Trigger warning– “This is hella triggery.” -one of my proofreaders. Discussion of rape culture and graphic description of a rape (starts below the photo of Taylor Swift in a white dress comforting a redheaded girl).
Also, if you are my parents you should not read this. Please stop here and close this page.
I grew up the pastor’s daughter in fundamentalist evangelical churches in the Deep South. The church and southern culture both have pretty particular ideas about how women should be and what they’re worth and where that value derives from and the consequences of deviating from prescribed behavior.
This virginity cult(ure) is a tentacle of our lovely rape culture, and it serves very effectively to help women know that they bear the blame for any sexual assault that happens to them other than “stranger jumps out at me in the church parking lot in the daytime.”
I am going to have a whole post on the virginity culture and its pernicious tenets and effects that follows this, but especially in light of the media coverage surrounding the Steubenville rape case and recent verdict, I want to get this post out first.
One aspect of that southern culture that I simultaneously loved and loathed was that when I was in college, I was never “allowed” to walk alone at night. I definitely could have if I wanted to, but I never had to ask for, and I never lacked, an escort across campus in the dark no matter how short or far the distance. And since I’m terrified of walking alone in the dark, I certainly appreciated my friends’ efforts. But I hated myself for wanting it, and I hated the world that I needed it.
I’m a physically strong woman with an aggressive personality, and people joke sometimes to me that they wouldn’t want to meet me on a dark street. I’ve had a disturbing number of people tell me they know I’ll never get raped because I’d never let that happen. That they don’t worry about me. Generally, I silently choke through that part of the conversation, trying not to look like a frozen weirdo, because they don’t know that it’s too late to say it’ll never happen to me, they don’t know or don’t care to think about my horror at the implication that if I’m raped I “let” it happen to me, and they don’t know or don’t care to think about the reality that rape doesn’t always (or even often) involve strangers and streets.
Being escorted at night and jokes about meeting on a dark street both perpetuate the prevalent
idea lie that rape is only something that strangers and criminals do. But rapists are people, too. They’re people you probably know. They might have sex with someone without bothering to ascertain consent. But they would never call that rape. Most of your mutual friends may not use the rape word, either.
Semi-random fact- I like a lot of Taylor Swift’s music. I like a fair amount of simple/simplistic country and pop as long as the story’s not offensive (I’m very much a lyrics person) and it’s easy to sing along with. Swift’s music also paints a world that most of my cooler/more liberal/more west-coast in their philosophy/more ‘hate country music’ friends really enjoy mocking but which strikes me as more “familiar” than “incomprehensible.”
There’s a bit in her song “Fifteen” that laments: “Abigail gave everything that she had/ to a boy who changed his mind/ and we both cried.”
I’ve read feminist screeds against how boring and unrealistic that song is, and surely nobody thinks like that?! [“the song feels like a cloying imagining of a the kind of sheltered high school experience you see on “safe” TV”]…. but guys… I cried so hard when I heard that song for the first time. Not because I still believe that your virginity is the only thing you have, but because I absolutely believed that when I lost mine.
The weekend I graduated high school, I met a dashing, preppy guy who’d graduated a few years ahead of me. His name wasn’t Rhett, but it was something equally charming and classically Southern. We were at the wedding of one of the church elders’ daughter’s, and it was a fancy one, with a pavilion and a bandstand and a dance floor set up in the elder’s expansive yard on the lakefront. After the ceremony, we danced the relaxed and sweet “Carolina Shag” swing dance to live beach music all night, till I had actual blisters on my feet. I’ve always been a sucker for a boy who can (and will) dance. I got a big crush on him, and I really wanted him to like me. A few weeks later, but still a few weeks shy of my 18th birthday, I lost my virginity when he raped me at his house.
We’d fooled around at least half a dozen times at that point, going as far as getting naked and making out. He rather liked to finger me from behind while I was up on my hands and knees. I rather liked that, too. So when he told me to turn over and kneel on his parents’ white couch, that’s what I was drunkenly expecting. (my critical thinking skills were maybe not at peak capacity.) I had told him I was a virgin, though in retrospect I don’t know whether or not he’d believed me.
What I was not expecting was his dick in me, pretty much all in one go. I was on my hands and knees on the couch and he was standing on the floor. Somewhat gratuitous detail? But you can generate a lot more force to thrust from standing on a solid floor than from kneeling behind someone on a squishy couch. It’s also, obviously, a configuration for very deep penetration.
It hurt so badly that I was stunned into an immobile haze that I was gradually pulled out of by the realization that I was bleeding a not-insignificant amount as he fucked me. I couldn’t hold any thoughts together except that I’d die if I bled on his parents’ white couch, so I eventually made him get off of me so I could go wipe up the blood. I don’t remember what I said to accomplish this but I don’t remember it being difficult once I used my words.
I wiped myself off in the bathroom and stared at the blood for some amount of time, I have no idea how long. I had to work myself up to leave the bathroom, because I knew I had to go back out there and let him finish. And one of my greatest regrets in this life is that I did.
I continued having sex with him all that summer, because all the things I knew about sex at that point made it seem like a logical option.
– You should NOT have sex without being married,
– but if you do, it’s sort-of marginally acceptable to have had only one partner. More partners than that makes you a slut.
– It’s normal for sex to hurt for a girl the first time. It might hurt for a while.
– But it eventually gets better, and then sex is fun.
– I wanted to have sex.
– I’d already had sex with this dude.
I believed I was already used goods (the words I said to myself in my brain) but also that more partners would make it worse. And I knew that sex was supposed to be fun at some point, so I kept fucking that dude. He was always drunk and had a hard time keeping his dick hard, so it chafed something awful. He ignored the condoms I would silently lay out. (Holy shit I would have gotten in so much trouble if my parents caught me with condoms.) Lube was not a thing that even existed in my concept of the world. It always hurt. I used to cry sometimes while he fucked me. He never stopped. I still believed this was better than fucking someone else because otherwise: whore.
I never did get him to “like” me. He didn’t answer my calls and didn’t contact me except to booty call me.
I admitted to my mother later, when a doctor’s bill for STD tests came to the house, that I wasn’t a virgin anymore. In a quiet, serious voice, she pleaded to know if she could ask why I’d decided to lose my virginity? I couldn’t dredge anything up to say and shrugged my shoulders in silence. “Curiosity?” she probed. Through the hot wash of shame in my guts as I pictured it in my mind I mumbled, yeah, I’d just been curious, I guess.
I believed all of the emotional hurt of all of that was my fault. What did I think was going to happen when I snuck out to go to his house and got drunk? And the truth was that I’d wanted sex. Probably even with him. Just not like that.
It’s still humiliating to me to admit this happened. I feel stupid that it happened in the first place. I get red in the face when I admit it to people and they press for details (how could I not literally not see that coming?), because oh my god the image of idiotic, drunk, naked, foolish me, on my hands and knees, and I choke on the words “doggie style,” which I knew even then was supposed to be degrading. I feel utterly inadequate as a developed, thinking person, that the events of an hour, or even of a summer, that one set of interactions with one person could possibly still be farming and harvesting insecurity and shame in my heart 10 years later. But they do.
I have admitted to people I was raped, especially in conversations where I think some men need a reality check about “grey areas” or “that word gets thrown around sometimes,” and have had them question if I was *really* raped. How do I know what he intended? Do I think he really thinks he’s a rapist? Do I think that’s really an appropriate word? They usually shut right the fuck up when I tell them the details. But the fact that I have to supply humiliating details to be taken seriously? Rape culture.
That is what the “good girls who dont have sex”/”bad girls who do” dichotomy congeals into. Me sitting in a Denny’s three months ago, across a booth from two innocent swing dancer boys who I think are generally respectful, good people, at the tail end of a conversation on religion, painting a verbal picture of my drunk 17 year old self with my ass in the air on a white couch so that they’re so embarrassed by the reality of the details they wish they hadn’t asked. Maybe they won’t interrogate someone next time she says she was raped?
But the truth is, I bet that guy doesn’t think he’s “a rapist.” I bet if you asked him, he’d tell you that if he ever saw somebody getting raped, then *definitely* he’d stop it. He’s a southern gentleman like that. Kind of like what Ma’lik Richmond told ABC when they interviewed him and he said he “didn’t rape anybody.” and “didn’t witness a rape going on. And if I would have thought that somebody was being raped or anything like that, I would have stopped it.” I’m a thousand percent certain that if I’d pressed any charges against “Rhett,” that my entire town would have accused me of ruining his life. I am as certain as crossing an event horizon that I could never have gotten him convicted of a single thing, me being 17 and him being 21 notwithstanding. Because what did I think was gonna happen?
This is the difference between “no means no” and “yes means yes,” or what we like to call “affirmative consent.” Did I tell Rhett no before he fucked me? no, I didn’t. Did he get off of me when I said so with words? yes, he did. And yet. Did he have my consent to put his dick in me that first time? No, he did not. Silence does not consitute consent. Consent to some things is not consent to “anything.”
The Steubenville “rape crew” defendants’ lawyers didn’t try and deny that sexual contact between the defendants and the victim had taken place. There was far too much evidence for that. What they did argue was that it was all consensual. Because she’d been known to party before, because she made plans to meet up with the boys, because she’d gone to the party and drank in their presence. [What did she think was gonna happen?]
Some of the coverage of the guilty verdict makes particular note of how emotionally undone the defendants were in the court room when the verdict came down. It’s impossible to know, but I’d also bet those boys didn’t think of themselves as “rapists.” It’s clear the media does not uniformly consider them to have been rapists even after the guilty verdict, based on how terrible they think it is that these promising young football payers’ lives are being ruined by having to register as sex offenders for their whole lives. (as if they’d done something reprehensible! like rape-rape!) That is some bullshit.
It’s still hard for me to use the word “rape,” because I feel like I don’t deserve it, or that it implies more violence than was there, or that I’m some fucking attention whore who should really shut up already because was it really that big of a deal? I would have let him put his dick in me if he had asked, anyway. It’s not like I was *unconscious.* It’s not like I fought him off. It’s not like I said anything, even.
I lost my shit on facebook Sunday night when I saw some of the same coverage that Bridie posted about yesterday. (and today.) “In case you have ever wondered,” I spewed all over every link I saw to that CNN video that mourns the lost potential of the promising young football players’ ruined lives, “this is what rape culture looks like. If you’ve ever wondered what I meant when I said ‘rape culture,’ this is it.”
What I didn’t say is that every one of my friends personally knows at least one person who’s been raped and shamed by this very same rape culture. And, truly tragically, I bet they know more than just me.
edited April 9, 2013 to add: If you have been raped or sexually assualted, and you need someone to talk to, you can contact RAINN. You can chat with someone online. You can talk to someone on the phone. You can also find someone near you to talk to in person.