Pop Culture
Jun 18, 2008, 06:11AM

Five Foot Three

How can you describe rape without using the word? A Nebraska court is forcing a young woman to find out.

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Photo by david drexler

Joanna Connors, a reporter for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, was raped on July 9, 1984. At the time, she was working as a theater critic for the newspaper, and had arrived late to an interview on the Case Western Reserve campus. The production had shut down for the day and the theater was empty. She found herself alone with a man who claimed the theater group would return shortly, offered to show her the lighting system and then, in the quiet emptiness of the Eldred Theater, pressed half of a pair of utility scissors against her throat like a knife, threatened to kill her if she didn’t do as he said, and raped her.

She wrote her story about a month ago in The Plain Dealer; a five-part series detailing the disturbing specifics of her attack, as well as her quest to discover what led a man with the name DAVE tattooed on his arm to intersect her life in such a horrific and traumatizing way. It is a story about learning how to tell her story, about coming to terms with shame and fear, letting go of self-blame and facing the “raw, uncomfortable and sometimes painful truth,” of a day that changed her life forever.

Connors writes: “I’ve struggled with this story for more than 20 years. It scares me so much that I stopped telling it when I no longer had to. I told it to the police, the emergency room nurses and doctor, the detectives, the assistant prosecutor, the judge and the jury. I told it to my husband and my sisters and my mother. And then, of course, I told it to psychiatrists and psychologists, so many over the years I lost count. I told it over and over again, making it shorter, blunter, until it began to feel like I had made it up. And then I stopped.”

I have never been raped. This is one of many things for which I am eternally grateful. I have taken a number of courses that discussed the psychology of victimhood though, read many books about rape survivors and even talked to friends who have been raped. And I am struck time and again, as I was when reading Connors’ story, how significant a role language plays in understanding and conceptualizing this kind of trauma. Rape is not a pretty word. It is harsh and cruel and, as a woman, fills you with an instinctive fear when uttered. Rape is something that happens to you, something someone else us does to your body. But it is also, somehow, something that women are responsible for. We are constantly reminded of how we can prevent rape—carry mace, never walk alone, don’t stop to help strangers, never appear lost, and always check the back seat before entering your car alone. These are good tips, life saving even; but the truth is, no matter how cautious you are, you can still get raped, and then, like Connors, you’re left to feel like it’s your fault.

“I blamed myself,” Connors writes. “I chastised myself for being late, for being stupid: Anyone else would have seen the guy in the lobby and left right away.” She recounts her moment of suspicion, as the man, pointing to lights, made some obtuse comment, something nonsensical and unrelated to theater. She had tried to leave, told him she would just wait outside, but by that point it was too late. She had made a mistake, ignored the detailed rules of rape prevention, and he capitalized on it.

This dual identity—as both victim and responsible party—is partly what makes rape such a complicated issue, such a difficult story to tell. The combination of shame, fear and self-disgust is a paralyzing one and many women choose to live in silence, to keep their stories hidden and untold. But as Connors explains, burying the story doesn’t mean it dies. “It was still alive,” she writes of her own buried rape, “and it grew in that deep place I put it, like a vine from some mutant seed, all twisted and ugly. And as it grew, it strangled a lot of other stuff in me that should have been growing. It killed my trust, my confidence. It almost killed my sense of who I was.”

In reading Connors’ story, it is easy to see that moving past rape and on with one’s life is an immensely complicated process, one that requires learning how to talk about it and taking ownership of the words that describe the experience, the words that tell the story. The language of the experience, the description of the crime, can be instrumental to recovery. Hiding from the word solves nothing, but speaking it aloud requires the type of courage that I am thankful to have never needed.

So imagine what it must be like for Tory Bowen, a woman who, in 2004 at the age of 21, met a man at a Nebraska bar, shared a few drinks and awoke the next morning with no recollection of the night’s events (she alleges that she was incapacitated by a date rape drug) to find herself naked with the man on top of her, raping her. She cannot, however, describe what happened to her as rape, at least not according to the judge that is presiding over her case. Nor can she or the prosecutors use the term sexual assault, or refer to herself as a victim, or the man who raped her as an assailant. Even the words sexual assault kit—which consists of items used by medical personnel to obtain and preserve physical evidence of a sexual assault—have been forbidden. She is left then to describe her experience in the same manner as the defendant: as sexual intercourse, nonconsensual by her assertion, though to me this feels like a moot point, as one must first be awake before they can be expected to consent.

The judge’s ruling is not without some merit. Rape is a charged word. I can understand why he might believe a jury would be swayed by the use of this word, why such a word would convey a harsher, more serious crime than the word intercourse ever could. But rape is a charged word for a reason: because it is an act of aggression and domination toward another human being. Intercourse and rape are not synonymous. A victim should be entitled to describe her assault as she sees fit; the defense can challenge her description during cross-examination. Or even more importantly, if certain words are going to be barred from a rape trial, then the jury should be notified of the barring. But in this case, they were not. Bowen is thus forced to describe her experience in front of a courtroom of strangers in words that are not her own, but that will be taken as such. She must come to terms with her identity as a victim of rape, her own failure to prevent the rape from occurring and now her inability to tell her story in her own words.

This case differs greatly from that of Joanna Connors. It is less terrifyingly violent and aggressive, less frightening for an outside observer. But it is no less a violation of a woman in a situation where she was vulnerable and powerless. It carries with it the same difficulties of coming to terms with a harrowing experience and the need to move beyond blaming oneself and finding the ability to tell the story.

What particularly worries me about Tory Bowen’s case is that, like with all court rulings, this judge’s decision sets a precedent that can be used in future rape trials. Perhaps with this case you can argue that the line between rape and consensual sex is a bit blurry—Bowen recalls so little of the night and there are no witnesses to testify that she was indeed given a drug to incapacitate her. But what about other cases to come? What of those that fall somewhere on the spectrum between Tory Bowen and a young Columbia University student who, in 2007, was raped and tortured for 19 straight hours before being left for dead when her assailant tied her to a futon and set her apartment on fire? How will women be allowed to describe those cases that lie somewhere between incidents that we are unwilling to recognize as rape and those that stand as the most egregious and horrific examples of this crime?

  • Men shock me with their behavior towards women sometimes, but I do think that in a he said-she said situation both parties deserve some benefit of the doubt. This is not an easy crime to prove. I don't know the specifics of the case, but I know there can be physical evidence that they had sex. However a couple ending up having sex is not unusual when two people are drinking at a bar. I don't have any idea how you prove that the sex wasn't consensual, or that she was asleep, when it's just her word against his. If anyone knows any better I'd really appreciate a lesson in this. Because an accusation alone should never be enough to convict someone of a crime, even one as heinous as rape.

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  • This is such a tough issue. I think that it is crazy that the judge has outlawed terms that, while inflammatory, are factual terms used to describe 1. the relevant charge and 2. the materials used to gain evidence in the case (sexual assault kit). Sure, there is always the chance that somebody will cry "rape" without having any backing for it-- a la the Duke lacrosse case--but my sense is that women are very hesitant to even contact the police over a potential rape case, due to the trauma they've already endured, the perceived future trauma and the stigma associated with being a victim of that crime. I think that it shows a lot of courage to come forward in cases like these, and that these women are then run through the gauntlet and not given the benefit of the doubt themselves. If we give the benefit of the doubt to the defendant (e.g. he didn't give her a date rape drug, sex was consensual until proven otherwise) why wouldn't we give the benefit of the doubt to the victim as well (she was drugged, has sex against her will)? And yes, I am aware of the innocent until proven guilty standard of the courts. Still, there is nothing to gain by claiming rape and a whole lot to lose and sadly, it is almost always a he said/she said situation that is difficult to resolve.

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  • I think it's really important to remember that rape isn't about sex, but about power, and also that it's often not just inflicted on women by men. Often, and in an unexpectedly high number of cases, men are the victims of rape. So while I, like Doing Deities, am also often shocked by what men are capable of doing to women, it's important to remember that women are not the only victims. Which is why, while rape certainly is a feminist issue, it's a human issue too - a violation of one's right to self-determination, of the right to decide what happens to your body and with whom, is a human rights issue, not just a women's rights issue. So while that picture at the top of the article is correct, and men can stop rape, they can't stop it alone. I'm not talking about what victims or potential victims can do to protect themselves from what might happen, I'm talking about acknowledging that rape is something we all need to worry about, without splitting ourselves into the categories of victims and perpetrators. Because we can all be victims, and we can all be perpetrators.

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  • Taylor observes insightfully “how significant a role language plays in understanding and conceptualizing this kind of trauma.” I would add that language not only informs the ways in which these crimes and violations are discussed and experienced, but it also plays a role in the very enactment of the offense. I have heard Connor on radio describe the rape, and she is incisive about how the rapist played a cruel, manipulative language ‘game’ with her. Taylor describes more circumspectly the “moment of suspicion, as the man, pointing to lights, made some obtuse comment, something nonsensical and unrelated to theater.” Connor spoke more bluntly of a realization she received from the man’s words that what was underway was terribly wrong, that she had been lured into a life threatening, life altering scene of personal danger from which there might be no escape. Taylor picks up Connor’s story, arriving now at the razor-edge of crisis: “She had tried to leave, told him she would just wait outside, but by that point it was too late. She had made a mistake, ignored the detailed rules of rape prevention, and he capitalized on it. “ The lessons here are multiple and existential; they go to the fearful – and often hopeful -- heart of what we are, as human beings, destined to be with each other, fated to give and take actions that help and hurt. The threads that Connor and her rapist wove together and suspended themselves in during this brief encounter – a poisonous spider; its too-trustful prey -- were webs of language that became the setting for violence. Taylor is a skilled user of language; I am glad to see how well she appreciates its power. It is the way we build relationships; it is the way we destroy their basis in trust and intelligibility.

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  • Far be it from me to dispute Professor Boyce's essay on language and its power. So, to strike a more prosaic note, I'm not sure what Darling is getting at with her comment about men being rape victims. Yes, I know that problem exists, but isn't it mostly in prisons? I'm not an expert, nor a feminist, but I've always wondered about how female rapists get their subjects to, uh, rise to the occasion. Maybe I'm naive about this—thank God—but maybe Darling could explain this.

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  • The Facts of Male Sexual Violence (from Women Organized Against Rape, http://www.woar.org/index.asp) Sexual violence can and does happen to males. Men and boys are sexually assaulted and molested every day in the United States. However, false assumptions, popular stereotypes, and the belief that men are immune from sexual assault help us ignore the fact of male rape. This ignorance adds to the shame and isolation of male victims. Statistics on Adult Male Sexual Violence • It is believed that 1 in 6 adult men will be sexually assaulted in his lifetime. • 9% of all rape victims are men. Who sexually assaults Men? Adult men can be assaulted by friends, significant others, strangers, and gangs. 60% of men raped by other men knew their attackers. Sexual assaults of men are frequently violent and involve weapons. Often, men reporting muggings or robberies have also been sexually assaulted. Emergency room doctors and police, however, do not typically look for behavioral signs of sexual assault in men.

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