The woman had been raped. And beaten. Sitting in a corner of a small conference room, she was telling me how the two were different.
“It was the sex part”, she said. “I’m lucky it wasn’t a broken beer bottle that was inside of me, or a razor blade slashing my face, or, I don’t know, burned patches of skin? Broken ribs? Gential mutilation? So yeah, I’ve been lucky. Relatively. But even just that vanilla sex was so, so awful. Not the hurt, that total dry hurt even, you know? But that this guy, this bastard, this fucking asshole, was fucking inside of me because he had a fucking knife and some fucking rope, and I was like, if he takes out a razor or a broken bottle, or a lighter, or I dunno, whatever, what am I gonna do? Should I be grateful he just had his dick? That it was just sex he wanted, and not to pound me to pieces?”
At this dramatic — and furious, and heart-rending — juncture, we were interrupted by a polite cough. Another group, who had convened with notebooks and laptops and styrofoam cups to our right, was now unabashedly staring at us, work abandoned. My friend’s voice, I suddenly realised, had risen as she relived those horrific moments. Absorbed in her narrative, I hadn’t even noticed.
We were just about to apologise for giving into personal trauma and disturbing public peace, when the woman who had cleared her throat smiled gently at us. “Rape is not sex”, she said. I still remember how she said it. Mildly chiding, with a gentle, indulgent smile on her face. She didn’t wag her finger at us playfully, but it was a close thing.
I looked at my friend. My friend looked at me. “Thanks”, I said, nodding politely at the Guardian of Appropriate Word Choice. Then I turned firmly back to my friend. The abruptness of the interruption, however, seemed to have dissipated her steam. A moment ago she’d been alight with passion and anger and outrage, bristling at her own fear and bitter about her own life-saving cowardice. But now, she just looked worn and tired. Subdued.
“So anyway,” she said, “that was what was different. When that little sadist used to hit me, it was horrible, and yeah, I was just as helpless. But it was different”. She frowned at the floor, concentrating on words I couldn’t see. Silence reigned. “Like, okay”, she said suddenly, jerking her head up. “So he was hitting me, and that’s a violation, but it was on the surface. You know? He’s twisting my arm, pulling my hair, kicking at me, but he’s not on top of me, I have my clothes on, he’s not inside me. He’s not even trying. I’m this little sexless kid. Or whatever. Bottomline, he’s not interested. You hear ‘child abuse’ and you think, “Oh my god!”. But all the time he was beating on me — and I was fourteen, fifteen, not really a sexless kid — not once, not once, did I feel like it was happening to me because I was a girl. Like, because I looked like some chick who dumped his ass, he was taking it out on me. He was a guy and I was a girl and it was abuse, but I never felt my gender in that shit. You know? It was not about the hole between my legs, or my boobs, or long hair. It was about all of me. It was about being poor and smart and immigrant and fast, and he freaking hated me, but it was ME he hated! No one else would do!”.
She took a deep breath. Then, her lips twisted in a slightly bitter smile. “But with [the rapist], it was just pussy. Anyone who had it would do. It just happened to be me. ‘Ooh, it’s your lucky day! You’ve been chosen to win’ … twenty minutes with a fucking psycho. Mr. Can’t Get A Date Too Cheap to Pay for It wants to have sex, and look who fate served up!”. She bent from her waist in an ironic bow. “Me! Moi. Mich.” Her hands flourished in a waiterly gesture of invitation. Then she clasped them to her chest, and in a high falsetto, trilled, “Oh Rimi! It was meant to be!”
I couldn’t help it. I tried not to, but I burst out laughing. And she burst out laughing. Slowly, the bitterness and disgust and taut terror of unscripted predators drained out of our little two-girl circle. Say what you will about cynical awareness of the pitfalls of self-pity, and about the dry acknowledgement of this hell-hole we live in. They have their therapeutic uses.
And this was a lesson Class Monitor Umbridge badly needed to learn.
“Ladies”, she trilled, just as my friend and I were getting a grip on ourselves. “Rape is not sex!”. She turned towards my friend, composed her expression into sombre sympathy and looked her straight in the eye, so my friend would know she really meant every word she said. “I am very sorry for everything that has happened to you. And I think you’re very brave for not allowing yourself to become just another victim. But you will never get over your trauma if you continue to believe what happened to you was sex. It wasn’t. The man — whoever it was, your boyfriend, your husband, your colleague, brother, a stranger — he was a criminal committing a crime. If it isn’t consensual, it isn’t sex. There was nothing sexual about what happened to you. Trust me. I am a counsellor for victims of violence. You owe it to yourself to stop saying it was a normal sexual thing”. (And this time, she did wag her finger.)
I am famous for many things, but suffering callous fools who learnt ideology from bumper stickers isn’t one of them. It was perhaps fortunate, then, that my friend managed to open her mouth before I picked my jaw off the floor at this woman’s repulsive crassness.
“Thank you for that”, she said. “I really appreciate you trying to help me, and I completely agree with your definition of rape. But if you’d listened to what I was telling my friend here, you’d know that I wasn’t saying rape is an OK sexual activity. I was saying that raping a woman is not the same as beating her up. Or a man. It’s worse for men, actually. Anyway. Rape targets a victim BOTH sexually and non-sexually. That’s my point. I’m really happy to see you care so much about rape-survivors. I wish there were more people like you. But if we keep saying rape isn’t sexual in any way, then that totally obscures this whole spectrum of violence that victims suffer! As a survivor who has been to support groups in three different states, I can tell you we need to start talking differently about rape, at least for victims. This ‘rape is not sex’ thing? It’s great. But it should be an awareness tool. Not therapy. If you’re telling a rape victim there was nothing sexual about her assault, then you’re just basically telling her to shut up, because what she says has no value. How’s counselling like that different from society telling her that she has no value, because she was raped?”
Umbridge knitted her brows together. This was uncharted territory. Finally, she settled back on what she knew. “Rape is NOT sex”, she said.
And shook her head emphatically for good measure.