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We Need to Talk About Rape More Calmly

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I was raped once.

Raped. Such a loaded gun of a word, entangled as it is with the most complex aspects of human nature - sex, love, power, jealousy, desire, violence, lust, repulsion, hatred, betrayal. It's no wonder, really, that popular debates about rape are so fraught and often so reductive. It's no wonder that most women who are raped don't report it. That some men (and women) dismiss women (and men) who do report it as dangerous nutters who are definitely lying; no wonder that some other men won't admit rape exists at all.

I was raped once. Possibly. I have to include that qualifying 'possibly' because using the word 'rape' about what happened to me seems ridiculously melodramatic. Which is why I hardly ever talk about it - there aren't the words, yet, for me to speak of an awkward, embarrassing - but not painful or frightening - experience, without it spiralling into a conversation about something else; a darker story where I am degraded, angry, victimised.

If we went for dinner, say, or got drunk together on cold white wine, and I told you I was raped, you'd probably imagine horror. A woman held at knife point, a girl dragged from a bus in India, left for dead, her entrails outside her body, as though she were a gutted fish. Those kinds of rapes happen. Or perhaps you'd imagine domestic abuse, or a shady stranger I took home one night, when I was too intoxicated to realise he couldn't be trusted. Those rapes happen too.

But, legally, the definition of rape encompasses other, less traumatising, scenarios. According to UK law:

A person (A) commits an offence of rape if:
a) He intentionally penetrates the vagina, anus or mouth of another person (B) with his penis,
b) B does not consent to the penetration, and
c) A does not reasonably believe that B consents.

The grey area here, the reason why I couch my experience with the qualifier 'possibly', is in 'c'.

How can I know if my friend reasonably believed, as I slept, having invited him into my bed, platonically (was I always platonic with him, if I'm honest? Does that matter?), that I was consenting? We were young enough that we were both still trying to negotiate the boundaries of our intimacy, the barbed territory between sex and friendship.

But I think he knew.

'Sorry', he said, when he saw my face. And then, the next day, 'Don't tell the police.'

Which was the point at which I realised I could tell the police, if I wanted. It would have been within my rights to do that, and then the law could have decided if it was rape, or not, and meted out an appropriate response. Certainly, my friend had taken advantage. I felt violated - but not terribly so; it was more like the kind of violation you feel when you've shared a secret and your mate's told someone else, or when your boss gets paralytic at the Christmas party and tries it on. I was pissed off, for a few months or years, and, although I'd still call him a friend, things were not the same between us after that.

If I'd called the police, if I had used the word 'rape' about what happened with any of our mutual friends, with my family, colleagues, strangers, (even if I'd said 'possibly') my life - and his - would have been tainted, irrevocably. I'd have been a 'rape victim' and had to endure the pity, horror and shame that that title induces. Or, more likely, people would have found it hard to believe me. Of course he'd have reasonably thought I wanted it - what bloke wouldn't, after you'd spent all that time with him and invited him into your bed?

And, whatever the outcome of legal processes, my friend would have likely been arrested. He would have had to live - proven guilty or otherwise - in the eyes of at least some of the people who loved him, as a 'rapist', forever. Those seemed extreme consequences, in my particular circumstances.

The heavy baggage that the word 'rape' carries is the reason why more women (and men) don't come forward and report, or at least discuss, their rape experiences. The reactionary culture surrounding rape doesn't allow for the ambivalent feelings that men and women have about rapes they are involved in.

The sensationalised culture surrounding rape makes it hard to speak about sexual experiences that cross the legal line, but which are complicated. It doesn't matter, to me, whether I was legally raped or not. It affected me - that's why I'm writing about it now - but not deeply so. Indeed, I've had consensual sexual encounters that were more lastingly traumatic.

'Rape is rape' as the old feminist slogan would have it. Yes, it is - legally, rape is rape. And we had to put it like that so that women gained legal rights over their own bodies, so that men were not given carte blanche to stick themselves in whomever they pleased. But, obviously, every rape is not the same. And while every man who commits rape has some serious work to do on his attitude towards women, towards men, towards sex, towards the world - not every man who commits rape is brutal, evil, deserving of a prison sentence, deserving of the life-long stigma 'rapist.'

Things need to change if we are going to move forward. Proper distinctions between rapes must be possible in popular debate, and are essential if women (and men) are to have the power to speak and be heard about the complex landscape of sex and sexual violation.

Perhaps we need new words to describe shades of rape. Although that's dangerous territory too. I know I am fortunate, in many ways, and that my fortune has meant one fleeting incidence of sexual violation hasn't haunted me. I'm educated, financially secure, confident in the love and support of my family, friends and colleagues. I've had positive experiences of sex and of relationships with men that have enabled me to place what happened between me and my friend in a particular context. I don't live in a social environment where being sexually active per se marks me out as damaged, dangerous or flawed. Not every woman is so lucky.

But, though my experience might be rare, it is hardly unique. I can't be the only women who doesn't speak out about her rape because she's scared she'll be misunderstood. Perhaps we need new words to articulate complexity of the status 'victim' - words that acknowledge that some raped women don't feel like victims at all. Don't know if they were raped, legally, don't want to prosecute if they were, but do want a forum where they can unpick the knotty tapestries of their sexual history without fear of explosive, reactionary responses.

Perhaps the maligned status of the 'victim' and the culture of 'victim blaming' is part of the problem, too. I don't know. What I do know is that nothing will get better, for men or for women, unless we can talk about rape more calmly; unless we can accept and marry into our language the fact that rape is both grotesque and horrific, banal and workaday; unless we can understand that rape isn't always the worst thing you can do, isn't always the worst thing that can happen to you - but that sometimes, it is. Rape, like life, is complicated, and we need ways to talk about that.

*Image by freedigitalphotos.net

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