Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Using The R-word - Not as easy as it seems

Written by: Fenna Vlekke

I think it took me around 5 years to really say it out loud. I used to describe what happened to me, and hoped people would figure out themselves that it was rape. Otherwise it felt like lying. But it hurt me. I didn’t really take myself seriously. And I wanted that so desperately. So I searched on the Internet and looked up definition after definition. Some things I read seemed to resemble what I’d been through. But often I saw reasons to believe that ‘my situation’ was different. I know I was raped. I can write it, I can say it. But it does still feel alien most of the time. And I catch myself almost saying ‘when he had sex with me’, instead of ‘when he raped me’. I’ve asked other rape survivors how they’ve dealt with this issue. I’ll discuss why they found it difficult to use the word, how they described what happened to them and why they think it’s important to be able to say ‘I was raped’ out loud.

Why is it so difficult?

‘It was my fault that it happened to me.’

Almost every survivor has blamed themselves for being raped at one point in time. That is, at the same time, a reason to not want to use the word ‘rape’. Rape implies a powerlessness survivors are often not ready to acknowledge. It’s partly a defense mechanism. There’s nothing as overwhelming as knowing you were powerless. Some survivors aren’t emotionally ready to deal with that, so they blame themselves. Although this protects them from being too overwhelmed, it also prevents them from acknowledging or saying they were raped. And it gives them low self-esteem. 

‘The societal image of what ‘rape’ is is so limited and so different from what happened to me.’

When people think about rape, they often think of someone getting attacked late at night in a park. The rapist uses a gun or a knife or at least excessive force to subdue the victim. Of course these types of rapes happen, but most rapes are a lot different.  A lot of them happen in date or acquaintance rape situations. And for the survivor, naming their experience becomes even more complicated when they used the ‘freeze respons’ and stopped fighting. Or when they did start crying, but never said the word ‘no’. There are so many ways someone can communicate a ‘no’ and there are so many ways someone can ignore that. But society only focuses on this little percentage of rapes that are so excessive that no one can get around it. Leaving all the other survivors unsure whether they are allowed to classify their experiences as ‘rape’.

‘I can barely utter this word. When someone else says it, I feel the knife stabbing me in the chest, in the stomach. It’s such a physical response. When I have said it, my throat feels like it will close up and my heart pounds.’

Being raped is a horrible experience. The word itself brings up so many difficult feelings, that survivors often try to avoid using it. It’s an aggressive word that can send a vulnurable person right into a break down. ‘To say “I've been raped” is one of the most frightening sentences anyone has to admit.’ one survivor said. The word ‘rape’ is often a massive trigger for a lot of survivors, sending them back to the rape itself. Also, some survivors minimise, thinking that what they’ve experienced isn’t violent enough to be called rape. They feel better using different words or phrases that sound ‘less awful’. They think that if they tell someone they were raped, that person will think it was much worse than it was. To be able to admit you were raped, you have to be able to admit something horrible has happened to you. 

Beating around the bush

When survivors can't use the word 'rape', they use other words to describe their experiences. I've asked rape survivors which words or sentences they use or used to descibe what they’ve been through. These are the examples they gave me:

'Sexual assault.'
'I was in a relationship that was emotionally & sexually abusive.'
'The assault.'
'The incident.'
'Some men made me have sex with them after getting me drunk and taking me somewhere I couldn’t get home from myself.'
'What happened with X.'
'What happened when I was younger.'
'What happened.'
'When he had sex with me after I told him no.'
'That thing that happened with/when…'

Why is it important?

Every survivor that participated stated that it's important to them to be able to say they were raped. They think it will help putting the blame where it belongs - on the rapists. One survivor said that not being able to say you were raped, means the rape and the rapist still hold power over you.  
Using less intense words to describe what you've been through, means minimising what happened. That means minimising your own pain and also minimising the involvement of the rapist. Being able to say you were raped, means being able to truly realise and accept that what happened to you was horrible. And that is an important healing step.

By starting this blog and publishing a poetry collection surrounding this subject it has become easier and easier for me to say I was raped. I'm proud of that, but it did bring up a lot of new emotions. Shielding yourself from the realisation that you were raped is a defense mechanism. Although it's healing to be able to say you were raped, it can also be damaging if you're forced to acknowledge you were. But if you are ready, and if you do say it out loud, it can feel really liberating. For me, it felt like I could finally breathe again.

Written by: Fenna Vlekke


  1. Wow. This is so me.

  2. I'm sorry you recognise the struggle of naming what happened to you, but I'm glad you've found this post. Now you know you're not alone.

    Take care.