Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: Why Can’t We Speak About Rape? Finding a Voice

rape victimAccording to a telephone survey of a nationally representative sample of 16,507 adults, nearly one in five women has been a victim of rape or attempted rape and one in 71 men reports having been raped or the target of attempted rape.

As alarming as these statistics may be, they greatly under-represent the numbers who have suffered. Men and boys tend not to report being raped and women rarely report rape by a partner or acquaintance. Sadly, ¾ of all rapes are committed by a known person who is never held accountable.

The Silence About Rape is Dangerously Loud!

The silence about rape reflects the nature of the crime and both the victim and society’s reaction and interaction in response to it.

The Impact of Rape on the Victim

Rape is a violent crime. It brutally assaults the victim’s core self and the physical, psychological, neurological, and cognitive systems that integrate functioning.

In the immediate aftermath, rape is often experienced as an annihilation of the ownership of self — a loss of the self’s ability to act, to make meaning or register what is happening, to remember. Feelings are overwhelming or numbed. Narrative is destroyed. There are no words for what is too horrific to comprehend.

Rape survivor, Nancy Raine in her book, After Silence: Rape and My Journey Back, describes:

“The instant I was free the seed of terror that had been planted in those hours burst open…”

“Words had no referents and no beauty of their own. Memories were drained of meaning because the person who had them no longer existed.”

“What would a hug mean to someone whose body no longer felt as if it belongs to her?”

  • So often in the aftermath of catastrophic trauma, the victim feels shame and blame. This is exacerbated for the rape victim. Having experienced sexual violation and exposure, there is enormous shame, self-doubt and misconstrued self- blame.
  • The thought of reporting the rape or disclosing the details of the assault is underscored with fear of reliving the nightmare, of further exposure, personal or family embarrassment, of reprisals and disbelief.
  • In the best of situations a rape victim finds the courage to call a friend or family member or the National Sexual Assault Hotline (1-800-656-HOPE) to get help, to find a Rape Crisis Center or emergency room within 24 hours, to receive medical care, counseling, and help with gathering forensic evidence- whether or not she/he ever chooses to pursue legal action.

Society’s Reaction To Rape

Society both acknowledges and denies rape. Rape threatens social mores and demands empathy with victims.  Accordingly, rape is a crime but it is one that has been obscured by legal definition, stereotype, gender bias and media hype in a way that too often silences victims or confirms their worst fears of blame and re-victimization.

Definition of Rape

Recently the federal government expanded  “the rape stereotype” — the definition of rape as including only assaults against women and girls committed by men under a narrow set of circumstances.

The new definition of rape includes, among other things, forcible oral or anal penetration. It includes men as victims of rape and recognizes as rape – nonconsensual sex that does not involve physical force, like the rape of people who are unable to grant consent because they are drugged, very drunk or younger than the age of statutory consent in their state.

This re-definition is a crucial step but it will take some time for the culture ( including the victims) to look beyond the narrow stereotype.

  • Callie Rennison, a criminologist notes, “Rape is the only crime in which victims have to explain that they didn’t want to be victimized.”
  • Juries continue to look for an injury as evidence that sex was not consensual, although, rape experts report that there are injuries in fewer than half the attacks.
  • The public distances itself from its own fear of sexual violence by discrediting the victim, or blaming them for putting themselves in dangerous or vulnerable situations.

“What was she wearing?”

“Why would she take a cab home alone?”

“He is part of the gay cruising culture.”

Influenced by this, most victims blame themselves and overlook the legitimacy of having been raped particularly if they have been drinking; using drugs or were raped by a partner or acquaintance.

Given that half of female rape victims have been raped by an intimate partner or an acquaintance and more than half of male victims report that the assailant was an acquaintance- questioning the legitimacy of their assault is tragic.

  • “ I never told anyone – I just stopped dating.”
  • “ I never called the police – I thought they wouldn’t believe me because I had been involved with him.”
  • “ I woke up in my own apartment- I was bleeding, I was disoriented – how did I let this happen?”

As discussed in The Rape Recovery Handbook,  programs like “Just Yell Fire,” and websites dealing with rape, we need to fight the  self-doubt and stunned silence. We need to communicate as a society that nothing justifies rape!

Gender Bias

Until recently the only role for men in the rape stereotype was as the perpetrator. With the expansion of the definition of rape, however, there is finally recognition of rape as a crime also committed against men.

The problem for the male victim in speaking out is that he is still subject to a cultural bias, which expects him to be strong, virile, and capable of protecting himself.  According to social expectations, he may not be the perpetrator but he can’t be a victim. Accordingly, shame, disdain and self-blame compromise disclosing even more.  Who can bear witness? Who would understand?

In my experience with male rape victims and men who have been sexually assaulted as children, I have found that few have ever revealed their suffering to anyone over the years. Often they have carried the hazy memory and body memories of the abuse into adulthood with great confusion and secrecy. Often their pain was silenced by alcohol or drugs.

It is the point at which they seek help, disclose to a spouse, find a self-help group of other males who have been sexually abused – that clarity and meaning emerge. They find a voice and a lost self. A very important resource for male survivors of any type of sexual abuse is MaleSurvivor.org.

How Do We Find a Voice – Break the Silence?

Probably the most important step toward finding a voice is for the victim of rape to recognize that you have suffered but survived and that you own your future identity.

Disclosure of an unspeakable event is beyond what many can do in the immediate aftermath of rape but that need not preclude reaching for help. Often it is in that step towards help that a small re-ordering of life begins.

Many who have suffered sexual assault tell different aspects of their story in different ways to certain people over the course of many years until they finally find their strongest voice.

  • It was 16 years before one woman went public with the events of her rape and resulting pregnancy in a published story. It was the first time her mother learned what had happened to her.
  • Another woman did not speak about being raped until she faced the traumatic loss of her partner which rekindled devastation and despair – in the healing for the loss of her husband she reached back to recapture and heal an earlier self.
  • A recent New York Times article reports on a man who is finally speaking out after 38 years. He had been raped at 14 by a driver who picked him up after hockey practice.

To heal we need in some way to find a voice – be it through what we say, what others say, what we write, what we draw, who we trust with our story. We need to bear witness to what has happened and celebrate a self that can go forward.

Listen in to Dr. Richard Gartner discussing ” Understanding and Healing Sexually Betrayed Boys and Men” on Psych Up Live

Rape victim photo available from Shutterstock.