Rape: It’s Not About “Miscommunication”

*The author of this piece wishes to remain anonymous.

“I was raped many years ago, by someone that at the time I considered a close friend,” I was surprised to hear myself say. I was talking to a group of friends when our conversation drifted to the latest sexual scandal; was it the Rabbi in the sauna? Bill Cosby? Rape on college campuses? It was the first time I’d spoken publicly about the rape.

Why did I speak up? Maybe it was the recent change in the public discourse about rape. The “yes means yes” legislation, which passed in California in 2014, was a milestone in the legal prosecution of abuse and in our understanding of affirmative consent. It shifted the responsibility from the victim, previously expected to prove she’d said “no,” to the abuser, who must now prove in court that a sexual act was consensual. Perhaps this change legitimized my sense that I had been terribly wronged.

But while “yes means yes” marks significant progress, it also has an unsettling aspect: It maintains a link between rape and communication. It might imply that rape is talking gone awry, an extreme case of miscommunication, as many conservatives insist.

Shortly after I moved to New York in 1997, I returned to Jerusalem to visit my parents. A close friend invited me to spend my last night at his home, offering to drive me to the airport early the next day. I accepted.

It was 3 a.m. when I ran out of this man’s apartment, spending the rest of the night in the stairwell. Yes, I agreed to some flirting and yes, I didn’t mind staying in his bedroom (“The other bed is covered with laundry,” he said), but no, I did not agree to have sex; I made this clear and was ignored.

Finally the sun came up, and I quietly returned to get my belongings. I never saw or spoke to him again, and I hope I never do.

After a horrible transatlantic flight, I arrived back in New York. I was upset and confused, and grateful for the support of the man I later married and my dear therapist. Both were gentle and listened to my story without pushing for a full testimony, reminding me, again and again, that it was not my fault.

Although I rarely think about it now, I sometimes still hear judgmental voices in my mind. Could I have been clearer about my boundaries? Was it possible that he did not understand that I did not want to have sex with him?

The relationship between sex and communication is complex, as many have noted. Sex is often less verbal and more sensual. Sexuality, writes the influential French psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, is what the child labels the enigmatic messages, unintentional communication by adults.

Consenting adults can express a wide range of feelings in their sexual interactions, from affection and intimacy to neediness and even aggression. Sex is paradoxically the most selfish and most generous sentiment we express. Nevertheless, even in these enigmatic terrains, there are rules of right and wrong that require verbal or nonverbal consent. It took many years, but I now feel I understand the danger of linking communication and rape, a link that obscures the underlying violence of the act.

Think about recent stories of sexual misconduct such as Jian Ghomeshi’s, whose trial for sexual assault began today. Aren’t you always surprised that seemingly intelligent, successful men risk so much by getting involved in non-consensual sex? It would seem that today, more than ever, they could find partners for any sexual practice or human fantasy. But what remains logically impossible is to find a consenting partner for non-consensual sex.

Research suggests that there are different types of rapists. Unfortunately, for some, it is precisely the desire to violate the other’s boundaries that repeated abusers are acting out. Those who engage in sex with underage partners, subordinates, students, people under the influence of alcohol or drugs and those who simply say “no” seek sex that is marked by domination, coercion and violence, encounters that perform sex on a partner who has not chosen to participate.

This insight, simple as it may seem, was a tectonic shift in my understanding of rape. The man who hurt me did so not because he misunderstood my boundaries, but precisely because he wanted to transgress them in an act that would give him what he thought he wanted or deserved.

I cannot generalize from my own experience to all cases of abuse and rape. Perhaps among young adults, experimenting with sexuality and alcohol for the first time, communication can reduce abuse. But I suspect that more often, abuse is inflicted because it is unwanted. The absence of consent is perversely linked to the pleasure the rapist seeks.

Two decades after my rape, I no longer blame myself. I am now convinced that rape and abuse are not acts of miscommunication; rape is a sexual act of violence done by those who find pleasure in disregarding the boundaries of others, taking without consent.

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user roga muffin licensed under Creative Commons 2.0