Dismantling the Dementor Theory of Rape

‘Tis the season for awful “rape prevention” ads. Earlier this week Jezebel posted an article about terrible police anti-violence campaigns, which tend to spring up around the holiday season every year. This one, in particular, caught my eye:

Awful anti-rape "ad"

Many of the problems here are so obvious they’re not really worth discussing: alcohol doesn’t cause assault, most survivors knew their assailant, not only women are raped, and thanks to Emily Yoffe we’ve had enough dissection of victim-blaming to last us a few more months. But what bothered me most, and often goes overlooked, is the insistence that “Rape stays with you for life.”

It’s true that we can’t undo past violence, just as we can’t reach back into our pasts and edit any event. But our relationships to our histories vary as much as the histories themselves. For some, dealing with the aftermath of assault or abuse is a life-long struggle. For others, it isn’t. Violence comes in so many different forms, and impacts such different people in such different circumstances, that we shouldn’t be surprised that not all survivors wrestle with trauma in the same way.

And no matter how we live in the wake of violence, we continue to be human. My friends and I joke about our Dementor Theory of Rape – that sexual violence steals your soul, sucking it out of your body like the deathly kiss of the creepy Harry Potter villains. We laugh at the absurdity, but the insidious message is inescapable. Ads tell us rape stays with us forever, that we’ll never be the same. Well-meaning commentators decry rape as a crime that ruins lives, what Jenny Diski critically dubbed “spiritual murder.” A couple weeks ago a government lawyer told me she was sorry my life had been “taken from me” when I faced violence as an undergrad.

You know what I wanted to say? Lady, I’m killing it. I’m a student at my dream school, an editor at my dream job, and love many people. That’s not to say the last five years have been a walk in the park, but now, finally, I feel pretty good. I’ve found my patronus and driven back the dementor (WHATEVER I AM A NERD). I resent her denial of everything I’ve done, everything I am, as though I were some ghost of a woman. And I resent her suggestion that a really bad guy I knew a long time ago defines my existence more than my own choices and my own joy.

Those who insist that violence has rendered us walking dead reenact the same denial of autonomy they wish to condemn. Their intentions may be pure: I think many who mourn the “lost lives” of victims mean to highlight the awfulness of the crime. But we can all agree that sexual violence is bad without sacrificing its victims to prove our point. Not everything terrible is fatal.

I know I’m not representative of the survivor experience. I want to acknowledge explicitly that many survivors are NOT ok, and our insistence that they be the right kind of victim – sad but never angry, vulnerable but never more depressed than we find palatable – is incredibly destructive: it dissuades survivors from seeking support they need and prioritizes the performance of grief over a true, messy, grappling itself. I know that I have had the time and space and privilege to take care of myself, and that such opportunities are rare. I don’t want to further shame those who struggle just because, right now, I don’t.

But that’s the point: there’s no one universal narrative of surviving, and our devotion to a singular, fictional tale of suffering hurts all. When we struggle more than the Platonic Victim, we are shunned and shamed; when we struggle less, we are doubted: why won’t we reveal our “true” suffering? if we’re ok, does that mean we’re lying? Over the years I’ve been on both sides of that equation, two impossible terrains of stigma and invisibility. But even if ads and lawyers and sympathizers refuse to see us we’re here – fine or not, victims or survivors, as human as ever before.


Alexandra Brodsky is a Feministing editor, law student, and founding co-organizer of Know Your IX. She is happy.

Washington, DC

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com. During her four years at the site, she wrote about gender violence, reproductive justice, and education equity and ran the site's book review column. She is now a Skadden Fellow at the National Women's Law Center and also serves as the Board Chair of Know Your IX, a national student-led movement to end gender violence, which she co-founded and previously co-directed. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she is the co-editor of The Feminist Utopia Project: 57 Visions of a Wildly Better Future. She has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice at campuses across the country and on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, ESPN, and NPR.

Alexandra Brodsky was a senior editor at Feministing.com.

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