Rape and Shades of Gray
I was all set to write about something fun this week, and then this happened. Bristol Palin, (that’s the eldest, abstinence advocating-but-not-practicing daughter of Sarah Palin if you happen to live in a cave or somewhere not obsessed with American politics) has written a memoir. And of course, the only thing anyone can talk about is her description of how she lost her virginity to her then-boyfriend Levi. According to Bristol’s memoir, she went camping with Levi and friends (without her parent’s permission), consumed too many wine coolers, blacked out and woke up the next morning to be informed that she had “definitely had sex with Levi.”
The response to Bristol’s description of these events in the blogosphere has been..less than ideal. While most blogs I’ve seen have at least recognized these circumstances as a clear date rape, they have also been quick to accuse Bristol of lying to preserve her own “good girl,” image. I’ve seen opinions posted on several sites, including Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish (via reader email, but Andrew certainly doesn’t argue) and Dan Savage’s blog, that seem to imply that the fact that Bristol continued to date and was even briefly engaged to Levi and did not choose to abort the child she conceived with him casts suspicion on her current claims. Only Bristol and Levi know exactly what happened in that tent that night, but the automatic and brutal assumption that Bristol must be lying because women don’t continue to date their rapists and have children with them is disturbing. I get that the Palin camp is known for lying, and anything they say is automatically suspicious to some people, but this particular incident is one that could very well not be so black and white as we wish is were, and it would be nice if more of the bloggers commenting on this issue acknowledged that.
In the few excerpts I’ve been able to dig up, Bristol never actually calls Levi a rapist. She does not describe waking up the next morning and realizing she’d been raped. Her own interpretation of the events is that, “all of my plans, my promises, and my moral standards had disappeared in one awful night in a series of bad decisions.” This may be lies, but if so it is a lie that pretty accurately evokes the all too common experience of many women who are raped yet don’t acknowledge the fact, even to themselves. Bristol did not break up with Levi after the incident, and had more (presumably consensual) sex with him, after an initial agreement to not have sex again until they were married, but this doesn’t in any way prove that she wasn’t raped. There is a strong myth in our culture, especially in the more conservative areas, that the only true rapist is the violent one, the stranger who attacks you one night while you’re walking home or breaks into your house and physically overpowers you. The truth is that the majority of rapes are by acquaintances or intimate partners, and while they often involve forms of coercion or substance abuse, they are not generally violent. There is evidence that this myth affects women’s interpretation of their own experiences and obscures the fact that the real world is often much more complex. In a study of 152 college aged women, 23% reported incidents that most outside observers would classify as rape, yet only half of those women answered “yes,” to the question, “Have you ever been raped?” The ones who did not acknowledge their experiences are rape were more likely to describe rape as being committed by a stranger, or as violent and involving struggle. It’s hardly inconceivable that Bristol could have processed her experience of losing her virginity through this particular lens.
There is also a myth that women always know exactly what happened, that they are immediately traumatized and repulsed by their rapists. In truth, women who have been raped by an intimate partner are often shocked and confused. They may feel uncomfortable about the situation, but they frequently turn the blame inward, as in the quote above from Bristol’s memoir. They assume that they are the ones who have done something wrong, that the sex was somehow consensual even though they never consented. It can take years for them to put the label “rape,” on what happened to them, and some never do (and just for the record, I believe everyone has the right to define their own experiences, even if I would disagree with their interpretation). While Sarah Palin has been quoted as referring to the incident between Bristol and Levi as date rape, I have yet to see any instance where Bristol has done so. I’ve never been particularly fond of the term “gray rape,” but the truth is that for many women the situation is not always easily defined. They may not have a clear memory of events, they may be in love with their rapist and unwilling to believe him capable of such a thing, they may have believed that once things got started they had no choice but to continue (as in this rather heartbreaking example). The situation Bristol describes sounds like rape to many outside observers, but that doesn’t mean that she sees it that way or that in her mind she is accusing Levi of raping her, as so many bloggers are claiming.
Every woman reacts differently to rape. There is no right way to respond to such a personal violation, and casting doubt on women’s claims of rape because they didn’t immediately accuse their rapist and run to the police, or even end their relationship with their rapist does a huge disservice to the many women whose experiences don’t fit the social “script,” of rape. I appreciate that so many people are willing to call a spade a spade and see the incident as described by Bristol as rape, but the assumption that the claim is false because of how her relationship with Levi progressed after that night is appalling. It’s entirely possible that Bristol is lying, but it’s also possible that she is among the many young women who are unacknowledged rape victims, and the message I wish we were sending those victims is not, “What happened to you was wrong, but if you continued to have a relationship with your victim we won’t believe you/you deserved it,” but, “What happened to you was wrong, period, and you have the right to deal with it in your own way.” Doubt her story if you wish, but not for that reason.
Dr. Pisaster has a doctorate in biophysics, not actually anything sexy. She does however enjoy having sex, reading about sex, and talking about sex. Especially when she’s had a little whiskey.
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