Trigger warning: rape, rape culture, rape apologetics and victim-blaming
One of the major themes hit upon by Richard Dawkins’ most recent attempt at creating an objective scale of relative harm, much to the detriment of everyone who’s been harmed by things he’s decreed as zero bad, is that he did not find his own sexual assault particularly bad insofar as he had a support network of other people who were assaulted the same way.
His own encounter was brief, and he did not find it to be particularly off-putting except for an explicit description of the “cremasteric reflex” which makes me cringe just to hear it. He does not recall whether or not he knew of any of his compatriots having been mistreated more than the once. He did not report it to the authorities, but he did report it to his friends, who supported him because they experienced it themselves.
That’s not how most sexual assaults go, and so it makes a certain amount of sense that Dawkins considers his assault relatively “mild”. But it’s not like that sexual assault was made less of a violation of his sexual autonomy by dint of the specific nature of the assault itself, but rather the circumstances around it. Stephanie explains how even the mildest of sexual assaults have a number of re-victimizations that occur as a result of the victim trying to cope. If there are objective scales to the levels of harm of a particular experience, they don’t come from the singular instance of being assaulted against your consent, but they come from a number of other factors that might be true for one assault but not true for another, like not being able to get support to cope with the assault itself. Like gaslighting, being made to feel the assault was your fault. Like violence. Like even death.
Attempted rapes can result in the same sort of emotional trauma, even if the assaulter didn’t manage to follow through, as completed ones. Especially if you’re treated as a liar and a cheat for being assaulted. Your reputation could be ruined, your partner dumps you, your parents blame you, and if you’ve thoroughly internalized the narrative, you believe you’re the one that’s responsible for the trainwreck your life has become.
My parents were furious – at me.
“Why were you alone on the bus with him?”
“How do we know you weren’t actually trying to do things with him?”
“You should know better than to behave like this.”
In my desperate attempt to have somebody understand or support me in what I was going through, I told a few of my friends what had happened. I quickly found out that they weren’t my friends, as word of what had taken place started to spread around the school. Eventually the story made its way to neighboring schools, including the school my boyfriend went to. He dumped me.
My assailant, while not one of the “cool kids” at the time, became increasingly popular. He apologized to me, at the urging of my youth pastor, but continued to trash me as a “slut who wanted it.” Meanwhile, I was urged to forgive him and move on. Learn from my mistake and be more careful going forward. It was suggested that I try to get him to come back to youth group.
I continued to internalize this narrative over the years, sinking further into a depression that was exacerbated by my growing disillusionment with organized religion. I craved positive attention from anyone because I told myself I was lucky that they’d want to associate with a mess like me.
The perfect victim — the one that appears to be the only one any random troll on the internet would agree is a victim — has to be violently raped against her consent, preferably by multiple people, preferably while being video recorded or with (multiple male) witnesses who are willing to come forward and don’t just nip out the door with an “oops, sorry, heh heh”.
Oh, but even then, she’d best have been in full control of her faculties, and not incapacitated by having drank too much or having been slipped something in a drink — because despite the fact that a man passed out at a party generally gets penises drawn on his face, everyone knows the rules are different for a girl, and any girl who drinks despite this forfeits her right to refuse sexual contact. See, in rape culture, if you’re a girl, instead of having drawings of penises put on your face without your consent, you get penises and/or other items put into orifices without your consent.
The perfect victim must also report to the police, make it through the screening where they’re browbeaten into admitting it was all made up, then submit to a rape kit immediately — assuming it’s a woman who’s been raped by a man, and there was penile penetration, naturally. Other rape victims won’t be so lucky as to make it past that stage, because they are not perfect enough victims. And only those rapes where there’s ejaculate is there a chance that the rape kit won’t come back negative and the police will tell you no rape occurred. If the rape kit is tested at all, so there’s an element of chance in determining your level of perfection.
And heaven forefend this victim is cajoled into saying yes or only says yes to avoid the repercussions of saying no to someone who’s planning on doing it anyway. Because once you’ve said yes once, to one type of contact — or even once you’ve said I Do — you’re now unrapeable in perpetuity.
So basically, there is no such thing as the perfect victim. Every victim is imperfect, and therefore the people inclined to disbelieve every rape story — everyone who wants rape culture to stay the way it is; everyone who thinks women are actually the villains here making as many false and malicious rape claims as possible to destroy men; everyone who thinks there’s such a thing as a Just World where bad guys must “look like” bad guys, and will have bad things happen to them through karmic retribution if they’re legitimately rapists — will harangue every rape victim they encounter in as public and as destructive a manner as possible.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how rape culture self-perpetuates — it will re-victimize the victims and ensure rape is rarely treated like a serious crime. Except for the most grievous cases, and even then, rape culture will try its damnedest to beat THEM down, too. Rape apologists will try their damnedest to “be skeptical” about your experiences, even the ones that have tons of evidence, as though there was something novel or unique about them, as though they demand the same from any other equally likely hypotheses like “someone stole some money from my car” or “I lost my wallet”. Because the more ground rape culture warriors can gain, the more things you as a victim of rape can do to tarnish your own reputation to the point of making you unrapeable, and the more rapes can occur with impunity.
So what can we do about this?
Well, pointing it out helps, so that others who’ve been victimized know they are not alone in their experience. Sharing your stories publicly is one of the best things you can do, if — and ONLY if — you have the mental wherewithal to deal with the rape culture warriors who think they get to decide whether or not your experience was “real rape”.
If you are not a rape victim, one of the most important things you can do is to point out these lapses in empathy, familiarize yourself with the techniques used for rape apologetics and combat them when you encounter them. They are well entrenched. They are easily as pervasive as any other woo belief in our society, and they are likely objectively more harmful than most of said beliefs. And above all, make a safe space for people to share their stories, and do what you can to keep that space as safe as you can. This will, of course, carry personal cost, when the perpetuators of rape culture realize you’re not on their side.