I’ll never forget their faces, even though I only met with them once: A mother and daughter, both looking terribly shaken, both wishing they could be anywhere but where they were.
Where they were was with me, inside a small room used for counseling at our local rape crisis center. They were there because the 14-year-old girl had been raped a little more than a month before by a young man she knew. He’d ignored her when she said she didn’t want to have sex, and when persuasion failed to do the trick, the blade of a knife convinced her to comply.
She hadn’t reported the rape for a week. That’s not unusual. There’s no telling how someone might respond to a rape. Some become “expressive” and are visibly upset. Others turn it all inward and try their best to pretend nothing happened. They might feel numb and look stunned, but won’t talk about the attack or seek help.
The teenager in front of me had tried to keep it all inside, but after a week, she finally told her family. They took her to the hospital for treatment and a police interview, but it was too late by then for her to make use of the “Plan B” contraceptive pill. All they could do was wait and see whether the unthinkable happened.
The girl hardly spoke. The woman was adamant. Her daughter would have an abortion. There’s no way she could handle carrying her rapist’s baby. It would destroy her. And she should know, the mother said. Because that’s what had happened to her 15 years ago, and she’s never gotten past it.
What can you do in a situation like that? I did my best to provide them with the best information possible and lay out the options, but there’s not much you can do when the person you’re trying to reach is too shocked to respond. With the daughter too overwhelmed to say much, I spent much of my time talking to the mother, whose rape and pregnancy so many years ago felt as immediate and horrific as ever now that it had happened to her daughter, too.
I only met with them once. The mother was determined that her daughter have an abortion and the girl didn’t voice any objection, so I assume that’s what happened. But I’ve wondered since then what became of them. How are they both doing?
And how are they doing today, after hearing comments from Congressman Todd Akin asserting that women’s bodies somehow have a way of shutting down a pregnancy following a legitimate rape. A real rape. That somehow, a woman can just not be pregnant from a rapist, and presumably, if she does become pregnant, it wasn’t really a rape.
If only Akin were right. I wish he were. History would be vastly different for women. There would have been no rape camps in Bosnia, where Serbian soldiers tried to impregnate thousands of Bosnian women and girls in retribution for a generations-old cultural war. There would have been no impromptu abortion clinics set up in Berlin following the mass rapes of German women when the Russians took the city. My own family – my mother and grandmother – were in that city when it fell, and to this day I have no real knowledge whether they became victims of this kind of “legitimate” rape. There are some things that are just hard to ask about.
Or tell about.
I was raped when I was 23. It’s a particular kind of hell no one should have to endure. For six hours, I was terrified that I might be murdered and never see another sunrise or my family again. My only goal that night was to survive. Everything I did – every choice I made to fight or comply – was made with that in mind: Survive. A part of surviving meant letting my mind go numb. I just checked out. I was there but not there. Things happened to my body but I barely felt them. Things happened that I could only remember in a haze.
My mind worked quickly to blot out most of it out of my memory, leaving only fragments for many years until determination brought them back again. But one of the things I clearly remember of that night was being terrified that if I did survive, that I would become pregnant. The possibility horrified me. It terrified me so much that it was one of the few things that broke through the dissociative haze and brought me into the present moment. The dread of it was very real. Very legitimate.
I didn’t tell anyone after it happened, other than an ex-boyfriend who told me I had been stupid for trusting the man, who I had met on a blind date. I didn’t report it to police, because I believed then that what happened to me would not be seen as a “legitimate rape.” The sad thing? Nearly 20 years later, I still believe that is true. Not that what happened to me wasn’t rape; it was. But the legal system – prosecutors, police and judges – rarely have time for sexual assault unless they involve Sunday school teachers attacked by strangers leaping out of alleys.
I didn’t realize then that I could have gone to a hospital and sought treatment for my injuries and been given medicine to prevent pregnancy and disease. I didn’t know that counseling would have been made available to me so I wouldn’t have to carry this secret alone for so many years.
It was weeks before I could breathe easy again knowing that my rape did not result in pregnancy. It would be a year before I felt brave enough to get an AIDS test and learn that I was mercifully free of that disease as well, though the possibility of it haunted my dreams for months.
So there it is. I was raped. In poor journalistic fashion, I buried my lede. I’m sorry, but it’s still hard for me to say these things, though I’m determined to stop being scared of it or ashamed of what was done to me. I was raped, and fear of being told my rape wasn’t legitimate enough made me suffer beyond the attack itself.
That’s the pernicious legacy of parsing “good rapes” from “bad” ones, legitimate ones from fake ones, not-so-bad rape from “rape rape.” There’s no way to make rape anything other than what it is – a devastating attack on someone’s humanity, an assault not just on the body but on the mind and spirit. There’s no way even the best-intended person could ever know exactly what an attack like that does to someone until they have gone through it. Until they have survived.
And that’s why Rep. Akin can’t be allowed to get away with what he said without consequence. It’s not the words he used: “legitimate rape.” If only it were just the words. But it’s worse. It’s the entire attitude toward rape that has to be done away with, not just the politician. As long as the survivors of rape are scared to come forward because they fear they won’t be believed, or be told their rape wasn’t real or bad enough, or because they are scared of a legal system that is cold and unempathetic, we will never do right by the survivors of rape.