Rape happens. It happens in “good families.” It happens to women and to men. Rape is non consensual sexual assault. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, one in five women and one in seventy one men will be raped at some point in their lives. The statistics are even worse for children—one in four girls, and one in six boys will be sexually abused before the age of eighteen.
In this article, I’m going to refer to the rape survivor as “she,” though men may be raped too. Organizations that provide support to survivors actively discourage the use of the word “victim” because of the disempowering nature of this word. Use of the word “survivor” is encouraged.
I trained as a rape crisis counselor with BAWAR (Bay Area Women Against Rape) and listened to stories of rape from women (and a few men) who had experienced trauma, and these are the lessons I learned.
There are a lot of misconceptions about rape. A common one is that men rape because it is in their biological nature. This perpetuates the notion that men cannot control themselves sexually; this is unfortunate, because it takes away the blame from those that commit the crime. It is not true either that sexually deprived men rape. In fact, most men who commit rape have regular sexual partners. Another common misperception is that rapists are strangers. According to Department Of Justice statistics from 2005, a staggering 70% of sexual assaults on women were acquaintance rapes where the perpetrator was known to the survivor.
The myth that some women want to be raped is another dangerous one. There are indeed women who fantasize about being sexually dominated. However, in their fantasy they are in control. During rape, they have no control.
It is also commonly believed that rape does not happen in “good” South Asian families because of our emphasis on “family values.” Sadly, the odds that the rapist will be from the same community are pretty high, while the odds that the rapist will be a stranger (a common misperception) are pretty low.
So why do rapists rape? Rape is rarely about sex alone. It is about control. It is about anger. It is about the need to humiliate by domination.
Once the rape takes place, the aftermath can be equally, if not more, traumatic. Survivors are often subjected to judgment—if she got raped, she must have done something to deserve it—like being drunk or wearing attention-drawing clothing. By holding the survivor responsible for the rape, you take the blame from the criminal behavior of the rapist, and place it on the survivor.
Men can be raped too, and not only by only gay men. As with the rape of women, male-on-male rape has little to do with sex or sexual orientation, and more to do with control, anger and humiliation. Men can also be raped by women in positions of power (a superior at work or a close relative like a mother or grandmother). Male survivors are as traumatized by rape as female survivors; however, societal conditioning can make it much harder for them to give a name to their trauma.
Rape, often of a child, by a close relative is perhaps the most heinous of all rapes. A sexually assaulted child will often exhibit changes in behavior, whether in eating, bedwetting or age-inappropriate sexual behavior. An outgoing child might withdraw or begin acting out.
One of the most difficult cases I counseled was that of a woman who had an orgasm during rape. Convinced that her orgasm did not give her the right to feel traumatized, she suffered in silence for years. It was only when she attempted suicide that her family forced her to seek help. Just because the survivor had an orgasm doesn’t mean she actually wanted or deserved the rape—orgasm during rape is often an involuntary, biological response to stimulation—it can never, ever serve as justification of the rape.
Rape survivors suffer from symptoms that are similar to those of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), the syndrome war veterans are often diagnosed with. Physical ailments can range from bladder infections, to STDs, headaches, stomach aches to pelvic inflammation. The emotional impact could be depression, low self-esteem, negative body image, anxiety, guilt, shame. Sexually, survivors can display a range of coping mechanisms—from rejection of intimacy, to promiscuousness. Promiscuousness can give some survivors the illusion of control i.e. they choose to have sex; sex is not being forced on them.
A rape survivor needs help and support to heal. Ignoring or denying it sends a message that she has something to be ashamed of. The survivor did not choose the rape, and she does not deserve the shame.
Allow the survivor to express her feelings. Listen and be non-judgmental. Validate the survivor’s feelings. She has a right to feel angry, sad, violated. She needs to know she is not alone in this. Encourage her to seek help through a support group or counseling.
The first principle of recovery is empowerment—the survivor has to be in charge of her own recovery. Others may offer support, but not the cure. Often, well-intentioned loved ones try to help by doing everything for the survivor. This can actually be damaging because she is, again, (as during rape), not in control.
Never blame the survivor, no matter what the circumstance. The survivor may blame herself because rape is about a lack of control. Blaming herself is one way the survivor attempts to take back control. She might express anger at the people closest to her because she needs a safe outlet for her anger. Don’t prescribe a time limit for the healing. Some women make fast recoveries. For others, effects can last a lifetime. Some women seek help right away; others block memories of the assault for years, until they feel secure enough to process the rape.
Children often do not understand the concept of boundaries, so it is important to teach them about “good” touch and “bad.” If your child is uncomfortable with an aunty or uncle who holds them too close, or makes them uncomfortable, don’t disregard the child’s experience. If a child confides in you, don’t disempower them by doubting them. Keep the lines of communication with your children open.
Don’t force the survivor to label the rapist, don’t force her to report the assault to the police; don’t ask if she wants the rapist to perpetrate the same crime against someone else. This is an unfair burden to place on someone who has already been disempowered. It is not their job to save the world. They must focus on their own healing. And, if they choose to speak out at a later time, it must be their choice. If they choose to file a police report, support them. If they’d rather never speak about it again, support them in that, as well.
In most support organizations counselors are available round the clock, and confidentiality is guaranteed. Counselors will not press for any information, including names. They are there to listen and to help. The counselors also act as advocates. An advocate is a counselor who accompanies the family to the hospital and police station upon request. The role of the advocate is to advise the survivor of her rights, sensitize the police to inappropriate questions and prevent the sexual history of the survivor being relevant to the investigation. This advocacy is completely confidential, even if the advocate happens to be of the survivor’s community.
Some advice for the loved ones of the survivor—this is not about you, or your anger at the perpetrator. This is not about the perpetrator, and the fact they have to be punished. This is about the survivor facing trauma. If they need you to not talk to anyone about it—respect that. If they need to not report the crime, or confront the perpetrator—respect that, as well.
Sexual assault has already taken something from the survivor. Do not disempower them by doing what you think is right. Do what they think is right.
They’ve already taken a huge risk by confiding in you. Don’t betray that confidence.
Rasana Atreya is a content marketer, ghost writer and novelist. http://rasanaatreya.com.