The following is written by Kathryn Miller-Still:
I’ve been in training to prevent rape since I was born.
When I was a child, I, like all children, was taught not to talk to strangers, not open the door without a parent, and to never, ever trust an unmarked van. I got my first “how to avoid being raped according to a real incarcerated rapist” chain email when I was 12, with tidbits including “never wear a ponytail, carry your keys between your knuckles like a weapon, enter your car from the passenger side, and check the backseat before getting in.” It scared me so much that 16 years later I’m still peering into my backseat armed like a B-movie version of Wolverine.
Being pursued? Run in an unpredictable zig zag formation. In a dark alley alone? Pretend you’re talking on the phone. Women are inundated with lessons on how to avoid rape from such a young age that most of us cannot remember the first moment we knew that walking in a group was safer, and that “stranger danger” was a lifetime condition for us.
We’re prepared for the classic Law and Order SVU serial rapist, the hitchhiking rapist, the dark alleyway rapist, the “roofie” in your drink rapist, every type of rapist, except the one we’re most likely to meet.
Except the one that I met.
On the night I was first raped I did everything “right.” I walked to my dorm, rape whistle attached to the keys I held between my knuckles. I wisely picked the route that took me past all of the “rape stations”, the towers of pale blue and white light with emergency buttons that promised a fast response time if pressed. I got to my dorm and carefully locked my door behind me. I changed into comfy pajamas, and curled up with a good book. When there was a knock on my door, I made sure it was only my boyfriend of well over a year before I opened it.
Then he raped me.
I’m telling you this because my own story illustrates a huge problem in our society. The truth is, 7 out of 10 rapes are committed by someone known to the victim. This can range anywhere from a casual acquaintance to a relative or intimate partner.
If you are under 18, that number rises to 93 percent. This means that, statistically speaking, if you are raped, regardless of race or gender, you are three times more likely to be looking into the unmasked face of someone you know than you are to be looking into the obscured features of someone wearing a ski mask.
While we have the numbers to back all of this up, it is harder to articulate with statistical facts why this matters so much. Why does the nature of assault matter?
As a society, we fail survivors by presenting rape as a preventable thing. Follow these rules, don’t mess up, and you’re safe. In doing this, we shift the blame away from perpetrators, and in cases of acquaintance rape, this victim blaming is paired with a failure to acknowledge the existence of the crime at all. Raping your spouse was not a crime in all 50 states until 1993. Sadly, this makes sense, because when you know a survivor of acquaintance rape you most likely know the perpetrator as well. We can accept the premise of stranger rape and train our daughters “how to avoid it” because we understand that there are violent people in the world. That we know and love some of those people is much harder to accept.
Perhaps that is why studies have shown that survivors are much less likely to report acquaintance rape. The fear of not being believed is crippling when your potential support group is comprised of people who know and love your attacker as much as you. Would our friends believe me? Even if they did believe me, would they blame me so they could justify choosing him? Working up the courage to tell that first friend was the single hardest thing I have ever done.
After overcoming this fear of losing those we love when we need them most, survivors are often bombarded with statements that reflect our society’s denial and victim blaming. These statements range from the malicious “but he’s always so nice, what did you do to make him act like that?”, to the well meaning but still ultimately harmful “wow, that’s just so hard to believe” and “are you sure he meant to do it?”
I’m not trying to demonize anyone. I understand that for the most part these questions come from a place of innocence, but words have power, and impact is greater than intent. We’ve been told our whole lives that if this happens to us, we did something wrong. We’ve been told this crime doesn’t exist. So whatever you intend to say, when you say “it’s just so hard to believe,” to a victim, we’re hearing, “I don’t believe you.”
You’re my friend. If you can’t believe me, who will?