What Rape Is Really Like—Unfiltered
I've debated for the last five years whether I should share this story, but in the wake of President Donald Trump excusing his statements of sexual assault as "locker room talk," Brock Turner’s ridiculously fluffy rape case sentence, the sexual entitlement that played a huge role in the Elliot Rodger Isla Vista murders back in 2014, the Bill Cosby trial, and countless other terrifying examples, I finally realized that my story can't just be mine anymore—and that my silence was actually contributing to the problem. A problem that has been hushed and scoffed and made light of with a "Well, boys will be boys" attitude and a cute shrug. A problem that has become so ingrained in our society that many people deny it even exists. Well, I’m here to tell you that this problem does, in fact, exist. It’s called Rape Culture.
Rape culture is pervasive. Rape culture is normalized. Rape cultural behavior includes victim blaming, sexual objectification, trivializing rape, denial of widespread rape, among other things.
I could list countless examples of how rape culture exists in our society through reports shared by the media (e.g. the outcome of People v. Turner, the objectification of women in television and film, the viral video "10 Hours of Walking in NYC as a Woman," the blame Jennifer Lawrence received when hackers leaked her personal nude photos, etc.), but that distances you from the reality of it. It is too impersonal. So that's why I want you to know that I, personally, have been affected by rape culture in many ways, but I will focus on one story in particular to highlight several components of rape culture's definition.
I'm shaking as I begin to write this story—out of anger, out of shame, out of fear of judgment, out of sadness, out of reliving the memory—but it's finally time for me to step up and share. I do so in hopes that it will enlighten some of you to the omnipresent rape culture realities that women (and men) are faced with daily because, in order to fix a problem, we must be bold enough to acknowledge it first. Here goes:
My junior year of college at USC, I had broken up with my long-distance boyfriend and was single for the first time in two years. After the breakup, I wanted to take some time to focus on myself, my classes, my career, and my friends, and I didn't want to be in a relationship for a while. I also had this personal rule that I wouldn't have sex with anyone that I wasn't in a relationship with or heading towards a relationship with.
So, when Jason* asked me out, I was very upfront with him about my intentions: that I didn't want us to be anything serious and, therefore, that I wasn't going to have sex with him. If he was okay with just hanging out, making out, and watching movies together, we could do that, but that's all it would ever be. He said he understood, and we started doing just that. But with each hangout, he became more and more sexually aggressive with me. I had to repeatedly tell him "no" and "we're not going to have sex." He even started calling me "Nikias," (a nickname he created for me in reference to the President of USC at the time, Max Nikias, who had imposed sanctions on parties thrown by the fraternities, which Jason related to me imposing "sanctions" on sex), so he was very aware of my position on the matter.
One night, I went to his fraternity's date party with him and got a little drunk (at the time I did not drink often, but he kept buying me drinks and it was a special occasion, so I accepted them). I remember us kissing on the bus ride home, clumsily stumbling off of the bus and then somehow winding up at the door of his room. We were kissing in the doorway when he picked me up, closed the door, and threw me onto his couch, where he began kissing me and grabbing me more aggressively. I tried to push him away to slow him down a bit, but he pinned my arms down with one hand and put his body weight on me (he was a 6'4" collegiate athlete and I am 5'3" and petite) and continued kissing me.
He was pressing into my arms pretty hard, and it began to hurt so I said, "Ow, Jason, my arms," to bring his attention to the matter, but he ignored me and continued kissing me. He then reached his hand up my dress and I clenched my legs together and said "no, no, no" playfully, to ease the tension a bit. He tried to open my legs anyway and, in my head, I wondered if he didn’t realize that I was being serious, so I said, "Jason, no," more firmly. But he was unfazed. He continued to pry into my clenched legs with his hand and, as I tried to free my arms, he pressed down on them harder and harder, while I exclaimed "ow" and "no" and "don't" and tried to wiggle free from his grip. I was becoming more nervous about the situation so I began to giggle; laughing made me feel like I actually had a part in the situation and that I had more control than I did, and I also hoped it would lighten the mood and lessen the blow of my sexual rejections for him. I was still thinking about how this was making him feel instead of the implications of what he was doing to me—until he finally pried my legs open aggressively, kneeled between them, keeping them apart, pulled my underwear aside, and inserted his fingers into me. I was shocked. I couldn’t believe he actually did it.
He began fingering me and, as I was physically restrained and mentally weakened by the alcohol, and I just stopped fighting it.
To find some sort of peace in this invasion that wasn't going to cease, I convinced myself that, since I was no longer virgin to his fingers, it didn't matter if he kept doing it, so I might as well try to enjoy it. After some time, he began kissing down my stomach to give me oral. I tried to gain control over the situation again and said "no" and pulled his head back up, but he got hold of my hands again and pinned them back down by my side. He lifted my dress so my underwear and stomach were exposed, and I tried to clench my legs together again to physically say "no" along with my verbal "no's." He didn’t care, though.
He yanked my underwear down to my ankles and pried my legs open again. He put his unwanted mouth on my most personal, private, exposed part and, finally, I was tainted by his tongue. I tried to force myself to enjoy this part as well, but it didn't feel good. It wasn't sweet or hot or sensual. I didn't feel comforted or wanted or sexy, or like he was doing something nice for me. It wasn't even for me at all — it was for him. I didn't matter. I was just a body.
He began "talking dirty" to me (even though I had previously told him that I didn't like that), calling me a "tease" and "you little bitch." He'd say, "you like that, don’t you, you little slut" as he bit and sucked on me hard and slapped my vagina. It was unpleasant and, at times, painful, but mostly, it was humiliating.
After that, I reached out to see him a few more times. So crazy of me, right? I didn't even like him much, but I didn't want to end our fling because of what had happened that night, because that would mean actually admitting that something wrong did happen and that something was taken away from me without my consent, which would entail that I was a victim of sorts. That something had happened to me. My whole life, I had always prided myself on being an empowered, strong woman. I was active, not passive. Nothing happened to me; I made things happen. Therefore, in my head, an acknowledgment of being a victim would rattle the core of what I founded myself on and shatter my whole identity. I wanted to be in charge of myself, so I ignored what happened and just continued hanging out with him like it wasn't a big deal.
He invited me to another of his fraternity's parties one night, and I drank again at this one. He took me back to his room and, at that point, I was used to him doing what he wanted to me, so I endured him fingering and eating me out again. I wouldn't do anything sexual back to him though. That was the only control I had left; I would never actively give him what he wanted. We were on his bed and he kept trying to force my head down onto his penis so that I would give him oral, but I refused to do it and wouldn't open my mouth. He was annoyed, but he let it go. Or so I thought.
We made out a little more, and then I either passed out due to the alcohol, or legitimately fell asleep because it was late (I forget which one, and truthfully, whether alcohol was involved or not is irrelevant). Either way, I was asleep and then was awoken by a pressure inside of and on top of me. I opened my eyes disconcertedly and came to recognize that Jason was on top of me, thrusting his penis in and out of me, repeatedly, and without a condom. I was confused but instinctively pushed him off of me while yelling, "Were you just inside of me!?" He replied, "Jeez, give me more credit than that," which wasn't an apology or an explanation; it was a joke about his penis size.
I was disoriented and annoyed and in shock, but I felt bad for yelling at him. I also felt bad since I knew at that point that he liked me more than I liked him, so I made an excuse for him in my head. "I'm sure he was just confused," I thought. I remember going to him and giving him little kisses on his shoulders, his neck, his cheeks, and his eyelids. Each kiss was an apology from me on his behalf and an "It's okay" in my head and a vain attempt to erase with my lips what he had done.
I had always been a strong, intelligent, self-assured, and empowered feminist with a good head on her shoulders—someone who was confident and loved herself and knew what she deserved. Yet I kissed my own rapist. Multiple times. I kissed my rapist as a means to comfort him so that he'd think, "Don't worry, it's okay." Or maybe so I'd think, "Don't worry, I'm okay?" I don't know. All I know is that it was the most pathetic thing I have ever done in my life, and my identity and self-esteem has suffered immensely because of that seemingly small action.
I've retrospectively realized that, for the last five years, I've only romantically pursued douchebag guys who have treated me awfully, and I have pushed away any of the good guys who I'd actually have a chance of real love with, as a way to punish myself for being so utterly pathetic that night. Because I didn't deserve love anymore. I was tainted, I was stupid, I was a hypocrite, I was ugly inside. My core that I had been trying so hard to protect was shattered; each kiss had pierced it until I broke myself and my pieces fell to the ground all around me. I lost myself. Thank goodness for my best friends who knew me so well; they reminded me of who I was and how strong I was and, in time, helped me find the strength to put the pieces of my shattered identity back together again.
I remember walking back home by myself the morning after my rape feeling confused, sullied, and hollow. Heavy, but like something was missing. I tried to tell myself that I was just annoyed at Jason and that this feeling wasn't anything significant. That last night didn't change me or anything. I didn't even use the word rape to describe what had happened for about a year or two.
Once I finally came to terms with it, I decided to confide in some family members and close friends, and the reactions of a few of them were surprisingly disappointing. The majority of my family and friends were supportive and thought that what he did was wrong; that it was a black and white scenario since I had said "no."
But some of them thought differently, and believed that there were "shades of gray" in what defines rape (as I’m sure some of you do, too). One of my guy friends told me that, no, I wasn't raped, because A. I had chosen to go back to Jason's room that night, B. I had hooked up with him before, C. I was giggling and that must've confused him, D. I shouldn't have gotten drunk anyway, E. I kissed him afterwards and F. because "Alina, what else do you expect would've happened? You were an idiot."
Another close family member was aiming to be sympathetic but said, "That kind of stuff happens all of the time, sweetie. It's happened to me before, too. You're fine. You just have to be more careful next time." That statement was meant to be comforting but just put the blame back on me and dismissed the severity of his actions and the impact they had on me, and used the "boys will be boys" mentality that attempts to excuse men of all consequences of their actions.
Those negative reactions from my family and friends are textbook examples of the pervasive influence of rape culture, along with my very own denial of being raped at first, my minimization of what had happened and its effect on me, how I victim-blamed myself, my excuse-making for Jason, and even the justification of my normal drinking patterns and sexual habits while sharing my story. And those reactions are in response to only one story of how I've been affected by rape culture. We'd be here all day if I analyzed my countless other examples (e.g. inappropriate grabbing in clubs, catcalls, sexual coercion by dates, sexual harassment at work, etc.).
Because of the fact that those responses came from some of the people closest to me, and myself included initially, you can only imagine why I have been, and still am, very nervous to share this story on the Internet. But these reactions are precisely the reason why I must speak out. Like I said, the first step toward fixing rape culture is acknowledging what it is, which includes educating people on what constitutes rape.
Consent is the key word when it comes to rape, and seems to be the word located in the “gray area,” which many people feel exists. To eliminate that gray area, let me put consent in simple terms:
• It doesn’t matter if you are a prostitute or a preacher, "no" always means "no."
• Even if you say "yes" initially, you are allowed to change your mind at ANY time and say "no."
• If you are drunk, sleeping, underage or incapacitated in any way, it is always a "no."
Now that we understand what rape is, and what consent is, let's eliminate the rape culture surrounding it. How do we do this? BY SPEAKING UP.
According to the "Statistics About Sexual Violence" from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives." It also reports that rape is the most under-reported crime, with 63 percent of sexual assaults not reported to police.
How are people supposed to believe in and combat rape culture, when rape isn't even acknowledged as a public health crisis? How are we supposed to fight in the dark against something that people are too afraid to admit exists?
It's time to turn on the lights and acknowledge that there is a problem here. It's time to speak up about it. Speak up and seek help if you've been sexually assaulted. Speak up if you see a woman slurring her words and stumbling off of a bus with a man; check on her and ask her if she is okay. Speak up if your "hilarious" friend catcalls a woman on the street; just call him out. If you see something wrong, say something. If your friend confides in you that she or he was raped, believe that person. Give your friend support, not blame. And, most importantly, let's educate our children on what consent means, so that there's never a question or "gray" area in the future again.
As I reflect on how strongly I was shaking when I first started writing, I felt so much self-doubt and embarrassment and fear. But now, even after how pathetic my rape experience left me feeling for the last five years, writing this has given me more power over it than ever before. Because I've finally found the courage to say something about it and I know that, although he may have taken a certain part of me, he will never have the power to take away my voice. My voice empowers me, and it is mine, always.
I remember back in high school, someone had vandalized my car with penises and wrote in marker "Women's Rights" with a big X through it. I came home, anxious that my dad would be mad at me for my actions being the catalyst for someone ruining the car he had lent me. I showed it to him nervously, not sure of what my punishment was going to be, but he came outside, saw the car, and gave me the biggest hug ever. Confused, I asked him, "Papa, you're not mad at me?" He grabbed me by the shoulders and said, "Ali, you took a stand on something you believe in. And you didn't let anyone else's opinions silence you. I have never been more proud of you in my life. Never stop fighting for what you believe in."
So, ladies and gentleman, here I am, taking a stand and fighting for what I believe in, whatever backlash may occur. I stand by this essay, I fight for you with my story, and I urge you to SPEAK UP. We need your voices now more than ever.
(*Name has been changed)
Anyone affected by sexual assault, whether it happened to you or someone you care about, can find support on the National Sexual Assault Hotline: 800.656.HOPE (4673). You can also visit online.rainn.org to receive support via confidential online chat.