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.

New Haven, CT

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing.com, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX, a national legal education campaign against campus gender-based violence. Alexandra has written for publications including the New York Times, the Atlantic, the Guardian, and the Nation, and she has spoken about violence against women and reproductive justice on MSNBC, ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, FOX, and NPR. Through Know Your IX, she has organized with students across the country to build campuses free from discrimination and violence, developed federal policy on Title IX enforcement, and has testified at the Senate. At Yale Law, Alexandra focuses on antidiscrimination law and is a member of the Veterans Legal Services Clinic. Alexandra is committed to developing and strengthening responses to gender-based violence outside the criminal justice system through writing, organizing, and the law. Keep an eye out for The Feminist Utopia Project, co-edited by Alexandra and forthcoming from the Feminist Press (2015).

Alexandra Brodsky is an editor at Feministing.com, student at Yale Law School, and founding co-director of Know Your IX.

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  • http://feministing.com/members/ataylor26/ Abby

    Thank you for the great post. Very well said. I think we need more conversation about how there isn’t one “right” way for a survivor to deal with the aftermath of violence.

  • honeybee

    Thank you so much for this post! It’s really hard to read people talk about how being raped is worse then being murdered and that life is over after you’ve been raped. Not to downplay the severity but it’s not helping victims to talk like that. You’re making them sound like damaged goods and taking away their hope. Not to mention alot of people have experienced assaults (eg: me) who while I certainly didn’t enjoy the event I was definitely not “ruined” for life. And I certainly don’t wish I had been murdered instead.

  • http://feministing.com/members/samgeimer/ samantha geimer

    I agree whole heartedly with your thoughts on these topics. It is difficult to struggle through the assumption and imposed requirement, that if you have been sexually assaulted, you must remain damaged forever. It is especially hurtful when is comes from those who assert they are supporting you. Perhaps if we could talk more about how common sexual assault is and how many not only survive it, but overcome it and become stronger. To encourage someone to heal does not diminish the amount of their suffering or damage or the wrongness of what has been done to them. We really need to support each other and push back against this stigma saying “you might have prevented it, you’ll never be the same”.

  • http://feministing.com/members/franziakafka/ Franzia Kafka

    Totally agree. I’ve thought about this many times.

    I think this theory of rape is also often promoted by “our own” – traditional anti-sexual-violence folks and non-profits – in order to compensate for rape generally not being taken seriously as a crime. In the context of prevalent, fucked-up attitudes about men’s sexual entitlement, I can’t really fault such groups for doing this – it’s a strategic approach. However, the claim that rape ruins you permanently and forever is tinged with overtones of women’s value lying primarily in their sexuality (or virginity – i.e., the Purity Myth, the great discomfort surrounding sex work because it “dirties” you, etc.). There is a shit-ton of baggage re: women’s worth and sexuality any time we talk about sexual assault survivors in the media.

    So many women suffer sexual violence/non-consensual situations in their lives, in the same way that so many people suffer abuse at the hands of their parents as children – there are many survivors of violence and abuse for whom life goes on. All cope with it, deal with it, come to terms with it, run from it, come to an understanding of it or fail to come to an understanding of it, hate it, forgive it, grieve it – have complex relationships with it – in their own ways. Does violence/abuse change you? Sometimes – maybe most of the time. Does it define who you are and what you can be as a person? No.

    Should we be doing more to curb men’s entitlement culture and America’s culture of violence and provide support for survivors who want it? Yes.

  • http://feministing.com/members/radicalstudent/ Ruby

    This article is spot-on, and articulates a lot of the misconceptions about rape that I believed before I became a victim of sexual assault myself. I was truly indoctrinated to believe that people were fundamentally changed after being raped: that rape effectively murdered a part of a person’s identity, or “that sexual violence steals your soul.”

    But then I was raped. I felt sad, and scared, and mostly just really really angry, but I didn’t feel like I was any less myself than before the attack. I didn’t need time to grieve, I needed time to be very pissed off at my attacker. Sure, rape sticks with you for the rest of my life. I will always be a rape survivor. But it is just one more thing that has happened to me, and by far not the most important. By insinuating that rape survivors have been diminished as people or made impure, society is continuing the crime against them by further taking away their agency.