I have heard so many traumatizing stories from survivors that being raped is my greatest fear in the entire world. As the Steubenville trial has illuminated our country’s “rape culture,” I want to talk about what this means for real women in my hometown, in conflict zones like Rwanda, and at Georgetown. My first experience with the rape culture was when I was 16-years-old. At this point, I really wanted to be a criminal prosecutor. I interned for the District Attorney’s office but wanted to see the other side, so spent a week following around my uncle, who is a criminal defender in Rome, New York. He had a meeting to go to, so he suggested that I sit in on a family law case with his brother (also a lawyer). The case was a 16-year-old girl accusing her stepfather of rape. What really struck me was that everyone in the courtroom seemed to be against her. The judge looked to her lawyer to meet the burden of proof. Her stepfather smirked as she broke down on the stand, testifying how he would sneak inside her room at night and pin her down with his body weight as he raped her. Her own mother testified against her, saying that her daughter had repeatedly tried to seduce her husband.
In Rwanda, I was again confronted with the senseless violence of rape, this time within the context of the genocide. At the Ntarama genocide memorial, which was a Church and site of mass killings, there is a coffin beneath a glass shelf lined with human skulls and leg bones. Our tour guide told us that the woman whose corpse is in the coffin was raped by over 20 men, then a pointed stick was shoved up her vagina until she died. At the Nyamata memorial, you can see such sticks: crudely carved to a point at the tip, six-feet long, and still caked with blood. When speaking with Hutu rescuers, I heard of a woman who was raped by six men and a broken beer bottle after she gave birth in a field of banana trees. Even after the genocide, rape victims and the 20,000 children born as a result of rape were stigmatized in Rwandan society.
Rape as an act of war stories are paralyzing, but what equally horrifies me are the stories that I hear from my friends here at Georgetown. Women who are smart, witty, beautiful, and powerful. Women who the Georgetown community sees as leaders, not as victims – especially not of rape. Women who I have known for years before they feel comfortable sharing their experiences – experiences that have simmered without any attempt at justice. The woman who got “too drunk” at a party freshman year and went home with an upperclassman guy. A guy who she told she did not want to have sex with but who penetrated her anyways. He did not recognize her when he saw her on campus. The woman who lost her virginity when her boyfriend shoved himself inside of her when her eyes were closed without her consent and long before she was ready. She dated him for three years. The woman who could not buy Plan B at the CVS on Wisconsin after being raped because she was not a U.S. citizen.
According to their testimonies, none of these women spoke of these incidents to anyone, not even her roommates, for over a year. It took some of them years to even acknowledge that they had been raped. Their rapists invariably have “bright futures” ahead of them. But this does not change the uncomfortable fact that they are rapists and that they deserve to be named and shamed under this criminal title.
And the women? They also invariably have bright futures ahead of them. But they have had to surrender their opportunity for justice to make this happen. A lot of people talk about “society’s failure” in perpetuating a rape culture. I’m not one for communal blame. I think it is the fault of each and every single person who makes a woman feel like there is some sort of tension between being a strong, powerful, accomplished woman and a rape victim. Who think that women who admit to being raped are weak or attention seeking or slutty or damaged goods. Who make women feel like the best way to move on with their lives, the best way to realize their own bright futures, is to sit down and shut up. It is both our collective and individual responsibilities to empower the only people who can bring these criminals to justice: the victims themselves.
If you find this article triggering, please know that resources and support are available.