(Mostly) for men: what women want you to know about rape
This is for all the wonderful men I know who urgently want things to change, who truly care, who keep asking “What can we do?” – especially you, Richard de Nooy. I know you know most of this stuff already, but please pass it on. Note that this might be hard for some to read. So there is a fluffy kitty video at the end.
This Women’s Month, what do women want men to understand about rape, a trauma that affects one in three of us?
Everyday Good Guy: “I’m not a rapist. What’s this got to do with me?”
Well, that one-in-three figure, for starters. It’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that you might know one or even two men who’ve been raped, but I guarantee that you know a woman who’s a rape survivor – probably quite a few. In 2012, journalist David Moseley wrote movingly about his worst fear: a call telling him a woman he loved had been raped. You don’t want to be that guy, either. Everybody with half a brain knows that men need to stop raping, rather than putting the onus on women to avoid it. The more you know, the more you educate, the less likely it is that you’ll get that call.
So: this is what we need you to know.
If you or someone you know is dealing with the immediate aftermath of rape (and I sincerely hope this is never the case for you), then Rape Crisis has step-by-step instructions on what to do next. They will also support you through every next step of the process. They are the ambulances and paramedics of sexual assault, and every day, thousands of families give thanks for them on their knees.
But assuming that this isn’t the case, here’s the more general “need-to-know” stuff on rape.
First off, penetrative rape hurts – physically. If the cervix doesn’t retract (a normal result of arousal), repeated blows against it feel very similar to being kicked in the balls. The shock waves travel up through the Fallopian tubes, creating even more pain. Meanwhile, vaginal tissue can tear. Wrap your head around this. Make sure your sons, friends and colleagues understand this.
Why the need to explain this? There’s not much research on rapists (big surprise there), and what there is is dated, but one thing it does prove is that a terrifying number truly believe that a woman can “enjoy” being raped, if she would just “relax”. The same sort of (il)logic informs the homophobic rape of lesbians (don’t, just don’t, use the term “corrective rape” in my hearing). It’s also worth noting that study populations of rapists complain that they find the assaults they carry out can be uncomfortable and even painful. About 26% of them don’t even ejaculate. Rapists, seriously: why don’t you just wank? Answer: because rape isn’t about sex. It’s an act of (covertly) sanctioned policing, intimate dominance and hatred.
Second, if you laugh along with rape jokes in the shebeen or bar, if you speak demeaningly of women and their bodies, you’re part of rape culture – the covert (and not so covert) social, religious, cultural, marketing and media messages that women exist for purposes of sexual consumption or as objects of temptation, while men are either slavering beasts or entitled to help themselves to the (dehumanised) booty. (I am not explaining rape culture further. Google will get you about 1,630,000 hits.) How do you get your fellows to shut up? In an ideal world, the only answer would be “Women are human beings. How is sexually assaulting and hurting them in any way a joke?” But you might need to be strategic, in which case: “Guys, that’s not funny. My wife/sister/mother/daughter/niece/granny/aunt/girlfriend/co-worker (one of these is sure to be true) is a rape survivor.”
Third, if a woman tells you she’s experienced sexual violence, don’t respond by: a) demanding to know if she went to the police; b) threatening to rip out the bastard’s throat; c) getting visibly embarrassed.
Re b) and c): Ninety-nine out of a hundred women who tell a man close to them that they’ve been raped then have to calm HIM down. This is not exactly helpful. Violent and angry words, no matter how righteous, are often the last thing someone who’s experienced violence need to hear. Chill. You can call a counsellor afterwards if you need to get stuff off your chest, but right now this is NOT about you.
Re a), the police question is infuriating, as if reporting is some sort of panacea, whereas it’s both extremely traumatic and often a pointless exercise. Thousands of rapists threaten their victims, or say “If you tell, I’ll just deny it, and everyone will believe me, not you.” (Sadly, both rapist and assaultee know perfectly well that this is often the truth.) In addition, a lot of men behave as if their criminal behaviour is consistent with a normal “romantic” or “hook-up” script, which can leave you wondering if you’ve gone mad. When I was sexually assaulted decades ago in the US, right afterwards (I physically fought the guy off, and when that failed, threatened to vomit on him), the fuckwit wanted us to hold hands and make dinner plans. Callow ignorant youth? He was in his forties, with an Oxbridge doctorate. Try to imagine reporting rape in a world absolutely enmeshed in this kind of narrative. Then there are all the other anxieties – “But I was drinking” or “I was dressed for clubbing” or “his sister is my best friend” – that pop up. Women are also marinated in rape culture.
Rape, like any other violent trauma, or bereavement, is an emotional earthquake that alters the landscape of our lives. It does terrible things to trust. Denial – the pretence that nothing happened – is a common response, especially as rape is a lot easier to keep hidden than more visible attacks or losses. I know women who’ve kept their fingers in their mental ears for months, years, decades, before being able to acknowledge or process what was done to them.
So, back to what you, Mr Everyday Good Guy, should be doing. Simple: we need you to LISTEN. You are not required to respond with the wisdom of the ages. Just say: “That sounds awful. I can’t imagine what that must have been like. I’m really sorry that happened to you.” Learn these sentences off by heart. And mean them when you say them. You can also try “How are you feeling about this now?” (but only if you really want to hear the response) or “This wasn’t your fault.” A wonderful police detective tells me this is the most useful first thing he tells ANY victim of ANY crime – the narrative of victim-blaming sets in that soon. (Once, when I was in extremis, the same cop sat me down and showed me pictures of his cat. Christian Cloete, wherever you are, I hope the Pope is speeding along with that sainthood.)
Learn to recognise symptoms of shock (shivering, numbness, dizziness, glassy eyes, rapid breathing). Wrap us in a blanket or something woolly and make us a hot, sweet drink. And remember that women’s tears are not kryptonite. We usually feel better after shedding them. What should you do when a woman weeps in your presence? Pass her the tissue-box. Wait. Stay quiet. This is NOT only “women’s stuff”. Learn to deal.
Remember, women usually talk to share the load, NOT to demand an answer or a solution. And in any case, you can’t solve our problems until you’ve really listened to them. I’m no Oprah pusher, but this is a truly helpful link on listening by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.
The most powerful thing you can say to a woman: “I’m here for you.”
Please consider donating to Rape Crisis for Women’s Month: they do the heavy lifting.
PS: Want the references for the factual claims? Google my name and “rape”. There are several published papers, one journal article and a few book chapters out there.
PPS: And here are the fluff-bundles that cheer (I like to think these are Star Wars cats, but they’re actually Pallas Cat kittens in the wilds of Mongolia).