Growing up in the ’60s, this writer didn’t know there was a term for the harrowing sexual encounter she had with a guy she liked. Nor did she know it wasn’t her fault.
I’ve always been interested in the way younger generations have a tendency to recast the meaning of everyday words. I’m a baby-boomer, and it took me years to grasp that my son’s exclamation of “sick!” signified a good thing; “hook-ups” weren’t necessarily about procuring tickets to an event, but more likely about having casual sex. That the very word “word” has come to be a kind of nod of agreement. Their meanings are often counterintuitive, but, as the kids say, “Whatever.”
Then there are other words that enter the lexicon that I’m grateful for, because they’re extremely powerful and necessary for being able to clarify situations within our culture and change our understanding of experiences in our own lives. Terms like “date rape” and “slut shaming” enable young women to describe the experience of being forced into having sex with someone they know and may have once trusted, and of being publicly humiliated for it.
“Date rape” didn’t come into existence until 1975, when feminist Susan Brownmiller used the phrase in her book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, and it didn’t enter common usage until the late 1980s. The first time I heard those words, I had a flash of understanding that almost instantly erased the shame I had been carrying with me for nearly 20 years. This new language about sexual assault gave me, and many other women of my generation, the means to understand exactly what happened to us, because until then, so many of us had blamed ourselves for putting ourselves in dangerous situations.
Did my rapist realize what he’d done? Probably not at the time. Quite possibly it was a lust-driven misinterpretation—at least in the beginning, because he did get a lot of what could be construed as positive go-ahead signals: I willingly went into a secluded woods with him to makeout. I was innocent and curious; on my first date ever with someone I knew, liked, and trusted so much that I didn’t even think about whether to trust him. But then things took a turn. The rape was swift, forceful, and so painful that I screamed and passed out.
At the time, I didn’t realize that I had been raped. I thought I was bad for being in the woods with a boy. I was so ashamed, I didn’t tell my mother or report it to the police. I decided instead to confide in my best friend the next day, eager to make sense of what had happened. I can still remember the look of revulsion on her face when I told her—by Monday morning, she’d betrayed my confidence and told all of our friends.
Soon came the “slut-shaming”—a term we didn’t have then, but which we now know describes the way women are degraded for being sexual and as a way to blame the victim for her own sexual assault. I was, I realize now, slut-shamed, and it was cruel and relentless. I was ostracized so much that it turned my entire world upside down then, and it remains a dividing line that keeps me disconnected from my childhood.
It is a relief to have these words now, though of course devastating that we still have a need for them. Having terms like “date rape” and “slut-shaming” transformed my victimhood into survivorship and enabled me to appreciate without ambiguity, that my childhood friends were responsible for their own behavior. From the vantage point of time and some hard-earned wisdom, I may have already understood that to some extent, but having a language to articulate what happened was both illuminating and healing. Yes, the experience remains but my feelings of shame have disintegrated.
There were plenty of instances of date rape, before we called it such a thing, of course. When we baby-boomers were coming of age, it was considered vulgar for women to express desire for sex even when we wanted it, so there were a lot of games around saying no. Very often our “no” did not always mean no. Instead, it was a way for us to save face and remain “ladylike.” So wires would get crossed, men would get confused, unable to glean whether they were being granted consent. Today, there is yet another new word that would have been useful back when I was young: “enthusiastic consent.” A concept that is promoted on campuses all over the country, enthusiastic consent requires that potential sex partners need to hear an unequivocal, inviting “yes-let’s-I want you-please let’s do it now!” so that nothing could be misinterpreted—half-hearted acquiesce, hesitation, or silence. An important component is that consent must also be ongoing throughout a sexual activity and can be revoked at any time, to protect against sex that starts off consensually then turns aggressive or veers into something that a partner doesn’t want.
Can language protect women? Would date rapes have been avoided if we had the words for it and for enthusiastic consent? Would more women have reported date rape if they didn’t have to face being slut-shamed? I would like to think so. Rapes are still underreported, of course, and women are still slut-shamed, by men and other women. Some women have been socialized to believe that we signed on to oblige all the sexual demands of our partners, and may not be entirely sure what constitutes rape in intimate, long-term and/or marital relationships. Do we hold our partners and spouses as accountable as we might our one-night stands? As we do strangers? As someone who’d set out to rape? We ask ourselves a lot of questions, because we’re still working through a lot of internalized slut-shaming. So we have a lot of work to do.
But it is progress that women and men have a language for it now. The women of my generation and generations before set the stage for this conversation: We fought for the vote, equal opportunities, respect, social support, and for legal gains and protections. I hope young women will pay it forward and do the same for future generations, leaving a legacy of even greater safety and respect. But young women should know that they are paying it backward, too. By giving name to what happens, they are not only using language to create profound change in our culture, but by courageously speaking out, calling rape what it is and insisting on justice, young women are contributing immeasurably to healing the hearts and psyches of older women like me who didn’t have the language or the voice.
Photo by Flickr user Dan Morrill
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