Everyone has an opinion on what rape is. I was prepared to face disbelief, given my rapist’s notoriety in our small town as an upstanding Catholic. I just never expected that disbelief to come from another rape survivor.
When #MeToo started trending on social media, I mustered the nerve to talk about my assault. The camaraderie from all the brave women sharing their stories gave me hope that I would find the support I needed.
A colleague I’ll call S was quick to respond to my post: “Your perspective is completely off,” she wrote. “You don’t seem to understand what it’s really like to be a rape victim. I was sexually abused by my last boyfriend, so I know what I’m talking about.”
Knowing the conversation was about to get heated, I opted to message S privately, rather than respond on a public forum. I told her that her experience did not invalidate mine; that abuse was abuse regardless of whether the scars are visible, and it’s wrong no matter what. Her response was cold in its certainty: “I’m sorry, but I just can’t believe you at all. Anyone reading your post will know you’re not a real rape victim.”
A real rape victim. I asked her to clarify that for me, and received an autobiography in return: a concise but brutal summation of two years worth of beatings; of forced sex when she was ill or aching from her period; sex at her boyfriend’s whim without patience, without compassion, and without lube. He had no concern whatsoever for the way he was hurting her, because the entire relationship was about him.
“And you think it’s fair to call your experience rape when your boyfriend only used verbal threats? Not even a gun?” S wrote. “Please. I wish that was the worst my boyfriend did.”
Unlike S, my abuse didn’t require any visits to the ER. Unlike S, the only scars I bear today are emotional ones. Even if I’d wanted to press charges at the time, the only evidence would indicate rough foreplay, which of course my ex would claim was consensual.
I wrote S, “Your story isn’t more valid than mine just because your physical suffering was worse.” I regret feeling so invalidated that I needed to explain to her in graphic detail what my boyfriend did – anything to get her to see me as legitimate. In the end, I had to abruptly end the conversation because I could not longer type through the tears.
Funnily enough, I could handle being told by people who didn’t know any better that I was “lucky” for everything that didn’t happen to me: I could have been rendered infertile; I could have been killed. But hearing that judgment from another survivor, who was supposed to be my ally, nearly broke me.
I wonder how this “My suffering is worse than your suffering” contest started. People play it all the time, and it doesn’t always have to do with abuse. You know the type – you tell a story, and certain people have to top it, to prove whatever happened to you “wasn’t that bad.”
Good intentions aside, telling a rape victim that her experience “wasn’t that bad” can almost make her wish she was harmed worse, if that means she’s more likely to be taken seriously.
And yet, when it comes to victimization stories, there’s just no satisfying everyone. Even if I were attacked at random in a park, someone will want to know the hour in which I was jogging, and whether I was wearing tight spandex. If my ex were an acquaintance at a party, people would want to know how much I flirted and how much I drank. Just when you think you’ve come up with a scenario in which abuse is indisputably the assailant’s fault, someone who wasn’t there and doesn’t know you will fight you on it.
If there’s anything I wish I could tell my younger self, it’s this: your body is your own, and you have every right to refuse contact you don’t want. The #MeToo movement is many things, but it’s also for survivors to come together and support one another. There is nothing to gain by telling another survivor that her experience matters less just because her scars look different from yours.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.