02 May, 2009

Paper in progress

The Traumatic Aftermath of Acquaintance Rape
*Trigger Warning*

This paper seeks to uncover the traumatic effects of acquaintance rape on the self and debunk the notion that stranger rape is the most damaging. It will examine acquaintance rape from an existentialist and feminist perspective, drawing on the philosophies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir for the conception of self. It will include testimony from acquaintance rape survivors. While it does not at all seek to minimize the trauma experienced by stranger rape survivors, the paper strives to expand the common notion of what constitutes trauma. Many consider acquaintance rape the “preferable” type of rape because they view it as somehow less terrifying and dangerous. This could not be further from the truth. Although there may or may not be imminent threat of death or bodily harm, I argue that the after-effects can be as severe, if not more severe, than stranger rape because the former constitutes a gross violation of trust.

Sartre and De Beauvoir discuss the Self in terms of its relation to others. There is an important distinction between being-for-itself (the subject) and being-in-itself (the object)[1]. Feminist thinkers have come to view these writings as applicable to rape trauma because it objectifies the survivor through the act, and she in turn objectifies herself in an attempt to distance herself from the trauma. While the focus of many of the articles in my research revolved around rape trauma from stranger rape, this paper explores the idea that acquaintance rape is more objectifying than stranger rape, because the perpetrator is normally someone who has the trust of the woman. I want to stress—this paper does not in any way try to undermine the pain and terror associated with stranger rape. It merely attempts to bring the trauma of acquaintance rape into the spotlight belonging solely to stranger rape for so long. Survivors of rape often engage in self-objectifying behavior ranging from de-sexualization, (cutting hair and wearing baggy clothes), to over-sexualization, (engaging in unsafe sexual behavior). This behavior, on either side of the spectrum can be potentially problematic for the survivor’s sense of self.

Through the writings of Susan Brison, we will hear a feminist critique of the rape experience. We will also consult various feminist thinkers who can provide insight into the philosophical and psychological aftermath of acquaintance rape. Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex is incredibly useful to see the feminist implications for being-in-itself and being-for-itself. Finally, this paper will draw on the personal experiences of three women who are survivors of acquaintance rape to get first-hand accounts of the effects in their lives.

Susan Brison, a rape survivor and philosophy professor, describes the importance of this issue, saying, “Sexual violence and its aftermath raise numerous philosophical issues in a variety of areas in our discipline. The disintegration of the self experience by victims of violence challenges our notions of personal identity over time…”[2] Since the notion of the self is so vital to Continental thought, it seems helpful to examine the existentialist concepts of self, which are held by Simone De Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre. For the latter, human beings are characterized by facticity (what is true about an individual at any given time) and transcendence, (an individual’s knowledge of his/herself and awareness of it). Being-in-itself or ĂȘtre en soi is simply an object like a stapler or rock. Sartre points out that interaction with others are necessarily ones of conflict, because they represent a threat to one’s personal freedom by his or her existence, in that the person’s perception of one “objectifies” oneself as a mere object in the world. One can only combat this threat by treating the other person as an object without freedom, or trying to possess the person’s freedom. Rape is a crime of power and it is an example of a being-for-itself trying to possess the freedom of another being-for-itself and turn her into a being-in-itself. De Beauvoir explains the relationship between men and women saying,

…what peculiarly signalizes the situation of woman is that she—a free and autonomous being like all human creatures—nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other. They propose to stabilize her as object and to doom her to immanence since her transcendence is to be overshadowed and forever transcended by another ego (conscience) which is essential and severing.[3]

Women are compelled daily to assume a secondary status…it is evidenced in pop culture as well as interpersonal relationships. It is rare to see billboards of naked men in submissive positions, or hear a man be subject to catcalls while walking down the street. Likewise, it is less common to have a woman attempt to take advantage of her close relationship with a man physically to exact what she wants from him. Sadly, the reverse situation is significantly more common.

In rape trauma, the person’s fundamental project is drastically disrupted in at least two respects. First, one’s sexual project—i.e., one’s chosen sexual being-in-the-world—is radically altered, and in this way, all of the other embedded projects, such as one’s relation to others…are similarly affected. Second, one’s sense of safety and trust is seriously undermined, as is made evident by such commonly reported post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.[4]

Brison’s point about a person’s fundamental project is a decidedly Sartrean claim. In Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre describes the first effect of existentialism saying, “…it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders.”[5] After a rape, the woman is no longer in possession of herself, and thus no longer responsible for her existence for the duration of the trauma. Without that sense of control, she cannot hope to have an authentic existence until she regains it. Furthermore, in Being and Nothingness, Sartre discusses the effects of the “look” of the Other. Michelle Darnell describes it saying, “I am aware of my full existence in the world, including my freedom, and the vulnerability of my being, when I am looked at…That which looks at me, which brings my whole existence into the world, and thus objectifies my existence, cannot be an object, but another subject.”[6] If the gaze of the Other can be considered objectifying, then rape is exponentially more objectifying. This notion is supported by Susan Brison in her essay, Outliving Oneself, where she writes,

The study of trauma also replaces the traditional philosophical puzzle about whether the soul can survive the death of the body with the question of whether the self can reconstitute itself after obliteration at the hands of another—that is, after what Cathy Winkler (1991) has labeled “social murder”…Indeed the victims inability to be—and assert—her self in the context of a rape constitutes at least a temporary social death, one from which a self can be resurrected only with great difficulty and with the help of others.[7]

The Rape Abuse Incest National Network defines acquaintance rape as, “Acquaintance assault involves coercive sexual activities that occur against a person's will by means of force, violence, duress, or fear of bodily injury. These sexual activities are imposed upon them by someone they know (a friend, date, acquaintance, etc.)”[8]

Based on that definition, the following three passages are firsthand accounts of acquaintance rape. Survivor stories can illustrate the reality of the trauma and its real-world effects. The following are three stories from college women, one of them being my own. Names have been changed for anonymity.

Lily was a third year student, had a friend over to her dorm room late at night to study, and he raped her. She was not dressed provocatively—she was wearing pajamas. They had not been drinking, merely spending time in her room studying. Her roommate was not home at the time. When she went to the police to report it, the (female) detective who interviewed her said, “Well, you know, you shouldn’t have boys over at two o’clock in the morning.” She implied that Lily was at least partially to blame because she invited this man over to her room to study. Although she had no idea what he was going to do, or any reason to suspect that he would rape her, the detective still made her feel at least somewhat responsible for the crime. In the weeks and months that followed, Lily withdrew from her normal activities. Although an active member of her sorority, she refused to go to mixers or even the Spring Formal, which was the most anticipated event of the year. Her grades suffered, and her GPA of 3.5 slipped to a 3.0 as a result of that semester.

During her second year, Jane was at a fraternity house with some friends. It was not a wild party, just approximately ten friends spending time together on a weekend. She was of age, and drank one beer. After her beer, she began to feel lightheaded and disoriented. She laid down on the couch and fell asleep. When she woke up, she was unclothed and in a bed with one of the males at the party. She had no idea what happened, or how she got there. She realized later that someone at the party had drugged her, because she was sure that one beer would not have caused her to pass out. When the police interviewed her weeks later, they chastised her for drinking. She argued that she only had one beer, but her interviewers were unsympathetic. Jane did not have a rape kit done or blood tests to prove that date rape drugs were involved because after the event she went home, took a hot shower, and laid in bed for two days. She was still dealing with the shock of the rape. The District Attorney refused to prosecute because Jane did not have enough evidence. Like Lily, she began to withdraw from her normal activities. She stopped drinking completely and avoided being alone with men at all costs. She went home every weekend just to be around her family so she could feel safe. When she started dating a guy several months later, she insisted they take things very slow. Even when she felt comfortable enough to kiss him, she had a flashback of the incident and broke things off with him shortly after. She has just recently sought counseling.

Finally, Nicole was over at her ex-boyfriend’s house spending the afternoon listening to music. They were down in his basement and he began wrestling with her. Then he started wrestling clothes off, once he got her to the ground. Suddenly, and unexpectedly, there was something inside of her. She said it was painful, but was shocked and didn’t know what was going on. He rolled off her to get a condom. She sat up and informed him that she did not want to lose her virginity. He simply replied, "Penetration is virginity, so it's gone." He continued, “You might as well just let me finish, it's not like you're a virgin anymore.” She laid down, more in shock than anything, and he finished. She was thirteen years old, and in eighth grade. Her perpetrator divulged his “conquest” to many of his friends at the high school, so when she started high school in the fall, she already had a reputation for being a “slut.” Unlike the other two women who withdrew from all things sexual, she became hyper-sexualized and saw herself as nothing more than an object. Her only definition was as a vehicle for pleasure, because she lacked the self-confidence to see herself as anything but. She is still undergoing extensive counseling to break out of the “sexual object” mindset.

These three cases illustrate various situations in which a woman may find herself at any given time. They are not random occurrences. Spending an evening with friends, having someone over to study late at night before finals, or going over to an ex-boyfriend’s house are not extraordinary circumstances. Many women find difficulty in immediately identifying their experience as rape. When the perpetrator is an acquaintance and the woman is spending time with him voluntarily, the lines are not nearly as clear compared to a stranger in a dark alley. Each of these women suffered from rape trauma in varying degrees. Sandra Caron describes the symptoms of the women whom she interviewed saying, “the most common responses were: a heightened distrust of other people and especially men, feeling guilty about what happened, and feeling angry…a feeling of isolation, strained relationships with others, low-self esteem, and sadness were other common responses.”[9]

Trauma is a common result of all rapes and sexual assaults. What differentiates acquaintance rape from stranger rape, besides the gross violation of trust, is the ongoing trauma. Many rape survivors are prone to flashbacks of the rape. Traumatic flashbacks coupled with the reality of seeing the rapist on a regular basis make the recovery process significantly more difficult.

Finally, we will consider two vital statistics regarding acquaintance rape. “Seventy percent (70%) of completed rapes in 2006 were committed by non-strangers”[10] Seventy percent—that is a staggering number. This statistic is even more poignant: “31% of rape victims develop some form of rape-related Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).”[11] What these statistics tell us is that not only is acquaintance rape common, it results in almost a third of the survivors developing some form of PTSD. Common symptoms of PTSD could take up several pages, but generally there are physical symptoms (rapid heartbeat, uncontrollable shaking, nausea); emotional symptoms, (depression, anger, self-blame); and sexual symptoms, (de-sexualization or hyper-sexualization).[12] These symptoms are detrimental to a woman’s sense of self. The most problematic aspect of rape trauma in acquaintance rape is that the trauma does not end with the act itself. “Women may be hesitant to characterize their experience as a crime for a number of reasons including: embarrassment, not clearly understanding the legal definition of rape, not wanting to define someone they know as a rapist, self-blame, or because others blame them.”[13]

I do not argue that stranger rape is not traumatic. As we just learned, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder is common among all rape survivors. However, I find the continued minimization of acquaintance rape troubling on several levels. First, acquaintance rape survivors are less likely to report their rapes because they fear judgment and skepticism. Second, these survivors are also less likely to seek support from family members and friends because the perpetrator could be a member of that circle. Finally, it contributes to an overwhelming societal tendency to blame the victim and rationalize the rape, which traumatizes the victim months and years after the incident occurred.

It is evident based on the research presented here and the testimonies of the three survivors that acquaintance rape is as severe, if not more severe, in its impact on the self of the woman who was raped. Robin Warshaw, author of I Never Called It Rape sums up the concept succinctly saying, “Acquaintance rape is a crime, and no less a crime because the perpetrator has a familiar face.”[14]

[1] The “being for itself” and “being in itself” are phrases coined by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone De Beauvoir.

[2] Brison, S. (2001). Aftermath: Violence and the Remaking of a Self. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[3] Beauvoir, S. (1993). The Second Sex (Everyman’s Library (Cloth)). New York: Everyman’s Library

[4] Mui, C. (2005). A Feminist-Sartrean Approach to Understanding Rape Trauma. Sartre Studies International , 11(1 &2), 153-165

[5] Sartre, J. (2007). Existentialism is a Humanism. New Haven: Yale University Press.

[6] Darnell, M. (2004). “Being-looked-at: Ontological Grounding for an Ethics in Being and Nothingness”, page 21. Sartre Studies International, Volume 10, Issue 1, 2004. Retrieved 12/3/2008 from http://search.ebscohost.com /login.aspx? direct=true&db=aph&AN=15629718&site=ehost-live&scope=site.

[7] Brison, S. in Feminists Rethink the Self (Feminist Theory and Politics Series). Oxford: Westview Press, pg. 18.

[8] Acquaintance Rape | RAINN | Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. (n.d.). Retrieved December 14, 2008, from http://www.rainn.org/get-information/types-of-sexual-assault/acquaintance-rape.

[9] Caron, S. (2007). Assessing the Impact of Acquaintance Rape: Interviews with Women Who Are Victims/Survivors of Sexual Assault While in College. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, Vol. 22 (2): pg. 43.

[10] "Bureau of Justice Statistics Criminal Victimization, 2006." Office of Justice Programs. 20 Feb. 2009 .

[11] National Center for Victims of Crime & Crime Victims Research and Treatment Center. (1992). The National Center for Victims of Crime - Home. http://www.ncvc.org/ncvc/main.aspx?dbName=DocumentViewer&DocumentID=32306 (accessed February 20, 2009).

[12] Mui, C. (2005). A Feminist-Sartrean Approach to Understanding Rape Trauma. Sartre Studies International, 11(1 & 2), pg. 157.

[13] Caron, S. (2007). Assessing the Impact of Acquaintance Rape: Interviews with Women Who Are Victims/Survivors of Sexual Assault While in College. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy, Vol. 22, pg. 33.

[14] Warshaw, R. I Never Called It Rape : The Ms. Report on Recognizing, Fighting, and Surviving Date Rape. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988, pg. 4.

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