end rape culture

Hook-up culture vs. rape culture: The conversation we’re not having

In a culture where hook-ups are casual and one night stands are normalized, bad sex is inevitable. The average sexually active individual has no doubt experienced awkward encounters that began with a can of PBR and ended with a walk of shame the morning after or something similar. It’s not a big deal, you laugh about it with your friends, or cover up your hickey hoping nobody ever finds out you did the dirty with that guy who barfed up cheese pizza in the middle of your friend’s wedding vows. Similarly, I, meeting up with a guy I like, am likely to down a glass of wine or two during the date to take the pressure off. Meeting his friends for the first time a few dates later? Same. Our guards, and our inhibitions, get a lot more relaxed after a few drinks, and this is a fact I use to my advantage.

So what makes rape different from a night of bad sex? What is the difference between sex with somebody who has had a few drinks to take the edge off, and hooking up with a girl who is inebriated? Consent, for one, obviously. It’s a word that feminists and activists hammer into young minds in hopes of changing a pervasive culture where rape is shrugged off when it’s brought up at all.

As a rape victim, I’m absolutely in support of teaching consent. But for me, something has always been missing from the dialogue. Most articles you read will preach up and down about consent and it’s importance. That’s all well and good, but how is that any different than telling somebody that they should ask before borrowing a friend’s car? Most people I know don’t stop in the middle of a make-out session and go “Hey, can you sign this document of consent? I’ll also need verbal confirmation that it’s cool if I stick my P in your V.” Consent is slightly more subtle than that – which is part of why it’s so difficult to prosecute. Does it count as rape if she was moaning? Does it count as sexual assault if she was really drunk, but not passed out? What about if she was pushing your hand away, but still wanting to kiss you?

The usual stories we read of rape are, for all intents and purposes, dramatic. They involve multiple men helping each other overpower a single woman, or a a group of friends videotaping the assault of a victim who passed out in her own vomit at a party, or an intruder busting in through a bedroom window to prey on a young girl  — situations that are horrific enough to illicit strong emotions in the audience. The reality is that drama does not always precede trauma. Rape isn’t always committed by faceless evil villains with dramatic displays of force. Sometimes it’s quiet. Sometimes it’s committed under the security of warm bed-sheets, accompanied by peppermint Trident and lace panties and somebody who keeps pushing even when she tells him to stop.

When I talk about being assaulted, I find people wanting to focus on the act. They want to know the details of the assault, what happened, who did it, was I drunk? Or they don’t talk about it. At all. They change the subject. I don’t want it to be this part of my past that I have to pretend doesn’t exist so I don’t make other people uncomfortable. I want to acknowledge the role it’s played in shaping who I am. I want to help people understand why I act erratically, or why I am constantly in a push/pull with my relationships, and why I have such a difficult time getting close to people. I want to get across is how this thing that happened in the span of a couple minutes still affects me deeply over a decade later. How it took years to see the impact, and how I’m still not over it. I want them to know how I choke up when I hear charges weren’t brought against an alleged rapist due to lack of evidence, or how  I’ve wound up in the bathroom at work wiping away tears after ignoring the trigger warning on an article. I want them to know I still wake up in the middle of the night and can’t catch my breath. I want to explain to them why I panic when dates get physical too early and how I react by clinging to that person in order to justify that sudden vulnerability and make it mean something. How I used to cut just to release the overwhelming tension in my body — to click me back into the present and out of my head.

Worse yet is how I can’t escape it. Every news story, every headline I see, I’m reminded of the shame I carry for not reporting. I feel guilty for being afraid because I know that my continued refusal to name names and call people out only reinforces the fear and silence in others. And then I read the comments that accuse the victims of being motivated by fame and fortune, of being at fault, of being sluts. I read these and I recoil back into my shell where I keep these secrets, where my nuanced behaviors exist without explanation and I am written off as promiscuous, distant, or flakey. I don’t want that judgment. I don’t want to be the face of somebody else’s crime.

A night of bad sex can be chalked up to bad decisions and laughed off with close friends years later, like “Oh god Becky! Remember that one time you slept with Bryan Monkey-Toes Wilson?” Rape is different. You don’t laugh about it, let alone talk about it casually with buddies over a beer. It’s so much more than a sour date or a bad encounter. It’s like your body has been broken into. It’s the one thing in the world that is solely yours — and somebody forced their way in without your permission and ransacked it. Anybody whose home has ever been burglarized, whose car has ever been ransacked in the driveway while they slept, knows how deeply that sense of breached security can affect you. You double check the doors, pull down the shades, check under the bed or in the backseat, never sure if somebody’s hiding, or watching you, or following you.

It took years for me to admit to myself that what had happened to me was even a crime. There are a couple of reasons for this, first being my own denial. Second, and probably most important, was the fact that nobody who assaulted me ever acted like they had done anything wrong. They didn’t tear into my body then run away for fear of prosecution. They didn’t leave the scene in haste or tell me to keep my mouth shut. One added me on Facebook a few days after forcing himself onto me while I faded in and out of consciousness. Another tried to snag a goodnight kiss after dropping me back off at my friend’s flat, while I sat shaking and clutching my legs to my chest in his passenger seat because five minutes earlier I had woken up nauseous and found his fingers inside me. When I told my friend what this person had done, he shrugged it off saying if the opportunity had presented itself, he probably would have done the same thing. What, in their mind, gives them the right to lay siege on my body as though it’s unclaimed land in a vacant country? How was I supposed to reconcile the stories I had heard of rape, with what had actually occurred to me? If they didn’t think they were guilty, maybe they weren’t.

How do we counter a culture that doesn’t recognize it’s own existence? How do we dissuade men from doing something they don’t even realize is so deeply invasive and wrong? How do we destroy this sense of entitlement people feel over women’s bodies?

Slapping faces, collecting my things and running out of the apartment — speeding back home drunk in my Camry where I could lock the door and hide, rather than pointing out the offense and reporting the crime, has, I have realized, only served to perpetuate this notion that rape is something that only happens in back alleys with a gun pressed between your shoulder blades, face-down in a mound of dirt. So many criminals go about their lives completely unaware of the trail of destruction left in their wake. And while my stomach turns at the sight of them, all they see is a girl who looks away when they walk by, who stands tall and puts on a strong face, and attempts to go about her life — and all this does is confirm that nothing out of the ordinary took place. That he did nothing wrong. Maybe the importance of speaking up and reporting these crimes goes far beyond just seeking some kind of justice. Maybe it’s about making the criminals aware of themselves in the first place. Maybe if rape left scars, if people were forced to see the damage it causes, they’d start to see just how serious and pervasive of a problem it really is. Maybe it’d be a little tougher to look into the faces of their victims without a hint of shame if their eyes swam amidst black bruises or kiss torn and swollen lips.

Until then, our silence is doing us no favors.

Header image credit: Chase Carter/Flickr

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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