Disturbance in a safe space

By Jane

Rape victims must always be believed. I am convinced of this, and wrote about it in the last issue of Slingshot. When we fail to believe our rape victims, we uphold rape culture. It is vital that, when someone speaks up about rape or sexual assault, their complaint is taken seriously, and that the perpetrator is made to leave their spaces—not as a punishment, but simply to allow the victim to be able to heal.

99 out of 100 times, a complaint of rape or harassment will be true. But once in a blue moon, you’ll get someone who is using the word “rape” wrong or misrepresenting what it means to be raped. Mis-representing the word “rape” hurts real rape victims by giving others an excuse to discredit their stories.

So, in one of the community spaces where I’ve provided rape counseling to victims, there was a young woman who kept getting raped by different people. Like, every couple weeks it was happening. I want to tell her story because I think it complicates the issue of rape. And complicating the issue is good, I think because it helps undermine the tactic of weaponizing accusations of rape. I mean, it doesn’t help victims when the concept of rape is treated like a monolith. Each instance of rape or assault is an individual and complex thing. Organizers have the habit of hearing the word “rape” and jumping into “protect the victim mode,” but I think this is just a way of protecting themselves from having to hold space for the victim’s story. And in extremely rare cases, the victim’s story, when you really hold space for it and take time to actually listen to it, doesn’t add up.

So, there was this woman, who I will call Alice, in our community space, who had had a complicated, unique, traumatic experience of being raped in high school, after which she survived a period of sex addiction and sexual disassociation. She was now in her mid-twenties, and after a period of healing, she had joined our community space, and she did a lot of great organizing work! She did a lot of emotional labor, bringing big smiles, delicious food, and good weed that she generously shared. She made our revolutionary space feel good, and was awesome to have around.

Then came a series of rape accusations from her, in which she would tell the group that someone from the community had come over to her house to hang out, and while there, had raped her. WHOA! This really freaked everyone out.

At first, the accused people were banned. But this kept happening to her, sometimes on a weekly basis. After a while, no one knew how to react to it. I was on the road, and watched everything unfold from afar as the community eventually stopped listening to Alice. Since I wasn’t there as this went down, I found myself wondering: What was up with the collective? Were they just totally ignorant of the patterns of rapists to gravitate towards raping people who have already been victimized?

Rapists tend to target women who have already been raped: the trauma/dissociation makes it easier to rape them. This observation is backed up by CDC (Center of Disease Control + Prevention) data that shows being raped in the past significantly increases your likelihood of being raped again (2010). So, it’s totally likely that a person will be the “canary in the coal mine” in your community: a previous rape victim will likely be the first to get raped when a new rapist joins the community.

Perhaps the reason why, in our culture, we disassociate from listening to the stories of rape victims is we are terrified of making space for women’s oppression. Yes, rape happens 20 times more to women, and when it happens to us, we are blamed for it, vs. men, who are often told it was the rapist’s fault, not theirs when they step forward. According to the CDC, around 1% of the male population reports being raped or experiencing sexual violence, while over 50% of women will experience rape or sexual violence in her lifetime, and 100% of women are threatened with sexual violence on a daily or weekly basis. Sexual violence is a targeted thing towards women that holds us down as a group of people. There are people who constantly threaten us with sexual violence, and yet it is totally ignored!—not okay! The fact that some voters just elected an out rapist as commander-in-chief really shows the degree to which people in our culture dissociate from the sexual violence and threats women must contend with every moment of our waking reality.

Not all men rape, only 4% of men commit over 90% of all reported rapes—averaging around 6 rapes before they are finally “caught.” (according to one Nytimes study)

Not all men rape, but men benefit from rape. They benefit from having half the populace held in constant fear of having violence enacted against them. There are “protector” men who capitalize off of the fear created in women by the work of rapists in the form of extracting free emotional labor from women who seek “protection.” Sublimated fear of rape and sexual violence also makes women less apt to negotiate and compete with men in the workplace. Pervasive fear of sexual violence warps women’s personalities in this culture, leading women to become more timid, or go the opposite and become hyper-feminine and dissociated from their sexuality. It is impossible to stay grounded in the world without being thrown off center by the pervasiveness of rape culture and sexual threats. Rape is the most visceral component to the systematic oppression of the female gender, an oppression that we dissociate from because we are terrified of confronting it.

We don’t believe rape victims because we don’t hear them. Their stories terrify us. We want the rape not to have happened. So we dissociate from every damn report of it. Which, I believe, is what enables it to keep happening again and again.

These types of thoughts were going through my head as I watched on social media, from afar, as my community space stopped listening to Alice and her complains of rape. But soon, I realized that something complex was going on, though: While my community had stopped listening to Alice, they were still listening to other women who were stepping forward with (often less extreme) cases of harassment. The space was still working hard to acknowledge and honor victims, including repeat victims. Just not Alice…

Last year, I was homeless while job- and apartment-hunting, and Alice offered to let me stay at her place for a few days. “You can even sleep in my bed,” she said over the phone, squealing gleefully. I was excited to see her, for sure, but really didn’t need to displace her from her bed. But she insisted. She would take the sofa, she explained. Something about this made me nervous, but I shrugged off those feelings. This was Alice. Someone in my community—someone I loved in a very Jouissance sort of way. Jouissance: that love of others in the flow of daily life, a sort of love that lets us find roles for each other on desire, but rather the glee that is building community and bounty together.

The first night I slept at Alice’s, I was mostly in and out doing job interviews and didn’t see much of her. The second day, though, she wanted to watch a TV show on her laptop with me, so I said, “Sure.” Then she jumped into her bed, and gestured that I get in with her. Hesitantly, I took a spot on the bed next to her, leaving a gap between us.

Within a few minutes of the show starting, her fingers found their way on my arm, and then she lifted one of her legs and swung it over mine and began lightly humping me.

“Dude,” I said, and I sat up and scooted away from her, asking her to please explain what she thought was going on.

“I was just cuddling!” she explained. “This is what I like to do with my friends!”

In the weeks that followed, she and I had some really hard conversations, and I began to unravel what had happened between her and the others in the community who she had accused of raping her.

In her mind, “being raped” was simply to have sex when you don’t want it. It didn’t matter to her if she initiated that sex. Nor did it matter if she never said “no” or “stop” and continued to initiate intercourse until it was over.

As she told the stories of her supposed experiences of rape, I realized “rape” was not the right word for what she was experiencing. It was still very sad. But it wasn’t rape. It was addiction. And she was blaming the people who had participated in her addiction the same way an alcoholic might blame an empty bottle for have allowed itself to have been emptied.

I don’t consider what she did to me that day assault, but she could have assaulted me if I hadn’t stopped her. Her pattern of intimacy was the same as any garden-variety abuser: victimizing others while telling yourself the story “But I am the victim here.”

Later, she explained that she had been raped in high school. She had been raped by a popular kid at her ultra-liberal un-school, and when she and her mother came forward with the rape accusation, the school officials decided to let the student body vote about whether to believe her. This is the same kind of thing we now know never to do in community spaces: it re-traumatizes the victim to be forced into politicking about their experience. Rape isn’t a political thing. It’s a trauma. Like being hit by a car. And being forced to debate against her rapist in front of her entire school left her on the verge of psychosis. The experience led her to drop out of school, run away from home, and ultimately experience more abuse and grew addicted and detached from sex.

I think some subtle, semi-conscious part of her was determined to victimize me. Not because I had done anything wrong to her, but because she wanted to stop being a victim and didn’t know how. In an anti-victim society, the only way to get your story out, weirdly, is without words: is to hurt other people.