms that allow for such acts to be commonplace. When I hear or read or write about yet another instance of victim-blaming or rape-denying, I cannot help but think about my own experience. And I cannot help but think about not only all of the survivors of sexual violence who never come forward, but also all of those who are unwilling or unable to even properly name what has happened to them, even privately in their own thoughts. It is terrifying to me that we can be so accustomed to these misogynist terms of engagement, we learn not to even recognize the violations enacted on our own bodies. And when I consider how I—a grown woman, a self-identified feminist who was not unaware the patriarchal structures we live with—still managed to deny the validity of my own experience, I can only begin to imagine how many other women have been unable to fully recognize similar acts of rape for what they actually are.

We are still taught, here in the 21st century, that rapists are lurking, predatory strangers. That they are men who, at the very least, give off a vibe of creepiness, or who openly display sexist behaviors. We are taught that they are not nice guys. We are taught to mistrust women’s stories of rape, particularly when the rapist does not fit our profile. We are taught to believe that there is more to the story, that the woman was somehow at fault, that she did something to encourage him, that she was asking for it. And when we are victims, we must then continue to live in a culture that dismisses our experiences, that encourages our objectification, that says over and over, in a multitude of ways: what happened to you was not rape. What happened to you was normal. What happened to you was your own fault. What happened to you is not something you have a right to be so upset about. It’s no wonder that some of us, if not a majority of us, ultimately turn those judgments inward. As Adrienne Rich wrote, “Where language and naming are power, silence is oppression, is violence.” And this is oppression working at its most efficient: it takes little effort to silence us when we are trained to silence ourselves. When we are denied the ability to even name our experiences, we are stripped of all ability to engage in dialogue about those experiences, and therefore also deprived of any means to collectively organize around–and fight back against–the injustices we’ve suffered. 

I am sharing this story now not because I believe it is unique, but on the contrary, because I believe it is all too common. I am continuously overwhelmed by the question of how we are to go about combating rape culture, to begin changing such deeply ingrained social norms. But it seems to me that the first step, at least, is to speak out, to tell our stories, to tell the truth, to challenge the narrative we’re fed about who is and who is not a rapist, and who is and who is not a “legitimate” victim of rape. Reading and hearing the stories of other women with similar experiences played a huge role in my own ability to finally face the reality that what happened to me was, in fact, rape. I can only hope that coming forward with my own story might play some small role in helping other women to do the same.

Roundups Politics

Campaign Week in Review: ‘If You Don’t Vote … You Are Trifling’

Ally Boguhn

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party's convention.

The chair of the Democratic National Convention (DNC) this week blasted those who sit out on Election Day, and mothers who lost children to gun violence were given a platform at the party’s convention.

DNC Chair Marcia Fudge: “If You Don’t Vote, You Are Ungrateful, You Are Lazy, and You Are Trifling”

The chair of the 2016 Democratic National Convention, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH), criticized those who choose to sit out the election while speaking on the final day of the convention.

“If you want a decent education for your children, you had better vote,” Fudge told the party’s women’s caucus, which had convened to discuss what is at stake for women and reproductive health and rights this election season.

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“If you want to make sure that hungry children are fed, you had better vote,” said Fudge. “If you want to be sure that all the women who survive solely on Social Security will not go into poverty immediately, you had better vote.”

“And if you don’t vote, let me tell you something, there is no excuse for you. If you don’t vote, you don’t count,” she said.

“So as I leave, I’m just going to say this to you. You tell them I said it, and I’m not hesitant about it. If you don’t vote, you are ungrateful, you are lazy, and you are trifling.”

The congresswoman’s website notes that she represents a state where some legislators have “attempted to suppress voting by certain populations” by pushing voting restrictions that “hit vulnerable communities the hardest.”

Ohio has recently made headlines for enacting changes that would make it harder to vote, including rolling back the state’s early voting period and purging its voter rolls of those who have not voted for six years.

Fudge, however, has worked to expand access to voting by co-sponsoring the federal Voting Rights Amendment Act, which would restore the protections of the Voting Rights Act that were stripped by the Supreme Court in Shelby County v. Holder.

“Mothers of the Movement” Take the National Spotlight

In July 2015, the Waller County Sheriff’s Office released a statement that 28-year-old Sandra Bland had been found dead in her jail cell that morning due to “what appears to be self-asphyxiation.” Though police attempted to paint the death a suicide, Bland’s family has denied that she would have ended her own life given that she had just secured a new job and had not displayed any suicidal tendencies.

Bland’s death sparked national outcry from activists who demanded an investigation, and inspired the hashtag #SayHerName to draw attention to the deaths of Black women who died at the hands of police.

Tuesday night at the DNC, Bland’s mother, Geneva Reed-Veal, and a group of other Black women who have lost children to gun violence, in police custody, or at the hands of police—the “Mothers of the Movement”—told the country why the deaths of their children should matter to voters. They offered their support to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a speech at the convention.

“One year ago yesterday, I lived the worst nightmare anyone could imagine. I watched as my daughter was lowered into the ground in a coffin,” said Geneva Reed-Veal.

“Six other women have died in custody that same month: Kindra Chapman, Alexis McGovern, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Raynette Turner, Ralkina Jones, and Joyce Curnell. So many of our children are gone, but they are not forgotten,” she continued. 

“You don’t stop being a mom when your child dies,” said Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis. “His life ended the day that he was shot and killed for playing loud music. But my job as his mother didn’t.” 

McBath said that though she had lost her son, she continued to work to protect his legacy. “We’re going to keep telling our children’s stories and we’re urging you to say their names,” she said. “And we’re also going to keep using our voices and our votes to support leaders, like Hillary Clinton, who will help us protect one another so that this club of heartbroken mothers stops growing.” 

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, called herself “an unwilling participant in this movement,” noting that she “would not have signed up for this, [nor would] any other mother that’s standing here with me today.” 

“But I am here today for my son, Trayvon Martin, who is in heaven, and … his brother, Jahvaris Fulton, who is still here on Earth,” Fulton said. “I did not want this spotlight. But I will do everything I can to focus some of this light on the pain of a path out of the darkness.”

What Else We’re Reading

Renee Bracey Sherman explained in Glamour why Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine’s position on abortion scares her.

NARAL’s Ilyse Hogue told Cosmopolitan why she shared her abortion story on stage at the DNC.

Lilly Workneh, the Huffington Post’s Black Voices senior editor, explained how the DNC was “powered by a bevy of remarkable black women.”

Rebecca Traister wrote about how Clinton’s historic nomination puts the Democratic nominee “one step closer to making the impossible possible.”

Rewire attended a Democrats for Life of America event while in Philadelphia for the convention and fact-checked the group’s executive director.

A woman may have finally clinched the nomination for a major political party, but Judith Warner in Politico Magazine took on whether the “glass ceiling” has really been cracked for women in politics.

With Clinton’s nomination, “Dozens of other women across the country, in interviews at their offices or alongside their children, also said they felt on the cusp of a major, collective step forward,” reported Jodi Kantor for the New York Times.

According to, Philadelphia’s Maternity Care Coalition staffed “eight curtained breast-feeding stalls on site [at the DNC], complete with comfy chairs, side tables, and electrical outlets.” Republicans reportedly offered similar accommodations at their convention the week before.

Analysis Law and Policy

After ‘Whole Woman’s Health’ Decision, Advocates Should Fight Ultrasound Laws With Science

Imani Gandy

A return to data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous "informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling striking down two provisions of Texas’ omnibus anti-abortion law, has changed the reproductive rights landscape in ways that will reverberate in courts around the country for years to come. It is no longer acceptable—at least in theory—for a state to announce that a particular restriction advances an interest in women’s health and to expect courts and the public to take them at their word.

In an opinion driven by science and data, Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the majority in Whole Woman’s Health, weighed the costs and benefits of the two provisions of HB 2 at issue—the admitting privileges and ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements—and found them wanting. Texas had breezed through the Fifth Circuit without facing any real pushback on its manufactured claims that the two provisions advanced women’s health. Finally, Justice Breyer whipped out his figurative calculator and determined that those claims didn’t add up. For starters, Texas admitted that it didn’t know of a single instance where the admitting privileges requirement would have helped a woman get better treatment. And as for Texas’ claim that abortion should be performed in an ASC, Breyer pointed out that the state did not require the same of its midwifery clinics, and that childbirth is 14 times more likely to result in death.

So now, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out in the case’s concurring opinion, laws that “‘do little or nothing for health, but rather strew impediments to abortion’ cannot survive judicial inspection.” In other words, if a state says a restriction promotes women’s health and safety, that state will now have to prove it to the courts.

With this success under our belts, a similar return to science and data should aid in dismantling other laws ungrounded in any real facts, such as Texas’s onerous “informed consent” law—HB 15—which forces women to get an ultrasound that they may neither need nor afford, and which imposes a 24-hour waiting period.

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In Planned Parenthood v. Casey, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld parts of Pennsylvania’s “informed consent” law requiring abortion patients to receive a pamphlet developed by the state department of health, finding that it did not constitute an “undue burden” on the constitutional right to abortion. The basis? Protecting women’s mental health: “[I]n an attempt to ensure that a woman apprehends the full consequences of her decision, the State furthers the legitimate purpose of reducing the risk that a woman may elect an abortion, only to discover later, with devastating psychological consequences, that her decision was not fully informed.”

Texas took up Casey’s informed consent mantle and ran with it. In 2011, the legislature passed a law that forces patients to undergo a medical exam, whether or not their doctor thinks they need it, and that forces them to listen to information that the state wants them to hear, whether or not their doctor thinks that they need to hear it. The purpose of this law—at least in theory—is, again, to protect patients’ “mental health” by dissuading those who may be unsure about procedure.

The ultra-conservative Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in 2012, in Texas Medical Providers v. Lakey.

And make no mistake: The exam the law requires is invasive, and in some cases, cruelly so. As Beverly McPhail pointed out in the Houston Chronicle in 2011, transvaginal probes will often be necessary to comply with the law up to 10 to 12 weeks of pregnancy—which is when, according to the Guttmacher Institute, 91 percent of abortions take place. “Because the fetus is so small at this stage, traditional ultrasounds performed through the abdominal wall, ‘jelly on the belly,’ often cannot produce a clear image,” McPhail noted.

Instead, a “probe is inserted into the vagina, sending sound waves to reflect off body structures to produce an image of the fetus. Under this new law, a woman’s vagina will be penetrated without an opportunity for her to refuse due to coercion from the so-called ‘public servants’ who passed and signed this bill into law,” McPhail concluded.

There’s a reason why abortion advocates began decrying these laws as “rape by the state.”

If Texas legislators are concerned about the mental health of their citizens, particularly those who may have been the victims of sexual assault—or any woman who does not want a wand forcibly shoved into her body for no medical reason—they have a funny way of showing it.

They don’t seem terribly concerned about the well-being of the woman who wants desperately to be a mother but who decides to terminate a pregnancy that doctors tell her is not viable. Certainly, forcing that woman to undergo the painful experience of having an ultrasound image described to her—which the law mandates for the vast majority of patients—could be psychologically devastating.

But maybe Texas legislators don’t care that forcing a foreign object into a person’s body is the ultimate undue burden.

After all, if foisting ultrasounds onto women who have decided to terminate a pregnancy saves even one woman from a lifetime of “devastating psychologically damaging consequences,” then it will all have been worth it, right? Liberty and bodily autonomy be damned.

But what if there’s very little risk that a woman who gets an abortion experiences those “devastating psychological consequences”?

What if the information often provided by states in connection with their “informed consent” protocol does not actually lead to consent that is more informed, either because the information offered is outdated, biased, false, or flatly unnecessary given a particular pregnant person’s circumstance? Texas’ latest edition of its “Woman’s Right to Know” pamphlet, for example, contains even more false information than prior versions, including the medically disproven claim that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks gestation.

What if studies show—as they have since the American Psychological Association first conducted one to that effect in 1989—that abortion doesn’t increase the risk of mental health issues?

If the purpose of informed consent laws is to weed out women who have been coerced or who haven’t thought it through, then that purpose collapses if women who get abortions are, by and large, perfectly happy with their decision.

And that’s exactly what research has shown.

Scientific studies indicate that the vast majority of women don’t regret their abortions, and therefore are not devastated psychologically. They don’t fall into drug and alcohol addiction or attempt to kill themselves. But that hasn’t kept anti-choice activists from claiming otherwise.

It’s simply not true that abortion sends mentally healthy patients over the edge. In a study report released in 2008, the APA found that the strongest predictor of post-abortion mental health was prior mental health. In other words, if you’re already suffering from mental health issues before getting an abortion, you’re likely to suffer mental health issues afterward. But the studies most frequently cited in courts around the country prove, at best, an association between mental illness and abortion. When the studies controlled for “prior mental health and violence experience,” “no significant relation was found between abortion history and anxiety disorders.”

But what about forced ultrasound laws, specifically?

Science has its part to play in dismantling those, too.

If Whole Woman’s Health requires the weighing of costs and benefits to ensure that there’s a connection between the claimed purpose of an abortion restriction and the law’s effect, then laws that require a woman to get an ultrasound and to hear a description of it certainly fail that cost-benefit analysis. Science tells us forcing patients to view ultrasound images (as opposed to simply offering the opportunity for a woman to view ultrasound images) in order to give them “information” doesn’t dissuade them from having abortions.

Dr. Jen Gunter made this point in a blog post years ago: One 2009 study found that when given the option to view an ultrasound, nearly 73 percent of women chose to view the ultrasound image, and of those who chose to view it, 85 percent of women felt that it was a positive experience. And here’s the kicker: Not a single woman changed her mind about having an abortion.

Again, if women who choose to see ultrasounds don’t change their minds about getting an abortion, a law mandating that ultrasound in order to dissuade at least some women is, at best, useless. At worst, it’s yet another hurdle patients must leap to get care.

And what of the mandatory waiting period? Texas law requires a 24-hour waiting period—and the Court in Casey upheld a 24-hour waiting period—but states like Louisiana and Florida are increasing the waiting period to 72 hours.

There’s no evidence that forcing women into longer waiting periods has a measurable effect on a woman’s decision to get an abortion. One study conducted in Utah found that 86 percent of women had chosen to get the abortion after the waiting period was over. Eight percent of women chose not to get the abortion, but the most common reason given was that they were already conflicted about abortion in the first place. The author of that study recommended that clinics explore options with women seeking abortion and offer additional counseling to the small percentage of women who are conflicted about it, rather than states imposing a burdensome waiting period.

The bottom line is that the majority of women who choose abortion make up their minds and go through with it, irrespective of the many roadblocks placed in their way by overzealous state governments. And we know that those who cannot overcome those roadblocks—for financial or other reasons—are the ones who experience actual negative effects. As we saw in Whole Woman’s Health, those kinds of studies, when admitted as evidence in the court record, can be critical in striking restrictions down.

Of course, the Supreme Court has not always expressed an affinity for scientific data, as Justice Anthony Kennedy demonstrated in Gonzales v. Carhart, when he announced that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained,” even though he admitted there was “no reliable data to measure the phenomenon.” It was under Gonzales that so many legislators felt equipped to pass laws backed up by no legitimate scientific evidence in the first place.

Whole Woman’s Health offers reproductive rights advocates an opportunity to revisit a host of anti-choice restrictions that states claim are intended to advance one interest or another—whether it’s the state’s interest in fetal life or the state’s purported interest in the psychological well-being of its citizens. But if the laws don’t have their intended effects, and if they simply throw up obstacles in front of people seeking abortion, then perhaps, Whole Woman’s Health and its focus on scientific data will be the death knell of these laws too.