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Accepting Normal

I ran a panel at a feminist science fiction convention a few weeks ago. The entire panel deserves a writeup - it went wonderfully, we covered so much, and we got to go beyond 101, which is a thing I don’t get to do nearly enough. It brought up a bunch of topics that I’ll be parceling out here over the next few weeks. What I wanted to talk about first, though, since it stuck in my head, was an audience member’s description of one book in particular. I don’t remember the title - we had over 50 titles flying around the room, I think! But the audience member described the rape-specific part of the plot as being that the female protagonist was raped by a male acquaintance (or friend, I don’t know how well she knew him). When describing it to her friends, who automatically responded with “that’s rape and we’re going to kick his ass”, she said that she didn’t know if it was really rape. So essentially: It is clearly rape in the text and her friends, upon hearing what happened, are instantly convinced that it was rape, but the survivor herself is saying she’s not sure.

Several audience members felt that that was full of fail, was the author trying to get around it being actual rape. But. You guys. That response? Is actually pretty normal. And by painting it as wrong, we silence survivors who are struggling to deal with their assaults but aren’t ready to say That Word yet.

Let’s face it: rape is a big word. It’s a life-changing word. It’s a word that can rearrange your entire sense of self. And it is normal for a survivor - particularly one who knew the perpetrator - to go through a period of “that couldn’t really have been rape.” Because if it was rape, you have been raped. You are a rape victim or rape survivor. (I prefer survivor, but people have the right to self-identify.)

And your friend is a rapist.

And nothing will ever be quite the same. Not for you, not for the rapist, not for your community. Standing up and saying “I was raped”, especially for the first time, can be abjectly terrifying.

So it’s normal. It’s normal to try to tell yourself that that can’t be what that was. It’s normal to shove it aside and try to go back to your previous normal. Is it the healthiest thing ever? Probably not. But there’s no one true way to deal with the emotional fallout of a sexual assault. If you’re dealing in a way that doesn’t involve immediate reporting to the police and going to court, you’re not doing it wrong. When people are in shock, denial is a natural response.

So I have problems with this exactly as I have problems with the cultural narrative that if you’re just tough enough, rape won’t really affect you. And the ones that say that consensual sex with your one true love will magically heal you. Et cetera. The truth is always more complicated than that, and therefore more complicated to write - which is why many writers don’t bother. But we should. Because, dear writer, you don’t know how many people reading your book are rape survivors. And I don’t think you want to tell them they’re doing it wrong.

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Posted by Shira

Shira formerly served as a volunteer with BARCC's Survivor Speakers Bureau and Prevention Services. She also formerly worked as BARCC's volunteer and program assistant. Shira also writes science fiction and fantasy short stories and poetry, and much of her outreach was done within the community of science-fiction fandom and the closely-allied local polyamory community.


  1. RLS,

    You are not trash, you are so much more. What happened to you doesn't invalidate your worth to anyone. Jesus, God himself, came to this earth and died for you.

    Christ loves you,


  2. Many years ago,when I 13, a family friend assaulted me.He did it with his hands and from behind.I was very confused, b/c I didn't associate that part of the body with sex.I told my parents and tried to explain to them.I kept on telling them that it was like he was "inside" of me.I had no idea what that implied at the time.It was never reported and I was told to not think about it. I'm now married with 3 young children. I'm not really sure why, but last week I told my husband that I had been touched inappropriately.Ultimately, I ended up telling myself and him what really happened. I had always remembered the incident, but this was the first time I thought about it long enough as an adult to understand what had happened. My husband is an attorney and he has found that this person pled guilty to a sex crime against a minor 7 years after the incident with me.As a mother, I have no choice but to report what happened with hopes of at least having him registered as a sex offender. I told my best friend about this years ago and always thought and said that it was "no big deal."However, my husband in an attempt to help me heal, insists that I was raped.I told him as long as he loved me, I was okay. He assured me of his love and looked at me and said, "you were raped." He wants me to get professional help, but I feel like a hypochondriac.I've always thought of rape as a crime where a penis is put in your body.I just can't face this. I don't want to have been raped, even though I know that might be the case. I want to be the same stay at home mom/kindergarten room mother. that I was last week.I don't want to wear jeans in the heat b/c I'm afraid of looking like a slut. I don't want my boys to learn one day that their mother was violated like an animal. I just want it to go away. It can't be real. It feels like it just happened and I can still feel exactly what it felt like. Please, please make it go away. I don't know how I couldn't have moved. I didn't even flinch when he did that to me. How can someone touch you there and you don't move? Why didn't I get up and scream? I hate myself for that. I don't want to feel like used garbage.

  3. I was in denial for years about the 3 rapes I have experienced. Just writing that makes me think the fact it happened 3 times makes it my "fault," but I've been learning better, thanks in part to this blog. Because I felt I "got myself into the situation" and because I was drugged/inebriated when 2 of them happened, and because one of them was done by my partner at the time, I refused to acknowledge them as rape, choosing instead to believe my rapists' versions of what occurred. Randomly last year I met another survivor and volunteer. Hearing her talk about her experience triggered memories for me, and I began to come to terms with the fact that I had been raped multiple times. While this was incredibly hard to deal with--and with very limited support from friends/family, it has ultimately been empowering to acknowledge what really happened. I am still working on not-blaming myself in my heart of hearts. Reading this helps me understand and accept my initial response to the rapes. It really is a life-changing word and its hard to accept the fact that you have been raped. However, in some ways, I now feel more equipped to avoid it in the future. I also find myself more in touch with my own boundaries, and more understanding of the feelings I have surrounding my body. While I am still coming to terms with it, I am grateful for being able to finally face the fact that I have been raped. I didn't realize how much energy it took to continually hide and disguise these traumatic experiences from myself. I believe that slowly, the truth is setting me free.

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