Trigger WARNING : The article discusses rape, mental health issues.
It’s a question you might ask yourself after a traumatic sexual experience. What is rape? Does forced sexual intercourse have to be rape? Can everyone have their own definition of rape? All these questions reflect our preconceived ideas about rape, the lack failure to step back and to reflect on a very complex issue.
A life-changing experience
I was raised in a traditional Senegalese Muslim culture. Sex was taboo, virginity sacred and all romantic relationships prohibited. I could sometimes go out to see friends and I had to come home at a certain time (the earlier I came home the better). Having boy friends was unthinkable, I was made clear that friendship between girls and boys did not exist. I was compartmentalized in a world where I was categorized as a woman, a woman source of temptation. The temptation had to be contained by locking it up.
What I thought was love, knocked on my door one day. It was the first time I had been in a love relationship and I got involved in it with a lot of naivety. And then comes the time when we share this intimate act. Fear and suffering replace pleasure. I tell him to stop as it hurts me. He leans on me, holds my arms so I can’t move. I have no strength left, I can’t move and tears from my eyes begin to flow. No strength to struggle, to scream, to push him. No strength at all. The next day, denial blinds me, it hurts when I walk but I swim in full happiness because I am with him.
I have never been happy as a couple for many reasons and this traumatic is part of them. It is very difficult for me to trust when I am in a love relationship. I become the abuser because I don’t feel safe. Being defensive and being aggressive makes me believe that I’m protecting myself outside of it can quickly trigger a toxic relationship.
I built like a bubble around me so I don’t go through it again and surround myself with things that are beyond me and make me feel even worse. This feeling of betrayal, of feeling used, is stronger than anything else. When we share an intimate act, we embrace our vulnerability, and we don’t think we’re going to get hurt.
Demystifying rape is important
Rape implied ‘the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim’.
There’s a lot of sensationalism about rape. Media coverage is focused on group rapes or rapes occurring in dark, isolated places, with survivors being raped by strangers. We tend to believe the rapist is out of balance, sexually frustrated, marginalized person and sexually assaulting a person in a vulnerable situation. However, rape within a love relationship is much less frequently discussed and is still very misunderstood. It may be thought a rape cannot occur in a romantic relationship or the issue of consent does not arise so much. Rape in a love relationship may, for many, not be considered as such, but rather as things “went wrong” due to miscommunication between both partners.
Such beliefs contribute to the decriminalization and trivialisation of rape in romantic relationships. Date rapes will be never as serious as other forms of rape. Regardless of the context in which it takes place, the consequences are the same, such as eating disorders, sleeping disorders, anxiety attacks or depression. My body is trying its best to cope with the wounds of this traumatic experience. With each intimate relationship, I feel the pain again, as if my body reminds me all the wounds have not yet been healed.
Many have gone through the same experience, finding themselves in a sexual relationship where consent was not respected and force was used. Yet one cannot help but doubt, to tell oneself that it is “not really” rape.
From denial to acceptance
After such a traumatic experience, physical and mental health problems and a long readjustment in love and sexual relationships follow. 5 phases are recognized in the exteriorization of such trauma: the acute phase, the outward adjustment phase, the underground phase, the reorganization phase and the normalization phase.
The acute phase usually occurs after the rape. Rape survivors may feel anxious, have panic attacks such as rejecting their emotions and acting as if nothing had happened. Different symptoms appear such as nausea, vomiting, suicidal thoughts or a weakened sensory system.
During the external readjustment phase, various coping mechanisms can be found:
- Minimization (pretending t”everything is fine” or removing the seriousness of the act)
- Dramatization (we can’t help but talk about aggression)
- Denial (refuses to discuss the rape)
- Explanation (analysis of what happened)
- Flight (moving to a new home or town, change of appearance)
Constant fear, hypervigilance, mood swings and other issues interfere with the rape victim’s daily life.
One can have the impression of getting better and moving forward. This seeming normal life refers to the intermediate phase, in which one tends to dissociate oneself from the rape. Post-traumatic amnesia can then occur, by repressing the memories of being raped.
Post-traumatic amnesia ends when a nightmare, a smell, a film scene or any other trigger factor causing the re-organization phase. Rape survivors thought to have overcome their traumas and find themselves in an intense emotional phase. Fears and phobias such as fear of going out, being touched or suffering from eating or sleeping disorders occur.
The normalization phase sounds like a liberation for the rape survivors. We are in the acceptance of the rape and the externalisation of such trauma is no longer as strong as in the previous phases.
What does sexual violence say about our societies
Sex has always been pervasive in all societies. It has also been subjected to many social objections and remains taboo in various situations. Sex education seems difficult to shelter from the earliest age and a lot raising awareness about sex pleasure, consent, and sexual violence still needs to be done.
Besides sex education, sex and sexual intercourse are shaped by the patriarchal social structure, prevalent in the world. Thus, male dominance encourages a focus on male pleasure, inciting a dominant-dominated sexual relationship. Therefore, these and other factors can justify violence in sexual relations by male dominance, the power imbalance between men and women and the pervasive patriarchal conceptions of sex.
When one learns at early age sex hurts the first time, when one regularly sees men being dominant in sexual relations and women bend to their pleasures, much violence is already internalized. We must deconstruct and get rid of those automatisms we have learned in our social environment, leading us to downplay, mystify rape and to internalize a lot of violence in sexual intercourses.
If you have been raped, I encourage you to ask for help from organisations and family planning. Make appointments with doctors, psychologists and/or psychiatrists. You need support. Please take care of yourself.