I thought a lot about rape this past weekend. It started after I read Mary Adkins’ very good and—to the detriment of my holiday weekend—very thought provoking—article, ”The Misguided Definition of Rape as ‘Force.’” I emailed her after reading the article, and we talked a lot about rape and force.
Then the shootings at UC Santa Barbara happened. It is probably telling that my first reaction was to be outraged that this man was able to buy a gun so easily, rather than to be angry about the chilling misogyny inherent in the crime. It’s not that I didn’t see the chilling misogyny; I did. I simply took it in stride. A man had gone on a shooting spree to kill women as he blamed them instead of some painfully obvious personal issues for being a 22-year-old virgin? Not particularly shocking. I watched the video of his pre-massacre explanation, thought, “Yeah, that about sums it up,” and then went on with my life.
Then Sunday morning, I saw the #YesAllWomen hashtag trending on Twitter, and I read through the tweets. I found myself having the same problem a lot of women mentioned—I wanted to retweet, but quickly realized that I would be retweeting just about everything I read because every bit of it was so reflective of my own experience as a woman.
One oft-retweeted quote stuck with me: “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.” It’s attributed to Margaret Atwood, from her 1982 Hagey lecture at the University of Waterloo, “Writing the Male Character,” and it really isn’t a quote as much as it is a summation of a point she is making in the lecture. The first part of the quote is the response of a male friend of Atwood’s to the question, “Why do men feel threatened by women?” The second part is the response of women in a poetry workshop when Atwood asked them why women felt threatened by men.
The full response of Atwood’s male friend is, “Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Upset their world view.” And that phrase, “upset their world view,” took me back to the beginning of my thoughts this weekend, rape and men’s world view.
I was raped when I was 18. The circumstances were stock—I was young, and I had just experienced an upheaval in my family life, so I was vulnerable too. A “friend” gave my number to an older man in his 40s, a photographer, who called me wanting me to model for him. I knew not to go with strangers. I knew that—particularly not strangers with vans, and especially not strangers with vans with a large dog in them. But I wanted to believe that something good could happen for me at that time, because I had just been through a lot of bad.
Long story short, he bought me beer (I was too young to buy my own and not very experienced as a drinker anyway). He handed me a joint. I was trying to look grown up. I was going to be a model! (Stock—like I said.)
We ended up in the middle of nowhere, ostensibly because there was to be a full moon that night, so we had to get away from the city lights to use the moonlight for our photo shoot. I was a little drunk and a lot high when he brought out his portfolio. I remember my mounting panic as I sat next to him, my feet dangling off the side of the van, trying to look casual and unruffled while turning through page after page of nearly naked women in various states of light bondage. One, I remember, involved a snake. I also remember looking out in front of me and seeing a small meadow surrounded by thick woods. The full moon he had talked about hadn’t risen yet. I saw no lights in the distance that might indicate refuge. Few people had cell phones then.
Of course, not too long after that, he made his move. As I said, we were far from any main road, far from any houses. I had no means of calling for help. The man was bigger than me, and he had a dog with him. I had with me years of training, both direct and indirect, regarding what to do in such situations, and “fight him off” wasn’t on the list. Sure, I’d sat through the obligatory self-defense instruction in health class in high school, and even there, after being shown a few moves that none of us were going to be able to reproduce if confronted with an honest to goodness threat, we were told that in the event of a rape, if running away wasn’t an option, our best defense was simply to submit so that we didn’t get killed.
I did say no. Several times. I said I didn’t want to. I shook my head, and turned my face away. I struggled in a manner that I hoped conveyed my resistance firmly, yet politely enough that he would’t get angry and clock me upside the head or tie me up or choke me or all of those things and more. When he kept pushing, I looked at my situation—in truth, I had been running the calculus all night, but simply ignoring the mounting frightening results because I didn’t know what to do about them—and I did what I determined I needed to do to survive: I stopped resisting.
In his world view, if he has ever wondered about it at all, the act probably ended up being consensual. It didn’t.
Did I surrender my right of self-possession voluntarily because I didn’t physically fight that night? I can’t fathom that I did, any more than a slave is somehow less a slave for failing to battle his enslavement in the face of a system designed to keep him enslaved. After a time, the threat of force—even the implied threat—is all that is needed to compel compliance, and to actively physically resist is irrational. A woman already acutely knows the odds are not in her favor, that resistance may be an option, but success likely will not be the outcome. The battle is well underway even before a threatening act takes place—it has been underway her whole life. In other words, “women are afraid that men will kill them.”
This brings me back to men’s world view. The notion of requiring force for a rape to be a rape assumes a fight with a likelihood of victory. Women, however, carry a lifetime of direct and indirect messaging that in any fight with a man, they will lose. I asked my husband what he would do if someone came up behind him in a parking lot at nighttime with the intent of assaulting him. He said he would turn and fight without thinking. I, on the other hand—even in that instant, that fight or flight moment—would begin to calculate the benefits and risks of resistance versus submission. It’s impossible to discuss rape—let alone attempt a legal definition of the crime that actually protects potential victims rather than doing them further harm—without understanding that difference.
Even so, for the longest time, I didn’t call it rape because there was no overt force. I didn’t have a bruise or a cut. I wasn’t horrifically injured or choked. I didn’t bleed. I believe I owe that to my decision that anything more than measured resistance could lead at best to injury and at worst to my death, that making him “force” me could well do nothing more than piss off the man on top of me (or arouse him further; I wasn’t unaware of the politics of rape, even then) and make the situation much more dangerous for me. To say that absent force I wasn’t raped, as Mary pointed out during our discussion, would have compounded what happened by depriving me of my ability to act on my own analysis of the situation to keep myself alive. Having surrendered my body, I would be required to surrender my brain and my intuition as well.
Yet, in an odd way, not calling it by name then did preserve me. It meant I wasn’t a victim. Instead, I was a person who got herself into a situation that was beyond her control, and then got herself out of it alive. Had I been required to fight a man who had a good sixty pounds on me, in my state of intoxication, in his van with his large dog (who, granted, seemed nice enough, at least when I wasn’t challenging his master), knowing that I was miles from civilization and had allowed the deck to be stacked so thoroughly against me, that may well not have been the case. I might not have walked away. I certainly would have suffered much more trauma, both physical and emotional, than I did.
Even still, for years I kept all of this to myself. Eventually, though, I did tell those close to me. And I did, after a while, come to call it what it was. I was raped that night. If it upsets someone’s world view, I’m okay with that.
Terri Moran lives in Phoenix with her husband and three dogs. She writes and teaches writing and literature.