There are about 5,000 women here today. Among us, 1,250 have been or will be sexually assaulted at some point in our lives. One in four. Only 10 percent will report it. The other 90 percent take refuge in silence — half of them, because the incident involves a close family member or someone they know, and that makes it much more difficult to deal with and talk about. The other half don't talk about it because they fear they won’t be believed. And they're right — because we don't.
Today I want to share with you why I think we don't believe them. We don't believe them because when a woman tells what happened to her, she tells us things we can't imagine, things that disturb us, things we don't expect to hear, things that shock us. We expect to hear stories like this one: "Girl raped near the Mitre Railroad tracks. It happened at midnight as she was on her way home. She said that someone attacked her from behind, told her not to scream, said he had a gun and that she shouldn't move. He raped her and then fled the scene." When we hear or read a story like this, we immediately visualize it: the rapist, a depraved lower-class man. And the victim, a young, attractive woman. The image only lasts 10 or 20 seconds, and it's dark and two-dimensional; there's no movement, no sound; it's as if there were no people involved. But when a woman tells her story, it doesn't fit in 10 or 20 seconds.
The following is the testimony of a woman I'll call "Ana." She's one of the 85 women I interviewed while conducting research on sexual assault. Ana told me: "I had gone with the girls in the office to the same pub we always go to. We met some guys, and I hooked up with this super cool guy; we talked a lot. Around 4am, I told my friends it was time to go. They wanted to stay. So, the guy asked me where I lived and said if it was OK with me, he'd drive me home. I agreed, and we left.
At a stoplight, he told me he liked me and touched my leg. I don't like a guy to approach me that way, but he had been affectionate all night. I thought, 'I shouldn't be so paranoid. What if I say something but he didn't mean anything by it, and I offend him?' When he should have made a turn, he kept going straight. I thought he had made a mistake, and I said, 'You should have turned there.' But something felt off. Thinking back, I wonder, 'Why didn't I pay attention to what I was feeling?'
When he pulled over near the highway, that's when I got scared. But he told me to relax, that he liked me, and that nothing would happen unless I wanted it to. He was nice. I didn't say anything, because I was afraid he would get angry, and that things would get worse. I thought he might have a gun in the glove compartment. Suddenly, he jumped on me and tried to kiss me. I said no. I wanted to push him away, but he was holding my arms down. When I wriggled free, I tried to open the door, but it was locked. And even if I had gotten out, where would I have gone?
I told him he wasn't the kind of guy who needed to do that to be with a girl, and that I liked him, too, but not in that way. I tried to calm him down. I said nice things about him. I talked to him as if I were his older sister. Suddenly, he covered my mouth with one hand and with the other hand he unbuckled his belt. I thought right then he would kill me, strangle me, you know? I never felt so alone, like I had been kidnapped. I asked him to finish quickly and then take me home."
How did you feel listening to this story? Surely, several questions arose. For example: Why didn't she roll down the window and call for help? Why didn't she get out of the car when she felt something bad might happen? How could she ask him to take her home?
Now, when we hear this kind of story not on the news or from someone like me, presenting it on a stage like this — when we're hearing it from someone we know who chose to entrust us with the story of what happened to them, we'll have to listen. And we'll hear things we won't be able to understand — or accept. And then doubts, questions and suspicion will creep in. And that is going to make us feel really bad and guilty.
So to protect ourselves from the discomfort, we have an option. We turn up the volume on all the parts of the story that we expected to hear: a gun in the glove compartment, the locked doors, the isolated location. And we turn down the volume on all the parts of the story that we didn't expect to hear and that we don't want to hear; like when she tells him that she liked him, too, or when she tells us she spoke to him as if she were his older sister, or that she asked him to take her home.
Why do we do this? It's so we can believe her; so we can feel confident that she really was a victim. I call this "victimization of the victim." "Victimization," because in order to believe she's innocent, that she's a victim, we need to think of her as helpless, paralyzed, mute. But there's another way to avoid the discomfort. And it's exactly the opposite: we turn up the volume on the things we didn't expect to hear, such as "I spoke nicely to him," "I asked him to take me home," "I asked him to finish quickly," and we turn down the volume on the things we did expect to hear: the gun in the glove compartment, the isolation. Why do we do this? We do it so we can cling to the doubts and feel more comfortable about them.
Then, new questions arise, for instance: Who told her go to those clubs? You saw how she and her friends were dressed, right? Those miniskirts, those necklines? What do you expect? Questions that aren't really questions, but rather, judgments — judgments that end in a verdict: she asked for it. That finding would be verified by the fact that she didn't mention having struggled to avoid being raped. So that means she didn't resist. It means she consented. If she asked for it and allowed it, how are we calling it rape?
I call this "blaming the victim." These arguments that serve us both to blame and to victimize, we all have them in our heads, at hand — including victims and perpetrators. So much so, that when Ana came to me, she told me she didn't know if her testimony was going to be of any use, because she wasn't sure if what happened to her qualified as rape. Ana believed, like most of us, that rape is more like armed robbery — a violent act that lasts 4 or 5 minutes — and not smooth talking from a nice guy that lasts all night and ends in a kidnapping. When she felt afraid she might be killed, she was afraid to be left with scars, and she had to give her body to avoid it. That's when she knew that rape was something different.
Ana had never talked about this with anyone. She could have turned to her family, but she didn't. She didn't because she was afraid. She was afraid the person she'd choose to tell her story to would have the same reaction as the rest of us: they'd have doubts, suspicions; those same questions we always have when it comes to things like this. And if that had happened, it would have been worse, perhaps, than the rape itself. She could have talked to a friend or a sister. And with her partner, it would have been extremely difficult: the slightest hint of doubt on his face or in his voice would have been devastating for her and would have probably meant the end of their relationship. Ana keeps silent because deep down she knows that nobody — none of us, not her family or therapists, let alone the police or judges — are willing to hear what Ana actually did in that moment.
First and foremost, Ana said, "No." When she saw that her "no" didn't help, she spoke nicely to him. She tried not to exacerbate his violence or give him ideas. She talked to him as if everything that was happening were normal, so he wouldn't be thinking that she would turn him in later.
Now, I wonder and I ask all of you: All those things she did — isn't that considered resisting? No. For all or at least most of us, it's not, probably because it's not "resisting" in the eyes of the law. In most countries, the laws still require that the victim prove her innocence — that's right: the victim needs to prove her innocence — by showing marks on her body as evidence that she engaged in a vigorous and continuous fight with her aggressor. I can assure you, in most court cases, no amount of marks is ever enough. I listened to many women's stories. And I didn't hear any of them talking about themselves as if they had been reduced to a thing, totally subjected to the will of the other. Rather, they sounded astonished and even a little proud looking back and thinking how clear-headed they had been at the time, of how much attention they paid to every detail, as if that would allow them to exert some control over what was happening.
Then I realized, of course — what women are doing in these situations is negotiating. They're trading sex for life. They ask the aggressor to finish quickly, so everything is over as soon as possible and at the lowest cost. They subject themselves to penetration, because believe it or not, penetration is what keeps them furthest from a sexual or emotional scenario. They subject themselves to penetration, because penetration is less painful than kisses, caresses and gentle words.
Now, if we continue to expect rape to be what it very rarely is — with the rapist as a depraved lower-class man and not a university student or a businessman who goes out chasing after girls on a Friday or Saturday; if we keep expecting the victims to be demure women who faint on the scene, and not self-confident women — we will continue to be unable to listen. Women will continue to be unable to speak. And we will all continue to be responsible for that silence and their solitude.