Content warning: rape, sexual violence***Generalized references to “women” in this article refer to anyone who is female-identified. Generalized references to “men” in this article refer to anyone who is male-identified.***
I’ve been hesitant to write this article, primarily because no one needs to see another white person talking about their feelings post-election. Yet in the flood of articles, posts, and comments that have overwhelmed my Facebook feed since the nightmare of November 8th, 2016, I’ve seen very few discussions regarding the impact Trump’s election is having on survivors of sexual assault.
I’ve got a computer and I think this needs to be discussed, and thus, here we are.
Please note - my perspective is that of a white, straight-presenting ciswoman. Women of color, trans people and trans women of color experience sexual violence at a much higher rate than white ciswomen. People of all genders can be victims or perpetrators of sexual violence.
One in five women will be raped at some point in their lifetime. One in four women will be sexually assaulted during college. These are statistics that you’ve probably seen at some point in your life, and it’s possible you’ve thought those statistics are unrealistic or brushed them off as feminist propaganda. As a survivor of rape and sexual assault, and as a person who has navigated the world as female for the past 29 years, I’m surprised they’re not higher.
Sexual violence is notoriously difficult to measure. Only 63% of rapes are reported to the police. There are a number of reasons why someone would choose not to report, with poor police responses, a failing criminal justice system, rape kits going untested, and victim blaming high on the list. While rape culture has been discussed for years, it definitely needs a bigger platform.
What is rape culture?
There are numerous articles discussing rape culture and its pervasiveness throughout our society (BGD, Buzzfeed, WAVAW, are good starting points). For a basic definition:
“Rape Culture is an environment in which rape is prevalent and in which sexual violence is normalized and excused in the media and popular culture. Rape culture is perpetuated through…misogynistic language, …objectification, and the glamorization of sexual violence, thereby creating a society that disregards women’s rights and safety.”
Now that we have a definition, what I really want to talk about is internalized rape culture, or the ways in which rape culture becomes a part of one's nature by learning or unconscious assimilation.
Internalized Rape Culture
Studies have shown that from a very young age, “many women accept threatening, coercive, and even violent behavior from men because they don’t think anything else is possible. That’s ‘just how men are.’ It’s ‘no big deal.’”
Internalized rape culture has normalized sexual violence to such an extent that we have come to view sexual assault - and in some cases, rape - as everyday annoyances not worth discussing.
The internalization of rape culture also serves a survival mechanism. A trans friend of mine recently shared his experience of being mistreated while attempting to receive medical care. When I asked him why he wasn’t outraged, he simply said, “If I got angry every time something like this happened to me, I would be angry all the time.” I was instantly returned to a conversation I’d had with a friend a few years before. She’d told me about a date she’d been on: after some kissing, without any prior discussion, her date penetrated her without a condom. It didn’t help her to think about the experience as rape: things like that had happened to her and to all her friends so often that acknowledging each incident as sexual assault would be paralyzing.
I was also reminded of a conversation I’d had with my physical therapist the week before. She works with many women who have experienced sexual trauma: rape doesn’t just leave emotional scars, but also physical ones. When I was raped, my vagina tore. It’s completely changed the ways I can - and can’t - have sex, the things that are/n’t pleasurable, and how I relate to my body.
My physical therapist told me it’s extremely difficult to treat pelvic pain because very little research has been done on the topic. Few women seek care: often they tried and were brushed off by doctors, or they’d been taught that - like catcalls and sexual harassment - pain is just something you have to live with.
In order to survive in American society without being (re)traumatized every half-hour, women normalize the violence against them as acceptable: as “boys being boys,” as locker-room talk. Perhaps the greatest demonstration of the pervasiveness of rape culture is the 2016 presidential election. According to CNN’s exit polls, 53% of white women voted for Trump. I repeat, 53% of white women voted for a man who said it was okay to grab women by the pussy.
But here’s the thing - not only does this internalization of rape culture ensure that sexual violence will remain the status quo, it also makes it that much harder for survivors of rape and sexual assault to get the support they crucially need. It is harder still for people who want to participate (or whose jobs depend on their participation) in social media. For me, this past year was a nightmare. First I was stuck seeing Brock Turner’s face every time I wanted to wish a friend a happy birthday, a constant reminder that our legal system prioritizes the severe impact a prison sentence might have on a convicted sexual offender over justice for survivors of rape and the safety of survivors of sexual assault everywhere.
Then the campaign season started up in full. With each lewd comment Trump made, each charge of sexual assault raised against him, each victim-shaming denial he uttered, each replay of the disgusting “pussy” soundbite - even with each friend who posted about “pussy grabbing back,” I was forced to relive my traumatic experiences of sexual violence. Eventually, just seeing Trump’s face or hearing his voice became triggering. Picture that for a moment. Think about every time you saw something related to Donald Trump in the past six months. Then imagine that each one of those times, you were brought back to the most painful, violating experiences you’ve ever had. Sounds like hell, right?
Now think about the fact that Trump will serve as the leader of our country for the next four years. Over 59 million people in this country voted for Trump. In addition to all the messages of racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, and misogyny that voters supported, this means that over 59 million people in this country voted to tell survivors of sexual assault that we don’t matter. That our experiences of trauma are not important, or not valid. Perhaps more insidiously, by voting for Trump over 59 million people gave the strong message to every woman in this country that the violation of their bodies is perfectly acceptable.
If rape culture had a mascot, it would be Donald Trump. And now I’m stuck with that trauma-triggering douche of a mascot as the face of my country for the next four years. I will never be able to look at him without remembering that America voted to promote sexual violence; without knowing that if I am raped again, I shouldn’t expect to be supported, or even believed. I will never be able to look at him without the reminder of how less safe I am.
Again, it’s essential to acknowledge that I am still preposterously more safe than POC, indigenous people, undocumented people, Muslims, trans people, and the list goes on…
Where do we go from here?
Ideally if you’re reading this, the question on your mind now is “What do I do to make sure survivors (and future survivors) of rape and sexual assault know that they are supported, that we don’t condone sexual violence in this country, that they are not alone? And more importantly - how can I help stop rape and sexual assault?”
Those are important questions, and I’m glad you asked. The first key step is ABOLISHING RAPE CULTURE. Unfortunately, we will only begin to truly fight rape culture is when men join women on the frontline, and specifically, take up the charge amongst themselves. Women have been fighting a good long while, but when women talk about sexual violence they’re often ignored or labeled ‘overly sensitive.’
A plea to all men reading this article: step up and start doing the work. Call out your friend who makes the sexist remark or joke. Comment when you see someone trolling on the internet. If a person is being threatened, intervene. These are especially important for men to do, as often it’s unsafe for women to defend themselves or others in this way.
There’s a lot more that everyone needs to be doing than just playing defense. Talk to your friends about consent. There are tons of great resources explaining what consent is, and it seems a lot of people need reminders. Learn about it, make sure you understand it, and make sure your friends do too. A few quick pointers, to clarify:
And the big, controversial one:
I am not claiming that sexual activities under the influence of alcohol are never consensual. However, adding booze to the equation makes it much, much harder to determine if you have consent. Talk to your friends about their sexual activity when they’re drunk. If they’re drinking, make sure they’re checking in with their sexual partner(s) - frequently. If your friend is planning on engaging in sexual activities with someone who’s intoxicated past the point of making clear decisions - or if they’re past that point themselves - stop them.
I’ll close this out with one last request: if a friend tells you they’ve been sexually assaulted or raped, listen to them. This is especially important if you know the perpetrator: since ¾ of rapes are committed by someone the victim knows, it’s likely you do. When you are healing from sexual assault or rape, having friends validate your experience can be monumentally powerful. Don’t ask them what they were wearing. Don’t ask them if they’d been drinking. Don’t rationalize the situation, and DO NOT try to justify what happened. Listen to them, and ask them how you can be a support.