Legitimate Rape? A Rape Victim and Counselor Reflects on Rape Culture Myths

TRIGGER WARNING: Please be advised before reading that this article contains descriptions of an individual woman’s experience of rape and her treatment by law enforcement.

“The events as you’ve described them, Kim, constitute a felony rape. If you do not make a statement, we will still proceed with prosecution and regard you as a hostile witness.”

I was 20 years old, on a semester leave from college. Those were the words of the police officer to me, in a hospital room, after I recounted what had happened to me a couple of days earlier.

It was my first interaction with the police, other than Officer Friendly visiting my elementary school class, or one of the officers my parents had befriended when they started a Neighborhood Watch program in the community where I was raised. Surely I could trust the police, I thought, to understand what had happened and to help me.

Although this was more than 20 years ago, I remember the moment vividly, because it was the acknowledgment, the naming, of something I had been struggling ferociously to reject: I was raped.

I desperately wanted it to be something else, like a misunderstanding between me and this man I’d been dating for a week or so. I felt locked in a life-or-death battle to deny this heinous violation, because it threatened to undo me–my sense of personal safety and well being, my mental health, my personhood.

In the years since, I’ve had lots of therapy, including group therapy with fellow survivors of sexual assault and abuse. I’ve volunteered at two rape crisis centers. One involved a speakers’ panel, visiting college classes, rehab facilities, police training sessions, even a group of men incarcerated for violent crimes including rape. At the other center, I served as hotline counselor and in-hospital victims’ advocate. Most of the other volunteers had stories of their own survival, and saw their volunteer efforts as a way to give back, to create and foster the same kind of community that enabled us to find our own voices and our sanity, to reclaim our selves and reassemble the pieces of our lives.

I rarely think about the assault and its aftermath anymore. The counseling, both giving and receiving, not to mention the tremendous education I got from the centers where I volunteered, helped make triggering a rare event for me. The experience became just one painful part of my life, rather than its central, agonizing, defining core. Occasionally (about every two years in the District of Columbia) I am called for jury duty. As part of voir dire, I have to tell the judge and attorneys that I have been the victim of a crime. When pressed for details, I recall them with startling clarity. My account is invariably met with compassion, followed by a quick dismissal.

Despite the officer’s words to me in that hospital room, the justice system and all those I encountered as I navigated my way through it seemed hell bent on proving that what I had experienced was not, in the words of Senate candidate Akin of Missouri, “legitimate rape.”

Shortly after the officer spoke to me in the hospital, a doctor informed me that a pregnancy test, administered as part of standard procedure in cases of reported sexual assault, was negative. I was too stunned to be relieved. The notion that I could have become pregnant from something so awful was too overwhelming for me to get my mind around. (Indeed, it never occurred to me to trust in magical sperm-killing powers of my uterus to “shut that whole thing down.”)

I went to the police station, accompanied by my mom and a social worker sent to the hospital as a result of my report of a sexual assault. The officer told me that she and a detective would take my statement, but that neither my mother nor the advocate could be present for it. Behind closed doors, they asked me to describe in great detail what had happened. I told them about being at his apartment, that he’d shown me photographs of himself as a police officer, used handcuffs to scare the shit out of me, and hinted that he had a gun. That when I resisted, he hit me in the face, hard. When I finished my account, the detective looked at me with an expression bordering on anger, and said, “Ya know what I think? I believe you had sex with the guy. I just don’t think you liked it.”

Before I could recover my wits, the officer who had been with me in the hospital came at me from a different direction. “Why did you get a pregnancy test? Is there some new miracle way they can tell so soon? Are you sure you didn’t want to just avoid telling your mom and dad you were pregnant? Is that what this is all about?” And then, “Were you a virgin before this happened?” I knew that a “yes” would imply I was overreacting to my first sexual experience, and a “no” said I was a slut.

The detective asked what I had been wearing: baggy jeans and a Mickey Mouse sweatshirt. He remained unimpressed. “Kim, you gotta come up with something better than this,” he said. “When I talk to this guy, he’s gonna say you wanted it. That you loved it and begged for it. I don’t even think I’m gonna be able to press charges.”

By then I was sobbing. “When you get into court,” the female officer nearly yelled, “the defense attorney is gonna be like a big bear, and you’re gonna be a little cub.” She gestured a swipe with her hands and arms, and the image of a bear’s claws tearing at me made me bury my head between my knees and scream. I stayed that way, curled in on myself, willing them away. I heard paper rustling, then the detective cleared his throat. I could hear his voice from above me as he stood. “I’m gonna see if I can make a report out of this, maybe go talk to this guy.”

They let me leave the room to return to my mom and the social worker, where we waited while the detective clumsily hunted and pecked his way through typing a statement for me to sign before I could leave.

In the days and weeks that followed, there were other detectives, but no arrest. One of them told me she had “heard some things” about me, but declined to say what, or from whom. Another told me she’d talked to the rapist, who told her that I liked it “rough and kinky,’”as a way to explain the handcuffs and the violence. They seemed unable to conclude that it had, in fact, been “legitimate rape.”

It fell to the county District Attorney’s office to decide whether the evidence warranted felony charges. I met an Assistant District Attorney one afternoon at his office. My mother was with me, but he didn’t want her in the room. “Come on, Kim,” he taunted. “You’re twenty years old. You really need your mom with you?” All these years later, I see the appeal that kind of argument held to a young woman who believes herself to be strong, knowledgeable and competent, who is racing into adulthood and independence. I asked my mother to leave, and she did.

The Assistant District Attorney told me that what constituted a felony rape was known as “forcible compulsion.” He explained that forcible compulsion, or forcible rape, the language used recently in legislation introduced by congressman-cum-VP-candidate Paul Ryan, meant there had to be a gun to my head or a knife to my throat. The gun my assailant had hinted at never actually materialized at my temple. The fist that slammed my face did not hold a knife. I knew then that I simply hadn’t been raped enough. The Assistant District Attorney produced a piece of paper with two words on it in large print: YES and NO. He slid it across the table to me and asked whether there was a gun to my head or a knife to my throat. I circled NO in a naive, manipulated and tragically misinformed admission that I had not been “legitimately raped.”

Some weeks later, the man who had attacked me was arrested for assaulting another woman, in her apartment, after volunteering to help her carry her groceries. Combining our two assaults, the ADA struck a plea bargain with the assailant. He pled guilty to 3rd degree sexual misconduct, carrying a one-year conditional discharge, meaning if he wasn’t arrested during the ensuing year, the charge would be removed from his record.

When Rep. Todd Akin recently brought the phrase “legitimate rape” into political discourse, I was simply stunned. Yet his horrifying and dangerously ignorant assertion is, even after all these years, merely a bald-faced acknowledgment of what our rape culture has allowed to exist: the idea that women are only rarely “rape-raped.” That anything short of the dark-alley, armed assault of a virgin, leaving her brutalized and likely dead but in no case pregnant, cannot possibly be “legitimate.” That women fabricate rape to hide the shame of sexual promiscuity or a pregnancy out of wedlock. (Rape was recently likened to the stigma of single motherhood, in fact, by a Republican nominee for U.S. Senate in Pennsylvania.)

My work in building communities that serve to dismantle rape culture and retrieve survivors from the brink of personal destruction led me to believe, tentatively but very hopefully, that things are changing.

Candidates Akin and Ryan remind me that in fact, they are not.

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  • lioness

    Thank you for your courage.

  • coralsea

    My sympathy for what you went through….my utter rage for the utterly disgusting way that the police officers acted toward you.  I was also raped once.  A friend of mine from graduate school set me up with someone who she said was a “nice guy.”  I met him at his apartment, because we were planning to meet my husband and her husband for dinner in the city, and since he lived on the way to the restaurant, I told him when we chatted on the phone that I would pick him up.  We walked out to my car, and then he said that it was cooler out than he had thought, and he wanted to get a jacket to wear.  I followed him back up into the building because I didn’t feel like standing around in the weird little vestibule or on the street.  When we got back up to his apartment, he attacked me.


    I don’t know why men, who tout their strength and the fact that they are typically bigger than women, don’t grasp that a man who is 6 feet tall or a little over, and solidly built (say 180 to 200 lbs) can usually over power a woman who is 5 feet 4 inches and weighs 120.  So he didn’t have to beat me to a pulp (although he did a number on my clothes and left me with a lot of bruises).


    I went home afterwards.  I didn’t call the cops.  I did call my friend, who was furious that I had “stood up” her friend (he had already called, complaining that I had never shown).  I told her that I HAD shown up and that he had attacked me.  She told me I was crazy and hung up.  I never heard from her again.  I took a shower and then a bath and sat up, watching TV.  I have no idea what was on.


    I have felt guilty through the years for not reporting the attack.  Cops make me nervous and also, this was at a time when the concept of “date rape” was only just coming out into the open.  Frankly, I didn’t think of it as “rape” as much as I thought of it as “an attack.”  Attack was an easier word.  I mostly blotted it out of my thoughts.  I did go to the doctor — several months later — because I was afraid that I might have gotten an STD (I hadn’t).  I had managed to put it off because I wasn’t seeing anyone.  In fact, I didn’t date, really, for about 10 years.


    One thing I did do that I didn’t recognize for what it was at the time was start doing a lot of physically dangerous stuff.  I work in the environmental field and I work in a lot of strange industrial places.  The first job I had after the attack was on a quality control project on the docks in South Philadelphia and East Camden, NJ.  I was the only woman working there at the time, and I was told that if something “happened” to me, it was my own fault for being there. 


    I carried a crow bar and yes — I soon earned a reputation for hitting guys who tried to drag me off behind crates.  During this project, I was living out of Washington D.C. and driving up to Philly when necessary.  I got mugged in DC — and attacked the guy with such vigor that he ran off.  Steel-toed boots are great for kicking the hell out of someone.  A couple of years later, I was working on a Superfund site in the Dallas, Texas area and was waylaid in the parking lot of the Holiday Inn by a teenager who was out on bail for sexual assault.  He tried to push me back into my rental car, and once again, something snapped, and I attacked him, hitting him with my briefcase and, when he tripped, stomping on his fingers and feeling them crunch under my heel.  He cracked three of my ribs, but I broke his nose and four of his fingers and gave him a concussion. 


    There was actually an off-duty cop waiting for someone in the Holiday Inn lobby who had seen this stupid kid and knew about his record, but didn’t bother to do anything about him being there.  When I spoke to him, all disheveled in pissed off (someone burst into the lobby to report “a fight,”) he eyed me with what I can only describe as disgust and said, “We tell women that oughtn’t ta fight back, honey.”


    I told him that he was full of shit, that I wasn’t about to let some guy carjack me and take me out of town nine miles and do who knows what.  That if he was going to hurt me, it was better to have it happen in a hotel parking lot.


    He didn’t like “my attitude,” and threatened to arrest me.


    I could go on.  Those were the only “attacks” after the first, really bad one, which was actually a rape.  It WAS a rape — but it’s still hard for me to say out loud.  I went through my own admittedly crazy process of coping with the powerless of it all, regaining some semblence of self security by fighting with a couple of criminals who, fortunately, weren’t armed.  It wasn’t smart, but it’s hard for me not to still treasure that little kernel of satisfaction getting the better end of the deal, THOSE TIMES.  I found an excellent therapist, and we went through all of this.  I learned about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that I had responded the way a lot of police officers or firefighters respond — by taking risks to “prove” that I was still strong.


    I don’t engage in the same level of risk taking anymore, but I still don’t know if I would be strong enough to report a rape if (and I so desperately hope it never happens again, because I don’t really KNOW whether anything from the first time has actually been resolved, and I don’t want to find out that it isn’t) it were to happen again.  I’d like to think that, rather than grabbing a crowbar, I would instead suck it up and go to the hospital and the police and scream from the highest mountain top that they had to take action.  I hope I would have the strength to do that.  I guess my fear would be that any future attack would end up being one of those “legitimate” ones that everyone would believe, because I don’t think I could keep myself from trying to kill my attacker, and so one of us would end of dead.


    Sorry for the unsettling post.   I don’t advocate violence and I don’t own a gun because I wouldn’t want to panic and shoot someone, or if there was an intruder in my house, miss him and hit some innocent bystander instead.  I simply reported here the rather profound and unsavory affect that my own “date rape” and the overwhelming sense of powerlessness it gave me had on my life for well over a decade.

  • coralsea

    I figured that someone would vote my post down — but not bother to indicate why they did so.  What I described was MY response to the powerlessness I felt after the attack.  I probably shouldn’t have posted it.  The first two shrinks I saw after the Dallas incident were very condemning–insisting that my desire to fight back against attackers was “wrong,” and that what I needed to do was think “good thoughts.”  I have since learned that a lot of psychiatrists/psychologists have real problems addressing violence.  Fortunately, I found one who didn’t think I was a freak and explained the PTSD thing.


    Don’t worry — I won’t ever post here again.  But I’m sure that there are women out there who have had a similar response to an attack and have also dealt with it in either the same, or some other equally “anti-social,” manner.  I hope they read this and understand a bit more about their responses.  Unfortunately, they may also receive reinforcement from the responses of others that they need to watch what they say, hide their less “appropriate” reactions, and behave like good little victims.  But I’m not willing to do that.  Bye.

  • jennifer-starr

    CoralSea–I really hope you do post again–I appreciated what you wrote and completely connected with what you said and I don’t understand why your post was voted down by somebody. 

  • rebellious-grrl

    CoralSea – Please don’t stop posting. Thanks for sharing your story. I feel less alone in the world.

    First off, I am sorry about what happened to you. Your post resonated with me. I’ve been diagnosed with PSTD, because of sexual and physical assaults. I was sexually assaulted at 14 (although I wasn’t raped I was humiliated by four boys while my supposed female friends watched the assault as they ripped my clothing off and molested me.) Throughout my twenties I dated physically abusive men. In my late twenties, while walking to a friend’s house I was attached by a stranger. It was close to midnight and he came out of nowhere. He grabbed my breasts and crotch and tried to push my in an alley. The confrontation ended with me chasing him down the street with a broken bottle screaming “I will cut your testicles off.” Like you, I was wearing my “shit-kicking” steel-toe boots. I had every intention of doing to him what I said. I’m a small woman (under 5′ 2″) but given enough anger an adrenaline my threat to him wasn’t an empty one.

    CoralSea, I agree with you. I have been accused of being “anti-social, un-lady-like, angry, pissed off, etc.” I won’t behave like a “good little victim” and no-one should. For women who have been assaulted, we are keenly aware of what men might be around us. We are suspicious of men. We are hyper-vigilant. I carry a knife with me at all times. When I lived alone I slept with an axe under my bed. I don’t own a gun, because like you I’m afraid I might shoot the wrong person.

    For anyone to say that fighting back is wrong, they are the one with a problem. My uncle (who was a cop) always told me to fight back or to run and get shot in the back. It’s better to die fighting than be kidnapped, raped, and killed. I’ve spent years in therapy dealing with the PSTD issues, depression, and anger issues. It took a long time to find a great therapist who says my anger is a strength and it has saved my life. Now I use my anger as a “super power” and use it only when I need to. There are a lot of bad therapists out there who are clueless about issues of sexual assault/abuse, and rape.

    If it means anything I rated your post a 5 (If I could it would be a 10+++++)

    “I’d rather die on my feet then live on my knees” Emiliano Zapata

  • crowepps

    Some of the people who come to this site and rate the posts do so on the basis of their ideology instead of the value in the posts themselves.

    I thought your post rang absolutely true and learned a lot from it.  All that “good thoughts” hocum is as useless as the “offer your suffering up for God” hocum — both encourage women to think of themselves as powerless.  We will make progress when women reject the idea that they as the victim ’cause’ their own harassment, assault or rape, they will be able to exercise their power as half the population to INSIST the police and the court system do a MUCH BETTER JOB of identifying and prosecuting rapists and getting them off the streets.

  • kim-shults

    I learned early, and contiinue to believe, that whatever you did to survive an assault was the right thing to do.


    For anyone feeling triggered by this post or the responses, please know there is free, confidential help available to you.


    RAINN Hotline will connect you with your local Rape Crisis Center Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE. They also have an on-line Hotline here: http://apps.rainn.org/ohl-bridge/

  • give-em-hell-mary

    I’ve also given up on therapists — too many refuse to see the big picture of the crippling misogynist, looksist bullying that most women, disabled and gays encounter.  Shrinks learn distorted explanations of human interaction that ignore the impact of evil religions, family abuse and men’s natural disgust with women’s childbirth disfigurements.  Moreover, psychiatry has been taken over by big pharma and most therapists think tardive dyskinesia-producing “happy pills” will solve decades of family abuse.  I diagnosed my own misery by watching the Dr. Dean Edell Show entitled “Mothers Who Make Their Children Sick.”  When I excitedly explained the show’s Munchausen by Proxy subject to my therapist, she snapped:  “Don’t believe everything you see on TV!”  She then pestered me to do disfiguring “happy pills” to feel better about my Munchausen by Proxy-scarred face.  No amount of my explaining to her how lithium-caused acne and weight gain would worsen my disfigurement misery would stop her continuing aggressive drug-pushing.  Months earlier, my disfiguring Munchausen by Proxy anti-choice terrorist Catholic mom arranged for me to meet with the then dean of psychiatry at Georgetown University.  Stupid me hoped Father Jon O’Brien would be less Catholic than mom and I unwittingly described to him her classic Munchausen by Proxy abuse that shifted from chemically burning me as a kid to later pushing disfiguring “zombie pills.”  He blew up at me, called me a zombie who needed drugs, bragged about developing those drugs for big pharma, then screamingly threw me out of his office.   Today, as the pedophile priest scandals keep mounting, I believe such zombie drugs were developed primarily to muzzle abuse victims like altar boys and women exploited as throwaway breeders.  I am now also certain that the pedophile-serving RCC’s ban on effective family planning drove my desperate childbirth-injured mom to commit Munchausen by Proxy abuse as her abstinence excuse.  These ugly truths should be thrown at Aikin, Limbaugh and pedophile priest-rewarding Cardinal Dolan whenever they attack women’s need for family planning.

    Now I am the one who should apologize for rambling on about myself, but I also hope CoralSea keeps posting.  That she and others here have been re-victimized or blamed by shrinks, cops and “friends” tells me that psychiatry and law enforcement need major overhauling.