If you haven’t lived through it, it can be hard to understand the powerful urge many victims feel to deny we’ve been raped. It’s almost inherently an invisible dynamic, legible only when you already speak the language of silence. Only hours after my own assault, I remember telling the people who were trying to help me to leave me alone, that it was no big deal and I just wanted to sleep.
“The first person to tell me I was gang-raped was a therapist, seven years after the fact”, is how novelist Jessica Knoll put it in an essay this week that’s been burning up the internet. Knoll is the author of last summer’s hot beach read Luckiest Girl Alive, which tells the story of Ani, who suffers a gang rape in boarding school and doesn’t speak of it for years. Knoll’s beautifully raw missive, published on Tuesday in Lena Dunham’s Lenny Letter, serves as a coming-out of sorts, an acknowledgement that her character knows things about rape because Knoll herself does.
The impulse to deny your own rape isn’t just about the horror of the physical violence, though someone invading your sovereign body is, in fact, an ineffable horror. But more than that, the impulse to deny your own rape is an impulse born of the cultural meaning of victimhood. “I didn’t want to be one of those victim girls,” is a thing more than one survivor has told me. “I laughed, because laughing was easier than tending to my heart, which felt like a hot coal in my chest, on fire with shame,” is how Knoll put it.
Shame is the key word. It unlocks a constellation of secondary violences that we use to punish rape victims. Knoll was publicly slut-shamed by peers and even a teacher. One of the guys who raped her made her feel bad enough about using that word that she apologized to him and recanted. The public treats rape victims as alternately pathetic and scheming but either way suspect, too dumb to avoid getting drugged and used, but clever and vindictive enough to coordinate an elaborate group lie just because we don’t like some guy.
That’s the conclusion a judge seems to have come to in the case of Canadian radio star Jian Ghomeshi, who has been accused by more than 20 women of brutal and nonconsensual violence in the midst of sexual encounters. Four counts of sexual assault and one count related to an accusation of choking were brought against him. He was acquitted of all charges. One of the reasons cited by Judge William Horkins was the fact that some of the women stayed in touch with Ghomeshi after the alleged assaults happened. This, he felt, was “out of harmony” with the way he thought rape victims should behave.
The trouble is that denying rape doesn’t unrape you. It doesn’t ease the trauma, or blunt the impact of the violation. It doesn’t even protect you from the shame you’re running from. The shaming of rape victims is just an extension of the pervasive shaming of women for having bodies, for our wanting to control them, to feel safe in them, to feel pleasure in them, even. When we treat victims – even male victims – as too pathetic to have prevented their own violation, we are saying: you are weak like women are inherently weak. You are worthless like women are inherently worthless. And when we treat survivors who speak up as traitors and liars, we are saying, how dare you object. How dare you take up space. How dare you insist on your humanity.All those women did was what Knoll did. What I did, at least at first. What so many victims do, whose names we may never know. They decided, probably subconsciously, that it was better to deny the violence already done to them than to acknowledge it in a culture that dehumanizes victims at every turn. Given what happened when they did come forward – they were painted as liars, their sex lives examined in the national media and now there are calls for them to be tried for perjury – it’s hard to say they were wrong.
In explaining why she’s coming forward with her story now, after all these years of denial, Knoll writes of the power of seeing so many people, “critics and editors, publicists and Hollywood executives” as well as legions of fans acknowledging Ani’s violation (and by the transitive property, Knoll’s violation) for what it was: rape.
“Everyone is calling it rape now. There’s no reason I shouldn’t say what I know. There’s no reason to cover my head.” She’s speaking about her own story, of course – we have far to go before the same can be said about the culture at large. But she’s also telling us something crucial: survivors are listening. When we tell them we believe them, it can change their lives.