I don’t remember much about being raped.
I remember the flowers on the curtains hanging in my friend’s bedroom where I lay awake all night, counting the petals, over and over again, until my vision was blurry and dim and it was time for her to walk me home. I remember pulling down my pants and staring at the sticky white mess in my underwear, bewildered by what it was and how it got there. I remember cranking the shower temperature higher and higher until it felt like the water might burn my skin off, and hoping that it would so that I could feel clean again. I remember agonizing over whether I could still call myself a virgin if I had been penetrated, even if it had been done against my will.
Those memories are vivid and brief, like snapshots in a dusty photo album. The rape itself is missing entirely, other than memories so hazy and jagged that I’ve sometimes wondered whether they actually happened. I’ve even hoped that I am a liar, and that I made it all up. Liars are in control; their words have power. Being raped is to be powerless, to be used, filled up, and discarded. I would rather be a liar—but instead I am not.
When I close my eyes, alone late at night, and try to remember my rape, I recall nothing but wisps of drunken men, the cold hard ground with their shadows surrounding me, and my friend telling me to stop making such a big deal out of it. She was used to drunk men using her, and she’d already had a few abortions by then.
We were in tenth grade.
I don’t know whether I fought back, or even whether I said no. Those memories are trapped somewhere, deep inside, and it is only a blur of rough hands and shadowy bodies, the smell of cheap booze, and my friend’s disdain that make their way to my consciousness. I don’t know how many men raped me, and perhaps that is for the best.
I didn’t tell my children that I was raped. It is not what one shares over chicken nuggets and mac and cheese at the dinner table, and I had no desire to expose them to my traumas. While we tackled issues of sexism, safe sex, and even consent, I always kept our conversations impersonal. I wasn’t ashamed of my past, but I wasn’t in a hurry to share it, either.
Not very long ago, my oldest son, then 16, came to me and asked if I had heard about the Steubenville rape case. He followed Anonymous and he was intrigued by their involvement in blowing the cover-up wide open. He was horrified by the case, he said, but he qualified his horror here and there, and it was just enough to give me pause. “It’s too bad that the rape allegations will ruin their entire lives,” he said.
A few months ago, my son brought up the fallout from the Rolling Stone interview with Jackie, and the alleged University of Virginia rape case that wasn’t. He almost cackled with glee as he talked about her false allegations, and he discarded my statistics about the infrequency of false rape accusations like a used condom. I bristled and tried to interrupt, but I found myself silenced by his satisfaction at being proven right—or at least having been proven right in his own mind.
The final straw came when my son asked me recently if I had heard about “that girl at some college” (Columbia, for the record) who carried a mattress everywhere she went to protest what she alleged was the university’s mishandling of her rape by a fellow student. My son was only slightly interested in the idea that she had been raped; it was only when her accused rapist sued the school for allowing her to engage in her protest against him that the case really piqued his interest. “Her accusations ruined his life,” he said. “He should be able to sue the school. He was innocent until proven guilty.”
To say that my entire parenting career flashed before my eyes in that moment is an understatement. As he continued to speak, rattling off every apologist argument I’ve ever heard—spewing like spittle from the mouth of an anonymous Internet troll—I was faced with a deeply unsettling truth: I had raised a rape apologist.
My children aren’t the only people from whom I hid my rape. For many years, I didn’t talk about having been raped at all. I refused to allow those men to write my story, and I was determined not to become a victim. I believed that allowing myself to be impacted by their rape gave them power—it let the bastards win. And, by God, I was not going to let them win.
What I didn’t connect to this stance then was that academic arguments have two sides; it’s always possible—and sometimes even enjoyable—to debate both sides of abstract issues. And when rape is reduced to impersonal, academic lectures about consent and boundaries, it is easy to give equal weight to the risk of false allegations and concerns around evidentiary standards. It is easy to erroneously equate legitimate trauma with massively inflated risks.
Despite my desire not to discuss my own rape, from the time that my kids were very young, I was determined to raise sons who would treat women with respect, honor their voices, and validate their experiences. But, because of my unwillingness to share my own experience as a rape survivor, I deprived them of what should have been their first opportunity to do exactly that. I turned my own trauma into nothing more than a bullet point in an imaginary lecture, and I entirely overlooked the opportunity to teach my sons firsthand how to empathize with a rape victim.
As I listened to my son’s monologue about the alleged rapist’s right to sue his accuser, I finally recognized that my voice has always been just one in a huge chorus. But, where the others are in tune, mine comes across as jarring and out of key—mine is imploring him to ignore the others, despite their unity, and not to ask her what she was wearing, or whether she was drunk, or whether she fought back, or whether maybe, deep down, she wanted it. My voice, which has always felt so loud, becomes a whisper when it’s compared to the booming cacophony of messages that my son has encountered every day of his life. For every talk we’ve had about consent, he’s heard 10 jokes about some drunk slut. For every talk we’ve had about rape, he’s watched 20 movies, TV shows, or who-knows-what online that have encouraged him to question the victim’s truth while accepting her rapist’s lies as fact. All these years that I’ve argued against rape apologia armed with facts and logic, I have allowed my voice to twindle to a mere undertone in the conversation; I have allowed my truth to be drowned out.
Being raped stole my power. Pretending that my rape didn’t traumatize me in the name of becoming a “survivor” stole my power, too. But, perhaps worst of all, remaining silent about my rape made me an accomplice in my son’s indoctrination in rape culture.
That day, I finally found my voice. I interrupted my son, and I told him that he was excusing rape. I told him that I had been raped as a teenager, and that it was an experience that he simply could not understand. If the legal system is ill-equipped to prosecute rape, I said, then it is time to create a new system. I cried as I described the pain I felt during and after my rape, even 22 years later, and he looked me straight in the eye and told me that I wasn’t being rational. My arguments, he said, were emotional. But, even as he blustered, I could see his discomfort—finally, in that moment, I recognized my own power.
I no longer believe that abstract academic discourse will change rape culture. It certainly will not open men’s hearts to the pain of rape survivors. Rather, it is by sharing our trauma that rape survivors can influence others. Our tales make people uncomfortable, and perhaps defensive, but initial knee-jerk reactions can eventually fade into real listening and even empathy. Facts and statistics documenting the sexual violence in our society get drowned out by rape culture, but our stories as survivors are memorable, poignant, and potent. They create a new cultural construct around rape, one that features survivors—not abusers and apologizers.
I didn’t go into gory detail with my son, and I didn’t have to. It was enough for him to know that his mother was raped, and to hear me describe what rape has done to me, for him to begin to change his views. He is still a rape apologist, just a little bit, but he is also a boy who knows in his heart that the absence of yes is always no. He has stopped asking why she was drunk and started asking why someone raped her. Bit by bit, piece by piece, his worldview has shifted to include my experience in a way that my academic arguments never could have accomplished.
JODY ALLARD is a long-time techie turned freelance writer living in Seattle. Her online work has appeared on HuffPo, Time, and xoJane, among others. She writes about family, mothering, and life with a chronic illness from a staunchly (some might say stridently) feminist perspective.