Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Rape in a Rape Culture: Victim or Victor?

My name is Mary.  I am a victim of rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault.
 Feeling uncomfortable yet?  

Rape.  It's an uncomfortable topic to discuss on a serious level; just thinking about it can create an awkward silence, and yet rape is a predominant issue in our world today, as evidenced by the sensationalized headlines and the amount of attention they draw. The discussion of the "rape culture" in which we find ourselves living is slowly rising to the forefront of today's hot button issues in society.  The statistics on rape here in the US are staggering: every 2 minutes someone in the US is sexually assaulted, an estimated 1 in 6 American women has survived either an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime, in reality the odds are probably far greater since rape is the most under reported crime, with only around 39% of rapes being reported, and 1 in 4 college women will survive a rape or attempted rape by the time they graduate.  (Get The Facts, KnowYourIX, NIJ & CDCP)  Growing up, girls are taught how to not get raped: don’t walk alone at night, don’t leave your cup sitting unwatched at a party, don’t talk to strangers, scream “fire” not “rape”, the list goes on and on.  So rather than teaching men to respect women and not to rape, our society teaches women how to avoid the monsters that are inevitably out there hunting for prey.  This mindset leads to the grossest injustice in our society: victim blaming.  

As a victim, I can confidently attest to the stigma society places on rape survivors.  I was one of the majority of survivors who both knew their rapist and chose not to report, and it was because at the time I thought I was to blame; after all, I’d been taught how to be “smart” and “safe”, so I must have failed.   Everyone knows of a rape case, whether personally or from mass media, where a woman reports a rape and then is publicly crucified and criticized.  In our society, those labeled as a rape survivor are typically viewed as being responsible for their rape because of what they were wearing, how much they had to drink, pre-rape intimacy, flirtation with their rapist, their sexual history, and many other preposterous reasons. According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting Program (UCR) as of 2013, rape is defined as “a 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.”  Somehow, our world seems to forget that in order for a rape to occur, there has to be a rapist--someone who made the conscious choice to sexually violate someone.  

Rape survivors are burdened with blame and shame, rather than being given support, and rapists are very rarely given any real negative consequences--only about 6% of rapists ever serve a day in jail. (Get The Facts)  This is a core issue at not only the low reporting rate of rape, but also why the statistics for being raped are so high.  Rapists know their victims are unlikely to report and that they are unlikely to face any consequences.  For example, there are fraternity houses known as “rape factories,” often jokingly; so if you get raped by one of the fraternity brothers there, it’s the victims fault because they chose to go there knowing it would happen.  This is something that needs to change in our society.  While I’m an advocate for being able to protect oneself, I also don’t think it should be the job of potential victims to avoid rapists.  Rather, it should be our society’s job to crack down on rape.  Instead of teaching women how to avoid getting raped, we need to send a message that rape is not ok and will be punished.

Survivors face more than just a stigma, rape leaves lasting and painful effects.  Victims are three times more likely to suffer from depression, six times more likely to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol, 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, and four times more likely to contemplate suicide. (NIJ & CDCP)  Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often seen in rape survivors to varying degrees and lasting for different lengths of time from weeks to years; its symptoms are grouped into three categories according to the National Institute of Mental Health: re-experiencing, avoidance, and hyper-arousal.  (RAINN)  Some more specific symptoms include flashbacks, night terrors, avoiding people, places, and situations that remind the victim of the attack, depression, inability to remember parts of the trauma, difficulty sleeping, and being easily startled.  In short, the attack isn’t just one bad moment that is easily forgotten and moved past; survivors often relive the attack in night terrors or flashbacks, suffer from depression and anxiety, and struggle with just functioning day to day.  Rape survivors, much like combat veterans and others with PTSD, need support and understanding, but our society is one that enjoys dark sensational headlines in the media but not the reality of the long term effects of the crimes inspiring those headlines.  

Personally, my PTSD has lasted for years but, although there are still things that will trigger panic attacks and other symptoms, I have finally reached a point where I can function and live my life without a constant struggle.  It’s the general public’s reaction to these lasting effects that really burdens survivors; often people are understanding in the beginning, but soon grow frustrated because they think you should have moved on.  Over time, I quit letting people get close to me because I knew my anxiety over new and unknown people and situations would frustrate my friends.  Many people that I’ve known for most of my life have no idea about why I fell out of touch or what I have been through.  It only took a couple of people not being able to understand for the message to become completely ingrained: “It’s in the past, it’s time to move on.  All of this upset and drama is completely unnecessary.”  My shame increased exponentially with every passing day that I struggled, I had not only allowed myself to be raped but I couldn’t suck it up and move on fast enough either.  This message to victims is absolutely unacceptable, and is something that I hope will change as awareness of rape and PTSD is spread; I can only hope that it is sheer ignorance that leads people to treat victims poorly.  Victims should be able to stop being victims and allowed to be survivors, to own their past and be open about their struggles, and to be accepted and supported.  I’ve spent nearly a decade keeping quiet because I feared the blame and judgment of those who were once close to me, but it is time for this to end.  For any change to ever occur, people have to speak up about their story, to not only spread awareness and get people talking and thinking, but also to give other victims the courage to take back their lives.

My name is Mary.  I am a victim of rape, attempted rape, and sexual assault.  I have PTSD.  I am choosing to stop being a victim, and to start being a survivor.

Will you join me?