I have been in a blind rage all week about Todd Akin's comments. My default filter for grief and rage is humor, because it allows me to process anger and frustration in a slightly more civilized manner. Besides, if I said what was really on my mind, I would run the risk of being called a "whiny feminist", a word derived from a movement about empowerment, which has been perverted into an oppressive insult in some circles. A conversation with a colleague helped me to see that trying to bridle my rage with satire may have obfuscated the intention of my last post. In my attempt to poke fun at the ignorant politicians who seek to qualify abuse by arbitrary and offensive criteria, I failed to emphasize how these qualifiers to rape bear substantial emotional trauma for victims of sexual abuse in and of themselves. These false qualifiers have become so ingrained in political rhetoric that when the realities of rape do not match this cookie-cutter-Hollywood-dramatization of rape, victims suffer from a level of cognitive dissonance equivalent to psychological torture.
Common phrases like "she's asking for it", "fuck-me pumps", and "easy" are casually and humorously tossed around. So what happens when a girl gets raped at a party where she was dressed up in her "fuck-me pumps"? Was she asking for it? That is the question she will ask herself, torture herself with, maybe forever. Our society culturally defines femininity and sexiness by the hem of our dresses, the height of our heels, and the depth of our cleavage, and then accuses us of asking to be raped when we conform to these standards. That's patriarchal oppression.
Do I sound like a whiny feminist yet? Good. Keep Reading.
In the second season of Mad Men, the character of Joan Holloway, brilliantly played by Christina Hendricks, was raped by her then-fiance, Greg Harris. He pushes her to the floor of Don Draper's office, and rapes her. He didn't drug her, hit her, bloody her. She protested "Don't", "Stop" and "This isn't fun anymore", as she quietly tried to push him away. She doesn't scream, despite the fact that there were plenty of people outside the office. After a minute, she stops fighting him, recognizes the vanity of her attempt, and silently retreats into herself. The shock of betrayal is paralyzing. She marries him anyway. No police report was filed. Does this fit Todd Akin's definition of "forcible" or "legitimate" rape? The part when she said "stop" or the part when he raped her?
How many millions of women have similarly disqualified their own rape, suffering the psychological ramifications of abuse silently and alone? "My fiance raped me" carries a shaming cognitive dissonance thanks to the insinuating qualifiers that rape should be violent, bloody, and foreign. Often, rape is hauntingly silent, still, and familiar. Our societal schema for sexual abuse discounts it for lack of physical evidence, but the psychological scarring outlasts any bruises or broken bones.
The fight or flight response is particularly damning for rape victims, especially if that phrase "asking for it" is bouncing around in the recesses of the mind. In instances of acute physical stress or trauma, the body will either respond aggressively, or retreat in temporary paralysis. You don't get to decide which one. You're wearing a mini skirt on your date, and nothing comes out when you scream, and you've lost all control of your musculoskeletal system, and the only words that come to mind are, "she was asking for it." What would you tell the police? Would you stand trial and watch the defense wave around your short skirt and ask you why you didn't scream or fight back? The guilt is less intrusive, cleaner, sparing you from further humiliation.
Qualifiers like "forcible", "assault", and "legitimate" only succeed in burdening victims of rape with the guilt and shame of the nuance in their narrative. Qualifying rape with ambiguous adjectives is to suggest that their are degrees of trauma to be valuated by some higher authority, and our society has a habit of delegitimizing psychological trauma. Similarly, those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, depression, and other mental health problems are treated as though their suffering is somehow less than trauma with physical manifestations. Less serious, less painful, less public.
There is no such thing as "legitimate" rape, but in saying so, we delegitimize suffering.