How We Speak About Rape

There’s a phrase I had never heard before–whether being out of touch or something my students never used while I was teaching–called “frape,” which I heard for the first time when I moved to Cambridge in the UK. The first time I heard it I was really taken aback. ‘Frape’? I asked. As in…? And then I heard my answer: a Facebook ‘rape.’ A ‘frape’ is apparently when someone uses your logged in Facebook to send messages to people and write statuses and do whatever they want to your page.

It really put me off to hear people, especially at the graduate level of university, treat discourse as such a flippant exercise. It’s a commentary on power in general, but even more, it is a comment on how rape culture has infiltrated every corner of our lives, causing even those who would tell you that they find rape an unspeakably horrible crime, to still use it in every day language.

Words have held such strong meaning and power for centuries. It’s why we try to control narratives, because narratives are told with words, and power comes from manipulating those words.

One story that I have followed over the last year because it symbolically resonates with me is that of Emma Sulkowicz. Emma is the courageous woman at Columbia who has been carrying around a mattress around campus, as she swore to until her rapist was brought to justice.

That is not quite how it all played out, however.

Emma’s name was slaughtered and smeared throughout the media. She was called a “pretty little liar” and people pointed out the fact that she talked to her rapist after the night in question. We forget how psychologically damaging rape is. Many victims continue living their life–including talking to their rapist–after the rape has occurred as a means of moving forward with their life. And they do try to move forward. They’ve seen what happens to women like Emma when they come forward: they are crucified. Their stories are not believed and they are made to relive that day or night over and over and over again. Even when another victim of the man came forward, she was told she was just a friend of Emma’s.

The reality is, we are all Emma. We are all Emma because we could be Emma. That weight of the mattress she carries with her is weight we all share in. The weight of knowing when to say stop. The weight of trusting someone. The weight of people not believing you. The weight of knowing the truth. The weight of everything packed into one mattress, carried by the last person who should be carrying it all by herself. Even at graduation, an evening that should be filled with looks towards the future, Emma carried her mattress–the weight of a life altered–across the stage. And she was shunned for it, and people turned away, wanting to forget their part in the weight of her mattress.

The reason women like Emma end up carrying the weight of their mattress or women do not come forward in general has much to do with how we speak about and frame rape. One incident that really highlighted this for me is when I posted about Emma being shunned by the president of Columbia at graduation. A few people commented about how it was not as bad as it looked and how we still did not know if Emma was lying or not. To me, these statements are irrelevant. I believe Emma because Emma has stated so and studies show false reporting of rape is rare, and there are too many women who I know to be telling the truth and they cannot be left alone. And I believe Emma because she is part of my sisterhood, and she has a story that speaks to the accused never being able to do this to anyone again. Her mattress–our mattress–is one of oppression and courage.

But as a society we don’t speak about survivors of rape that way, which is seen in how casually it becomes part of every day language. When I posted on my Facebook a news article about Emma’s graduation, one man commented on the status:

Hmmm… Thanks Delia for this extremely interesting story. You had me scouring the internet to read all the articles. Dont know if you read this one –…/accusers-and-the-accused…
After reading this and other articles, I wi
ll say though that I understand why the authority didn’t find him guilty.(em… both of them had consensual sex twice before, and this had started out as consensual encounter). Afyer reading both sides, It makes it hard for you to tell who is saying the truth(but maybe I am speaking from a guy’s perspective)

His comments stopped me in my tracks the morning I read them. They were the first comments I saw when I opened my computer, and I already had an entire days amount of the patriarchy and victim blaming. This man felt that the strongest case in favour of why the authority’s would find Emma’s rapist not guilty is that they had prior consensual sex and that the night the rape occurred, it started out as a consensual encounter. There was a great video I saw circulating around the video that used the ridiculous example of making someone a cup of tea, to bring attention to the ridiculous fact that consent and saying ‘no’ are still not fully understood despite being basic concepts. In the video it shows two stick figures–one that asks the other if they want tea (the tea representing sex or sexual acts). At one point the video points out the complete ludicrous idea of if that individual had wanted tea on, let’s say Sunday, that you would continue to show up at their door expecting them to want tea. At any given point, you would ask the question again of if they wanted tea, and you would wait for the response–a no response meaning that they, do not, want tea again from you. In addition, if you make them a cup of tea and they suddenly state that they do not wish to finish the cup of tea, it would be equally ridiculous to pour the tea down their throat forcefully. You would understand that they no longer want tea. Same goes for if they pass out before they finish the tea (unconscious people don’t want tea, as the video continuously repeats).

The numbers highlight this as well. In 2006 a comprehensive government report found that “43% of female rape victims…were raped by some type of current or former intimate partner.” But we hear these types of arguments over and over again. Well I bet she wanted it at the time and now just wants revenge on him. What kind of woman would have had sex before with her rapist? It comes down to the idea of property, and women as property. In public spaces, such as the streets, catcalls are a reminder that female bodies somehow transform into public property that can be handled, verbally and physically, as a male pleases. It is in private spaces, that this sentiment of public property, can turn even more violent, more forceful. A woman under these circumstances and this language and attitude does not have a right to say ‘no’ because what she is saying ‘no’ to does not belong to her. If she wanted it once, she always wants it. If she’s saying no, it’s because she doesn’t know what she wants. And I can do whatever I want. 

Makes twisted sense now with the ‘frape’ wording. It is, after all, wrapped up in the giggling sentiment that they shouldn’t have left it open in the first place. 

And why is it so hard for this male acquaintance of mine to know who is telling the truth in this story? He gave us one answer: “maybe I’m speaking from a guy’s perspective.” He wants to believe this did not happen because otherwise it would mean he’d have to face head on that terrifying things happen, and people come forward, they are not believed, and they end up carrying the weight of it all, every day, on their shoulders. To believe Emma would mean to look at the way her rapist tries at every angle to discredit her, frame her as someone who was going after him.

Most of all, though, to believe Emma would mean extending empathy to her. Empathy means seeing the humanity that resides in every human being, not just those of your own sex or gender. It means truly taking the time to understand her and for a moment, what it would mean to be her. But this claiming of a “guy’s perspective” creates a binary personified by a centuries-built tall wall that many find too hard to climb over, or not worth the effort to even try. It takes an acknowledgement of that wall and a dedication to finding ways to be an ally and overcoming it to truly see the humanity in Emma and others.

One comment seemed not to be enough for this acquaintance, however, and he followed up his first comment with the following:

Then again, for a woman to be ready to go to extreme lengths to demand justice, tells you that there might be some truth to her story… But maybe not the other ladies… Overall, I think the moral of the story is- if she says stop, please stop.

It seems the ‘winners’ are only those who shout loudest or create some kind of visual eye-catcher. Even then they aren’t ‘winning.’ Even then others claim there is only “some truth” to their story, according to this message, which I have also heard often. Clearly the only one’s telling the truth must be the one’s talking about it all the time. But it’s the survivor’s decision whether or not they talk about it, and many choose not to because there is example after example of women being dragged through the mud of the public eye, only to wish that they had never stepped forward in the first place. When we throw at them, also, what happened with The Rolling Stone article, we forget that it is the exception, and not the norm of reporting.

The fact that Emma has to draw attention to her story this way in order for her college to care enough to protect Emma and the other women on that campus is a telling sign of how far we have yet to go in how we talk about rape, frame stories of rape, and interact with survivors of rape. In this case, and many others, however, Emma’s university did not care enough. Instead she is looked upon as a dark mark in the university’s contemporary history.

When I entered university in 2007 the chances of a female being sexually assaulted on campus was 1 in 4.

I’m happy (in a side-eye way) for this man that he seems to understand the basics of the concept of whether or not someone wants tea. But he misses the moral–if one can even call it such–of Emma’s story. The real ‘moral’ would be that we shouldn’t be looking for mattresses or only mattress stories. We should all–men and women–be carrying the burden of such atrocities together, so those who have been directly impacted don’t feel crushed by the fear (and reality) of being doubted and ostracized.

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