The invisible victims
One in four women will be raped in her lifetime, and it’s likely to be by a man she knows
Diane, a spunky 18-year-old, was working her first job while getting ready for college. All of her friends had older boyfriends, and she often flirted with older guys, too, but the truth is she wouldn’t have known what to do if they flirted back.
She was at a going-away party for one of her co-workers, and she’d had too much to drink. The hosts invited her to stay the night so she didn’t have to drive home. Feeling safe, she crashed in a bed where another woman was already sleeping and dozed slightly, comfortable.
Diane’s manager from work, who was also at the party, came in to check on her. He, 10 years her senior, lay on the bed next to her and they started talking. The talking turned into innocent flirting; after all, they weren’t alone. She felt safe with him.
Suddenly, the tone of his voice changed and he forced her down. He was on top of her before she could make a move. The woman passed out next to her didn’t stir as he forced himself inside her. He was rough and it hurt. Diane was too small to fight him off, so she just lay there and took it, silently staring at the ceiling above him.
This young woman—we call her Diane to protect her identity—was a virgin no more.
The word “rape” often evokes images of a stranger in a trench coat pouncing on women from behind the bushes or in a dark alley. And although those attacks do happen, the reality is that they are grossly outnumbered by the instances—like Diane’s—in which women are raped by men they know and trust.
“We need to get over the idea that we’re only raped by strangers,” said Yvonne Loomis, a full-time counselor for Rape Crisis in Chico.
In nine out of 10 rape cases, the victim knew the perpetrator as a family member, co-worker, spouse or acquaintance, Loomis said. The proportion of victims who knew their rapist is so high it makes the violent, random attacks in the news and on television seem almost like lightning striking twice.
The word itself—"rape"—carries a lot of baggage. Women often don’t connect the word to the crime for days, weeks or even months. It’s difficult for many women to think of themselves as victims of a crime that “happens to somebody else.”
Add to the equation the fact that the man in question had a familiar face—if the rapist was a friend, a boss, a boyfriend or a husband—and the emotional complexity of the issue is taken to an entirely new level.
It is no wonder only one in 10 rape victims ever report the crime, Loomis said.
Nicole was playful, the kind of girl who would hug everyone in the room and brighten any darkness that preceded her. On this particular night, she was hanging out with a friend who offered to get her high for the first time. She felt comfortable with him, so she said yes. They smoked. Then he forced himself on her.
She said, “No.” He didn’t listen. She said, “Stop.” He didn’t stop.
The following week, Nicole’s friends noticed that something had changed about her. She wasn’t her normal happy, bubbly self. She wasn’t laughing like she usually did. She didn’t smile as easily. It took a couple of weeks for her to admit to herself that her “friend” had raped her.
She confronted him and he apologized, saying he was so “out of it” that night that he barely remembered what happened.
“He’s a good guy,” Nicole said in his defense. He’s not the kind of guy who would do something like that.
They’re still friends. They still hang out.
Years later, Nicole went through a period of clinical depression and had to go to a hospital. Counseling helped pull her out of the depression, but Nicole is not the same. Her sex life is not the same. Any pressure at all to have sex incites anger.
Ten rape victims, five of them living here in Chico, were interviewed for this article. Some of their stories will be shared in this space. All of them are similar: First, they were all raped by someone they knew. Some of the women were raped by boyfriends, one was raped by a roommate and another by an older man at a party. Alcohol was involved in about half of them. None of the women reported the crime to the police, because of the emotional complication of knowing the man who raped them.
When a stranger rapes a woman, it is traumatic, but the woman is often able to separate herself from the crime in order to report it. The rapist was a monster in the dark or she was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
When a woman is raped by someone she knows, however, it’s harder to see the bad guy in him. If she can’t place blame on the rapist, she turns it toward herself.
Nearly all of the women interviewed for this story said things to excuse their rapists or dismiss their own experiences. The women said things like, “I shouldn’t have gotten that drunk,” or “He’s not the kind of guy who would do something like that,” or the anthem every woman repeated: “It could have been worse.”
It is a common coping mechanism for victims to dismiss their own traumatic experiences, Loomis said. It is difficult for victims to admit they were in a situation in which they had no control. They often try to rationalize that they brought the attack on themselves somehow.
“Nobody thinks their story is typical,” said Lucy Yanow, program director at the Chico State Women’s Center. Many women are afraid that, by saying they were raped, they will negate the truly traumatic experiences other women have gone through, she said. The Women’s Center does not offer counseling but acts as a safe zone and referral center for Chico State students. Sometimes young women visit the Women’s Center just to talk. At least one woman a year comes in looking for help because of a rape.
Most women who have been sexually assaulted go through periods of depression, lose interest in sex, and become distrustful of men. This can last months, even years.
Some women develop eating disorders, self-medicate through alcohol or drugs, or develop other self-destructive behaviors as ways to cope with the after-effects of such a painful experience, Loomis said.
In a way, rape is an invisible crime. The physical effects usually heal within a matter of months. Bruises fade and cuts heal, but the emotional injuries never disappear completely.
“It doesn’t go away because it’s not a broken arm,” Loomis said.
For many, counseling is the key. Rape Crisis offers free counseling for sexual assault victims, no matter how long ago the crime occurred. Even if the victim chooses not to get counseling, the very act of telling someone—anyone—can be therapeutic.
Several months before Diane was raped, she had thrown a party with a friend. There was alcohol, but Diane stopped drinking before reaching her limit. There was a man at the party who handed her a drink. She didn’t know him, other than his name was Jay, but he was handing drinks to everyone, so she took it to be polite.
“You let your guard down when you’re around people you’re familiar with,” Diane said.
After that, she remembers suddenly feeling very drunk and being sick.
“Everything else from here on out is what people told me,” Diane said. The rest of the story is relayed by Brian, Diane’s long-time friend who was also at the party:
“She was just a mess,” Brian said. He had never seen her throw up like that before. Brian had always known Diane to be in control when she drank and so her sickness alarmed him. He and another man cleaned Diane up and put her, passed out, on the couch.
Brian mingled with friends, and when he returned to check on his friend, he walked in on Jay fondling her breasts. Diane was still unconscious.
Brian accused Jay of putting a date-rape drug in Diane’s drink. Jay shouted that he would never do something like that.
Throughout the night Jay kept trying to sneak back into the room where Diane lay on the couch. Brian eventually locked Diane in one of the bedrooms to keep her safe and kicked Jay out of the party.
“And then I see him walk past the window,” Brian said. Jay was trying to break into the room Diane was locked in. Brian decided to stay the rest of the night in the room with Diane to protect her.
The next time Brian saw Jay, he said, Jay acted guilty.
“Homeboy knew he’d done something wrong,” Brian said.
The sad fact is that Diane is not an anomaly. Often women who have been sexually assaulted once, particularly when they are young, get sexually assaulted again, Loomis said. Those women often have trouble setting boundaries or don’t have the self-confidence to say “No.”
Diane never reported Jay to the police. By the time she realized what he’d done—or tried to do—she figured she’d missed her chance, the drugs were already out of her system.
Many women don’t report sexual assaults because they think they’re too late if they don’t call the police immediately after the incident. However, this is true only if the woman chooses to have a rape kit done at a hospital. A woman has up to 10 years to report the crime, although it does get harder to prove a case the longer it’s been.
After being raped, a woman has 72 hours to call the police or a hospital if she wants to be seen by a sexual-assault response team. The victim receives a pelvic exam, HIV screening and information about counseling. It is important for a woman not to shower or change clothes before having the rape kit done, as the DNA evidence is critical for a conviction if the woman decides to press charges.
However, a victim can still press charges without DNA evidence. In those cases, police investigate to find anyone who might back up the victim’s statements.
Police have found that many rapists who end up going to prison started off with smaller sexual assaults that escalated to become more violent, said Brent Redelsperger, supervising district attorney for Butte County. The district attorney always does a background check when choosing to bring an alleged rapist to court, and prior victims often turn up.
Despite what many people think, rape is not the result of “runaway passion,” Loomis said. Rape is about power, a sense of entitlement and taking control of another person. Loomis explains that a rapist is the kind of guy who sees a girl at a bar and thinks, “I’m going to get her drunk so I can get laid tonight.”
It’s important to report a sexual assault, even if it’s years after the crime, so the police have something on file. If there is no report, the perpetrator gets off without facing any consequences and may rape again. So even after it’s too late to protect yourself, it’s never too late to protect other women.
The police are also sensitive to victims’ experiences.
“We won’t ultimately file the case if we feel it cannot be proven,” Redelsperger said. That way the woman won’t be forced to relive the rape in front of her rapist only to have the guy go free without a conviction.
A woman who reports a sexual assault does not have to press charges. Sometimes the police will go ahead and press charges anyway if they feel they have enough evidence to convict the rapist. In those cases, the woman does not have to appear in court.
The Butte County district attorney’s office resolves about 80 percent of the rape cases it sees in a conviction, Redelsperger said. Jail sentences range anywhere from three to eight years.
Becky was a shy 17-year-old. She was tall and lanky and felt self-conscious about her height. She had trouble at dances because she was always taller than the boys. She was studious and creative but mostly kept to herself. One night, she was going to a party at a friend’s house. He was older. She was flattered that an older man wanted her to come to his party.
“It was supposed to be a party, but he was the only one there,” she said.
He raped her. She had been a virgin. Becky didn’t tell her mother because she knew her mother would blame her. She didn’t tell her friends because they wouldn’t understand.
“I was 17 and I thought it was my fault,” she said.
It took Becky a long time to forgive men for what this one man did to her. Her voice still shakes when she tells her story, even though the attack took place more than 30 years ago.
Even with all the work being done to prevent future rapes from occurring, it is estimated that one out of four women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime, Yanow said. The risk jumps up to one in three for college-aged women because of social networking and the prevalence of alcohol.
All universities are required to keep a breakdown of the crimes committed on campus. According to Chico State’s University Police, only four women reported being sexually assaulted in 2006.
So, if we follow the formula that one in 10 women report being raped, that would mean as many as 40 women were raped that year.
Unfortunately, most of the attacks that happen in college are lubricated by alcohol.
Diane is paranoid about her drinks now. She always watches the bartender, in case he tries to slip her something. She holds her drink with her hand covering the top, and if she puts it down, she never picks it up again.
Alcohol is never an excuse for rape.
“Just because you drink doesn’t mean you have a sign on your head that says ‘smorgasbord,’ “ Loomis said. In fact, it is illegal to have sex with a woman who is “falling-down drunk,” even if she says “yes,” because a person in that condition is not capable of rational thinking and is not able to give consent.
Sex and flirting are blurry areas anyway, and alcohol makes it even harder to interpret the signals, Loomis said.
“If you meet someone hot, then meet him again the next day when you’re sober,” she suggested.
But if you’re both hot and appear ready to go, it is always best to ask for consent than assume the other person wants to have sex.
“You shouldn’t have to guess, ‘Is she into me?’ “ Loomis said. “If you’re not sure, the answer is ‘no.’ “
Diane moved to Australia for college three weeks after she was raped. In some ways, it was a relief to leave town. To keep herself from focusing on the experience, she threw her focus into school. She graduated after only three years.
The first couple times Diane had sex in college were difficult for her. She had to get drunk first just to be comfortable with the idea, she said.
Diane started a long-term relationship with a man while she was in Australia. He was patient and caring. Now, she’s back in Chico, and after a few years of positive sexual experiences, Diane doesn’t think about the bad ones anymore.
But she still isn’t comfortable having sex. It always feels slightly pressured. It is never something she feels like she needs or wants.
“I think maybe the way I was introduced to sex might have something to do with it,” Diane said.
Even though Diane has had good relationships, residue of her bad experiences is locked in her body. Every time she is intimate with someone, the fear arises like a ghost from the fringes of her psyche.
When a woman’s safety in her body and in her environment has been compromised, she may try to ignore it, she may try to forget it, she may even try to rationalize it, but there is no way to get it back. She will never be the same.