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

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Commentary Violence

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

Kim Shults

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.” 

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.

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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.