Bristol Palin and the challenge of calling rape, rape

“What you have just described is rape.”

Those were the words that the detective said to me as I sat in a Brooklyn precinct on a hot summer night four years ago. The sign outside read “Special Victims Unit” yet the set up looked nothing like the popular Law & Order television version and there was no Olivia Benson to greet me at the door.

It was the first time I had heard those words. Rape. Up to that point, as I went through the process of a rape kit in the hospital, and gave my initial statement to the uniformed officers, the word “rape” didn’t leave my lips. It was too ugly a word and nothing that could ever happen to me.

How would I ever be able to recover? Surely if I ever labeled what happened to me date rape I would be forever damaged. There is something about labeling an experience rape and self-identifying as a rape survivor that dims your inner light for a time. You work through the stages of grief as if you have lost a loved one, because in a way you have lost your spirit. By labeling it, you identify it properly and can then move on in the process of healing. In turn, by not wanting to label it, and at worst, to remain in denial, a survivor can prolong the pain.

It is under this framework that I understand why Bristol Palin, assuming everything she wrote in her new memoir is factual, may not want to identify her first sexual encounter with Levi as date rape. In her new memoir, “Not Afraid of Life,” Bristol describes losing her virginity in a drunken haze, with Levi supplying the constant flow of wine coolers while on a camping trip with friends. It wasn’t until the next morning that Bristol realized she had intercourse with Levi. Bristol then writes that despite being brought up in a Christian household determined to save herself until marriage, Bristol felt that her virginity had been “stolen.”

As I wrote last week in The Loop 21, what she describes sounds like rape under Alaska law. Jessica Valenti also thinks it sounds like rape. Despite this fact, in an interview with Good Morning America, Bristol clarified that she is not accusing Levi of “date rape,” but she did reiterate that she felt her “virginity” was stolen, leading many to ask well, “Who is the thief?” It is possible that Bristol is unable to identify “date rape” especially considering that drunken sex is such a common occurrence. Just like with any woman, it is Bristol’s right not to label what happened to her rape, however, there is a danger with Bristol’s story being so public that other women may not label their own experiences properly.

In the same way that I was unable or unwilling to identify it as such, those in the know whether they be Robin Roberts of Good Morning America or law enforcement officials in Alaska, have a responsibility to take Bristol’s statements seriously and call rape, rape. At the very least, Bristol’s story can be a catalyst for women to analyze their own sexual experiences and process any unresolved trauma they could never label until now.

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