on rape

I never thought I’d use the word ‘rape’ in a blog title, but all other attempts to name this post rang false.

Like others, I was horrified when I read the Rolling Stone article on sexual abuse allegations at the University of Virginia. I wanted to throw up. Instead, I cried. The next day I had a conversation with my thirteen-year old son about the importance of sexual consent even though in his esteem, girls just recently stopped having cooties.

I was dismayed when it was revealed last week that the “heart” of the Rolling Stone story, the very personal account of one woman who alleged to be gang raped by seven fraternity brothers, turned out to have discrepancies. My first thought was, “here society goes again, doubting the victim.” After all, it seems perfectly understandable that time stood still for her. She blacked out on certain details. Maybe she got the night of the party wrong. Or the fraternity in question tried to save its own skin by denying a party was registered for that night. Whether she was gang raped or not, the Rolling Stone fact checkers should be fired, and whether she was gang raped or not, now few will believe her story. Lost in the fallout of shoddy journalism is that the University of Virginia was already under investigation before the story ran for alleged violations of federal laws governing how the school receives and handles sexual violence and harassment charges. Lost in the fallout is that a young woman was most likely assaulted, though we may never know how, by whom and to what extent.

Sadly she doesn’t stand alone.

How many cases go unreported because no one wants the scrutiny of recounting a horrible story? When I was in college, I was date raped, though really, what does this term mean? Does knowing your attacker make it a lesser crime? Are those who are taken by force by someone they are “dating” less traumatized? Twenty-three years later, I still remember his saying to me after as his sweaty body collapsed on top of mine: “Thank God you didn’t mean it when you said no.” In the years that followed, I questioned myself. Had I sent the wrong signal? Did I not reject his advances forcefully enough? Was it my fault for having too much to drink? For making out with him? Flirting? Was my dress too short? I tortured myself with these questions; it took me years to accept that nothing I did gave him permission to take what he took.

The point is, crimes of a sexual nature are horrific, hard to prove and more widespread than we think. Only the victim can truly speak to what happened, and yet who wants to say anything when absent a rape kit, it’s her word against his? I didn’t bear the bruises of struggle. If the police had questioned my friends, they would have delivered a very different account of what happened because in the immediate aftermath, I was embarrassed to admit the truth. Even my best friend didn’t know the full story until years later.

Offenders walk among us, and it’s a helpless feeling. It’s too late for me to accuse my attacker, but I can teach my boys how to respect others and impart on them that sex should not only be consensual, but pleasurable for their future, long time from now partners. And journalists reporting on this sensitive subject can and must do a better job at reporting full and accurate stories.