Trigger warning: discussion of sexual assault.
I was sexually assaulted by my boyfriend when I was fourteen and I have only told a few key people in my life. I believe that in this culture of rape and backlash the public has received a sort of binary system that leaves many out, like me. I was assaulted, but I was not raped.
There are many reasons why people don’t discuss being victimized by assault and sexual assault, specifically. Feelings of humiliation, fear, uncertainty, vulnerability, self-blame, the list goes on. There are also many reasons for these feelings. One I want to address today is the feeling that victims of sexual assault have when they compare their experiences to others’.
With this focus on rape and preventing rape, we can let slip the other forms of sexual assault. I see products like anti-rape condoms or panties, and some messaging that basically talks about stopping sexual encounters “before they go too far.” Putting aside victim-blaming issues here, the fight is interpreted as having categories of “rape” and “not rape” and many victims of sexual assault find themselves in the latter category, not deserving of attention or help.
I told a good friend about the details of my assault years after it happened and long after he had been suspicious that something had occurred. His response was “I was worried he had raped you.” It was like he was sighing relief. “Thank God it was only a milder form of assault.” I shut up for a long time after that. He was the second one to react in a non-supportive manner and because his view seemed to reflect more of a social standing than a personal opinion, I figured no one would care. I figured I shouldn’t care. I wasn’t raped.
Another friend told me to be glad that I have become such a strong person because of the experience, I think her exact word was “thankful”. I found her response disgusting so I didn’t take it to be a reflection on public opinion, but I don’t believe I’d be hearing those words had I been raped.
I have mutual friends with my attacker and I told one of my friends that I wasn’t going to explain all the details because I was afraid of how he would react. I wanted to protect my attacker from needless violence from my friend, but I never expected them to stay close. My friend acted as if this was another occurrence in life. He knew something bad happened, he knew I was upset, yet it felt like he treated it as something minor, something to ignore.
Sexual assault is not being seen as its own damaging, immoral, illegal, deplorable, and victimizing action. It’s seen as “not rape” and I believe that comes in part by how our backlash on rape culture is received. When a rape attempt is not successful, it’s seen as a good thing, as a prevention of an evil, and so anything that happened otherwise is interpreted as “good” and “not rape,” despite the multitudes of varying victimizing actions that can occur leading up to rape. Those who were attacked but were not raped may feel like they prevented a worse occurrence, but not necessarily that they stopped victimization.
This has heavy implications on those who were never under threat of rape as well, like me. The goal of my then-boyfriend was not penetration. What happened was not a failed rape, it was a completed assault. Yet I sit here, seven years later, still unable to tell my family, still unable to address the topic with my attacker, although we have spoken since. I sit here still believing that pursuing criminal charges would be disproportionate. I sit here still using a pseudonym to write all this because I was not raped.
Part of what silences me is the context. We were both young and I wanted to believe I could handle an adult relationship. I didn’t want to believe what was happening to me and I wanted to “work through it” rather than end it, but I’ve grown so much over the years and I still am silenced by my belief that others have it worse and I should yield to them. I still see my experience as “not rape.”
I feel this every time I bring up the subject. I’ve been told that rape is the most damaging form of assault and so it will always be, in comparison, worse. That’s my point here. There is a constant comparison of forms of sexual assault and judgements are made as to which are “more damaging.” This sense of being “better off in comparison” is what silences me and many others.
All victims deserve recognition, deserve help, deserve a chance to fight back, despite who “has it worse.” Rape victims shouldn’t be silenced, assault victims shouldn’t be silenced, harassment victims shouldn’t be silenced. We should stop creating this idea that preventing penetrative rape at any cost results entirely in something good.
Preventing rape doesn’t prevent victimization, humiliation, fear, vulnerability, or even assault. Preventing rape only prevents rape and patting ourselves on the back for it only gives reason to believe that every victimization should be compared to rape and deemed either as “less damaging” or “equally damaging.”
There are many messages being sent out by those against rape culture, and there are many ways to wrongly interpret those messages; one of them is to focus on a narrow definition of rape.