Why it’s hard to speak up about rape – and why we should do it anyway

Tonight I’ve been reading Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I watched the film – starring Kristen Stewart, any Twilight fans – a couple of years ago but in a moment of serendipity spotted it on Hodder’s bookshelves earlier today. It’s the fictional tale of Melinda, a fourteen year old girl raped at a house party, and it describes how she descends into a mute shadow of her former self, before very slowly starting to heal, and speak out.

I have a publishing nerd habit, where if a phrase sticks with me in a book, it gets a post-it note on the page so I can find it again if ever it’s on the tip of my tongue. Sometimes you find a character in a book or film that says something, and – to borrow from the fat old teacher in The History Boys – it is like a hand has reached out and taken yours, because the character is finally putting words to something you’ve been trying to describe for years. I have joyous lines from The Time Traveller’s Wife that talk about the immediacy of love, a whole passage from Wuthering Heights that talks about despair. And from Speak, now I have this:

“I just want to sleep. A coma would be nice. Or amnesia. Anything, just to get rid of this, these thoughts, whispers in my mind. Did he rape my head, too?”

The answer, of course, is yes. And I suspect it’s one of the many reasons we don’t often talk about rape – because those thoughts are swirling around in our heads so much of the time, and who wants to think about it more than they have to? After all, that’s the very reason I took a sabbatical from this blog – I was talking about it, and that made me think about it more, and then I talked about it more, and round and round those thoughts swirled.

And let’s not pretend that it’s only your head that gets raped. Your close friends and family are raped in some way, too – thoughts force themselves into loved ones’ heads unwanted, and won’t get out. When I first told my mother, she would wake up panicking that I wasn’t safe. My father later rushed headlong out of the cinema when he realised they were about to depict a rape scene, because he didn’t need anything making his imagination more vivid.

It seeps into the wider world, too. Even if you don’t know someone who’s been raped – and believe me, even if you don’t realize it, you probably do – distant women’s experiences have made you fearful too. Rape is consistently polled as the event or circumstance that women are most afraid of. And of course we know why. Every woman has at some point realised that – providing she’s not an Olympic weight-lifter – if a man wanted to physically or sexually abuse her, there’s nothing she could do about it. This is discovered in lighthearted circumstances, perhaps having a drunken arm wrestle or a tickling match. And discovering that you are, in a very real sense, powerless, somehow fractures that optimistic lie we were told growing up: that women and men are equal. I’m as big a feminist as they come, but one has to confront the reality that there are physical differences that will not be leveled out.

So how do we, our friends, our family, and even those ‘untouched’ by rape ever summon up the courage to leave the house? Simply because those damaged men are not the majority of men. The world is full of men who would protect you rather than harm you. And those that have harmed you? If you stay indoors, they win. And they don’t deserve to. And – hard as it is sometimes to force the words out from a throat that seems to get ever more constricted – if you stay silent, they win, too. So speak up.

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  1. #1 by Anon on March 21, 2011 - 1:32 pm

    I was raped at 17. Didn’t tell anyone about it. At 19 I went to a nightclub with some friends. A guy got hold of me and wouldn’t let me go – his hands where everywhere. Luckily my friends found me. But after that, I refused to go outside. Couldn’t even leave the house to check the post. I was convinced something bad would happen again. Luckily, with help from some amazing friends and a counsellor, I gradually beat that fear. To this day though, I am always wary and can never 100% relax when I’m out – I’m always looking for potential threats – especially at night time. When he raped me, he didn’t just take my body, he took away my safety, he took away how I view the world, he took away my sense of security.
    But if it hadn’t been for those amazing friends – including two guys – then I would still be stuck living my life inside. So few men want to harm you, but when one does, it taints how you see all the other men in your life.

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