What is rape?
Rape is any form of unwanted sexual behaviour that is imposed on someone.
Our definition of rape is broader than most conventional or legal definitions. We place rape within a continuum of sexual violence that can take many different forms, including sexual harassment, verbal abuse, leering, threats, exposure, being forced to watch pornography, unwanted touching, incest, penetration, mutilation, and ritual abuse.
Rape is more about the abuse of power than about sexual attraction or the desire for sexual gratification.
Rape is when someone uses their power, manipulation or force to intimidate, humiliate, exploit, degrade or control another. Rape has been used as a weapon in war, in racial violence and in everyday life. Rape diminishes a person’s dignity and their human rights to safety, choice and consent.
Rape is a crime.
Our definition takes into account that a person may feel as if they have been raped in circumstances that are not legally defined as constituting rape. Rape may not involve actual physical injury. It is an act that may be experienced as a violation of the physical body, and/or on emotional, intellectual, and spiritual levels.
Rape may also be defined as a process by which people feel that they do not have the right to say no and have their rights respected.
Some examples of rape include:
- An adult relative uses trickery and bribes to make a child participate in a sexual activity.
- A husband/partner manipulates his wife into having sex in order to ‘keep the peace’ or to ‘show that she loves him’ or that it is ‘her duty’ or ‘his entitlement’.
- A boy/man pressures a girl/woman into having sex when she is not ready.
- A man expects a woman to have sex after buying her a drink or dinner.
- A man has sex with a woman when she is too drunk or drugged to give or refuse consent.
- A general practitioner convinces a woman to undertake an intimate examination when it is unnecessary or inappropriate.
We do not believe there are any excuses for rape.
Rape is a crime and always the responsibility of those who commit it.
Sexual violence and rape will be used interchangeably throughout this booklet. A legal definition of rape can be found in the legal section of this booklet.
Myths and Realities
Many people in our society hold false ideas and attitudes about rape and rape survivors.
These myths are widespread and serve to legitimise rape. Too often the blame for rape is shifted from the rapist to the women and children who have been raped.
Most rapists have always lied about rape. Their lies are deliberate and work to perpetuate the myths that allow rape to continue.
The effects of these myths are that women are silenced. If they tell anyone, including the police, they may be accused of asking for it or lying.
The reality of women and children’s trauma is minimised and denied as these myths draw the responsibility of rae away from the rapist and their decision to violate.
These myths confound the reactions of family and friends and often affects their ability to support someone who has been raped, which increases isolation and possible avenues for support. Women and children become more isolated, even from other women.
They also suggest that a woman has not really been raped if her rape experience does not fit the legal definitions of rape or if she doesn’t fit the criteria for a “rape victim”. Women who do not cry or women who are angry for instance, may not be believed or seen to need support as they do not fit the stereotype of being a victim.
Defining our own feelings
Women may have a range of different feelings and reactions following a rape. There are no right or wrong ways to feel. These are some of the common feelings that women have experienced and talked about I feel free to add your own feelings and thoughts.
“Did this really happen to me?”
Ashamed. Frightened. Numb. Shocked. Disbelief. Betrayed.
“I could have been killed”
Stunned. Confused. Sickened. Hurt. Sore.
Powerless. Mad. Out of control. Crying buckets. Distrust.
” I couldn’t stop it happening to me and now everyone is running around organising things for me and I don’t have any say in what is happening.”
Rage. Anger. Want to scream. Hatred. Disgust.
Sometimes there is also a feeling of relief that you survived the ordeal.
Depression. Anxiety. Panicky. Physically ill. Run down.
Some women find that sleeping is all they want to do and retreat to bed for a while. Others can’t sleep or have broken sleep from nightmares, flashbacks or panic attacks.
Frozen. Overwhelmed. Fearful. Unsafe. Feeling crazy.
Sometimes rape survivors experience fear that the rapist will return or when they see someone who looks like the rapist.
Grief. Hating yourself. Guilty. Dirty. Suicidal.
Self-questioning of everything you did from the way you dressed to why you decided to go home that particular way.
You might feel you are somehow to blame:
“I should not have got drunk.”
“I should have known my husband was a rapist.”
“I shouldn’t have worn that dress.”
” I shouldn’t have invited him home for a coffee.”
This self-blame may effect the choices you make now. It is important to keep reminding yourself that no one asks to be raped.
IT IS NOT YOUR FAULT.
Rape usually affects the way we feel about our bodies.
It is common for women to feel dirty or ‘unclean’ after being raped. You might find yourself spending a lot of time in the bath or shower, trying to scrub away this feeling.
“Can people tell?”
You may feel a sense of isolation, of feeling different somehow from other people.
You might feel a lot of anger and rage at having to go through any of this.
Doing every day things may be very difficult, especially looking after others.
These are only some of the feelings you might experience. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to feel. Everyone is different.
It is important to allow yourself the time you need to process the rape, at the pace you decide and with the kind of support that feels right for you.
Will I ever feel “normal” again?
Remember the feelings you are experiencing now are a normal reaction to a traumatic event.
All women are different: the paths you take will be your own.
Some things will work for you and some things will not. You might want to talk with someone you trust or a support worker about your feelings and ways to feel stronger, safer and ‘normal’ again.
Here are some suggestions:
- Do things or think thoughts that ground you in the present.
- Don’t wait until panic, depression or flashbacks take over. Plan for the challenging times.
- Make a list of things that help when you are feeling bad.
- Find or make a place in your home (or elsewhere) where you can feel safe to process your feelings/thoughts.
- Take note of thoughts, events or environments that trigger your feelings and protect yourself from these when you are feeling vulnerable.
- Breathe out for longer than you breathe in as this will help ease physical anxiety.
- Temporary physical reactions such as a racing heart, shivering, sweating, dizziness or feeling like you canUt breathe may be normal bodily reactions to remembering a traumatic event. Reassuring yourself that these sensations will pass may help.
Allow yourself to have the range of feelings that may surface for you.
It is important to remember that you did not deserve to be raped.
At some point you may feel like doing something practical.
Taking self-defence classes can be very helpful. Self-defence is more than learning how to defend yourself physically. As women, our conditioning teaches us to be unassertive and physically weak, rather than confident and strong.
Learning physical skills can make a difference in the way you feel. It can give you a sense of greater control over your body and your environment.
You might want to learn some meditation, yoga or relaxation techniques. On the other hand you may want to learn a martial art, throw yourself into heavy gardening, do sport, take an art class or any other activity.
Talking to someone you trust can be useful. Joining a support group for women who have experienced rape may also be of great benefit. You deserve to be listened to and supported.
Talking with supportive people may help you to make sense of what has happened to you. This understanding may in turn help to alleviate feelings of self-blame, alienation and fear. Only you know how you feel, but many women have had similar experiences.
By sharing our stories and listening to others, we can support each other to feel stronger and safer.
You may like to try writing a list of things when you are feeling bad, fearful or despairing. Your list might look something like this:
2 Acknowledge what I am feeling now.
3 Remind myself that these feelings will pass
4 Go to my safe place.
5 Remind myself it’s not my fault.
5 Hug a pillow.
7 Ring someone I trust (write the phone number on the list).
8 Have a hot bath.
What you can do if you are raped
You have the right to deal with your own life, in your own way, at your own pace. There is no “right way” to deal with rape and incest. If you are raped, you have the right to be supportedYou may have someone close to you who can provide you with support or you may feel that you would like additional support. In any case, it is certainly a good thing to have all the information and support you need, in order to decide for yourself what you will do now.
Immediately after a rape you will be faced with decisions like who to tell, how to cope, how to feel safe, whether to get medical attention, whether to tell police.
In making your decisions you might want to consider your rights:
- you have a right to be safe.
- you have the right to be believed.
- you have a right to be upset.
- you have a right NOT to be blamed.
- you have a right to expect that people whom you choose to tell about the rape will respect your reactions, choices and decisions.
- you have a right to be angry.
- you have a right to be silent.
- you have a right to talk about the rape and to be heard.
- you have a right to privacy and confidentiality.
- you have a right to information.
- you have a right to make your own choices and decisions about what to do.
- You have a right to choose who to tell and who not to tell about the rape.
- you have a right to sympathetic and gentle medical care.
- you have a right to be treated with respect.
- you have a right to NOT forgive the rapist.
- you have the right to report the crime to the police.
- you have the right to rquest a female medical practioner or police officer (although this may not be possible).
Many women speak for the first time, or remember past experiences of rape or incest, years later as adults. As an adult survivor, you have survived in whatever ways that have been available to you.
Some women abuse drugs and alcohol, develop eating issues and/or use other forms of self harm to cope with their experiences. It is important to find support people who do not judge you for the ways you cope or have coped in the past.
You have a right to expect support that is free from discrimination.
How will my friends and family react?
The people you tell about your rape experience might have different reactions to your disclosure. For example, shock, fear, hurt or anger that you have suffered this abuse. They might also, however, be confused about how to deal with their own feelings. They might react in ways you did not expect, ways that cause you further pain.
- They might pressure you to report to the police before you have had a chance to think about whether that is what you want to do.
- They might believe the best thing for them to do is to take charge or to push you to seek help.
- They might want you to give details about the rape that you do not want to give.
- They might lecture you on the foolishness of ‘getting yourself into a dangerous situation’.
- They might berate and blame themselves for not having been able to protect you.
- They might want to find, confront or punish the rapist.
- They might want revenge.
- They might believe that not talking about it will make the whole thing ‘go away’ more quickly.
Husbands or partners might avoid closeness with you or might decide that immediate sexual intimacy will help you get over it. You have the right to express what level of intimacy you want and to have that supported.
Those close to you might become over-protective in an attempt to deal with their own sense of helplessness or guilt.
Family and friends might ask you questions about the rape which may seem as if they don’t understand what it was like for you. It may appear that they are suggesting that you are somehow to blame for what happened. It is important that you remember you are not at fault.
No one asks to be raped.
Given that rape is such a misunderstood form of violence, people might respond to you in ways that reinforce common myths about rape as this is the only information they have.
While it might help to understand the feelings of the people close to you, this does not mean you should take responsibility for helping them to cope. Your family and friends can get support from one another or talk with an ‘outside’ person about their own feelings and needs. You have the right to put your own needs first.
You are entitled to support and to make your own decisions. It may help to have a network of people you trust to turn to. Family and friends can often fulfil this need. You might feel that you can trust some of your friends and family to respond in a more sensitive way than others.
It is up to you to choose whom you tell and what you tell them.
If you want or need additional support, you can contact a sexual assault support service and talk to a support worker.
How to support a rape survivor
If a woman chooses to tell you that she has been raped, then she is investing a lot of trust in you. Your responses are important.
The attitudes and responses of the people closest to a woman who has been raped have the potential either to extend the crisis or to help her deal with it. Above all, a woman who has been raped needs to be believed, listened to, and allowed the time and space to make her own decisions about what to do.
It is normal for you to be upset, angry or confused. You might feel a strong urge to ‘do something’ or you might try to convince the woman to ‘do something’. You might wonder whether she could have done something to prevent the rape. You might feel responsible for what has happened. You might want to confront the rapist and punish him yourself. The desire for revenge is a common reaction for many supporters. You may have a strong urge to “take charge” in order to protect her.
It is important for you to allow a rape survivor to make her own decisions and to support those decisions.
In some cases she may want direction or advice and it is important that you do not feel like you have to have all the answers.
You might feel helpless and frustrated. These feelings are valid and common. You may wish to seek support from family, friends and cousellors. It is not appropriate for you to expect or demand support from the rape survivor.
Support you can offer:
- It can be useful to ask “how can I help?” or “Is there anything you need from me right now?”
- Listen to her.
- Believe her. It is important to believe her even if what she’s telling you seems hard to comprehend. Women’s experiences are often denied and minimized.
- Tell her you are glad she could tell you about it.
- Respect that she may need to focus solely on herself and her needs for awhile.
- Let her know you are there for her.
- Reassure her that you are there to talk to if she wants to.
- Allow her to make her own decisions.
- Support the choices she makes.
- Recognize the harm that was done to her.
- Realise that her feelings are ok.
- Respect her need to express these feelings.
- Let her choose which family members or friends she wishes to disclose to.
- Offer suggestions of help. For example: child care, housework, safety, company.
- Ask how best to support her.
- Collect a variety of resources and phone numbers for rape survivors and make them available to her to use when she is ready. Let her know it is OK if she chooses not to use them.
- Acknowledge your limits.
- Respect her privacy.
- Be patient.
- Be sensitive and understanding of her decisions about sexual activity.
- Respect that her healing may take time, space and energy.
- Let her talk. Survivors often need to go over things many times, allow space for this.
- If she starts to say “If only I hadn’t…” or “I should have…” remind her that the responsibility for the assault lies with the perpetrator and it was not her fault.
Try to avoid:
- Ignoring what has happened to her.
- Taking charge or being over-protective.
- Pressing for details of the assault.
- Insisting she report to the police if she doesn’t want to.
- Making threats against the abuser.
- Sympathising with the abuser.
- Blaming, accusing or judging her.
- Telling anyone else about what happened without her permission.
- Offering support beyond your limitations.
- Expecting her to deal with your feelings.
- Telling her “it’s over now, get on with life”.
- Pressuring her to access counselling when she doesn’t want to.
- Asking too many questions.
- Jumping into rescue mode. Providing options too early can often be overwhelming.