Monday, October 5, 2015





by Janet Cheatham Bell

The night after I read "Reframing the Victim," an article in the September 13, 2015 New York Times Magazine, I woke suddenly from a sound sleep with the realization that I had been raped.

For years I had been smug about the fact that, although a couple of guys had tried to force me to have sex while we were on a date, I had successfully fought them off. I was also proud that one night when I was visiting another country, a man who lived there and whom I barely knew, maneuvered himself into giving me a ride, without my traveling companions, back to where we were staying. On the way he got "lost," which meant we "had to spend the night in a hotel." I was a woman in my thirties so I knew what his end game was. Whether he sought to seduce me, or intended to use force, I was ready when he approached me. I lied that I had a really nasty American venereal disease that I didn't want to spread in his country. He  backed away immediately and didn't try to touch me again. The next morning he drove quickly and directly to where my friends were waiting.

When I was reunited with them, they asked, "How did you get out of that?" My two friends and I were women who had learned not only to take care of ourselves, but also to make our own way in a world that overwhelmingly advantaged men. A world where we expected most men to make some attempt--whether feeble or forceful--to have sex with us, no matter whether we had known them for years or minutes. 

Counting these victories as part of my experiences, I was rather pleased with myself for not ever having been through the horror of rape. Reading that article, however, unlocked a carefully hidden memory. It wasn't really that I had forgotten the rape, I had simply refused to acknowledge or speak of it. Being a "rape victim" did not fit my image. 

Once I came of age, and by that I mean, once I figured out that I was capable of shaping my own life, I have preferred to see and present myself as a person with personal power. This was a departure from the first 25 years or so of my life when I believed I had no ability to determine how I lived. I liberated myself by deciding what other people expected of me was not how I had to be

In my childhood I was being prepared for a lifestyle dictated by my race and gender. Making this matter worse, I grew up at a time when sexuality and sensuality were only vaguely alluded to and never spoken of openly. Even married couples could not be shown in bed together on television because that could imply intimacy or sexual activity. I was told not to touch my own genitals, called "private parts." When I began menstruating this rule was suddenly and uncomfortably reversed. A new rule was introduced to never "fool around with boys." Whatever that meant. 

Eventually, my hormones demanded that I "fool around with boys" and, unsurprisingly in my ignorance, I got pregnant. I barely had any idea how women conceived, and knew absolutely nothing about contraception; not sure I'd ever heard the word. (This was before The Pill.) I was certain about one thing, however; I wasn't ready to be a mom. A couple of friends had already become parents and their lives had no appeal for me. (This story is covered in detail in "Choosing a Life in the Dark Age" an essay in my collection, Not All Poor People Are Black.) 

This was long before Roe v. Wade, so my abortion was illegal. Our family doctor, who confirmed that I was indeed pregnant, helpfully gave me the name of a competent abortionist and promised to take care of me afterward to be sure it went well. He even made a house call a few days after the abortion was completed. After I had healed, I went to him for a final exam. When he finished the vaginal exam and while I was still on the examining table with my feet up in stirrups, he raped me. Without a word, he slid his penis inside me. I couldn't believe it! What in the world was going on? I was all but naked, legs spread wide and the man who had been my family's physician for years was sticking his penis in me. 

I didn't know what to do; but, like so many women, I decided it was somehow my fault. It was because I was now a "fallen woman" that he felt free to stick his penis in me. I thought: if I hadn't had an abortion, he wouldn't have dared do this. I was so confused and ashamed for bringing this on myself that I started crying. He seemed surprised and asked why I was crying. I didn't have words to respond. I knew what he was doing was wrong, but I didn't try to get up or tell him to stop. Who was I to defy our doctor!?

Either my tears unnerved him or he had finished what he set out to do, because he stopped, told me to get dressed, and left the room.

When this memory came rushing into my consciousness, I was furious, livid! I wanted to confront him and backhand his face as hard as I could! My fury was thwarted because I couldn't find him on Google. (He's probably dead because he raped me nearly 60 years ago, and he was probably 20 years older than I was at the time.)

When he raped me, I felt helpless because I had surrendered to the belief that women had no strength. That I lived at the mercy of those who were in charge. I also knew that in American society physicians were/are considered to have unquestioned knowledge and power, especially over our bodies. I accepted the rape as my shame and did the only reasonable thing: shoved that shame into the box of sexual-things-that-are-never-to-be-mentioned, along with my abortion, and buried it as deeply as I could.

Several years later, after receiving my degree and a divorce the same month, I began to reinvent myself by doing what I wanted. I determined not to allow anyone else to define, limit or take advantage of me. I would decide who I was and what I wanted to do. In other words, I began to "use my energy in the direction of truth and love for myself."

I have learned much during this process of self-discovery that continues to this day, some fifty years later. My most important lesson is that each one of us has to claim her/his own power.

Encouraging women to believe they have no ability or responsibility to make their own choices leads to demands for policies that say if two drunk college students have sexual intercourse, the male student is guilty of rape because the female doesn't have the capacity to give consent. How does this policy work if both drunk students are the same gender? Or what if one student was a transgendered woman who had formerly been a man? Would she still be considered incapable of taking responsibility for herself? 

Fortunately, there is a bright light at the end of this very long tunnel of society's approval/denial of our rape culture. The tacit support of "boys will be boys" and the blaming of women for "enticing" boys by universities and colleges are finally coming to an end. Why? Because young women have ended their silence and are using their power in the direction of truth and love for themselves. To see how, view It Happened Here, a new documentary about rape on college campuses.The war is on!

NEXT TIME: More Sex Talk

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