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Live Through This

Mermaid, oil on linen, 2012, by Allison Schulnik

NOTE: This essay contains graphic descriptions of rape.When I was in junior high, my friend Julia (not her real name) told me over the phone that she’d just lost her virginity to a neighbor who’d found her crying at home alone over a breakup. She was home alone, crying, when he’d knocked on the door and she invited him in. They’d sat down on the couch together as he comforted her, and then he fucked her there. She was 11. The neighbor was 19.

To whatever extent we can trust my memory from 17 years ago, I remember Julia sounded ambivalent, a little surprised and a little uncertain. She wasn’t outwardly distressed nor did she seem like a numbed zombie. When I asked her if she’d wanted to have sex with him, her answer was inconclusive. She didn’t give me details, and I didn’t press for them, partially because I was 12, and a virgin, and I could not imagine what such an experience would entail. I may have asked if he was cute. I think she said he was tall.

In our society, we recognize this as rape, an act of violence that in all its permutations (date, stranger, violent, anal, oral, gang) is understood to be the worst thing that can happen to a woman — worse than a serious car accident, worse than a protracted divorce, worse than the death of a parent. It is regularly equated with being murdered. It is life-shattering. It is soul-destroying. If you are a woman, you can never move past your rape; you can only “learn” to live with it, as though it is akin to abrupt blindness or a paralyzed limb. If it does not ruin you, it will at the very least change you forever for the worse. This is the only allowable truth about rape. There are no alternatives.

In my eight years as a sex worker, I’ve been sexually mistreated a relatively small number of times. For instance, I’ve been held down and penetrated without a condom twice, once vaginally and once anally, by separate men. The first was over so quickly that I was too shocked to have much of a reaction. He pulled out to ejaculate after maybe six rabbit fast strokes. It wasn’t painful. At that time I was providing so-called sensual massage, which means there was no implicit agreement for anything beyond a hand job. I was 22.

After he left, I gradually became furious. What I most wanted was not for him to serve jail time or face some retributive physical assault; what I wanted was the chance to berate him, to tear him down verbally for deciding he could use me, another human being, however he wanted and without consequence — ultimately, an accurate assessment on his part. I wanted to make him feel ashamed.

Then I mostly forgot about it. I didn’t quit my job. I didn’t stop enjoying sex.

“I didn’t think it was the most terrible thing that had ever happened to me,” writes Jenny Diski of her rape by a stranger at 14. “It was a very unpleasant experience, it hurt and I was trapped. But I had no sense that I was especially violated by the rape itself, not more than I would have been by any attack on my person and freedom. In 1961 it didn’t go without saying that to be penetrated against one’s will was a kind of spiritual murder.”

I resist calling any of my bad sexual experiences rape, at least in part because their impact on my sanity and happiness was negligible in the long term. Though feminists have a more then decade-long history of critiquing the way some women “never call it rape,” their efforts to define rape as a profound internal crisis exacerbate this problem. With that definition in place, my rapes are not serious enough to count. To call it rape seems too self-pitying, too histrionic. It feels like the entry card to a club in which I have no place, a group populated by PTSD sufferers and girls who cry themselves to sleep at night. It automatically implies a level of emotional damage that did not take place.

The second occasion (still during my massage days) a client left me with an anal tear and acute pain that I tried to live with for a year before finally giving in to surgery. People regularly get anal fissures, and many non-raped people have the same surgery I did. It cost about $10,000 and it was the right decision. In the years since, I’ve been able to defecate without crying. My doctor, a petite, elderly Jewish woman, spoke cheerfully of how I’d almost certainly tear again when — no “if” for her — I gave birth. I liked her despite of her pregnancy-centric approach. She had instruments and gauges that I can describe only as medical dildos, and I begged her not to put any of them in me. But of course she had to, for diagnostic purposes. When the time for my surgery came, my mother drove me to the hospital and took care of me for the weekend afterward, when I walked around my apartment stiffly in medical mesh panties that held stacks of gauze against my asshole to collect the blood. She didn’t know about what occasioned the procedure.

In an act that still mystifies me, I saw that client again, about a month after our previous encounter. It was a particularly busy time for the city and almost all rooms were sold out, so we met in the seediest hotel I’ve ever been in. It had only one window and only one towel, hand-size, hanging in the bathroom. I didn’t confront him about the past and he didn’t cross any boundaries. Nothing happened.

Like Jenny Diski, “I was more disgusted by [my rapist] than shamed or diminished.” The rape itself was minor compared with the aftermath, which was a considerable inconvenience, an interruption in the momentum of my pain-free life. Yet what he’d done, his inability to acknowledge it or apologize for it — “You drive me crazy,” he said after he tore my anus — made me more powerful than him. I felt in the position of knowing something he would never know, though I’m not sure what that knowledge is. How pathetic and impotent he seemed to me, perhaps, or how little he could ever truly hurt me in the ways that matter.

***

The idea that there might be different emotional responses to rape is not popular. All rapes are equally traumatic and those who suggest otherwise are labeled rape apologists. It is unforgivable to publicly question the mythologizing of rape’s status as the ruination of all women who go through it. Camille Paglia, who has been roundly denounced for her take on rape (among other things), has said that “rape is an outrage” but that she considers the “propaganda and hysteria” around rape “equally outrageous.” I’ve never forgotten reading her Spin interview from the early ’90s in which she shared the story of an acquaintance who had been raped and found the rape counseling more alarming than helpful because of its focus on the inability to recover. “The whole system now is designed to make you feel that you are maimed and mutilated forever,” Paglia said. “It made her feel worse.”

In 1998, novelist Fay Weldon suggested that while rape is a terrible and serious crime, it is not by definition “the worst thing that could happen to a woman.” She even qualified this by adding “if you’re safe, alive, and unmarked after,” but the level of insult and recrimination she faced was staggering regardless. She’d hurt all women with her “extremely dangerous” comment, she’d made it harder for women to “come forward,” she was “talking rubbish.” I hope I may be allowed to at least say that my rapes were not the worst thing to ever happen to me. They are not even in the top five. They are not the worst thing I can conceive of happening to me, nor happening to any human being. I can, of course, imagine rapes much worse than mine, but the idea that there may be degrees of rape is not a popular one, either.

Though some feminists regard “rape equals devastation” as sacred fact, the notion that a man can ruin me with his penis strikes me as the most complete expression of vintage misogyny available. Common sense instructs us that it is far more “dangerous” to insist to young women that they will be broken by an unwanted sex act than it is to propose they might have a happy, healthy, and sexually pleasant future ahead of them in spite of a sexual assault. Weldon ventured this same conclusion when she said that “defining it as some peculiarly awful crime may even be counter-productive.”

Similarly, Germaine Greer claimed, “It is not women who have decided that rape is so heinous, but men. The only weapon that counts in rape is the penis, which is conceptualized as devastating.” When we refuse to acknowledge the possibility that a rape could be anything less than a tsunami of emotional and mental destruction for a woman, we establish a fantasy of absolute male sexual power and absolute female vulnerability. We are, in essence, honoring the timeless belief that a woman’s worth, self-respect, and ability to function within society are dictated exclusively by the sexual use of her body.

What explains such an extreme attitude coming from otherwise progressive people? They are perhaps motivated by our society’s refusal to deal with rape as compassionately and thoroughly as we could. Rape kits go untested, rape charges (particularly those brought by sex workers) aren’t taken seriously, and rape victims are denied emergency contraception. Discussions of rape are almost always initiated by women, on behalf of women, and men are not expected to talk or think about this crime that, as with other assaultive offenses, they commit overwhelmingly more often than women.

But our culture is unable to address rape with the sobriety and clarity the topic deserves because we are still unable to address sex with the sobriety and clarity it deserves. The contention that rape should be regarded as an asexual act has done nothing to remedy this. Nor will it. As activist and writer Wendy McElroy points out, “there can be as many motives for rape as there are for murder and other violent crimes … Rape is every bit as complex.” Insisting that no rape is ever “about” sex but is rather about an individual man acting on a patriarchal mandate to sow terror by exercising “power” does a disservice to us all.

This sorry state of affairs should foster honest conversation, not suppress it. We should not be so desperate to establish the seriousness of rape that we stigmatize intelligent discussion of it. Though mugging victims may face sadness and anxiety in the period immediately following their assault, we do not expect them to attend therapy for years or to define themselves by the mugging for the rest of their lives. Somehow, we still manage to recognize armed robberies as a serious crime.

Yet nuance is felt as a threat by activists who cling to their depiction of rape as the ultimate horror. They seem to think that if it’s not the superlatively worst human experience, it will become acceptable or even more prevalent. There are no rational reasons behind this paranoia. Diski, for example, tells the story of her rape — during which she thinks, “aside from it hurts and it’s taking such a long time … ‘This’ll show my father’ ” — in the context of condemning Roman Polanski and advocating for his imprisonment. I have no problem experiencing outrage, sympathy, and compassion when I hear stories of other women’s rapes in spite of the fact that I am not particularly outraged by my own. And I have never once thought another woman’s rape should go without prosecution though I did not try to bring charges against the men responsible for my own. It’s never occurred to me that because I failed to fall apart after my rapes, rape should be legal or carry lesser penalties than it currently does. Even Paglia, arguably the single most outspoken rape-hysteria critic, professed a willingness to “help track down [a] rapist and punish him” — with her “switchblade,” no less. Skepticism towards the narrative of universal post-rape anguish does not equate to a pardon of rape.

No woman’s suffering (or lack thereof) should be a referendum on the suffering of others. One woman’s lack of trauma need not be construed as a judgment against a woman who struggles to regain her equilibrium after a sexual violation. It is only one of many possible responses, all of which are equally valid because rape is an individual’s experience, not a collective one, in spite of what current “rape culture” rhetoric often assumes. Just as I would like the right to experience my rape as not particularly upsetting, so I recognize the rights of others to experience it as the single most horrible incident in their life. It’s the insistence upon a single story that creates the problem. As McElroy writes, “Being raped was not the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I have recovered from it. Feminists who say otherwise are paying me disrespect.”

People who perpetuate the single story think they’re being supportive, but support is not synonymous with positing extreme suffering and then empathizing with it. The truth is that it does not suit our social narrative to recognize that a woman can be raped and get on with her life, can maintain sexual and romantic relationships without counseling, won’t think of her rape every day, and won’t see herself as a “survivor” or different in any material way. According to the cultural script, women are simply not strong enough to bear such an experience easily. We are expected to be creatures easily destroyed by sex and by physical violence, who endure in the wake of such assaults only through supreme efforts of will and assistance. And we forever wear the badge of “survivor” (so much more “empowering” than the word victim) because we are forever changed by this assault. Rape has altered the very core of our beings, because the cores of our beings, as women, are bound up in our sexual histories.

While men are the primary instigators of physical assault, they are also the primary targets, and we rarely expect them to be permanently emotionally scarred by an attack — that goes for sexual and nonsexual crimes. While compassion and awareness about male rape victims is increasing, it is still a black hole in most discussions of rape. Prison rape, in particular, is a nationwide epidemic and a nationwide punch line. Callousness toward prison rape is inextricably bound up in racism (since most prisoners are men of color) and the pervasive view that people in prison are expendable or less than human, but it benefits from cultural antipathy toward male rape in general. This disconnect highlights the sexism behind our figuration of female rape. (That phrase alone is almost redundant, so completely has rape been redefined as “men’s most successful aggression against women.”) Women need crisis centers, marches, and copious lip service paid to the trauma they’ve endured. But men barely warrant a mention.

***

Julia’s and my friendship loosened as the years went by. Her mother fought and eventually won a protracted battle against cancer. Julia was popular in high school, with a string of serious relationships. She went to college close to home and played varsity lacrosse as a freshman. She seemed to excel, and she seemed happy, but my ignorance of her inner life could be construed as proof of her emotional struggle. Maybe inside she was corroded, desperate, permanently damaged. Maybe our friendship dissolved in part because I, at 12, was not as supportive as I should have been when she told me about that day on the couch. Or maybe she was as content and as successful as the circumstances of her life indicate. We have only one readymade story to fill in the blanks, and it doesn’t support the latter.

And what about my rape story? There was another work incident I’ve not yet recounted. A client I’d seen several times before, and liked — for massage, again — said he wanted to put on a condom and have me sit in his lap, just so he could have his genitals safely near mine. I reluctantly agreed, and with his hands on my hips he angled himself inside. I struggled, but he held me still, shushing me, wrapping me in his arms. I said no and told him to stop, but there was no response. I started to cry, and then he broke his embrace. Nothing about the act was violent. I wasn’t afraid of him. I wasn’t in pain. It was terrible nonetheless.

I fled into the bathroom and locked the door. He knocked and told me to come out. He asked what was wrong. There was a large, long mirror above the sink, and I had to see myself in it, crying and pacing, until I finally sat down to escape it. I tried to hide the tremors in my voice. I said I was fine but could he please leave? No, he would not. No matter how many times I asked or told him to leave, he would not. I had to come out of the bathroom and I had to be with him, let him hug me and hold my hand. I had to play the part of the consensual lover, the girl who had some type of flighty breakdown but allowed herself to be comforted by the older man.

That was the worst part, far worse than the act itself. It was a grotesque, unsettling experience to be forced to misrepresent my reality for the appeasement of someone else.

But at least it lasted only briefly, and then it was over.

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