Home / General / Rape Is What It Feels Like.

Rape Is What It Feels Like.


Though it’s political significance has since been overshadowed by recent events, Lara Logan gave a remarkable interview on 60 Minutes last night about her assault during the Egyptian revolution. This was an uncomfortable thing to listen to, and this is precisely why it was so utterly, critically significant. I found myself wishing Logan would downplay some of the details, but of course that is patriarchy talking. We are unaccustomed as a society to hearing the visceral, unadulterated reality of what sexual assault actually feels like to the victim. Lara Logan refused to let us off the hook.

I was reminded of a book by Rebecca Campbell I encountered while researching my last book project. Emotionally Involved: The Impact of Researching Rape is a study of vicarious trauma in counselors at rape crisis centers. One of the most difficult things for these front-line workers is to confront the stories of rape they hear, so disconnected from the way society, social scientists and lawyers think and speak about rape:

The emotional experience of being raped is largely missing from the legal definition and all of its derivatives… in academic research, rape is traditionally defined and described in cold, distant language: ‘contact between the penis and the vulva,’ ‘forced or coerced to engage in unwanted sexual activity,’ ‘anal or oral intercourse or penetration by objects other than the penis.’ Rape is not described emotionally, and its impact is not described emotionally. But survivors do not tell their stories in these words. The assaults are instead described primarily through feelings – afraid, terrified, determined, emotionally detached, dirty, violated, confused, ashamed – less so by acts or events. Rape is what it feels like.

Contrast Campbell’s definition, drawn from her interviews, with the international legal definition of rape in the Rome Statute for the International Criminal Court, for example:

Rome Statute:

The perpetrator invaded the body of a person by conduct resulting in penetration, however slight, of any part of the body of the victim or of the perpetrator with a sexual organ, or of the anal or genital
opening of the victim with any object or any other part of the body. The invasion was committed by force, or by threat of force or coercion, such as that caused by fear of violence, duress, detention, psychological oppression or abuse of power, against such person or another person, or by taking advantage of a coercive environment, or the invasion was committed against a person incapable of giving genuine consent.

Campbell (p. 114-115):

Rape is being held down, pinned down, immobilized by the weight of another body on top of you. It is the hardness of the floor, the concrete, the ground, the bed beneath you, digging into your back or into your stomach. It is the scraping of your body against that floor, concrete, ground or bed over and over again, as you are rammed into it by the weight of another body on top of you and inside of you.

It is so close, it is stifling, smothering, and suffocating. It is having to breathe the same air as the rapist. It is his skin on yours, rubbing against yours, leaving traces of it behind. He is leaving behind bits and pieces of himself and his act on you, and in you. It is all over you. The debris of violence is all over you. It is sweat, it is tears, it is blood, it is semen. It is on you and in you. It is the grabbing of your arms and your hands, and holding them down…

It is fear, so concentrated that it is almost unrecognizable. It is the fear of death. You are going to die, you are going to be killed. If he can do this, what is to stop him from killing you, or rather, finish killing you… it is a detached state of consciousness. It is the dissociation that comes after fear and panic. It is the numbness that takes over, waiting for the rape to be over. It is the distancing of one’s self from the filth being spread over and into one’s body. It is leaving yourself, trying to leave behind what is happening, only to have to gather it all up later and bring it home…

It is penetration – of the mouth, of the vagina, of the anus, of the mind, of the soul… with a penis, or several penises… with a hand or several hands… with an object or several objects. It presses into you, forces into you, unprepared and unwelcomed. It is the tearing of soft tissue… It is the debris, the skin and the semen that is rubbed into you and all over you, again and again. It is spilled on you, dumped on you, and into you. It is the bacteria and the viruses that could be mixed into you… stirred into you, the semen into the blood, stirred by the force of a penis.

That is what rape is.

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  • The Fool

    How could the emotional definition of rape be able to be translated into a legal standard? Or would it just be much harsher penalties for rapists and more vigorous enforcement of the laws?

    • Anderson

      I don’t understand the argument at all, if there’s an argument here. Raping or sexually assaulting someone is severely punished *because* it involves this horrible invasion of everything personal and private.

      Defining the crime by the emotional effect raises the unpleasant specter of prosecutions for making someone “feel assaulted.”

      • The Fool

        No, it’s not an argument. I’m genuinely asking whether we should alter the legal standard of rape to instead prosecute all acts which cause the emotional response listed above, or if we should keep the current legal standard but instead treat the crime with far more seriousness than (at least the USA) does, where instead we don’t really seem to care so much about the rape of the victim as the state of mind of the rapist.

  • Norman Thomas

    For starters, I think it would be prudent not to project Western values such as women’s rights on a foreign culture that doesn’t value women the way we do.

    We (and Ms. Logan) blindly foist women on the Arab Culture in new and unacceptable ways and then we’re shocked…SHOCKED, I SAY…when bad things happen.

    In the Arab mind, women should not have been there in the first place unless accompanied by a male relative or husband.

    I have always questioned the wisdom of having Hillary in the world role she has representing the US to a world where women are less and presenting them as heads of state is most likely an insult.

    • Rob

      Wonderful job of victim blaming there.

      • gmack

        Victim blaming and straightforward orientalism. It’s a winning combination!

      • Norman Thomas

        I don’t walk around after midnight in the drug-infested slums even though in a perfect world, I should be able to.

        Wisdom is a deep understanding the world as it is, not as it should be.

        And it’s not blaming anyone to point out the lack of wisdom on the part of this reporter and others.

        • soullite

          Shorter Norman Thomas: The B#$%^ Had it comin’!

        • Anonymous

          Funny. In my perfect world there are no drug-infested slums.

          • elm

            Then where do you put the scary people who don’t look like you?

    • NBarnes

      But remember, W stands for women! Liberals are the real sexists! Mama grizzlys!

    • charles

      Right, because the best US response to sexism in the “Arab mind” is to completely agree that women shouldn’t be in positions of power.

    • S Physicist

      “She should’ve known better than to be walking in that area at that time! And wearing those clothes! She was practically asking for it!”

      It is, of course, the local culture of the Chinese to toss disagreeing intelligentsia in a dark hole somewhere and to generally crush dissent–they’ve been doing it since the time of the emperors, so we shouldn’t worry about Liu Xiaobo, Ai Weiwei, or Tiananmen Square. Kind of similar to the local culture of the Russians–I can’t judge the killings of inconvenient journalists! Uganda wants to extradite Ugandans who engage in same-sex sexual relations outside of Uganda so they can be incarcerated for up to 14 years? Part of the local flavor that gives the country its charm! Jim Crow laws? Stabilize Southern society!

      We’re not the world police and we shouldn’t be, and not every place should look exactly like the U.S., but really. When people are locked up, penetrated against their will, or killed for not quite matching local mores, that’s unadulterated injustice.

    • Law Prof

      First, this is not a debate over maternity leave policy. Not being brutally attacked by a mob is not a women’s right, it is a human right. Would it be more appalling to you if a male reporter were attacked for being American or falsely believed to be Israeli?

      Second, despite your “Arab” generalization, Egypt is not Afghanistan or Saudi Arabia. Many women there dress similarly to Lara’s attire — Western dress is common, especially in Cairo. And Cairo women do regularly walk outside w/o escort. (They are regularly harassed, but not because their appearance are shocking anomalies.)

      Third, see Rob above.

    • Janet

      She was taking risks in order to do her job. Some jobs are imherantly risky, and journalism is increasingly one of them. Usually, when people are harmed in the course of doing a risky job, we praise their bravery and commitment.

      • Norman Thomas

        I think she was brave.

        I don’t think she was wise. And she probably thinks the same thing right about now.

        • Janet

          From the point of view of personal survival, it’s not wise to run into a burning building, either. But people don’t generally criticize firefighters as “unwise” for doing it.

    • colleen

      For starters, I think it would be prudent not to project Western values such as women’s rights on a foreign culture that doesn’t value women the way we do.

      You sound a little like Bill Donohue rationalizing the Catholic church’s institutional failings.
      Just to clear things up, I believe that most thoughtful people, looking at the domestic violence, murder, rape and sex trafficking stats for the US would disagree with your blustering.
      I really cannot imagine what sort of person could watch that video and respond as you have.

    • Anonymous

      Fuck. You.

    • celticdragonchick

      What. The. Fuck.

      15 different kinds of fail there, pal.

  • ExurbanMom

    Alright, Norman, I’ll bite.

    What would you have us do? Since there are some cultures in this world who don’t approve of women in roles of power, should we not let any women in any roles of power in our country? (Nancy Pelosi was third in line for the presidency…clearly we should never have let that happen…) Since there are some cultures in the world who don’t approve of people of color in roles of power, shall we not let those individuals serve either?

    How much of our civil rights and freedom are you willing to trade away to these countries so that they won’t get all “ew, it’s a girl” on us? How much? And for how long? That’s not a rhetorical question, that’s a serious question I’m asking you. For how long should we wait until we allow women in these positions of power?

    Lara Logan wasn’t being reckless. She had by my count 6 staffers with her that day. She had security. She had a fixer who spoke the language. She was doing her job.

    Blaming the victim is the oldest and most devastating response to sexual discrimination. I can’t believe I’m seeing it on LGM in 2011.

    • Walt

      Biting is what he wants you to do. He doesn’t give a shit about Lara Logan. He’s trolling.

    • Norman Thomas

      Lara was in the middle of a foreign country experiencing political and civil unrest…a country where women are second class citizens and are regularly abused.

      That seems pretty reckless to me. If she were my friend or relative, I would have advised against it as I’m sure her friends and relatives most likely did.

      She wanted to be a hero, ignore the danger, get the story, stick it in the eye of those who think women are less and I’m sorry it didn’t work out for her.

      But I’m sure she’s wiser now.

      • mark f

        But I’m sure she’s wiser now.

        Only thing that could make it better would be if you taught her the lesson, amirite?

        • Norman Thomas

          No, you’re not.

          You’re just an asshole that doesn’t want to discuss the issue and would rather take shots at those who disagree with you.

          • mark f

            Sorry Norm, but no matter how much tut-tutting and such-a-shame-ing bookends it, “bitch had it coming” does not merit discussion.

            • Norman Thomas

              How interesting that you can take a discussion and when you don’t like the other’s arguments, you simply dismiss them saying “That’s not what he *REALLY* means…” as if you have some truth detector.

              It’s an idiot’s argument.

              If you wish to discuss…then DISCUSS and stop the bullshit accusations.

              • mark f

                Address my post, libs!!!!!1!

      • Jenavir

        Oh, you’re sure the rape taught her the lesson she so richly needed, huh? Teach her to think she can act like a person!

        It’s not “wise” to let thugs scare you out of doing your job. Sometimes it’s a understandable personal choice, but it’s never an imperative. Nor is it “unwise” to refuse to let the terrorists win.

        Perhaps feminists should start shooting males in the balls when they say things like Norman just did. Then saying those things would become “unwise,’ and we could all tut-tut at men who say them. Thuggish behavior is clearly a way of staking out the moral high ground. Not only does it get those who annoy you to stop, but it gets others to blame them for it.

        Don’t whine about “assholes,” Norman, darling. You were asking for it.

        • Norman Thomas

          You’re a man

      • Anonymous

        No, she didn’t want to be a hero. She wanted to do her fucking job. You can go fuck yourself with a porcupine right about now.

        • Gerry

          Norm what if you was in her shoes? They would have ripped your little willy off!!

  • dave

    Ignoring Norman for the moment. . . .

    This is a great post. My initial reaction, as a lawyer, was to defend the current legal definition. But I am open to persuasion.

    Are there any laws on the books right now which have an “emotional definition”? I can’t think of any but I am genuinely curious as to how it would look and whether it would be workable.

    • Malaclypse

      Ignoring Norman for the moment. . . .

      But he has a gun! And he’s not afraid to use it! Not afraid at all! He will not be ignored!

      • Norman Thomas

        Everybody here has a gun.

        And Ted Kennedy’s car has killed more people than my gun.

        • elm

          Were you a Democrat before 9/11 by any chance?

    • Law Prof

      There are a few criminal laws that are focused on the plaintiff/victim’s emotional reaction rather than the defendant’s acts/intent — most clearly, stalking and criminal harassment. But, for the most part, U.S. criminal laws are written so that they focus on the defendant’s conduct and knowledge/intent, rather than the victim’s emotional response. To my mind, this is good — it would be a scary world in which the government could prosecute someone based primarily on a victim’s emotional response. But a victim’s emotional response plays into the likelihood of conviction and the sentence imposed.

  • Joe

    The emotional meaning of crimes can be cited in many cases. Consider an act of theft. Some who were robbed spoke of being “violated” and so forth.

    Legal definitions can’t truly get to the emotional visceral quality shown by this interview. But, they can hint at it. “invaded the body of a person” and “psychological oppression” don’t only have a dry flavor to me. They hint at what she suffered.

    Powerful reporting like this provides the emotional side of these issues. 60 Minutes Overtime had more, including her saying that when she first told her husband what happened to her, it seemed to her that she was just fairly calmly telling him she was attacked etc. But, in reality, on his end he just heard her hysterical.

    A powerful bit of different realities.

    • Joe

      Lest I be understood, I think they also provide a general sense of what happened, not just an “emotional” sense of it.

    • Ed

      …including her saying that when she first told her husband what happened to her, it seemed to her that she was just fairly calmly telling him she was attacked etc. But, in reality, on his end he just heard her hysterical.

      A powerful bit of different realities.

      Both of them could have been right from their different perspectives. It doesn’t take much for a man to perceive a woman as “hysterical” even if she is his wife.

      • Joe

        If the word “hysterical” is too loaded, use some other word; in the interview, she did not deny in hindsight that she was not making much sense. As would be normal for a man or a woman right after such an event.

    • Virgil E Vickers

      Precisely because she is his wife, he would have reacted to her as sounding quite different from how she usually sounded: hence “hysterical”. On the other hand, she would have felt she was far calmer than she had been: hence, “just fairly calmly telling him she was attacked etc”.

      • Joe

        Or, she — as she suggested — was simply not that rational at the moment and her husband, as would anyone else, heard it.

  • Flowers

    As a lawyer, and one of the few (maybe only) “not male” lawyer commenters, I say “Brava!” Thank you for posting such a wonderful and insightful post. There is an idiotic idea that the law must be divorced from emotion, or at the very least, divorced from the emotion of the victim. Many people still think rape is something this is deserved, like detention for being bad in class. By bringing light to the experience of the victim in a way more formal than that of a witness, one can help highlight the significance of rape as a crime against the person, and not just a punishment for only slightly deviant behavior. It all seems so obvious now, but I never thought about it before now, even during all the lectures and discussions in law school.

    Charli, I normally skip your posts because they talk about topics about which I have little familiarity (such as hair-splitting definitions in the international community), but this was fantastic. This is right up there with your posts about genocide. Wonderful!

    • Law Prof


      For the record, I am female and, as my pseudonym implies, a lawyer by training and experience. Nice to have you join us.

      I don’t know any non-troll, non-deranged people who consider rape to be deserved. (I’m sure that they are out there.) But many people probably see many rapes as similar to any other assault where there are no obvious serious wounds — a harm, but not a major one. (“Look, Lara didn’t even have any broken bones!”) While the intrusion of one body on another is of such a different nature than most non-sexual assaults, like a gunshot, it is very difficult (although thankfully not impossible) to make such an intrusion resonate with those who don’t experience at least the danger of it.

  • md rackham

    I have to say that having the “Share and Enjoy” links inside that blockquote was a bit disconcerting.

  • Jenavir

    I think people who are demanding ‘what’s the argument?’ and defending the legal definition here are missing the whole point. The only “argument” is that there is, and maybe always will be, a disconnect between the legal description of such a dehumanizing crime and its emotional aftermath.

    Stating this isn’t necessarily a demand for changing the law. It’s not a legal brief or a position paper. It’s recognizing an emotional reality which is important in its own right. If you miss that point, you’re just making the same mistake: focusing exclusively on the law and not on the personal experience.

    • The Fool

      I can’t speak for the others asking about the legal definition, but I’m not asking for a defense of some proposition, I’m asking a question about whether the legal standard can be (and to a far lesser extent should be, which would depend on how it can be) changed to reflect the full horror of the crime as experienced by the victim, instead of the above legal standard in which a corpse (depending on your definition of the word “person”) could be raped, because the legal standard doesn’t really care about the victim.

      • Norman Thomas

        “…because the legal standard doesn’t really care about the victim.”

        This is just another example of a movement to move away from objective standards. By doing so, language can be more easily manipulated to one’s advantage.

        Another good example is the change of the definition of homosexual from an objective behavior observation to “how one feels inside”.

        And that seems to be what this poster would like to do with rape. Instead of an objective behavior, he would like the victim to decide whether a crime has been committed based upon her emotions.

        Do you see a problem with this change?

        • The Fool

          Most certainly I do. However, I figured it would be a good line of discussion to try and game out how the dilemma should be dealt with, whether by altering the legal standard, altering the process of investigation and prosecution in rape cases, or if we should leave all that as-is and solely focus on changing cultural attidudes.

          I guess that there’s not all that much interest in the discussion, though.

    • colleen

      I think people who are demanding ‘what’s the argument?’ and defending the legal definition here are missing the whole point. The only “argument” is that there is, and maybe always will be, a disconnect between the legal description of such a dehumanizing crime and its emotional aftermath.

      Quite so. Certainly police and prosecutors need to understand the emotional aspects. Some municipalities require/allow the police to force a rape victim to submit to a polygraph and the justice system is notorious for it’s reluctance to believe victims, take the crime seriously or even manage to process forensic evidence (in the form of rape kits). Likewise I’m not even going to begin on the grotesque situations women in the military face when they attempt to report a rape. The legal description isn’t the problem, the problem is that many times those responsible for investigation and prosecution don’t believe the victims.

  • Beverly Prather

    I have been working the same serial rapist case for nearly six years. He raped more than 25 women before me. He drugged raped and tortured me for four months. I got out alive. He is still in business.

    I think it is the government’s responsibility to put him in prison, that is why we have police, courts, Judges etc…..

    So far, the courts just take money from his corporation, to let him stay out there and rape more women. HE makes pornography of raping.

    It only cost him five thousand dollars to rape a woman at the State level….”sealed” rape cases.

    The more I complained, the worse it got. I had phone calls to my house that my daughter would be picked up and raped……

    So far, the only thing that has happened on this case….MONEY. The corporate money paid to keep him in business.

    The government is allowing these rapes as revenue..millions of dollars on a corporate rape case.

    The federal courts are taking in millions per case to allow the rape of working women

    Joe Biden’s Violence Against Women’s Act
    rape as revenue

    the perp is still out there…….and millions of dollars wound up in other people’s pockets

    I would like help to get a rapist in prison, before he rapes again

    the courts do nothing but steal lawsuit money
    “forced settlements” of the money his corporation pays to keep him out of prison…free to rape more women

    Joe Biden has a vested interest in rape

    I would like help to get a rapist in prison
    that is what the government is supposed to do for free

    I can be reached at [email protected]

  • Beverly Prather

    Joe Biden is supporting the government on rape cases. He is literally, letting men rape women, as revenue to the government.

    Yet is is unlawful to buy and sell persons of color in the United States.

    RAPE settlements of money, without ever putting a rapist behind bars.

    In this case, the man raped more than 25 women before me. Joe is selling women to rape
    in America.

    I would like help to put a rapist in prison
    he should have been serving mandatory life on more than 10 serious violent priors before me.

    Children raped and murdered, and the only thing JOE wants to know………..how much money does his corporation have………

    I can be reached at [email protected]

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