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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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