Using That Word

As I’m sure you’ve all been totally devastated by the absence of Purtek’s thoughts over the past couple of weeks, I feel like I should offer some sort of explanation for my bloglessness. Except that there really isn’t one, except that the absence of Purtek’s thoughts has not been limited to the blog version; the drought is extending right into my brain, and I’ve been extra-inclined toward feeling exhausted, overwhelmed and kind of frighteningly apathetic these days.

All that is also intended to reduce pressure on the content of this post, freeing me up to just try to write *something* without the self-imposed requirement that it actually be *good*.

So, I know I’m extremely late on responding to the medical rape story that Caroline at Uncool has been trying to bring to the attention of the blog world, but something about it is still ringing with me, beyond the fact that it’s just an absolutely horrifying story. Caroline’s right – Dr. Crippen’s behaviour is bullying, targetting a woman who was clearly questioning and processing, and making herself emotionally vulnerable in the process. It displays an inability to empathize with another human being on the most basic level, or, at the very minimum, an uncanny ability to forget that the words on blogs, in many cases, are not theoretical, hypothetical or merely philosophical, but painfully real and personal. I think the latter interpretation represents an undeserved level of generosity, personally.

In the broader, general sense, I think what stands out to me about this situation is the way the semantics of the word “rape” are being debated. Now, I’m the first to get pissed off when someone uses the term as a casual metaphor for a difficult exam or overpriced parking, and I really do think it’s important to do so, because hell yeah does that diminish the experience of actual rape. It’s a fucking harsh, powerful word, and it hits me just to hear it spoken. When I’m talking about my own experiences, I often find myself avoiding it in order to protect the person I’m talking to from feeling the full weight of the word. “Sexual assault” sounds so much less graphic, less explicit, less painful. More clinical. It’s self-protective as well – I feel like I’m taking a far larger, far more emotional risk when I use the word “rape” than when I choose the more tentative, more ambiguous “sexual assault”. The sense of vulnerability, the feeling of exposure, the fear that I won’t be believed, is more significant when it’s attached to the word “rape”.

At the same time – and maybe for exactly the same reason – I do think that there are situations that may not meet the canonical definition of “rape” in which it’s appropriate to use the word, because nothing else has the same kind of descriptive power, nothing else in the English language can adequately convey how you feel about something that was done to you. To me, it’s abundantly clear that Debs was in exactly that situation, and given the specifics of what happened to her, I honestly cannot believe that people are so callous that not only are they willing to aggressively and condescendingly convey their disapproval of her word choice, they go so far as to mock and demean her for it. Getting pedantic and legalistic about how the word rape necessarily indicates some kind of sexual motivation is a smokescreen that has been exposed on plenty of other blogs, and the use of the excuse that Dr. Crippen and his ilk are just trying to avoid the further watering down of the term “rape”, reserving it for “real” rape victims rings oh-so-clearly with the tones of exactly what has been said to those of us who have been raped by people we were dating, people who were known to us, after we’d been drinking, after we’d initiated some level of sexual contact, whatever.

I’ve alluded several times on this blog to my experiences last summer and some of the feelings that came of it. Because the risks still feel too big, and because my emotional reactions to it continue to shift and change and settle, I doubt I’ll ever write about exactly what happened. I wasn’t raped. I wasn’t attacked or physically assaulted. I wasn’t even coerced into doing something I wasn’t entirely sure that I wanted to do. For a few days after it happened, I alternated between feeling numb and feeling absolutely manic. About three or four days later, I woke up at 4 a.m. in a state of panic. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t think. I was terrified, but I really had no sense of what it was that was scaring me. I lived in a 9th floor apartment at the time, and there was a big part of me that thought I might just throw myself right over the balcony – I wasn’t suicidal per se, but an understanding close friend was very accurate when she related it to the feeling of just wanting to die and wake up when the pain was over. And I remember thinking “When have I felt this way before?” and realizing that it was almost exactly as I had felt the last time I was raped. It was the same the kind of despair, the same sense that I had lost all control over my life, the same feeling that someone else had essentially erased me as a human being with desires and needs and an existence of my own.

Now, when I’ve talked about it, I’ve never suggested that I was raped. I’ve certainly never suggested that I had any intention of pursuing any kind of criminal charges or anything like that. I know it’s different. But the feelings didn’t map onto anything else that made sense to me, and the only way I could talk about it was to relate it back to what I had felt before. The people who helped me were the people who could hear that, and listen to it, and know that all I was doing was trying to put words to experiences and feelings that made absolutely no sense otherwise.

It seems to me that’s what Debs was doing, though since she’s never been raped, she can only draw on what she imagines she would feel based on having listened to the stories of women (and possibly also men) she knows who have talked to her about how they felt. I don’t quite know how to describe the discomfort I feel about the way I have, at times, been granted more credence to use these words to talk about an experience that is far less like rape than what happened to Debs. I’ve seen more than a few comments on the blog posts on this topic that have said things like “Before you use this word, think about how you would make a real rape victim feel,” in a manner that suggests that not only has Debs not thought about that (and agonized about it), but that there is only one possible conclusion to be reached if one does think about it. Those comments have this overtone, to me, of overprotectiveness based on the perceived inability of women who have been raped to think logically about their experiences, relate to the experiences of others, or contextualize their emotions. I don’t think I have the brain power at this time of night to properly unpack what I mean by that, but it strikes me as another version of the kind of attitude that allows for the dismissal of the opinions of rape victims on the subject of rape, because your trauma and irrational fear will cause you to see it in every situation. Far too many people can be far too cavalier about what it means to have to recover from rape, but hell if I’m going to sign on to this paternalistic overprotectiveness as the alternative.

Especially if it involves bullying, silencing and progressively limiting who is allowed to use what words when they’re talking in carefully thought-out ways about very personal, very damaging experiences.

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4 thoughts on “Using That Word

  1. Sarah J says:

    no matter how he tries to phrase it, it’s still a man telling a woman when she’s allowed to feel raped.

  2. purtek says:

    I hope I made it clear that I think the guy is a complete douche, and there’s nothing redeemable in anything he’s been saying. In addition to having been light on the posting, I had also been light on the reading prior to this post, so I hadn’t read everything the guy had said on the subject before writing up my not-so-brilliant personal take on the matter.

    Part of what I was trying to get at though, beyond the specifics of this incident, is that it’s not just a man/woman thing about who gets to tell whom that they are or are not “allowed” to use that word. If it were another woman saying this about this story, it would still be a problem. If a man were to call out a woman for using the word in casual, dismissive ways (or even to engage in conversation with a radical feminist who was saying something about how all penetrative sex is equivalent to rape, say), he could easily be right.

    I know you’re thinking in terms of this story itself and I’m being too broad, maybe, but I think there are really complex, really problematic issues that come up around who’s allowed to talk about rape and who isn’t, especially when there’s a division between past victims/those who have never experienced it themselves.

  3. BetaCandy says:

    I think the word “violation” could be helpful in these discussions. Rape is a violation of self; deception is a violation of trust; being coerced by market forces to work at the local chicken killing factory when you’re vegan is a violation of principle. They all share the fact of negating you as a human, of treating you as something that exists for their use and to serve their whims/needs. I think “violation” covers what those things have in common. Your experience last summer, for example, was a violation, and that’s what reminded you of your feelings after being raped.

    You could even argue that a huge but legal cost increase for a necessity is a violation of sorts – the people behind the increase treating you not as a human who needs things to live, but as a wallet to be cleaned of every penny and then some. The high parking fee thing, however, I just can’t get behind, LOL. To use a term like rape for that is just hyperbolic crap reeking of privilege – like calling a ridiculous situation “retarded”, the use of a word by those who have no real understanding what it means.

  4. purtek says:

    Thanks Betacandy – I think you’ve really captured a lot of what I should have said but struggle with because I’m talking about stuff that’s still kinda emotionally charged for me.

    Word-wise, I think the word “violation” has some connotative baggage maybe worth exploring. I don’t know if it’s just me, but there’s something about it that feels almost too abstract and it doesn’t carry the weight that it should in these kinds of contexts. I keep thinking “parking violation” or something.

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