Friday, March 21, 2008

Advice For Rape Survivors: Personal Safety

This is the next in my series of posts with advice directed at other rape survivors.

What made me think about personal safety is that some rape survivors unfortunately become repeat rape victims with different perpetrators. I don't talk about it much but this happened to me in the months after my first rape. Years later during my time as a victim advocate I talked to other rape survivors who also experienced multiple unrelated sexual assaults.

This is more than random bad luck. However, too many people are quick to blame the rape victim if later rapes don't get classified as random violence such as a robbery and rape. Saying that certain rape victims did something wrong which invited rape is a dangerous mistake and it is one that victims can also make. I certainly made this mistake until I was finally able to view the days and months after my first rape without being overwhelmed by emotion.

While this repeat victimization isn't your fault there are some things you can do to increase your personal safety after rape. What doesn't help is the typical victim-blaming safety advice like don't drink, don't go to parties, etc. This advice/lecturing focuses on the rape victim's behavior when what is needed to improve your personal safety is to focus on the behavior of rapists and could-be rapists and to have allies who will genuinely do the same.

Nobody sensible would blame a bleeding carjacking victim who is shoved out into a crime-ridden area if that crime victim were subsequently raped. Yet wrongful blaming is what happens to many rape victims. The trauma of rape can leave victims disoriented and defenseless.

Despite what many victim blamers want people to believe, when it comes to rape there is no neighborhood or place which is guaranteed rapist-free. Rapes happen at wild parties and rapes happen in churches by those who are in positions of trust.

The vulnerability which comes from a stabbing is something that most rapists would not exploit because they accept that raping someone who is bleeding and in desperate need of medical attention makes them repugnant and no jury would buy their lie that "it was consensual." A large percentage of rapists view the rapists who would rape a bleeding woman as "the real rapists."

Their hatred of these "repugnant" rapists makes sense since it helps them feel like their violence cannot rightfully be called real violence. This can result in "good" rapists who will demand the death penalty for rape. Real rape. If they have any self-disgust they direct it at those other rapists and at fake rape victims -- like all those they raped.

Even if a man who focuses on limited real rapes has never been accused of rape, for my own safety I need to assume that this man will rape if the chance ever presents itself. Any person -- man or woman -- who talks about certain sex crime statutes harming real rape victims by diluting the definition of rape is a person I will never trust with my physical safety.

This type of person could witness a rape done without a knife or a gun and refuse to help because they believe that the victim could escape if she really wanted to or because they believe that the rape victim's willing presence at the location of the rape is blanket consent for sex. If that rape were reported, this type of person would testify that there was no rape and that the rape victim is a liar or delusional.

If I previously trusted any man who expresses these attitudes that talk would immediately end that trust. This isn't paranoia. Not all of these men are rapists but sharing many beliefs with rapists is a danger signal. My safety is a higher priority than some man's hurt feelings.

Any man who demands that I put his feelings above my safety is only reinforcing my reasons to distrust him. My boyfriend used the request for me to trust him as a weapon. If he had been ethical he would have respected areas where I didn't trust him. Instead he used my feelings for him against me.

Those who try in any way to undermine a rape survivor's personal safety efforts may mean well but they aren't reliable. Reliable allies don't undermine a survivor's hyper vigilance or ask to be exempted from those viewed with less trust than before a rape.

Some of the "I'm not a rapist" guys may believe they are doing nothing wrong if they sneak into a rape survivor's bedroom and rape her as she sleeps or as she is lost in her pain while she tries to sleep. Rapists who know that someone was raped before may rationalize their rape as an act that provides comfort and helps a rape victim learn to enjoy sex again.

If they were unable to deny their actions they might defend what they did by saying something like, "Her rapist was violent but I was gentle. I knew if she was fully awake that her fear would get the best of her. If she had said stop I would have. I'm no rapist."

Making sexual decisions for someone else is rape. The creation of "pure" motives is nothing more than the selfish rationalizations of a rapist. If that rape victim says nothing afterwards that is not a sign that the rape victim consented or approved anymore than if a hospitalized rape victim were quietly raped by a doctor, nurse or other hospital employee and then says nothing afterwards.

A repeat of a quiet rape is another rape and is not a sexual relationship. Because of the trauma rape victims have experienced and the muddiness that can come from that trauma many rape victims may question their perceptions. Their rapists have a clear motivation for trying to distort reality and they have the benefit of not being traumatized.

An unfortunate reality is that what was a safe neighborhood or a safe person before rape may not be afterwards. This includes the rapists who view their rapes as therapeutic. Their rationalizations eliminated many girls and women from being the target of rape attempts.

My first rapist after my boyfriend said, "It's not like you're a virgin" before taking me without my consent. He was nothing like my boyfriend/rapist. Where my boyfriend had been an adult, this rapist was a boy no older than me. Where my boyfriend was about a foot taller than me, this rapist was no heavier than me. I viewed him incorrectly as posing no danger to me since he didn't put any sexual moves on me. Both of us needed a friend and I didn't see any danger when we got drunk together. When he brought up sex in a general sort of way I remember clearly expressing disgust and I may even have said, "I hate sex."

To him this was great news since it gave him the permission he needed.

Before being raped the very first time, I likely would have immediately recognized warning signs in this boy's words or his behavior. I certainly would have said no when offered alcohol. When I met this boy, I was still deep enough in post-rape trauma that I wasn't fully present. My mind kept drifting. This continued through the rape which wasn't as traumatic as my previous rapes because the alcohol numbed me and because I was relieving that first rape in my brain.

I got drunk many times in the summer after my first rape and most of the boys and men who were near me never attempted to rape me because of their ethics. It didn't matter to them that I wasn't a virgin or that they could have gotten away with rape. Several men told me flat out that they wouldn't touch me even if was consenting as long as I was jail bait.

Some men didn't have this level of ethical behavior and took my passivity which came with ineffective coping mechanisms as permission to use my body. Because the focus of sex education I had received was on saving virginity for the wedding night there seemed to be no reason to make a fuss. Also I had learned that rape didn't hurt as much if I didn't try to fight it. At that time only drunkenness turned off my anxiety and all of the related thoughts until I felt like I could be as happy as I was before my first rape.

During my teenage years there was only one guy who required enthusiastic consent and verification with a clear opportunity for me to safely change my mind. Now I won't settle for anyone less respectful or less ethical.

Because my family didn't know I had been raped they thought I was going through a normal teenage rebellion. When they tried to get me to stop rebelling, I couldn't hear their words or their meaning with clarity. I saw their efforts as controlling and if they ever talked of love for me I would have a visceral reaction that made me want to escape. Consciously I had blocked my rape, but unconsciously love became linked with rape. I ran from them with the same panic as I would have run from my boyfriend if he tried to rape me a third time.

If my parents knew why I changed so suddenly they would have had a better chance to successfully help me remain safe through the rest of my teenage years. There may have been resources I wasn't aware of which could have provided me with safer ways to cope with my post-rape anxiety than going out and getting drunk.

All the factors which put my safety at risk after my initial rape are rooted in so much of what people still say about rape and who is a real rape victim. People still excuse the rape of girls under the age of consent because the girls shows signs of being sexually mature. Like the boy who decided that he didn't have to stop because I wasn't a virgin, these people don't care if abuse or rape caused those girls' sexual maturity. If she's not a virgin, she is fair game in the opinion of too many people.

Sexual assault awareness efforts are therefore a critical element in improving the personal safety of rape survivors. To be most effective these efforts need to be as pervasive as the rape-excusing statements are.

Any discussion of personal safety for rape survivors must include dangers which have nothing to do with alcohol. Rape victims who avoid alcohol and stereotypical dangerous places can be in as much danger as those who get drunk and pass out at a party.

It is the vulnerability due to trauma which brings out so many predators.

Unethical professionals such as clergy members and counselors have raped those they are sworn to help. Some of these rapists rationalize that they are better people than rapists who took advantage of rape victims like me. Because the rape survivor may still be lost in the trauma which follows rape, alcohol and overt violence may not be needed.

Quietly raping a sober survivor who barely knows which way is up is real violence. I have heard of some men who told rape survivors that reconstructing their rape, with the him as a safe stand-in for the rapist, will be therapeutic. Those who call rape survivors stupid for cooperating with someone who turns out to be a rapist are wrongly dismissing the impact of real trauma.

These professionals are likely to call their rapes and other sexual abuse an affair or a sexual relationship. This is a lie. In some states certain professionals are forbidden by law from having any sexual contact with their clients because of the level of danger for those clients. These criminal statutes don't allow consent as a viable defense.

My advice for rape survivors who are still deep in trauma is to realize this danger and respect any sense that something isn't right. Better to bolt from a room because something innocent triggered you than to stay because what is troubling you might be nothing. These types of rapists are likely the type who will use manipulation and isolation to disable you.

Any professional who asks a rape survivor to keep any secret about what the professional is doing or saying raises serious red flags. If helping professionals get offended at not being given the rape survivor's complete trust, my advice is to find another professional.

Personal safety for rape survivors isn't limited to sexual violence.

My level of perception was so low after being raped that I didn't know or care that I was in danger in non-sexual ways. Most evenings in the summer between junior and senior high I was in a car with a drunk driver at least twice. If I ever wore my seat belt under those conditions I don't remember doing so.

About a year after my first rape 2 guys I barely knew poured enough alcohol down my throat so that I likely would have died of acute alcohol poisoning if I hadn't been taken to the ER and had my stomach pumped.

There were times that I know I didn't really care whether I lived or died because during those times it seemed like death was the only way to make the constant hurting go away. Despite not knowing what had happened to me, my family helped me through those times because deep down I knew they loved me. Now I know that death wasn't the only way to stop the pain and that real lasting happiness is possible without chemical assistance.

Not disclosing my rape stopped those who truly loved me from helping me maintain my personal safety. I'm lucky I survived the aftermath, but others who are raped shouldn't have to rely on luck.

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posted by Marcella Chester @ 3:19 PM   5 comments links to this post


At March 21, 2008 4:53 PM, Anonymous nandita said...

Thank you for writing this post. Reading it almost left me crying. So much of what you say here makes sense to me.

I've published some excerpts from it on my own blog and linked back to you. I trust that's ok with you.

At March 23, 2008 2:11 AM, Blogger Sicily Sue said...

Yes. I know that feeling of just wanting the hurt to go away.

With my boyfriend, and my friends (sparse as they are these days), and my family 2000 miles away.
I feel lucky to have people to lean on...

But I am caught in this odd place of deep sadness and quiet... and while I know I need them. I just want to disappear alone.

I know the feeling of wanting to die. I don't feel suicidal...I mean I wouldn't act on it.
It hasn't been so long since I watch my rapist walk free.

I cannot escape the finality of injustice...

I was just thinking today that if people are "innocent until proven guilty" then victim blaming should be against the law...

But I suppose for that to work though the legal system would actually have to be functioning too.

At April 20, 2008 8:55 PM, OpenID geas-slave said...

This entry was pretty powerful. I can't imagine what you felt going through this entire process, and then writing it down. While intuitively what you write makes sense, I think its a very hard concept to grasp for some people.

I also think victim blaming is a horrible coping mechanism for some people. If they say, "well she got drunk at a party," then can believe rape will never happen to themself or someone they love. Instead of rape being something terrible that can happen to anyone no matter what, its something that only happens to "bad girls". Repeated rapes only seem to fuel this fire. No one seems to want to think, "there's a lot of scummy people out there, we should fix that". Its too easy to blame the victim, and its selling everyone short. Let's blame the people who actualy perpetuate the crimes.

At April 22, 2008 11:48 AM, Blogger Marj aka Thriver said...

Marcella. Thank you for sharing your personal experience here. I also thank you for sharing such valuable information that raises awareness, provides useful tips and leaves no doubt and no room for victim blaming. You rock! I'm glad we could use this article for the April edition of THE BLOG CARNIVAL AGAINST CHILD ABUSE. Thanks again!

At April 25, 2008 7:12 PM, Blogger Katie said...

Marcella, I've never been sexually abused at all, and I also won't get intimate or, come to think of it, let myself be in a situation where such a person has an upper hand over my physical safety, with a person who talks about "real rape" and such.

Why is this?

Damn, would I like to figure out what people in my life taught me that made me feel like this would be a good intimacy/risk person-filter.


(I want to find it and put it in a bottle and send it to every kid!)

Anyway, you're definitely onto something. Because I think it's a principle that has helped. And I don't think you'd be talking about it if it weren't a principle that's helped you.

So that's at least 2 unrelated people it's helped.


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