How People Typically React to Victims of Rape and How they Should React
Sexual assault is a much bigger issue in today’s society than many people understand.
We all hear the statistics. According to National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women will be raped in her lifetime. I remember hearing these types of statistics early in my adolescent years. I put it in the back of my mind with cancer statistics, chances of dropping out of college and other risks I could potentially face, but it really didn’t feel real to me. "One in some number will be plagued with something." My eyes would glaze over.
Then, in 2008, I hosted a girls’ night at my apartment in college. Nine women from various parts of Arkansas who all moved here to go to college came to my apartment to eat cookies and listen to whatever rock group was popular then. We were sitting in a circle talking and one girl starting talking about her son. We were all a little baffled that she had a son because all of us were really young. We started showering her with questions. “How old is he? Is the dad in your life? How difficult is it to have a child in school?” She answered the first question with “He is 11.”
We were all shocked. She was our age and she had an eleven year old!?! Is that possible? At this point she decided to share with us the horrific story of how she lost her virginity by being raped while she was passed out at a party. She didn’t even know she wasn’t a virgin anymore until her doctor told her she was pregnant. This story sparked stories from other girls in the circle about their own rape experiences. At one point I looked around the room and asked who all had been raped. I was the only person who did not raise their hand. Little did I know by the time I turned 24, I would be able to raise my hand too.
This gathering was where I realized sexual assault was a much bigger problem than I had ever imagined. Young women from all different cities around Arkansas and more shared a similar fate when it came to rape. What a horrible thing to have in common. I never forgot that night.
Rape culture is deeply embedded into our jokes, photos, conversations, social media posts, porn and even our legal system. It is so pervasive, yet many do not recognize it in everyday situations. For those of you who aren’t sure what rape culture is exactly: it is the normalizing of rape and sexual abuse while placing the blame on the victims.
Many do not understand how to react when a victim comes forward and speaks about her experience. The victims often get the opposite of what they need. If you have experienced sexual assault, you might be familiar. If you haven’t, use the scenario below to try and understand.
Imagine you have just been in a car accident. A week later you are telling your friend about it. Now imagine the following questions are your friend’s first response:
“Is that really considered a car accident?”
“How much were you drinking?”
“What were you wearing?”
“You were driving, what did you expect?”
“Did you clearly tell the other car not to hit you?”
“Why were you driving by yourself?”
“Are you sure you didn’t swerve or stop too quickly and that caused the accident?”
“Why did you drive down a road you didn’t know?”
I imagine you would feel frustrated and angry that your friend didn’t really believe you and actually blamed you for something you could not help. After a while, if enough of your friends, family members and even police react this way, you might think, “Maybe they are right. Maybe I should not have driven by myself. Maybe if I had worn more clothes my seat belt rash wouldn’t have been as bad,” etc.
Victims of rape often receive this victim-shaming treatment. People around them often question every minuscule decision they made in the moments leading up to the rape. They don’t truly hear the victim. Instead they tell them how it was their fault or how they could have prevented it. This way of thinking is dangerous and perpetuates rape culture.
One of the possible explanations for victim shaming is creating a false sense of safety. People who victim shame assume these things won’t happen to them if they follow a certain set of rules. It makes them feel safe and isolated from the incident their friend is confiding in them about. But the sense of safety and control is false. Anyone can be sexually assaulted and often times it is by those we trust and in our own safe spaces. Check out What Were You Wearing to read stories about the variety of experiences many women have faced and see what they were wearing.
To make matters worse, the Huffington post reported that the US ranks 13th in the world for rapes. As a woman, your chance of getting raped in the US is around 25%. And the perception of women is not so great either. According to a study, college students think 50% of rape claims are false. Another study found that only 2-8% are actually false, which is consistent with lies about other crimes. The rape culture in our society perpetuates these types of attitudes toward sexual assault victims.
Now that I have done a little research, I see it everywhere, and I can’t ignore it. I am sure many of you are thinking “Come on, no one is for rape. Do we really live in a rape culture?” Sure, the majority of us don’t want people to rape, but they do, and our actions help to embed that way of thinking into our culture and to normalize it. When a victim comes forward, she will likely be victim-shamed. She will be asked ridiculous questions about how the decisions she made produced the outcome of assault.
When I first started this project, I thought I had only been sexually assaulted once. After reading more and more about sexual assault, I realized I have been sexually assaulted many times since I was a young girl. The one that has been the most difficult to deal with is one that many would say I brought upon myself thanks to rape culture.
Below is about as much as I would be able to say in person to close friends without getting overly upset. I wouldn’t be able to go into much detail. Honestly, it would be too difficult. Especially for the first year or two after it happened.
It was a Saturday night in 2013. I was in a bar in a foreign country. I drank way too much. I talked to a cute guy and kissed him after talking for a while. I left with him. I passed out on the bed of a hotel that he drove us to and he had sex with me.
What are the first questions that come to mind? Honestly.
I imagine some questions that might come to mind could include the following:
“Is that really rape? You left with him didn’t you? You even kissed him!”
“Why did you drink so much?”
”Why were you even drinking at all?”
“Why were you at a bar?”
“Why weren’t you more careful in a foreign country?”
“Why did you leave with a guy you DID NOT know?”
“Why would you go to a hotel with him?”
“Did you say “no” explicitly?”
“What were you wearing?”
“Did you fight or try to get away?”
“Did you report it? If it was really rape then why didn’t you report it?”
The shortened version of my story above is most of what I had the courage to tell my friends days after it happened not wanting to relive the horrible details of the night.
Here is a more detailed account.
I was an English teacher living in South Korea for a year. Drinking is a huge part of the culture, but overall it is a pretty safe country. I even felt fine walking home alone in the middle of the night, which is something I don’t feel in many places in America.
My friends and I were excited to go to this new bar downtown. They had a $15 drink special that night. Pay $15 and get as many cocktails as you want. I love bargains! I drank way too much and at one point I was falling asleep in one of the side rooms. My friend shook me awake and tried to offer me a cab home. For some reason I wanted to stay. I promised to wake up and went and found another friend group. There were two Korean guys talking together. One was obviously intoxicated. The other said he was the drunk guy’s brother and that he was his driver. His English was broken, but that was what I gathered.
I remember thinking it was really sweet of him to be sober and taking care of his brother. We talked for a while and eventually kissed. He kept refilling my drink as soon as it was empty. I was getting a little wobbly and he said something about going home. I thought he was offering a ride. I was okay with that. For some reason as I was about to leave I had a really weird feeling. As we were about to walk outside I looked over to my friend and shook my head as the guy had my hand and was motioning me out the door. My friend ran over and yelled at the guy about how I didn’t want to leave with him.
They started arguing and they were about to get in a fight. I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable and I didn’t want to get kicked out of the bar, so I convinced my friend that I was okay with leaving with the guy. Looking back, I attribute these actions to growing up as a woman and being taught that being polite and putting everyone else’s comfort above your own was most important.
I grabbed the guy’s hand and rushed him outside. We got in his car. I was slurring my speech and trying to explain to him how to get to my apartment.
We drove and drove and drove. I fell asleep at one point. I woke up with him helping me out of the car and I was trying to ask him where we were, but the words just wouldn’t come. I saw we were at a hotel. I was scared, but I still thought I was in control.
He bought a room and I fumbled up the stairs. The desk clerk gave me a concerned look and the two exchanged words in Korean. While I was fumbling I was trying to come up with a plan. I thought ‘well, maybe I will just lay on the bed, curl up and pretend to be asleep. He will leave me alone if I am asleep. I was naive. He tried to wake me, but I kept my eyes closed waiting for him to leave me alone. I did not want to have sex with him. He suddenly unbuttoned his pants.
When he was unsuccessful at "waking me" up, he proceeded to undress me and rape me as my motionless body lied on the bed.
As soon as it was over, I was careful not to move. I waited until he had been snoring for a while before I grabbed my clothes and sprinted out of the room.
Tears fell down my face as I walked out of the hotel and over to the street to attempt to get a cab. I had no idea where I was. I just stood there, so mad at myself. I blamed myself. How could I drink so much? Why did I leave with him? Why couldn’t I move? Why didn’t I scream? Why didn’t I punch him?
After about 15 minutes of extreme self-loathing, a cab finally came.
I didn’t want to report it, because blaming myself was an easier way to handle it. If I thought I had created the situation, then I knew I had the power to prevent it in the future. This was that false sense of safety I mentioned earlier. I was victim shaming myself. Now I know that many women will experience rape. Sober, drunk, by a stranger, by a friend, by a family member, at a bar, in a house, in a car. Once I learned the difficult truth about rape statistics and rape culture, I knew it was not something in my control. I wanted to know what I could do help others who went through what I did and how to help them not blame themselves.
What I have learned is that a part of the solution is education. Rape is NEVER the victim's fault! And if someone is passed out or appears to be passed out, no consent can be given therefore no sexual contact should happen. When fooling around, you shouldn’t wait to hear a “no,” you should always ask and wait until you clearly hear a “yes.”
If a victim comes to you here are some things you can say instead of victim-shaming (intentionally or unintentionally):
“I believe you.”
“How are you feeling?”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“What do you need?”
“Thank you for sharing this with me; I know how hard it must be to talk about.”
“Do you need to talk to someone about this?”
Never, ever ask the victim questions like “What were you wearing?” I often tell people that if I walk down the street naked, it is not an invitation to have sex with me and it is certainly not consent.
I have also learned that rapists will often use alcohol to make their victims more vulnerable, much like in my case. Women are also taught from a young age to be lady-like and to avoid making others uncomfortable. Ever wonder why women are known to apologize more often? We are taught to put everyone else’s comfort above our own, just like I did when my friend was trying to protect me at the bar. I didn’t want to disrupt everyone’s night at the bar. I didn’t want to cause a scene.
Society fails women through rape culture every day. I am one of those women. And the statistics are far worse for women of color, members of the LQBTQ community and those with disabilities. Educate, hold criminals accountable and help everyone persevere. Because when one group is oppressed, we all are.