My mother never ever talked to me about rape. I don’t blame her, in our house sex was not discussed, so violent, forced sex was not to be dissected. Because of this and maybe because of the culture I was raised in, I grew up believing rape was something that happened violently at the hands of strangers. Sadly, that isn’t the case or, more accurately, it isn’t only the case.
Over the past few days the internet has erupted over the sentencing of a rapist and the responses by his victim and his father. Most people are in agreement that this rapist did not get a sentence that fit his crime. He took away a woman’s peace of mind, her self confidence, her sense of safety and who knows what else, and in return he was given six months in jail. His father believed six months was too long for “twenty minutes of action”. Even writing those words brings tears to my eyes as I try to imagine what those “twenty minutes of action” actually translate to in that woman’s world. Those “twenty minutes of action” will follow her for the rest of her life: every time she wants to have a drink but worries that this could happen to her again, every time she meets a new man that she may be interested in, every time she wakes up with the feel of his hands on her, every time she looks at herself in the mirror and she wonders what it was about her that made him think it was okay to do this to her. I am only projecting what she might feel, though she did express many of her thoughts in a statement she shared at the hearing, a statement that began with "you don't know me, but you've been inside me, and that is why we're here today." Words that, as a woman, make me nauseous and angry and so very helpless. And yet, I applaud her for standing up even if it had little effect on his sentencing.
At school a few weeks ago, we had to show a video about sexual assault to our students. The video was more a lecture of a woman sharing her experience with sexual assault. Half way through the video a boy said, “well, now she’s just asking for it.” I couldn’t stop the presentation but my stomach rolled with the injustice of his words and as soon as it ended I addressed him, because I know it is remarks like that that keep victims from coming forward. It is what keeps us wondering if we were really raped or if it was somehow our fault. It is what rapists count on to keep us quiet. So know this my sweet strong, yet fragile girl: it is never your fault.
Every woman- no matter how drunk or sober, no matter how many men she has or has not slept with in the past, no matter how much or how little clothing she is wearing- every woman has the right to make conscious and coherent decisions about her sex life each and every time she has sex. You always have the right to say no, I don’t care if you have had sex with him before, you can always say no. I don’t care if you are drunk, you can say no. I don’t care if you think you owe him or you’ve told him you love him or he swears everyone is doing it and you’re just being a bitch- YOU CAN SAY NO. And if you are unable to say no because you are not conscious, that should be answer enough.
In the case I mentioned earlier, this rapist’s picture shows a clean shaven, nicely dressed, preppy kid. What we’re not always told is that rapists look like that too. Rapists look like our boyfriends and our neighbors and our classmates and hell, even our teachers and our preachers. Rapists look like people we come into contact with everyday. And we have been conditioned in many ways to excuse what they do: they didn’t know better, they were drunk, they didn’t realize I didn’t want it, or he bought me dinner or I really care about him so how could I tell him no? None of those are reasons to have sex with anyone. The only reason to have sex with a man is because you want to. I’m not going to get into when you should have sex or whether or not you should be in love or married or yada yada yada, but I am going to say that in your life no matter how old or young you are, no matter how long you have known someone or loved them or whatever else, if you do not want to have sex with him you have the right to say no and have him listen. And your reasons for not wanting to don’t matter. It could be because you don’t feel ready or you don’t feel sexy or his breath stinks. No reason is too silly or too serious, you have the right to say no.
I wish I could say that was it- say no and you’re safe, but sadly it’s not the case. And so yes, you have to be diligent and you have to watch your back and, yes, you have to be cautious of even the nicest, sweetest, choir singing, All-American clean cut kid. I hate it for you and I hate it for your brothers, but our reality is there are people out there who believe they are entitled to anything- even your body. I wish I could make that not true for you, but with sentences like the one just passed down I’m afraid that’s not changing anytime soon.
Be brave, baby girl. Be strong.
Say no if you need to. Say no if you want to.
And know that no matter what our society ever says, it is never your fault and I will always have your back.