Sexual assault has been a topic of much discussion these last months. I’ve already written about how rape was dealt with in what I now consider “my” time period, the 1910s (quick answer, not all that differently from the way we do today and, um, that’s not good for today). I wasn’t looking to pursue the topic further, but on November 8 I happened to pick up a book, which I found listed in a course syllabus on gender and sexuality, entitled Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and what we can do about it by Kate Harding.
First let me get this out of the way. “Rape culture” has been with us forever, and I’d argue it’s the attention to the issue rather than the cultural support for it that has been on the rise. Back in 2012, when Harding shopped the book proposal, her editor and agent urged her to finish the book in six months, because rape was a hot topic that would be long past the news cycle if she waited longer. Harding took several years to finish, but “fortunately” for the marketing of her book, the topic is as relevant as ever.
I read the entire book on the night of November 8 and was impressed with this observation: “... Rape myths, like all myths, are designed to serve up psychological comfort, not hard facts. As Grubb and Turner put it, ‘To believe that rape victims are innocent and not deserving of their fate is incongruous with the general belief in a just world; therefore, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance, rape myths serve to protect an individual’s belief in a just world.’ (Amy Grubb and Emily Turner, “Attribution of Blame in Rape Cases: A Review of the Impact of Rape Myth Acceptance, Gender Role Conformity and Substance Use on Victim Blaming,” Aggression and Violent Behavior 17, no. 5 (2012): 443-452 quoted in Asking For It, p. 23).
Harding presents this useful flow chart for preserving our comforting belief in a just world:
Someone reported a rape. Proceed as follows:
1. Did she ask for it? If no, go to 2. If yes, go to 8.
2. Was it really rape? If yes, go to 3. If no, go to 8.
3. Did he mean to do it? If yes, go to 4. If no, go to 8.
4. Did she want to have sex with him? If no, go to 5. If yes, go to 8.
5. Is she lying about whether she consented? If no, go to 6. If yes, go to 8.
6. Was it really such a big effing trauma? If yes, go to 7. If no, go to 8.
7. The kind of rape you’re describing is very, very rare. Like, so rare that it’s practically nonexistent. Go back over steps 1 through 6, until you find your error and end up at 8.
8. Everything’s fine! No need to be upset! (Harding, p. 23)
Or to summarize: Ladies! Sexual contact is good if you just loosen up, and if it’s a little bad for you for some reason like you didn’t want him to do it but he did anyway, well, shy of being brutally injured or killed, get over it, for crying out loud--we’ve got important problems to deal with in this world.
Harding waits until the last chapter of the book to reveal the personal meaning of this darkly humorous flow chart. She herself was raped during the first few weeks of her freshman year of college. She was at a party in a tight dress she had borrowed and had partaken of some spiked punch (stop right there at step #1, she was definitely asking for it). An apparently romantically interested older guy asked her to dance and afterwards guided her outside. Without further ado, he pushed her down on the ground, and in spite of her saying “stop” and physically resisting him, he put his penis inside her, “finished,” then got up and left without a word. Harding was seventeen and a virgin. The story deserves a longer telling, because the aftermath is as much a violation as the initial event. But--it may seem strange now, but it won’t later--the parts that really stood out to me were these: the initial doctor she saw was gentle and kind and offered to call the police and use a rape kit. Harding didn’t know the rapist’s name and didn’t want her parents to find out what happened to her so she refused. But the doctor she saw as a follow-up for an STD test after the rape showed palpable disdain for sexually active young women. And when Harding saw the man who raped her on campus the very next day, a person she knew said, “Oh, no. That’s _____. I know him. He would never do that.” (Harding, p. 208)
Harding then doubted her own eyes until someone else told her later that same man had raped her when she was sick in bed and on codeine. He had also been accused of other rapes, but the school didn’t find grounds to discipline him. Harding decided to pursue a complaint at the college. They determined she had been raped, but based on the evidence, they couldn’t be sure it was the man she identified.
It so happens I know someone who had a very similar experience in the 1970s. But the college was bigger, and she never saw her rapist again. She did end up dropping out of the college, like Harding, but she never called that event “rape” until years later.
Like almost every woman, I’ve experienced verbal sexual assault (not just “harmless” wolf-whistle salutes but demeaning, aggressive comments), several public exposures in train stations, and a couple of male bosses who did creepy, inappropriate things. I’ve had just two encounters with the hands-on physical sort of assault. The first occurred when a man rammed into me in Avignon during the Bastille Day fireworks and groped my buttocks with rough but assured hands before he pushed his way on through the crowd. The second happened outside Grand Central Station when a weird-looking old man shuffled close, jabbed me hard in the breast with his elbow, then sprinted away. That one hurt like hell and almost knocked me over. No observing bystander offered to help or asked if I was okay. I remember feeling very ashamed that they had witnessed the assault, as if I had somehow deserved it. Both of these events happened back in the 1980s, when stuff happened to young women on the street all the time and you just dealt with it. Yes, those were bad experiences, I thought, but whew, lucky me, I was never forcibly and painfully penetrated by a callous man who got away with it.
Then, in the early sleepless morning of November 9, I remembered that I had been. It happened forty years ago. The man who got away with it was a gynecologist.
Forty years ago, my mother took me to the office of a doctor I initially thought I’d name in this article (he’s likely dead). However, I discovered his son, or a guy with the same name and a “junior” after it, still practiced gynecology in the same small suburb. One must think twice about naming perpetrators in our current climate. A man's good name is his greatest treasure.
I was fifteen and hadn’t menstruated yet. Although both my mother and grandmother had had their first period at eighteen, it was deemed necessary I be checked out to make sure I wasn’t dangerously defective. My mother said this man was the best gynecologist in town. She was a nurse and her friend from nursing school had worked for him for years.
Before the physical exam, I was sent alone into the doctor’s office. He asked me, very brusquely, a series of questions, which included, “Have you had sexual intercourse?” Nervous to start with, I was taken aback by such an abrupt question and didn’t answer. The doctor glared at me over his bifocals. “No,” I choked out, my shame in the midst of the Sexual Revolution having more to do with never having had a boyfriend at my advanced age. I had a feeling he didn’t believe me. Perhaps he did later.
In the examination room, we were joined by a nurse. She closed the door and stood there impassively. I know now this is the law to prevent misconduct, but it felt to me at the time that she was stationed there to keep me from escaping. I undressed and lay down on the table. I heard the doctor say, “Do we have a small speculum?”
“No,” the nurse replied, “should I get one?”
The doctor seemed impatient. “I’ll just use this one.”
Suddenly a searing pain shot through me as something cold and hard was pushed deep between my legs. I cried out and my hips thrust up off the table and twisted reflexively, as if my body was trying to get away from the intrusion.
“Relax,” the best-gynecologist-in-town barked. “Keep still. I can’t examine you if you’re moving around like this.”
I tried my best to remain still through the pain, but my body was still jerking and I heard myself moaning, ah, ah, ah. It really hurt.
“Don’t make so much noise. It’s not that bad." Then he said to the nurse, "Help me.”
She came over and took my hand, which was reassuring, but also pressed my arm and shoulder down against the table to hold me in place. “Just relax,” she repeated.
The doctor finished and walked away without another word, although afterwards in his office, he did tell my mother there was nothing physically wrong with me that he could tell at that point.
In the car on the way home, I told my mother that the examination had hurt a lot and the doctor had yelled at me to keep still and be quiet. Actually, I said, he was pretty mean to me and I never wanted to go back to him. She was not happy about what happened, but she said the man was an excellent doctor and a top surgeon, but he had a gruff bedside manner and might not have been the best choice for an inexperienced girl. She discussed it with her friend who worked at that office, but while they thought it was unfortunate for me, they gave him the benefit of the doubt. He was known to be moody and was probably having a bad day.
My mother did take me to another doctor a few years later and explained that I’d had an unpleasant experience at my first examination. This doctor was gentle. He used a smaller, warmed speculum and explained every step at a slow pace. But from my perspective, the horse was already out of the barn. Since I’ve been able to choose for myself, I’ve always gone to women gynecologists.
Yet for forty years I never called that first experience assault.
We live in an interesting world where calling someone a rapist or a racist is treated as an offense, one as bad as the behavior that provoked the remark. To be honest, I don’t care what you call a situation where a sexually inexperienced teenager is quickly and forcibly penetrated and told to stay still and take it. I’ve finally named it to my own satisfaction.
For the record, I know I cannot legally call it rape. Through my mother, I “asked for” what that man did to my body. He would, perhaps, call it a routine examination with an annoyingly uncooperative patient. But allow me my truth that it was something far more than a “gruff bedside manner.” The doctor caused me pain for his own convenience and scolded me because he didn’t want other people in the office to hear my sounds of distress--a cover-up, if you will. The doctor did nothing “sexual” but he most assuredly abused his power. And it’s not sexual desire but the abuse of power, I appreciate so fully now, that is at the heart of rape culture.
And wow, it took me this long to realize why I inwardly recoil at the words “just relax” when a man says that to a woman in bed on screen or in life. There’s always something new to learn about ourselves, isn’t there?
I also want to say that the women who aided the doctor have my sympathy. Female nurses have suffered greatly because of male doctors’ general arrogance and, often enough, endured ongoing sexual harassment in the service of their profession. Mothers in particular have gotten a lot of personal blame for failings that are as much a result of their own societal repression and pain. My mother died an excruciating and unnecessary death courtesy of excellent doctors and a pharmaceutical company that cared more about profits than patients. But I do wonder—what were these nurses really thinking? How much did they have to numb themselves to how women are treated in the world?
Since I wrote the first draft of this essay on November 9, I’ve learned that many women throughout America have been triggered about past sexual abuse by the presidential campaign and its result. We feel in our bodies the misogyny and dismissal of our basic rights to respect and safety. Many of us have been brought to tears, as I was. Many of us fear for the future. But at least we can name it now.
How does this all tie into erotica writing? Well, this is why it is extremely important that women and men are able and allowed to name their experiences, good and bad, “sexual” or otherwise, and give them meaning in their own lives. I hope there is a day when the law and the AMA will define certain acts in a way that does not re-victimize the victim. When many tell us that what erotica writers do is obscene or trivial, speaking and writing truthfully about the experiences those in power want silenced is always an act of courage.
Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman and a collection of short stories, Mammoth Presents the Best of Donna George Storey. Learn more about her work at www.DonnaGeorgeStorey.com or http://www.facebook.com/DGSauthor