The label made me nauseous. But that’s exactly what it was. And calling it by name was the only way I could begin to heal.
(This post contains content that may upset some readers.)
Recently I did something I never thought I’d do: I called a rape crisis hotline.
I couldn’t believe I was doing it. My mind kept saying this is crazy. It wasn’t that big a deal. Nothing unusual happened. You’re fine.
The memory of what was supposed to be a romantic evening kept replaying itself in my mind. All was going well until at one point I said, “Stop.” He responded, “Just relax,” and kept going. I tried to follow his suggestion, but the discomfort continued, so after a while I told him again, “Stop.” This time he listened. The same interaction was repeated again later: “Stop,” “Just relax” [keeps going…], “No, stop” [stops].
Afterward, knowing that sex was still a very new experience for me, he offered some advice: “You’ll loosen up over time. For now, you should just take it.”
I barely reacted to this statement in the moment. It was not until the next morning that the anger hit me. He didn’t listen to me. He didn’t want to hear me; he wanted me to keep quiet and “just take it.” Stunned, I could not put a name to what he had done. All I could think was, “That was not OK!”
I promptly kicked this man out of my life because of the way he had treated me. Nonetheless, my mind tried desperately to believe it was all OK, that nothing that bad had happened. I went back and forth between clear, furious pain, and denial clouded by a listless sadness.
It wasn’t RAPE, was it? After all, he didn’t mean to hurt me…Most of it was consensual…He listened the second time I said stop. What do I expect—to be heard immediately? Anyway, it wasn’t violent. I wasn’t even in pain…just a little uncomfortable…
I didn’t want to “make a big deal out of nothing.” It had only been one—OK, two—short periods of disrespect, when my partner took his time in stopping after I told him to. Surely that was not bad enough to be called rape…right?
Besides, to call it rape would mean that I had been raped—that I was a rape victim. The label made me nauseous. What would my family say if I told them? Wasn’t my life, by definition, ruined if I had been raped? To say I was raped felt like sentencing myself to a lifetime of shame. I feared the looks of frightened pity from those who would not know what to do with my story. Worse, I feared the implication that it was not my partner’s fault, that I must have done something to deserve it.
But did he know you wanted to stop RIGHT THEN? Maybe he didn’t hear you…I’m sure he didn’t mean to hurt you. You chose to have sex with him, right? How long had you known him before that?
I also hesitated to name this experience as rape because it did not include physical violence. Women suffer so much worse than this—what right do I have to make a fuss? A privileged white woman complaining about an idiot who didn’t listen, when schoolgirls are being abducted and sold in Nigeria? When pimps and traffickers prey on the poorest and most vulnerable girls in my own city?
Yet, despite all my doubts, despite the internalized voices telling me I was “overreacting,” I could not feel at peace until I named this situation adequately: It was rape.
When I said “stop” and my partner responded “just relax,” something shifted in our relationship. It was nothing the legal world would recognize. There was no “evidence” besides my word (no bruises) to prove that the intimacy had gone from consensual to non-consensual. But there was a relational shift.
Until that moment, I thought we shared a mutual respect, a basic care for one another. But I realized that in this situation I did not matter. My needs were irrelevant. It was a feeling of being erased, of disappearing.
“Just relax.” Translation: Shhhh. Be silent. Go along. Don’t complain, don’t be demanding. Be good, be a nice woman, let me have what I want.
I do not believe my partner had any malicious intent. And in a way, that is the worst part. He simply did not think he needed to listen to me.
In all his 30-something years of life, this man had never learned that he needed to listen to women. Instead, he had bought into the great lie of patriarchy: that women’s voices and perspectives are erroneous and unimportant. He had been taught to believe he knew better and that he had more right than me to call the shots.
The day I called the rape crisis hotline, I finally acknowledged the pain I felt. I sat in the vulnerability of sexual violation, with the counselor’s voice on the line holding me together as panic and hurt swept over me. I kept imagining what I would have felt if my partner had made his comment “You should just take it” while we were having sex, or had become physically violent. I curled up in fetal position and sobbed, shaking, into the phone.
The counselor gave me the greatest gift she could: She took me seriously. She affirmed that I had indeed experienced violence, and she helped me realize that when I doubted my right to be hurt, to be angry, and to name this for what it was, I too was dismissing my personhood.
The internalized voices of patriarchy are strong. But the good I am taking from this experience is that I can keep returning to my anger, and from my anger to my truth. For my sake and for the sake of all women, I have chosen to do my part by speaking out.
I have chosen to call this what it was. I have chosen to name rape as rape.
Kathryn R. Harvaton is a pen name for a freelance writer based in San Francisco. She holds a Master’s degree in theology and is passionate about feminism, God/dess, and the shift from domination systems to relationships of mutuality. Follow her at kathrynrharvaton.wordpress.