To this day this word makes me shudder. It should. It is not a word to be taken lightly.
The current rape statistics are alarming. One in three women have experienced sexual assault at some point in their lives in the United States alone. These statistics are reported to be higher in countries where women are seen as property.
One in three. Think about it. Whether you are a man, a woman, or nongender, whether you have experienced sexual assault or not, think about how many women you know. Include your mother, your sister, you grandma, your aunt, your girlfriend, your daughter, your niece, and your teacher. Count all the women. Divide that number by three. That’s probably a close estimate of the truth.
For the survivor of sexual assault, hearing this word can be re-traumatizing. I specialize in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and have worked with many rape survivors, both women and men, though most were women. Many were raped by family members before they hit puberty. Their unique situations were different but one thing remained the same – their sensitivity to the word.
In fact, there are actually research studies out there that demonstrate that rape survivors have a hard time habituating (becoming used to or desensitized to) the sounds that are related to sexual assault. This most likely also includes the word “rape.”
That word, especially when used inappropriately, might re-traumatize the rape survivor, reminding them of their worst traumatic experience. For example, here are some stories of actual sexual assault survivors:
On May 10, 1998, I walked into my best friend’s store, just like I did every other day. My friend Lawrence’s cousin, Ziyad, was there. I had never met him before. I was helping out at the store, it was no big deal- I did it every other day…
At about 2:30, Lawrence sent me and Ziyad into that back room to do some work. I was back there, minding my own business and doing my thing. Ziyad grabbed me by my arms and drug me into the bathroom. I screamed. He put this hand over my mouth and started to undo his pants. Knowing what was about to happen I froze. My whole body went numb. I couldn’t move. After he was done, he got dressed and walked out of the bathroom like nothing happened. He left me there with my tears. When he walked out the door, he took with him my pride, my security and my virginity. I had so many thoughts going through my mind. What if I tell someone and they don’t believe me? Was it my fault? I thought Lawrence was my friend, if he was, how could his cousin do this to me? Not to mention the multiple feelings I had. Shame. Guilt. Anger. Fear. But most of all disbelief. How could this happen to me?
About 10 minutes later I walked out of the bathroom, past the office, and up to the cash register, where Lawrence, not knowing anything yet, was standing. As I walked past the office, I noticed that Ziyad’s cousin Firas was there to pick him up. As I walked by he said “You know what Lindsie, you’re a slut…” (From HealthyPlace.com)
* * *
“He held me down. I begged him to stop but it’s like he went deaf all of a sudden. I was trying to push him off of me. He grabbed my hands and pulled them over my head and held them down. He penetrated me. It hurt so much, the most excruciating pain I’ve ever felt in my life. When he was finished, he just got up and left. And I was left to clean up the bloody sheets. I was 15.”
* * *
In the summer of 1983, I was ambling along a beach in Ecuador talking and flirting with a local high school boy. We rounded a curve. The long open stretch we had been walking disappeared from sight and we were alone—or almost alone. Ahead of us on a rocky outcropping four guys sat, watching the shore. As we approached, they hopped down and sauntered toward us. Then one of them grabbed my companion while another put a knife to his throat. The other two grabbed me, knocking me to the ground and fighting off my bathing suit while I kicked and bit and my companion yelled, “People are coming. Let her go. People are coming.” They panicked and released us and took off up the beach. I staggered into the water to wash their fingers out of my vagina and the blood off a bite mark on my hand, and then we ran back in the direction we had come. (From IEET.org)
The word “rape” can serve as a painful reminder of the lost innocence and a lost sense of safety, the internal and often external shame that can come with this experience, and a reminder that things will never be the same again.
In other cultures rape is used to “teach a lesson.” For example, a woman in India was gang raped and killed in 2012; her rapists stating that it was her fault for resisting the rape. Some cultures use rape in addition to genocide as the means of ethnic cleansing. On social media “rape” is used as a threat or a form of a disagreement, as in “you’re such a bitch, someone should just rape you.” (This is an actual quote some of my friends received in the past few years on social media because some people did not agree with them).
No matter how many patients I see, and at this point I’ve seen thousands, their stories always affect me. They should. They are powerful. Excruciating. What sexual assault survivors ultimately need is patience, support, and understanding. So when people callously throw around phrases like, “that team got totally raped out there” or “mmm, he/she is yummy, I just want to rape them,” it does A LOT of harm to the rape survivors that might overhear or be on the receiving end of the conversation. We might not know whom of the people around us or in our immediate circle might have been affected by sexual assault.
I’m glad that the media is now able to portray all the horrific suffering that comes with surviving rape. For example, the Netflix original series, Jessica Jones, tells the story of a superhero who survived months of torture and sexual abuse by an evil villain, Killgrave. The show is extremely well done, in my opinion, and does a great job of showing the aftereffects of trauma on Jessica’s life and behavior. Specifically, Jessica exhibits clear symptoms of PTSD – she avoids her friends, she experiences intrusive flashbacks, she is hypervigilant, irritable, and has many angry outbursts. Killgrave completely disrupts her life, as well as the lives of many other women, and he continues to pursue Jessica to try to get her back into his life.
What I found disturbing is how many fans of the show believe that Jessica should end up with Killgrave, her rapist. From some of the forums I read, some people are saying that because Killgrave loves Jessica, she should give him a chance and maybe she can change him. Actually, to tell a sexual assault survivor that she should be with her rapist because he loves her is to deny her the basic right to safety. In some cultures women who are raped are forced to marry their rapists because they are no longer virgins. Whether we are talking about real people or fictional characters, rape is not something to take lightly. It is not something to joke about when watching a sports game or hanging out with friends.
Rather than propagating rape culture, we can instead practice being Superheroes. We can stand up against rape and support the people that were subjected to it. We can inform the people who are throwing that word around as if it is nonconsequential. We can let rape survivors (friends or strangers) know that they are not alone, that we stand with them, whether we ourselves experienced it or not. We can change our own use of the word “rape” in order to respect and protect the people who survived it. It could happen. I believe it can.
Janina Scarlet, PhD, is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, a scientist, and a full time geek. She uses Superhero Therapy to help patients with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and PTSD at the Center for Stress and Anxiety Management and Sharp Memorial Hospital and is also a professor at Alliant International University, San Diego. Dr. Scarlet is the author of ‘Superhero Therapy’ with Little Brown Book Group and has also authored chapters in the Sterling Publishing works ‘The Walking Dead Psychology,’ ‘Star Wars Psychology,’ ‘Star Trek Psychology,’ ‘Game of Thrones Psychology,’ ‘Captain America vs. Iron Man,’ and ‘Doctor Who Psychology.’ She can be reached via her website at www.superhero-therapy.com or on Twitter: @shadowquill.
*Image source: https://awaypoint.files.wordpress.com/2013/03/rape.jpg