Sunday Reflections: Tough Girls Talk About Rape, a guest post by Rachel Gold
by Rachel Gold (@RachelGold)
[Spoiler alert and trigger warning: I’m going to talk about female-female partner/date rape in some detail and I’m going to reveal a significant plot point from Just Girls — so please navigate away if you don’t want to read either of those.]
Two-thirds of the way through Just Girls, Jess Tucker is raped by her ex-girlfriend the day after they break up. Readers don’t see the rape scene on the page, but Tucker tells her best friend and the reader what happened a few chapters later.
Why write about this in a YA novel? Because we don’t talk about it nearly enough. Because according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice women age 16-24 are three times more vulnerable to intimate partner violence than any other age group. And because I hadn’t seen a scene like it in a the queer YA I’ve read.
I wrote about it because I wish something like this never happens again to another girl in the history of the world. And I wrote about it because that the same kind of partner rape that happened to Tucker happened to me when I was 17 — so I know how confusing and devastating it feels.
I know how alone you feel when you’re still trying to understand what the hell happened and wondering if it’s ever happened to anyone else. I know what it’s like to try to tell people and have them look at you like they want to help but they can’t begin to understand what you said. I know what it’s like to be afraid that you’re the only person bad enough for this to happen to.
I hope the scene with Tucker gives readers the understanding that it is more than okay to shove someone away and leave — and that if they can’t that there’s help, support and love out there. I hope it shows that it is more than okay to talk about same-sex partner/date rape happening to teens.
What happened to me isn’t the same as what happened to Tucker, but it’s close enough. If you want to know how same-sex teen partner rape happens, what’s in the novel is a realistic example.
In my case, my girlfriend was a few years older and had a lot more power in our relationship. I was going to break up with her, she pushed sex. I told her I didn’t want to. She told me to do it anyway. She did what she wanted while I froze in shock and horror and tried to figure out if it was okay to hurt my girlfriend to get her off me.
(Dear 17-year-old-me and anyone else who needs this answer: Yes, it’s okay to hurt someone you’ve loved if they’re forcing you to have sex. It’s beyond okay to scream and hit and get away from them — to leave and get help. It doesn’t matter if she’s a woman, if she’s your girlfriend, if she said she loves you a hundred times — if you mean “no” and she doesn’t stop, you have every right to stop her. And if you don’t or can’t, it’s not at all your fault that it happened.)
I was, for a while, furious and then that slipped away and left me with shame and grief. Like Tucker does in the novel, I got sick afterwards and that had a buffering effect which helped in terms of raw pain but later made it easier to downplay what had happened and not talk about it.
Silence Serves No One
One reader told me she appreciated that the rape in the novel happened to Tucker and not another character because Tucker is a tough girl. She said it was good to see that rape also happens to tough girls.
I have a tough girl streak and that also made it harder for me to talk about it. I hate being seen as a victim or as weak. As I trace back the roots of my own “people will think I’m weak” fears, I can see how that they’re rooted in the pervasive cultural shame around being raped.
I never had any shame about being queer/lesbian. I came out young and brashly. I took a girl to prom (in the 80s). Nothing in the world could make me shut up about being a lesbian or being a trans advocate.
And yet I shut up about being raped by a girlfriend for most of 26 years.
That’s how pervasive the shame is in our culture. I didn’t want to be “that stupid girl” who got raped.
(Dear 17-year-old-me: rape doesn’t make you weak or stupid or bad. You can choose to identify as a victim when that identity is empowering and drop it otherwise. Talking about rape, that makes you a badass.)
Being tough or strong is about how you recover and integrate what’s happened to you, not about never getting wrecked by someone. It happened and I’m strong. And those are two separate things — it’s not that I’m strong because it happened or that I’m strong because I survived. I’m strong because I make choices that give strength.
I didn’t talk about it because of the shame, but I also didn’t talk about it back then because I didn’t want people to know that it happens. I hate when lesbians are the bad guys.
It is deeply shitty when you fight to come out, finally start dating girls like you want and then rape, assault or violence happens. How do you go back to the same people who looked at you disapprovingly when you came out and tell them what happened?
These days you don’t have to. There are great support lines and online resources. See the end of this blog for a list.
(Dear 17-year-old-me: If you tell someone and they don’t know what to do or you’re not getting help, tell someone else. There are people who love you and want to help you. There are people who don’t know you but could say really smart things if you just call that support line that you think you don’t need.)
Also I REALLY didn’t want to hear anyone say: that’s what you get for having sex at 17. That is beyond bullshit.
I was a teen who liked sex (with girls) and that’s why I include sex in my novels — because it can be great to have sex as a teen if that’s what you want. The sex I had between from 16 to 19 was awkward and crazy and wonderful and fun. (Dear 17-year-old-me: good call!)
Rape isn’t about sex. It doesn’t happen because you’re having sex and you can’t prevent it by not having sex. And, sadly, just because you’re having sex with girls doesn’t mean you’re immune to someone else’s abuse of power.
Rape is about power and violence. Even if the perpetrator is someone you’ve had sex with, even if it involves the same physical actions that have happened during sex — it’s no more about sex than being stabbed with a kitchen knife is about cooking.
Many people have written powerful, moving words about what rape is and isn’t, personally and culturally. All I have to add is this: when you’re young and in your first queer relationships, it can feel like you’ve found this amazing safe haven. There is an added layer of sickening violence when the perpetrator was your girlfriend or partner.
You can be struggling with the personal destruction of rape itself and feel like you’re not safe or don’t belong in that community you thought was your perfect home. This is why if violence, rape or abuse happens to you, being in a loving community is so important. Please don’t isolate yourself and try to muscle through it alone.
I’m grateful to the women who took care of me even though they didn’t know what had happened. I glossed over it as a bad breakup and the physical sickness I had afterward — but I still had a strong community of lesbian, bi and straight women who treated me with care and made a safe place for me to start recovering. I hope that talking openly and writing scenes likes the one in Just Girls will lend strength to loving communities and the people who need them.
Stuff I wish I’d known:
I wish I’d told more people. There are three friends I can think of now that I dearly wish I’d told back then. I’ve told them since and they were wonderful about it.
It’s so okay to feel however you feel. Write it, paint it, dance it, speak it — do whatever feels good to you to express it and give your feelings a lot of space.
I wish I’d gotten more help — ideally from someone trained in same-sex sexual violence counseling. If that feels too scary, talk to someone you trust and see if they’ll help you get that kind of support. At 17 I didn’t know how to talk about it beyond saying that it had happened — I needed someone who could help talk me through the stages of recovering and integrating what happened.
I didn’t trust the women I dated for a few years afterward. I went on having sex, but I didn’t connect. I wish I’d had a way to take stock of things and realize that was happening.
For everyone: please learn how consent works — especially if you’re young and having sex. No means no, but a lot of other words and phrases also mean no, like “I don’t want to.” Questions can mean no, like “Can we stop?” Physical gestures like freezing or pulling away can mean no.
If someone tells you rape, assault or partner violence happened to them, helpful responses include:
“I’m so sorry that happened.”
“I’ll listen for as long as you want.”
“Do you need someone to go with you to the hospital/therapist? I’ll go with you.”
“Thank you for telling me.”
I am working on a sequel to Just Girls in which Tucker will get some excellent counseling (in addition to trying some things that don’t work because tough girls often have to trial-and-error things out). She’ll get great sex and deep emotional connections — because what breaks you in one volume of your life is never the whole story.
Nobody gets to write your story but you.
Support and resources for survivors of rape and sexual abuse – including an LBGT online forum.
A national coalition of local member programs that works to prevent, respond to, and end all forms of violence against and within LGBTQ communities.
24-hour hotline 415-647-7273
SFWAR is a women of color led, volunteer-based organization that has provided rape crisis services to survivors of sexual assault for over 30 years.
Meet Rachel Gold
Rachel Gold is the author of Just Girls (Bella Books 2014) and the award-winning Being Emily (Bella Books 2012), the first young adult novel to tell the story of a trans girl from her perspective. She has an MFA in Writing from Hamline University and has spent the last 14 years working in Marketing and Publicity — but if that makes her sound too corporate and stuffy, you should know that Rachel is an all around geek and avid gamer. For more information visit: www.rachelgold.com.
About Amanda MacGregor
Amanda MacGregor works in an elementary library, loves dogs, and can be found on Twitter @CiteSomething.
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