how not to be a ‘legitimate’ rape victim



I’d always make sure it was real cold in the room, cold enough so that when we started watching the movie I’d say something about being chilly, and grab a big fleece blanket for the both of us.

We’d get kind of close, and then maybe ignore the movie for some kissing.

After a while, we’d talk some more, and I’d start edging my hands around the under strap of the bra, or maybe a bit into her pants, just kind of playing on the edge to gauge her response.

Some girls would stiffen up a little, and that’s when you knew they didn’t like what was going on.

We were in my studio apartment, so the bed served as the couch, and it was easy to start sliding down throughout the movie so we’d be laying down. It was then that I could turn around and get on top of her. The girls usually didn’t know how to respond. Some of them were into it, and those nights were usually consensual and boring sex, sometimes followed up by a few more nightly visits before getting the boot. However, the great nights were the ones who squirmed, ones who didn’t want to give in. I’d have to shush them down, and try to work on them slowly enough so they didn’t know what was going on until it was pretty much already happening. I’m a muscular guy, over 6′ around 200 lbs. and most of these girls may have been 125-130, really tiny and easy to pin down. To be honest, even remembering it now, the squirming always made it better, they didn’t want it to happen, but they couldn’t do anything about it. Most girls don’t say no either. They think you’re a good guy, and should pick up on the hints, they don’t want to have to say “no” and admit to themselves what’s happening.”

— excerpted from real life rapists explain why they rape on reddit


When I was in eighth grade, a classmate – let’s call her Anna — said that she’d been raped. She told me during lunch at our desks, tipping her chair until it seemed she might fall over. It happened on a rocky lakeshore. The man came off a boat anchored nearby and she could hear voices yelling to him in the darkness. She was freezing. When it was over, he threw her jeans in the water and said, “I hope you get pregnant.”

I mentioned some of this to another girl I knew, trying to work out what I felt I should do. I was the new kid in school. I didn’t know anyone. This girl, who I thought might be a friend, shook her head at me and laughed.

“Anna’s trash and a liar,” she said. “She’s just looking for attention. I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Anna left school and didn’t come back.

The rocks, the cold, the voices from the boat, that final gesture of contempt when he tossed her jeans in the lake. I hope you get pregnant. Her voice when she told me was matter-of-fact, her eyes dull. She wore stonewashed jeans and tight t-shirts and smoked cigarettes and skipped class and dyed her hair red. She had skin even paler than mine and outlined her eyes in dark kohl. The homeroom teacher warned me — the new girl — to stay away from her crowd.

There was a listless quality to Anna. Some mix of people, poverty and events shocked-and-awed her into the belief that nothing she did could change anything, affect anything, or matter in any way. Now, I can recognize that state of mind as ‘learned helplessness’; at the time, I found it repellent.


When Todd Akin and his ilk distinguish between what they call “forcible rape” and what they imply to be “illegitimate” rape, I suspect they’re not talking about different kinds of rape so much as different kinds of victims.

Your class, your age, your race, your gender, your level of income, your personal history, your reputation, your choice of dress, your sexuality, your reason for being there in the first place, your relationship (if there is one) to your attacker, the identity of the attacker (including his race and class), the drama of your physical injuries: all these things have to intersect in an acceptable way to make you a “legitimate” candidate for rape.

With Anna, poor and trashy, they did not.

I just came back from the Congo. I was visiting City of Joy, a community to rehabilitate and educate female survivors of extreme sexual violence. The women receive daily lessons in everything from reading and writing to math to leadership to animal husbandry to entrepreneurialism. “In America,” the playwright and founder of V-Day: A Global Movement to End Violence Against Women + Girls, Eve Ensler, told me, “it takes a person thirty years of therapy to get over a trauma. These women have six months.” Then they get cell phones and go back to their villages to be leaders, expected to share what they have learned, connected to a network that spreads more deeply throughout the countryside of the Congo with every graduating class.

When Eve and her colleague Christine set about building the City of Joy – tailoring their plans to what the survivors said they wanted (a safe place, a woman’s place, where they could learn and acquire skillsets for a better life) – people of course told them they were crazy. Crazy. Things don’t intersect in order for Congolese girls and women to be very ‘legitimate’ either, and it’s not because we doubt their stories. It’s because they don’t rank high enough as a priority for much of the world to do more than shake its collective head and mutter about how hopeless and despairing and fucked-up the situation is and you can’t do anything to change it, why try?

When women first enter this community, torn and often mutilated, possibly pregnant, orphaned, widowed, dragged into the woods and raped daily for months, possibly insane, they need to be convinced that they have value as human beings. They learn their rights (they’re amazed to discover that they have rights). I sat in on a sex ed class taught by Dr Mukwege of Panzi Hospital, and afterwards Eve stood up and reminded the women about their right to say no. No matter what people might tell them, she said, having sex against your will is a big deal. What happened to them is a big deal. It mattered. She had them chorus, their voices blending together, My vagina is mine. The room exploded in shouts and whoops and smiles, women clapping and stomping and flashing the V sign.

The healing power – and it is healing — of validation.

You matter. You have rights. What happened to you is horrible and wrong and completely unacceptable. Your body is your own.

I believe you.


As human beings, we are social animals, wired into each other; we mirror each other to understand what the other is feeling, which affects how we are feeling, which affects how others are feeling; we know ourselves by how the people in our lives reflect us through what they say and how they treat us.

We unconsciously strive to adapt to our group and live up to, or down to, expectations.

In the book THE WILLPOWER INSTINCT, Kelly McGonigal writes about how “we include other people in our sense of self”:

….when we think about people we love, respect and feel similar to, our brains treat them more like us than like not-us. You can see it in a brain scanner, watching adults first think about themselves, then about their mothers. The brain regions activated by self and mom are almost identical, showing that who we think we are includes the people we care about. Our sense of self depends on our relationships with others, and in many ways, we only know who we are by thinking about other people.”

We’re so influenced by the tribe that our brains will start to actively believe something it knows isn’t true (this stick is longer than the other sticks) if enough people around us keep insisting. We’ll start to doubt our feelings, our knowing, our own perceptions of the evidence. We’ll start to wonder if we’re crazy.

The defining characteristic of any abusive relationship is one partner’s constant attempt to control the other, including her experience of her own subjective reality. The abuser dictates how she’s feeling (“Get off it, you’re not so sick, I had the same cold a few days ago and I was fine”) or what she’s thinking (“You don’t actually like those people, do you?”) and manages to imply, to make her believe, that she is the problem. If she would only get it together and start behaving like an adult, things would be great. The abused partner on some level knows that something is off, something is wrong, that she’s possibly even being destroyed, but she contorts her mind to believe what the abuser tells her. She disconnects her own instincts. He’s also telling her that he loves her, and if she starts paying attention to what her body truly knows – that she’s in pain, her partner is full of it – then her whole life comes crashing apart.

As a culture – not necessarily as individuals – I believe that we emotionally abuse survivors of rape, often without realizing. We dictate their reality. We deny or negate or overwrite their experience. We tell them that what happened to them didn’t actually happen. We imply or say straight out that they’re lying, or at least exaggerating, they’re after money or attention or maybe they’re just crazy or maybe it did happen but it’s not that big a deal. It wasn’t ‘forcible’. And they need to move on and get over it because we’re uncomfortable talking about it or maybe we’re bored or it’s all so expensive and inconvenient or maybe we know the guy she’s accusing and he’s a good guy, a family guy, he would never ever. (Even if he did.)

We say, “He’s innocent until proven guilty” as if we were talking about real innocence and real guilt instead of legal concepts meant to establish burden of proof; as if a truly guilty man was innocent before proven guilty, or is made innocent because they can’t prove him guilty. We act as if the man has every right to assert his innocence but the woman does not have the right to assert her own rape, especially if it might damage his career or community standing (never mind how she’s been damaged).

The message that comes through, over and over again, is that certain people are more important than other people, and some people are not important at all. It was still less than a hundred years ago – in a time span of over twenty centuries – that women weren’t trusted enough to be ‘given’ the vote. To be recognized as legal individuals in their own right (when a woman married, her identity was absorbed into her husband, so that she had no legal existence outside of his). After all, they would only vote however their father or husband told them, right? They were childish and childlike, easily swayed, unable to understand the bigger picture. They were creatures of the flesh, given to impulse and irrationality. Thinking hurt their brains. They were innocent lambs too sweet and pure for the real world. Or they were cunning, deceptive femme fatales, a threat to the domestic order, who would use every power they had to exploit some luckless chap.

We may have the vote, but we’re still haunted by the virgin/whore dichotomy that puts us in the dirt or on the pedestal (and defines us not by our brains or moral character but whether or not we’ve had sex, and how often). Seen from that angle, we’re not fully human. We’re untouchables, too low or too high to be eye to eye. And if we can’t be ‘touched’, then we can’t be ‘legitimately’ raped, which means our story is suspect, we are suspect. We’re Adam’s Eve all over again, careless with the snake and dooming the entire human race to exile, pain and suffering.

(Eve no doubt had her own version of what went down, but no one seemed interested.)

We’re human beings. We’re made of stories. We run on stories. And the story we tell about men and women, women and rape, needs revision.


When I was in eighth grade, and a classmate told me she’d been raped, I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know her well and wasn’t sure why she’d confided in me of all people. My knowledge of rape came from YA novels like Richard Peck’s ARE YOU IN THE HOUSE ALONE? and the soap opera SANTA BARBARA, where it seemed every female character was at some point dramatically ravished. I knew that I believed Anna, but my friend’s callous reaction confused me, and I was struggling through some learned helplessness of my own. It was easier just to let Anna slip from my life.

If I could go back.

If I could handle it differently.

I would know that all Anna wanted from me – what she was so quietly asking for – was the gift of validation. I wasn’t supposed to ‘fix’ anything, and she didn’t need me to tell her what she should have done differently or what to do now.

I needed to listen to her.

Just listen.

Maybe ask gentle questions about her experience, not to imply criticism but to let her know that I was right there in the moment with her, that I cared enough to provide full and focused attention.

It’s odd, how I can remember the things she told me – He threw my jeans in the water and said, I hope you get pregnant – but can’t remember anything I said in response.

You matter. You have rights. What happened to you is horrible and wrong and completely unacceptable. Your body is your own.

I believe you.

Did I have the presence of mind, the instincts, to convey any of that?

Over fifteen years later, I would like to think so.

I would like to hope so.

I would like to think there’s hope.

Aug 24, 2012

9 comments · Add Yours

Justine, your posts are amazing.
I am almost finished my divorce (after 15 loooong months) and am only now realizing that I was the victim of abuse: an insidious, quiet, persistent emotional abuse. I did finally see how full of it my partner was and my world did indeed come crashing apart. I did think I was crazy and I have had to learn about boundaries and struggling to discard the “nice girl” persona which is in direct conflict with my true, outspoken, intelligent, creative self! As painful as world-imploding is, on another level, there is so much relief: *I am NOT crazy* *I really am THIS me and that’s ok!* *I am totally awesome in a way he never recognized* *I am totally happy being me*

I am dating someone now (after many failed first dates and an exit of the dating pool) who is really just, one in a million. He encourages me to stand up on my own. He tells me to stop, with my attitude if not with my wording, asking him for permission. He tells me if I want to color my hair blue, to go do it. If I want to wear earrings all the way up and around my ears, it doesn’t bother him one way or the other. He specifically told me he was not going to weigh in on me getting a tattoo because he didn’t want me to feel like he had either encouraged me to get it with his positive comments on tattooed women (and later be disappointed in having one) or to discourage me from getting one when deep inside, I really really want one. He constantly encourages me to be myself and consider only my own opinion. And considering where I’m coming from, I could so easily have been taken advantage of by a man.
I think women need to be encouraged, from a very young age, to stand up for themselves and for the love of God, create boundaries and know their limits and desires. We don’t need to spend our lives doing for everyone else, agreeing to everything, constantly nodding, wracking our brains for a way to say “no” gently and with an accompanying acceptable explanation (often with an explanation that is acceptable to *us*). It is too often implied that being “good” is synonymous with “helping out,” “being a helper,” and “being nice.” Boys are not typically spoken to that way as young children. Empathy is everything and our own mental and emotional boundaries are blurred. It’s the equivalent of sending a girl out into the world naked and skill-less.
Thank you for all that write. Keep doing what you’re doing. You matter. You make a difference.


Once when I was in college, a girl I barely knew called me and wanted to watch a movie at my place. I had no reason to decline. After the movie she made some excuse to climb on top of me. I wasn’t offended. She kissed me. I was flattered, but looking for a way to slow things down.

Things got a few pieces of clothing and one bed further before I suggested that maybe we should get some sleep; we both had classes tomorrow. She made it clear that she wanted to have sex, and that she expected me to cooperate. She made it clear what most guys would do (should do…) and what she thought of guys who left her hanging.

So I rolled over, said “I hate sex.” and went to sleep anyway.

After she had left the next day, I realized how lucky I was. Lucky to be bigger than she was. Lucky to know that I should say ‘no’, that I should enforce my ‘no’ if I had to.

I told some of my friends what happened. Nobody really had much to say about it.

What I didn’t tell my friends was how I somehow felt violated and guilty at the same time. How I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t get raped. I just had a pushy partner who tried to manipulate me into sex after the first no. I barely made eye contact with rape from across a crowded room and it bothered me for weeks.

Like most people I’ve always known that rape is “bad”. It wasn’t until after that experience that I really had any idea just how bad. I’m not sure what it is that makes people doubt the pain of rape victims, but I know what made me stop doubting.

I don’t know if sharing this story in some blog comment will do any good for anybody, but it seemed worth the typing I put into it.


Dear Justine: I’ve read most of your blog posts in the last year. They were strong, fun, thought-provoking. But this one is so powerful, that I cried when I first read it, and now 12 hours afterward on a busy day your words are still with me. This one is your best and most important one yet. I hope you touch many more people with this. Thank you. Amara


Justine, Yes to the positive reactions the others are having–you are a force of strength and inspiration –thank you! (i’m even reading the “nice girl” book you mentioned earlier this week. When I saw the title of this post, I thought, “I can’t handle more about rape this week,” (but obviously read this because it’s by you) and what a power-packed piece this is. I need to read it again to digest the ideas here–how we care about people as parts of ourselves; how when we talk about rape we’re really talking about the victim; the reminder that most people just want a kind person to listen to them. Thank you.


That was difficult to read, but very strong.


Incredibly honest, thoughtful, insightful. Thanks for writing this piece!


Justine Musk,
Thank you for your blog on rape and rape victims.
I am an older woman; I was still a young adult when the laws about rape were toughened to help the victims. At that time, I had been subjected to rape from a family member- I was never able to file charges against him. His perverse power over me and his ability to subject me to his control & fear for most of my adolescent life has affected my adult life in many ways, and still does. I agree, it takes 30 years to get over a traumatic event, but it also changes you forever.
The comments made in the current political arena frighten me. I can only hope that enough women recognize this issue alone as reason enough to not elect the candidates responsible.


I’ve been trying to write a blog response to all of this for weeks now and keep despairing. This is everything I tried to say and couldn’t, as usual.


I found this very healing. Especially this part.

” what she was so quietly asking for – was the gift of validation. I wasn’t supposed to ‘fix’ anything, and she didn’t need me to tell her what she should have done differently or what to do now.
I needed to listen to her.”

Could you write something on child abuse


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