During my freshman year in college, a friend, “Suzie,” went out on a date with a fellow student, “Joe,” that she recently met. They drank a little, drove up into the canyon, started making out… And then Joe forcibly raped her. Suzie came back to our dorm visibly shaken, with bruises showing up on her arms a few days later.
“Joe raped me,” she told me in the middle of the night. I stayed up with her while she went from crying, to silence, to rage. As an 18-year old totally unprepared for sex and what it meant (I was still a virgin with limited experience), I did not encourage her to report the crime. I wasn’t even sure if it was possible to be raped by a date. After all, I thought that rape was a crime committed by strangers, at knifepoint, under the threat of physical harm. Dates didn’t rape you, especially if the girl put herself in a position that enabled it.
The next day, Joe called Suzie and she went out with him again. This time, the sex was consensual. Over the next year, Suzie and Joe had a drama-filled relationship until summer break when we all went home and Joe transferred to another university. Suzie’s rape was forgotten. During the remainder of our college years together, I witnessed Suzie go from an innocent virgin to a very promiscuous girl. What role did Joe play in her future decisions and beliefs about sex, her body, and her self-worth? Likely, quite a lot. We both grew up in religions that taught us that sex was for marriage only, that it was better to die defending our virtue than allowing ourselves to be raped, that once given (virginity) we could never get it back, and that our dress and physical appearance could contribute to boys’ lusts and behavior. That is quite a burden to carry, I assure you.
A few weeks ago, Suzie and I were talking about sex among high school and college students. She reminded me that her first sexual encounter was at the age of 18 and it was rape.
“Why didn’t you report it?” I asked her.
“Who would have believed me?” she asked.
I wanted to cry. “Why didn’t I encourage you to report it?” I asked.
“I have always believed that I am responsible for the things that happen to me. I should not have been drinking. I should not have gone up into the canyon with Joe. I led him on, I went too far. Part of that was my fault,” she said.
“No, Suzie, rape is not your fault. You had a right to say no at any time and be heard. And you had a right to report it. It was a crime,” I said. And, left unsaid, as a friend, I failed you.
All kinds of thoughts were running through my head. I have a teen daughter. What would happen if she was raped? Would she feel comfortable telling me? Would she be brave enough to tell authorities and see the legal process through? Would others believe her? Beyond that… does she know what rape is? Does she know what it means to consent? And is she strong enough to say no, and to say it loudly, when she is uncomfortable?
Suzie repeated herself: “But who would have believed me?”
True. At Brigham Young University, where we were both students, they have a dismal record of supporting rape victims. Often the girls are themselves disciplined for breaking school rules (like wearing tank tops or drinking). She could get booted out of school, excommunicated from the Mormon Church (which means automatic expulsion from church-owned universities), and shamed among staff and fellow students. If any of this happens, they can also be kicked out of the dorms or school-approved apartments, finding themselves homeless in the midst of a school year and limited housing options. Reporting assault under those circumstances is infinitely more difficult and frightening.
“And you kept dating your rapist,” I said.
There was silence. Finally… “I know. I felt worthless. I wasn’t a virgin anymore. And after that, it didn’t matter how many guys I had sex with. I was already tarnished goods.”
Oh my God.
That evening, I had a very frank discussion with my teen on what consent means. I told her this:
- She has the right to say NO at any time, under any circumstance. It does not matter if she is naked with a boy, she can still say NO.
- It is her body. She decides when and with whom she has sex with. She can stop sex at any time, even after penetration.
- Just because she has had sex with a boy once, or multiple times, doesn’t mean she must continue having sex with him in the future.
- When it comes to sex, yes means yes and no means no. Be unequivocal when you are saying either. Say it loudly. And mean it. Silence does not mean yes.
We then talked about rape and what it is. I went to the experts for this one, and actually printed up this from Planned Parenthood:
Sexual assault is any unwanted sexual contact. It’s the use of force or pressure — physical or emotional — to get someone to do something sexual. How do you prevent sexual assault? Don’t be sexual with anyone unless you know they want to. Not sure if they want to? Ask.
Sexual assault is not about attraction or wanting sex; it’s about power and humiliation. It can also happen when people just assume their partners are into it if they don’t they fight back kicking and screaming, or yell “NO” very loudly. It’s important to pay close attention to your partner and how they may be feeling. If they seem uncomfortable or hesitant at all, even if they’re not upfront or direct about it, STOP and make sure they’re okay.
When someone shows a pattern of sexually controlling their boyfriend/girlfriend, that’s a type of dating violence. Sexual assault can happen to anyone, regardless of age, gender, race, or sexual orientation. While most victims of sexual assault are female, one out of every five victims is male.
Every state defines crimes like “rape” and “sexual assault” differently. Generally, rape is defined as forced vaginal, anal, or oral penetration by a body part or object. Most agree that any sexual contact is a crime if the person doesn’t consent. It’s also a crime if the person CAN’T consent (like if they’re drunk or passed out), even if they’re in a relationship or married. Without consent, these are likely to be seen as crimes:
- Oral sex
- Forcing someone to touch them sexually
- Intentionally touching or grabbing someone sexually.
- Penetration of the anus or vagina with an object or a body part, like a finger or penis.
If a woman is raped vaginally and she isn’t on birth control, she’s at risk of getting pregnant. She may want to take the morning-after pill, also known as emergency contraception (EC) to prevent pregnancy. A nearby Planned Parenthood health center may be able to provide information about support groups or counseling for rape survivors. You may also want to contact the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network at 1-800-656-HOPE1-800-656-
As my daughter and I talked about sex, she told me that some girls she knows are having sex with older boys. That, I informed her, was statutory rape and could land someone in prison.
Lastly, we continually talk about her value and worth, which is not tied to her virginity. If she is assaulted or raped, I believe that she now knows what it is, how to give consent, and what to do if she is raped or assaulted. Knowledge is power.
If you aren’t having these types of conversations with your children (age appropriate), I highly recommend that you start.
And, ladies, this is not a bad reminder for those in the dating trenches. We, too, have the right and ability to say “no” at any time.