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by Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin
About ten months ago, I went through exactly what’s been described as “legitimate rape”. I was raped late at night, on a dark street, by a stranger, at knife point. It was entirely stereotypical. With one exception. The man didn’t have any English, but just before he ran away he said one word to me. “Sorry”.
Moments previously, he was terrifying, he had complete control over my body and my survival and then suddenly he became terrified himself and was completely diminished. He wasn’t a monster, he wasn’t evil. He’d just lost his empathy. For fifteen or twenty minutes he was completely desensitised to the fact that I was a human too. He was weak and pathetic.
In that moment, before I’d had any time to think or process, I was overwhelmingly relieved to be in my position and not his. My body, mind and dignity were all severely wounded, but my humanity was intact.
The last few weeks have been intensely difficult. Each time I risk thinking “it can’t get any worse” someone else in a position of power, an Akin, Assange, Galloway or Smith, casually dismisses and disparages the victims of rape. Those of us in the feminist (read: humane) community have understandably lashed out in various angry, emotional ways. However, as every possible aspect of rape is interrogated across the political spectrum, I feel there’s something missing. As a friend of mine put it, “we’ve mocked, raged and laughed because we didn’t know what else to do for long enough.” Sexual and gender-based violence is rarely, if ever, so high on the political agenda. So this isn’t a moment to simply rage against individual figures and offences. Instead, it’s time to galvanise the pain and anger into a solutions-based discussion of the one question that really matters.
How do we stop rape?
We can educate young people, frankly and non-judgmentally, about what consent is because it has become frighteningly apparent that they genuinely don’t know. Victims don’t report rape, because it’s hours, days, weeks or years before that they realise that they were raped. Friends, families, doctors, lawyers, judges and politicians don’t give rape victims the support they need or rapists the judgement they deserve because they don’t believe that what happened was “legitimate rape”.
Most importantly, the confusion over consent actively causes rape to occur because potential perpetrators don’t develop the necessary checks on their sexual behaviour. Ignorance should not be a defence. The victim has to endure trauma, injury and shame whether or not the rapist understood the gravity of what he was doing. That said, if you read the ‘Reddit Rapist’ thread multiple men recount experiences of withdrawing from a sexual encounter at the last minute, having seen the fear or horror on their partners’ faces. They are haunted and frightened by how close they came to rape. Now think of all the young men who didn’t notice, have raped and could have spared both themselves and their victims if they’d been given more education and taught more sensitivity.
Most of us, if we had any sex education at all, were students of the Tina Fey school of sex-ed; “If you have sex you will get chlamydia and die!” It’s directive, blunt and too often taught by ill-equipped teachers, who are victims of the same sexual taboos as their students. As a result, the students never get to ask the important questions and sexual expectations are filtered through porn, romcoms, religious beliefs, Fifty Shades of Grey, gendered expectations, peer pressure and groundless braggadocio.
Imagine instead, effective courses in “Sexuality and Society”, peer-supported and led by well-trained, respectful adults. No matter how cool they try to play it, teenagers, like us all, are scared at the prospect of sex. Who’s having it? How are they having it? How often are they having it? Is it only slutty girls who instigate sex? Is the man expected to take control? Do women actually say no when they mean yes? Can men be raped? Do you have to perform oral sex? What are the sexual dynamics of gay relationships?
When there’s an enforced hush around these subjects, they take on vastly greater power and significance. An issue that could have been dealt with in an hour in a classroom or community group must instead be dealt with over a lifetime of shame, guilt, trauma, and sexual dysfunction. All because adults are squeamish about sex. Achieving change will require individuals, particularly parents and teachers, to consciously roll back the sexual stigma and taboo we’ve all been raised with, but it’s a price worth paying.
We already have our trailblazers for this process. The women and men who, in the face of a society that shames and blames them, come out as victims and survivors of rape who refuse to be silenced or stigmatised.
The phrase “come out” is chosen deliberately. The LGBT community has long recognised that by coming out and creating a human face for homosexuality, individuals can affect dramatic social change. Suddenly ordinary people can’t view homosexuality as something that happens far away in big cities, among a particular type of people. Rather, it’s in their workplaces, in their churches, in their schools, in their living rooms, in their families. Gay people become ordinary people too.
The same thing can happen with rape. At present, many people believe that they don’t know any rape victims. That’s close to statistically impossible, but the impression persists because victims are pressured into silence. So people can continue to believe that rape happens to certain types of women, that it’s committed by certain types of obviously depraved men, that it can be prevented by demure behaviour and good sense. When victims are empowered to speak out, that process of distancing becomes impossible. Rape becomes a real issue in people’s communities, families, lives and living rooms. And that makes it an urgent political issue.
I was raped. Acknowledging that is severely painful, but the pain isn’t exclusively mine. Rape, every time it happens, is a loss and an affront to us all. Let’s recognise that and let’s stop it happening.
Niamh Ni Mhaoileoin is an Irish writer, globetrotter, and feminist for hire. She graduated with honors from Trinity College Dublin as one of the top debaters in the world, and now campaigns against domestic violence, prostitution, and human trafficking. More of her writing can be found at her blog, Leigh Anois Go Curamach.