The Thistle Volume 13, Number 1: August 29, 2000.

Rape: Smart Women (And Men) Are Not Immune

By Rebecca Butler, Guest Columnist

The idea that women (1) from high caliber schools such as MIT and my alma mater Wellesley College are not vulnerable to rape can make us think we’re safe. But it is wrong. The equally common perception that intelligent, upstanding college men do not rape can likewise be a security blanket. But it is just as wrong.

Though I was fortunate enough to get through college unscathed, I was raped less than six months after my 1996 graduation. At the time, the perpetrator was enrolled in another Boston-area school. For the past two years, I have been very outspoken about this, for the purpose of helping other women, and in response countless other survivors have shared their own stories with me. They have shown me that rape is as much of a problem at the MITs and Wellesleys of the world as it is at any other school. I write this today to help prevent rape and to help you in your healing if you are a survivor. If you or a friend has been sexually assaulted in any way, this article is for you. If you are a man who is sincere about putting respect for women into action, or a woman who wants to feel safe and empowered in your daily life, this is also for you.

If you are a survivor, I first of all give you the utmost credit for continuing your studies in spite of the pain and trauma. That is no small feat. I also want to affirm to you that rape and other forms of sexual assault are never the victim’s fault. You may think you are the exception to that rule, as I once thought I was, but you are not. An act of rape says a lot about the perpetrator but all it says about you is that you were the one he chose to attack. Period. Don’t blame yourself for anything. It was his disrespect for you, and nothing else, that caused him to rape. And you have not failed your family, your school, yourself, or anyone else. It is he who has failed humanity. The fact that you are moving forward with your life is a sign of how strong you are. You will grow even stronger as you progress with your recovery.

You may be wondering if the above paragraph applies to you at all, whether your experience qualifies as rape. My position is that any sexual penetration against the victim’s expressed will is indeed rape. You do not have to physically fight back in order to prove that the attack really is against your will. Saying NO - by words or body language - is enough. Many perpetrators intimidate their victims to such a degree that they are too scared to speak. “Freezing up”, which is a common and natural response to such a nightmare, conveys NO just as much as words do. The problem is that rapists disregard that just as much as they ignore the verbal NO. But they do take notice and should be held both legally and morally accountable.

And an incident does not have to involve extraneous physical violence in order to legally qualify as rape. Many people think it does because most states define the crime as sexual penetration obtained against the victim’s will and by force or threat thereof. My view is that the invasion of a person’s body is in and of itself an act of force with the implied threat of further violence - in all cases. But do not rely on legal definitions alone to validate yourself. They have been wrong before in that marital rape was legal in some states until 1993 and in the majority of states today there are still legal limitations to prosecuting rape in marriage. Furthermore, in the Jim Crow South, a black man having consensual sex with a white woman was legally considered to be a rapist. And if everyone had taken the law to be the final authority on truth, say forty years ago, where would the civil rights and feminist movements (just to name a couple examples) be today?

Above all, trust yourself. If you feel raped, you probably were. If you communicated in any way that this was against your will, that is enough. It is his behavior, not yours, that society should be scrutinizing and criticizing. You may or may not choose to press charges or share your story with others. Both of those actions contributed greatly to my own healing, but neither was without considerable anguish at times. Again, trust yourself. You are the final authority on what happened to you and how you will heal. I cannot prescribe one healing path - you need to follow your own - but I can share with you what has worked for me. For one thing, I have been in counseling for two years and it has made all the difference in the world. There are counseling resources at MIT and I strongly encourage you to check them out. Healing also takes a conscious commitment. For those past two years, I have made healing my top priority and, in effect, a full time job. As full-time students with infinite responsibility, you may wonder how practical it is to do such a thing. I advocate devoting as much time as is practically possible to taking care of and nurturing yourself. You may, as I did, need to take time off from certain activities and commitments. That is completely legitimate and sometimes necessary. Regardless of your circumstance, it is the desire and will to heal and be whole again that will take us forward.

When I am not writing or speaking out on this issue, I am working very hard as an art model, which has healed my relationship with my body to a point where I am now more comfortable with and proud of it than even before my rape. To that same end, I have made physical exercise a big part of my life. I work out regularly at a women’s gym and use my bicycle as if it were a car. I have also been keeping a journal, which has empowered me to believe in my voice and intellect and has been an outlet for all kinds of emotions. It was one of my few sources of sanity two years ago when I was having a lot of post-traumatic stress breakdowns. Friends, too, have made a difference. Not everyone is as supportive as they should be, but once you do find people you can trust and talk to, it helps tremendously. I know that it would have taken a lot longer to become as strong as I am today had it not been for some amazing people who were there for me when I needed them most. These are just a few of the things that worked for me. If any of them work for you, they are yours. I wish you the best in your journey. While our lives will never be the same again, we can take back our full strength.

If a friend of yours has been raped or otherwise sexually attacked, you may want to share this information with her. While it is not helpful to tell her what she needs to do, you can make a difference in her life by being there and letting her know you care. Affirm that you believe her and assure her that she did nothing wrong. The fear of being disbelieved and/or judged is what keeps most of us silent. You can offer to accompany her in seeking legal, medical and counseling assistance, but the decision to do so needs to be hers. Someone took control of her own life from her, and she needs to get that back in every possible. Part of that is deciding for herself how she will recover and attain a sense of justice and closure. Reassure her that what she tells you is confidential. (Only in case of suicidal intentions should that confidence be broken.) And never ask for details. She has the right to share as much or as little of her story as she desires. Take care of yourself, too. Know your own boundaries. You may find yourself feeling some of her pain and anger, in which case you might want to speak with a counselor. Rape crisis counselors understand that survivors’ friends and families need support too.

Along with doing our part to make MIT a survivor-friendly campus, it is important to work on transforming it into a safe place that does not tolerate sexual violence of any kind. As individuals, there is a lot we each can do towards this end. The most important, I contend, is to believe and support survivors. We have no reason to lie. Along with that, we need to take a stand against anything that objectifies women or promotes violence for pleasure. And thirdly, we can live our own sexual lives in a way that conveys respect for our partners. This aspect applies primarily to men as they are almost always the perpetrators in sexual assault, but it is relevant to women too. Respect must be a two-way street if it is to be a long-term reality. One way to walk this talk is to put our partners first, before sex. We do not need to have sex in order to experience intimacy or pleasure. And if one person is not willing, there is no authentic pleasure or intimacy whatsoever. Intercourse tends to be overrated as the best or only way to connect with our partners. I argue, however, that the best way is any activity that both people fully agree to, which of course is different with every couple.

Instead of pushing for sex, we should all be asking our partners what they want, while expressing our own desires, and then deciding together what to do. Sex is not about competition – with your partner or your peers. It is about two people connecting. Being a real man is not about scoring. It is about respecting women and defying peer and societal pressure to do otherwise. Asking is a must - with any level of sexual activity. Don’t assume because your companion entered to your room, consented to other sexual activity, consented to intercourse in the past, is in a relationship with you, let you pay for dinner, etc., that she or he is consenting to sex. A good lover, in my view, is someone who not only asks permission but continues to communicate, making sure his or her partner feels safe and respected and is still consenting. And by consenting, I mean freely choosing. A non-coerced YES is consent. Silence or “freezing up” is not. If your partner says no, but you think it sounds like yes, take it as NO. If she or he says yes, but it sounds like “no but I’m too scared to say it,” take that as NO, too. There are a lot of people who worry that such communication ruins sexual spontaneity, but I argue that real sexual freedom and enjoyment are only possible when both partners are willing and feel totally safe. And that is information which we cannot know unless we ask.

When I talk about rape prevention, I focus on the behavior of potential perpetrators because it is just that, and not the actions of the victim, that cause rape. But each one of us is a potential victim and there are many things we can do to protect ourselves, though none is 100% guaranteed. What I am about to say next applies primarily to women, since we are so commonly the victims and targets, but it is relevant to men too. There are steps we can take both on campus at night and in social situations that can help us maximize our safety. The most important thing is to trust your gut feeling. If it does not feel safe to go somewhere, honor that instinct. Don’t second-guess yourself. MIT has a Saferides program, and I encourage you to use it as much as possible. If you must walk around campus at night, try to be with other people or, when that is not feasible, carry whistles, mace/pepper spray and/or a cell phone. I personally carry my keys and whistle in my hand on the rare nights when I am not biking. Try to stay away from structures, such as bushes, that an attacker can hide behind. And always be aware of your surroundings and walk confidently, to convey the message that you know where you are going.

These actions can reduce our vulnerability to stranger attacks, but we must remember that the majority of rapes are committed by acquaintances - particularly in dating situations. Once again – and I cannot say this enough – trust your gut. If a situation or person makes you feel unsafe, stay away. You owe no one an explanation. To be safe here, I recommend staying sober and being assertive in the face of pressure from your date to get drunk or stoned or to go to his room or car. If he insists on paying for a date, make it clear that this does not entitle him to sex in return. And, sad as it is that we have to do this, bring everything with you on those dates that you would carry at night to protect yourself from a stranger. And always know where you are and how you can escape when you need to. Communicate your limits clearly before and during any romantic activity. And watch out for “date rape drugs.” At parties, it is best not to accept drinks – alcoholic or not - unless you know you’re the one opening the bottle first. And in all social situations, never leave your drink alone. Have a friend you trust watch it when necessary. Again, it is really sad that this is what it can take to be safe on dates and in the process of getting to know people. But I pass these ideas onto you in the hopes that you may be spared the sexual violence I endured.

Having said all of this, I must warn you that you can do everything I listed above and still be raped. I was always religious about protecting myself in these ways and yet I was victimized. Still, that does not stop me from doing everything I can to maximize my safety today. You’ll never know just how many attacks you’ve dodged by taking rape prevention seriously. Don’t ever blame yourself or anyone else for being victimized after supposedly not taking all the right precautions. All of those self-protective actions are empowering but none can change the rapist’s intent to attack. Also, while physical self-defense can make a difference and I encourage you to consider taking any such courses offered on campus, the bottom line in the face of rape is to survive. You do not have to fight to the death - or at all - to prove your non-consent. Expressing it is proof enough. And submission is not consent. In order to minimize injury, many of us have had to take the rape, wait for it to be over, and pick up the pieces from there. Submission is a product of survival instinct and in no way means you wanted it or changed your mind. Sexually aggressive men should also understand that lack of physical resistance does not in any way signify consent. Only a freely given YES does.

Rape does not have to be the serious problem on college campuses that it is today. By protecting and respecting ourselves and each other, and by showing our solidarity to survivors brave enough to come forward, we can create a better reality.

(1) Both women and men can be raped, and I will use gender-inclusive language as much as possible here. However, there will be times when doing so would be too cumbersome and I will therefore refer to victims or potential victims as female and perpetrators or potential perpetrators as male, because that is how it is in the vast majority of cases. However, what applies to female survivors applies to male survivors as well, and women have just as much responsibility as men to respect our partners’ sexual boundaries. Rape also happens in the gay community and what I say here is, I believe, relevant to people of all sexual orientations.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 1: August 29, 2000.