If your Lover gets Raped

Michael Castleman

For victims of sexual assault -- and their lovers -- the weeks and months following the crime are often as horrible as the crime itself. Both victims and lovers have great difficulty in dealing with their feelings of shame, rage, hurt, and powerlessness. Many relationships break up in the aftermath of sexual crime. Here are some things you can do to help support yourself and your lover after a sexual assault.

In James Dickey's novel, Deliverance, the narrator and a friend get waylayed at gunpoint by two mountain men during a whitewater canoe trip to a remote corner of Georgia. The mountain men tie the narrator to a tree and strip the friend naked. Then, as one attacker holds a shotgun to the naked man's head, the other rapes him. The narrator describes the scene:

A scream hit me. It was a sound of pain and outrage...I had never imagined such brutality and carelessness of touch, or such disregard for another person's body...

The campers' two other canoeing companions appear, attracted by their friend's screams. They kill the rapist with an arrow in the back. The other assailant flees.

The men consider reporting the attack but decide they'd be risking a murder charge and trial before a jury of mountainfolk sympathetic to the rapist. Bobby, the victim, adamantly opposes reporting the rape: "Do you think I want this to get around?"

In the end, they conceal the body and limp home. Their lives are permanently scarred. Bobby's is shattered. He quits his job, fails at a new business and finally drifts off to Hawaii. The narrator, terrified that the murder will be discovered, is gripped by "a special fear" every time the telephone rings for years afterward.

You Can't Thread a Moving Needle

Most people would support the friends reaction to the attack. Some people would feel justified in killing the rapist and concealing the rape. They would also probably feel haunted for a long time, trying to forget what could never be forgotten.

But suppose that in addition to all that happened to him, Bobby were confronted with the standard myths of rape, the myths still accepted as truth by many police officers, lawyers, and victims' lovers, the myths an estimated 500,000 female rape victims choke on each year:

"He had no business being in those woods to begin with."

Why not? Fear of rape should not deprive anyone of freedom of movement. Constant fear of rape, in effect, keeps millions of people imprisoned in their homes, particularly after dark.

"He provoked the attack by going shirtless."

People should feel free to dress comfortably without men thinking it's an "invitation."

"Nice boys and girls don't get raped."

The victim's personality has nothing to do with it. Nuns, grandmothers, and 10-year-olds get raped. This myth makes as much sense as saying that frugal men don't get robbed.

"You can't thread a moving needle."

The notion that the victim must "cooperate" for the rapist to be able to insert his penis makes as much sense as saying that a mugging victim must consent to the transfer of funds for the mugger to remove his wallet.

"Are you sure you were raped?"

How many men would report a true case of anal rape, let alone a false accusation? It's exactly the same for women--authorities estimate that sexual assault is the most under-reported crime with only 10 percent of victims reporting sexual assault.


"They fantasize about it; they must want it."

A man might daydream about rescuing a beautiful woman from a burning highrise without the slightest wish to be caught in a fire on the 38th floor. According to a Psychology Today survey (January, 1977), men fantasize about being sexually overpowered as often as women. Does that mean that men "want" to be raped?

"Why didn't he just lay back and enjoy it?"

How many people enjoy a violent intrusion into their home--or their body?

"Sexual Assault" Preferable to "Rape"

The problem with the term "rape" is that for most people it means only coerced sexual intercourse. It ignores the brutalization and degradation so fundamental to this crime. Convicted rapists freely admit that the "goal" of their rapes was not sex, but the power to intimidate. Intercourse may not even occur--many rapists are so consumed with rage, they can't even raise an erection.

Rape may be a crime of lust, but it's a lust for power, not sex. For this reason, when talking to people whose lovers have been raped, most rape crisis counselors prefer the term "sexual assault" to "rape." "Sexual Assault" emphasizes the violence of an attack, not just the intercourse, which may or may not occur. Further, "sexual assault" victims of either gender tend to be much less concerned with the "sex" that with the "assault."

What Lovers Can Do To Help

Both men and women can be raped. Both men and women can find themselves in a position of having to deal with the rape of a lover. Many relationships break up in the aftermath of a sexual assault--largely because people have never been advised how to respond supportively. Rape victims need two things: to be listened to and to decide for themselves how to deal with the assault. Supportive lovers need to :

Listen. Really Listen. Your lover's experience will probably sound terrifying and horrible, but it's crucial to your lover's recovery that he/she feel free to talk it out in any way that feels appropriate. •The person violated should make every decision possible in response to the attack. He or she is the one who must regain that precious sense of control over his/her life. Many men pride themselves in the ability to "take charge" in emergencies. In cases of sexual assault, don't. Ask what your lover would like to do. Ask how you can help. Present alternatives, help him/her weigh options, but let him/her decide. The only time a lover should break this rule is when the person is too seriously injured to think clearly.

•Support the person for surviving. Like Bobby, most victims' main fear is that they may be killed. In this context, anything one does or does not do to survive is the right thing to do. Most victims berate themselves mercilessly with the million "I-should-haves." But the important thing is that whatever they did, they had the resourcefulness to survive.

•Continue to listen. Then listen some more. There's a natural tendency to try to distract the person from thoughts about any personal tragedy: "It's over. Don't dwell on it." Be patient. Encouraging trauma victims to relive their tragedies is central to all forms of crisis intervention. Most people would gladly forget about the assault if they could.

I Failed Her

Some partners feel that rape means they "failed" in their imagined duty to protect their lovers. Most partners feel shame, rage, hurt, and powerlessness. Just as victims need a supportive listener, their lovers also need a good listener to help sort out their reactions. This person should not be the victim. She already has her emotional hands full. Try a friend, family member or a professional counselor. Rage and shame are hard to work out alone. Partners who are able to take care of their own needs can provide better support to their lovers.

Making Love Again

The most difficult aspect of helping a lover recover from rape is the issue of making love again. The survivor may not want to for quite a while. Like all decisions in response to rape, deciding when to make love again should be left up to the survivor, as hard as that might be for some men. Some women want o make love again right away to reassure themselves that their lovers don't consider them "soiled." Others cannot make love again for a long time, particularly in cases where the assault occurred in the woman's own bed. Many victims yearn for tenderness and affection--kissing, caressing, massage--but do not feel comfortable with genital sexuality for some time. Partners need to cultivate the sensual and hold off on the sexual until the survivor makes it clear that she is ready.

At the end of Deliverance, the narrator returns home to his wife. He's a wreck. He's seriously injured. He has witnessed the rape of a friend and fears he may be wanted for murder. He can't sleep. He dozes fitfully. Whenever an odd noise startles him awake, his wife comforts him: "I'm right here with you."

That's where a lover belongs.


©Medical Self Care Magazine, ©RCC, 1994.

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