Trigger Warning for discussions of rape apologism, specifically related to birth rape and other medical rape, and graphic descriptions of rape, including birth rape.
This post has been slowly brewing over the past week, as I was sincerely hoping to not feel ultimately compelled to write it. I note this simply because in the meantime, there have been many conversations taking place elsewhere on the same subject — conversations which I have read or participated in, and which have helped to shape my own visceral reactions and thoughts. Several of the posts which have influenced the ideas in this one are linked in this one, leaving the words in their original contexts. Some of those conversations were private, which I note with a very special acknowledgment to bfp. And some writers have asked not to be linked. But I strongly encourage you to click through on everything that is present, with a note that the above trigger warning applies, and a reminder that just because other writers have influenced my thoughts, that doesn’t mean they necessarily agree with all that I have written.
In this post, I’m just going to be entirely honest about what I think and feel.
For the past month and a half, I’ve largely been away from the internet for personal reasons. As life began to settle down and I started to make my return to the web at the end of last week, I slowly started coming across several posts written in my absence that made me wish I’d just stayed away. The first I encountered was “Bad Birth Experiences Aren’t Rape” by Amanda Marcotte over at Double X. The second was “When Giving Birth is a Traumatic Violation, Is It Rape?” by Brittany Shoot over at Change. And the last was “The Push to Recognize ‘Birth Rape’” by Tracy Clark-Flory at Broadsheet. There are almost certainly other similar posts; I didn’t seek them out, as I don’t wish to read them.
All of these posts were inspired by one at Jezebel that introduced the concept of birth rape to its readers with a highly noncommittal tone (ETA: Jezebel itself has a history of mocking medical assault). For those new to the concept, a decent basic primer can be found here (and links to others in the comments are welcome). Birth rape describes the experience of women and pregnant people of other genders having their bodies violated and penetrated without their consent in the process of giving birth, usually though not always through the forcible insertion of hands or medical tools into the vagina or anus without consent, and frequently with explicit non-consent. Victims are often physically held down, told to shut up, ignored when they scream or cry or plead, threatened, and/or called names as their bodies are violated. Just as survivors of other forms of rape, birth rape survivors experience physical and emotional trauma, often rising to the level of PTSD — only compounded by the general lack of recognition that birth rape is real, and the frequent guilt at having such trauma associated with their new child coming into the world.
In other words, birth rape is a term used to describe a specific form of rape that is committed in a birthing context, without the use of a penis.
But as in the posts linked above, this concept is extraordinarily challenging for some people, including feminists, who have taken to outright denouncing the use of the term — though, to her credit, Shoot’s post is by far the most ambivalent on the subject. Marcotte argues that birth rape should not be called rape because unlike supposedly real rape, it is not sadistic in intent. The definition of rape, she argues, should be based on the rapist’s motivation, not the victim’s experience, or we otherwise have lost our tools to combat rape effectively. Clark-Flory argues that birth rape shouldn’t be called rape, on the other hand, because rape is a special word, and using it to describe these experiences is “a violation in its own right”:
We have a special word for forced sexual intercourse, because it deserves a special word. Rape is used as a tool of terror, torture, intimidation and war (as we’re seeing right now in Congo). Sometimes it is about violence, sometimes it is about sex, and sometimes it is about both. It is a special kind of crime not only because of what it is, but also because of what it does to the victim (in her own mind and others’).
I’m used to seeing this sort of thing — discussions about whether or not an event that is admittedly horrible really deserves to have the title “rape” attached to it, accompanied by convoluted reasons as to why calling it rape would just mess everything up for real rape victims. What I’m not quite as used to is seeing it being done in the name of feminism and/or anti-rape activism.
To see rape defined by the perpetrator’s intention rather than the victim’s experience is particularly devastating for me — personally, I thought that a big part of anti-rape activism was getting people to realize that it doesn’t matter what the rapist supposedly meant, what matters is that sie raped someone. I thought that anti-rape activism was about centering victims’ voices. And I never thought that all rape had one solution, anyway, so to suggest that we can’t incorporate birth rape experiences for practical reasons of activism is absurd to me, and dismissive of the nuances inherent in our actual cause. And when we dismiss nuance, marginalized lives and bodies are always the first to get tossed out.
I also thought that a big part of anti-rape activism was about broadening our definition of rape, not narrowing it — throwing out the stranger jumping from the bushes with a knife as the only model of rape, and recreating a model that encompasses a wide variety violent experiences and promotes affirmative, enthusiastic, meaningful consent as minimum standard of decency rather than a nice bonus if you can get it. I thought that anti-rape activism was about acknowledging that rape is not just one thing, that there is more than one way to violate a person and to be violated, and that whether consent was given was more important than how much force was used. Especially in this context, the posts in question come off as nothing more than language policing, against particularly marginalized populations, no less.
But even questions of technical definitions and what exactly it is that we wish to eradicate in fighting this thing called “rape” aside, I do know one thing for sure. When women come forward and start saying “I was raped,” when they find the power to use that word to describe their own experiences and open up to share their trauma with the world, responding with “no you weren’t” — with whole blog posts about the subject, in fact — is about the worst possible way that a person can do feminism.
And doing feminism this way has consequences, just like using feminism oppressively always has. As far as consequences go, I don’t care whether or not it “turns people away” from the “movement,” frankly — after all, if this is what they hope to encounter upon sticking around, I think that they deserve fair warning, and I can’t exactly blame them for wanting no part. What I care about is the pain and the harm that it causes. What I care about is the fact that if, after years of struggling to finally claim the word “rape” for my own experiences, someone had immediately responded to me in this way with something about how calling myself a rape survivor was insulting to real survivors or harming their activism, I just might have died. Literally.
What I care about is the fact that I am a woman who was raped, and my rape did not consist of what most people think of when the word “rape” is uttered. It certainly wouldn’t fit under Clark-Flory’s narrow definition of “forced sexual intercourse,” the most common understanding of which would be limited to only involving a penis inside a vagina. I care that as a survivor who already doesn’t “count” under a lot of people’s definitions, these posts have all personally hurt me deeply.
I care because I am not a survivor of birth rape. And if these posts have cut me as deeply as they have, I cannot even begin to imagine the effect they’ve had on many victims who have experienced birth rape, or on victims who have experienced other forms of medical rape. I care because none of them deserve that. No survivor does. I care because they’re being told how to name their traumatic experiences by those who mostly have never been faced with those same experiences themselves. And I care because they are being harmed in the false name of anti-rape activism.
The theme has come up several times that calling birth rape “rape” is somehow insulting or even violating to survivors of real rape, because real rape victims are special, and their trauma is more real.
And I’m here as a survivor of rapes that are supposedly at least somewhat real to say that the only insulting and violating thing going on in this “conversation” is women being told that their rapes don’t count because they were committed by doctors instead of dates, in hospital rooms instead of the back seats of cars, with forceps and gloved hands instead of penises and ungloved fingers. I’m writing this because it’s patently arrogant and repulsive to insinuate through such language policing that those survivors who have experienced one of these violations haven’t also experienced the other.
Telling other survivors that their experiences of violation aren’t real enough, and just weren’t sexual enough of all things, to use our special fancy word is wrong. And if this is how the word “rape” is going to be used against other survivors of abuses of power and abuses of bodily autonomy and violations of self — as a weapon, like it is right now — then I don’t want it. If the word rape doesn’t include all of those victims of violence that it needs to include, we need a better word. If the word rape is so fragile that we must minimize the horrific experiences of some survivors, the violence they lived through, and the violations they felt in order to protect it, we need a better word. And when the major response to a somewhat mainstream conversation about birth rape is quibbles about words rather than compassion and organizing, we need a much, much better feminism to become the dominant one.