The ‘real rape’ myth needs to die now

My rape wasn’t a ‘classic’ rape, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t real

Trigger warning: This story is a personal account of rape and may affect readers. 

My rape wasn’t a “classic” rape. It didn’t resemble any of the rapes you know from Hollywood films or Eastenders plot lines. It wasn’t a “stranger-in-a-dark-alley” rape. Nor a “rip-your-petticoat-and-get-blood-on-your-shoes” rape. He used no force. I didn’t struggle.

What happened was this: I was very drunk and had been passing out of consciousness that evening. I remember very clearly telling him I didn’t want to have sex with him, but he did it anyway, whilst I said no and slipped in and out of consciousness.

If the discussions at our university about rape and sexual assault over the last term have taught me anything, it’s this – many of my fellow students at Oxford think that men and women like me deserved to be raped. Or that our experiences don’t count as “real” rape because of a whole host of reasons that they’re all too happy to list.

What happened to me ticks almost every box on the rape apologist’s victim blaming card – I was drunk – check, I’d had consensual sex before in my life – check, I’d gone to his room alone – double check.

This term, a game spread throughout our university after it was reported that one student allegedly raped another student, and attempted to rape a second.  The game started as whispers in quads and common rooms, then leaked out on to Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter, before culminating in all its toxicity in the press. It’s a game that rape victims know all too well. It’s a game we could call, “it’s not rape if…”.

Arguments about rape erupted at Oxford University this term after a student was arrested

The Daily Mail seemed confused about whether it is “rape” if an alleged victim has consented to any contact whatsoever with his or her alleged attacker. She had been “happily snogging him” earlier that evening, they sneered of an alleged rape victim in one report before adding for good measure, “she was pawing all over him”. Inclusion of such details spreads the harmful delusion that if a woman agrees to any intimacy with a man, she agrees to all forms of intimacy with him.

In this instance, charges were dropped against the alleged attacker, but not because, as the Daily Mail’s narrative seems to imply, kissing a man is shorthand for consenting to all sexual acts with him. No police investigation or court case could ever interpret a kiss in this way, and nor should the press attempt to. I say this not to cast any doubt on the police’s decision to drop the case, because their decision could not and would not have been based on speculations over consensual “snogging”.

A number of weeks later, one of the Oxford student papers took the Daily Mail’s damaging premise and extrapolated it one dark step further as it suggested that if a woman had consented to any sexual activity before in her entire life, never mind just on the day of an alleged attack, we should take her less seriously. The paper stated that an alleged victim had a “reputation” as a “conquest collector” and had “boasted of sleeping [with other men]” in a shameful attempt to discredit her.

These people would think of themselves as progressive and informed. They would never consider themselves victim blamers, rape apologists or slut-shamers. They know what the word “rape” means, and they’d never make excuses for it, facilitate it, or shame anyone for reporting it. The thought of doing so would make them feel sick.

But what they have in mind when they think of “sexual assault” or “rape” is this – virgins are raped by strangers in dark alleyways who leave behind them forensic evidence and a woman in a state of mind to immediately report the attack to the police. This is “real rape”, not to be confused with those who make it up, or ask for it because they are sluts, opportunists and liars.

The dual parentage of victim blaming culture and the cultural cliché pervaded by Hollywood of “stereotypical” rapes have given birth to a damagingly narrow idea of what rape is and what it is not. If an attack deviates from this and becomes more complex, then suddenly we become less sure if the rape is “real”.

Yet the reality of many rapes is much more complicated.

Sometimes the victim is drunk.

Sometimes they are attacked in a street in the dead of night.

Sometimes they are attacked in student halls in the middle of the day.

Sometimes they know the attacker.

Sometimes they’re related to him.

Sometimes they’re taught by him, or with him.

Sometimes they’ve consented to sexual acts with their attacker before.

Sometimes the victim is wearing very little.

Sometimes they’re in jeans and a jumper.

Sometimes they don’t report it immediately.

Sometimes the victim is male.

Sometimes there is no force.

But every time and in every case, the attack is wrong.

Often, with big and complicated ideas, the brain shies away from properly considering them in all their intimidatingly traumatic complexity, and so we reduce them to comfortable cliches of a manageable size. It’s an easy option, but one that fuels a culture of disbelief towards victims and has left us with a toxic culture of rape apology.

The idea of rape is a horrible and distressing thing, but whilst men and women at this university have to endure the reality of it, the least we can do is consider the issue in all its complexity.

That’s why I want to speak out about my own experiences of being assaulted now. I know that reading it will have most likely made you feel uncomfortable, you’ll probably cross to the other side of the quad the next time you see me in college, or pretend you haven’t noticed me the next time we bump into each other in the library. If you’re consistent with how you’ve passed judgement on other women this term, you might even call me a slut and a liar too.

I’m sorry if my speaking out makes you feel uncomfortable. But maybe it’s time for us to start feeling uncomfortable about rape and sexual assault. Because the moment we stop feeling comfortable and start to realise that rape mightn’t fit so neatly into our preconceived ideas after all, is the moment that we might be able to start dismantling the victim blaming culture we’ve constructed at our university.

Siobhan Fenton was editor of The Tab Oxford for two terms this year.
If you have been affected by rape or sexual assault, you can contact the national Rape Crisis helpline on 08088 029 999.