Rape, Sex, Power and the Enabler

Our culture has an opportunity right now to get it right. “It” is the connection between sex, rape, and power. Penn State’s behavior gives us an opportunity to put into public discussion what other institutions, including the Catholic Church, did not. We have the power to decide, at this very moment, that rape is an act of  power over a victim. And, as Jackie Dishner’s  said so clearly in her Ms. Blog article: “Do not let [any] ‘Jerry’ convince you this is horseplay. Abuse is systematic, deliberate and requires enablers. So if there’s any game at all, it’s called pretense, and there are no winners.” It always enrages me that the abused is the one to feel shamed and dirty. The rapist hides, and continues to rape.

Wait. Watch. Wonder. Photograph by John O. Nolan. Used under a license from Creative Commons.

Rape always involves an enabler. Someone who will look the other way.The second a witness makes a deliberate decision not to help a victim–whether it’s a child or an adult–the tipping point shifts and the enabler emerges.

Why do enablers look the other way? Because institutions are very powerful. Institutions employ us, give us our paychecks and benefits, pay our insurance. We are afraid of losing our income, so when we see our institution doing something wrong, we remain silent. We rationalize this behavior by saying we are loyal. We say we aren’t going to judge. We say we aren’t going to rat out our boss, our co-worker, our company.  When we don’t say “I witnessed a crime, and if you don’t report it, I will, ” we choose to be an enabler.

In the not-too distant past, a girl who was abused kept her mouth shut. She would be blamed for “starting trouble.” She would be warned not to make trouble for the boy’s “future.” She would be threatened. How long in the past did this happen? About two weeks ago, when women stepped up to confirm that Herman Cain, a man running for President of the United States, had groped them. Other women condemned the accusers as “wanting attention.” No woman wants to be groped for attention. Yes, there are people (women and men) who lie to get attention, but there are far more people who claim raped women are exaggerating. And those accusers are enablers.

Kelly Salasin who writes the Empty(ing) Nest blog, writes touchingly (and bravely) about the shame of her giving up the right to say No.  It’s a touching blog because she acknowledges her own weakness, and her own suffering. A suffering that has lasted 25 years and changed the way she thinks about herself, relationships and closeness.

Broken Glass At Work 6, by Eric Schmuttenmaer, "akeg" under a Creative Common license.

Many years ago, I did say “No!” but there were no accolades. I fought off an older boy’s drunken advances when I was 16. He picked me up at my house like the gentleman he wanted my mom to believe he was. At the dance, he drank too much, and then he took me to his apartment, poured me a bourbon, which I did not want, and stuck his tongue into my mouth. He insisted angrily that I drink, so I took tiny sips, hating the soapy, burning taste. His experienced hands snaked into my bra and up my skirt. I said, “No!” while pushing him away, and he easily pinned me to the couch. I alternately pleaded and cried and demanded to be taken home. Tired of my squirming and screaming or too drunk to finish what he had wanted to do, he cursed me and slapped me. But he picked up his keys and said he’d take me home. He skidded off the road several times, but he got me home alive.

My mother was waiting up and saw me beaten and teary.  She called me a whore and I, not knowing how else to save myself from her wrath and punishment, told her “nothing happened.” Everything had happened. But as the enabler, she cared only that I was still a virgin.  I was “gounded”– kept in my room for a week. And the guy? He told everyone he’d had consensual sex with me; that I was a tease.  This was in the years when a girl’s reputation could be ruined by locker room talk. And it was.

I did not recognize my mother for the enabler she was that night. I did, suddenly, understand that some mothers will not protect their children. Because they need to use the power that was denied them. To my mother, it was more important to protect a man than protect her child. If my clothes were torn and my eye was swollen shut and blackened,  I must have tempted a man three years older, five inches taller, and 90 pounds heavier.  I must have been the “whore.”

I was not raped physically that night. Rape isn’t about sex, it’s about power. And I learned everything I ever needed to know about being powerless that night, those many years ago.  The incident changed the shape of power and to whom I hand over my power.

Enablers want other people’s approval  more than they can approve of themselves. They will drink the Kool-Aid to get admitted to a group for the acceptance a group offers.

What does this all mean? I’m asking you to consider who you are when you “don’t judge,” when you turn away, not wanting to get involved. Because if you do not help, you are an enabler. You have the power to change a life forever, one way or another. Choose wisely.

I did not want to write this blog. My blog is about creativity, and the many ways you can be creative. I avoid writing about politics and religion. But this week, I read this blog by Eve Ensler, and I knew that post was filled with the creative anger that creates change. And I wanted to stand up and be counted.

Quinn McDonald is a writer with a colorful past. She still hates the taste of brown liquor. She will not be an enabler.

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29 thoughts on “Rape, Sex, Power and the Enabler

  1. Thank you for writing this. We seem to be programmed to think its “our fault” for getting into those situations, when the sad truth is our only mistakes are in thinking the best of someone, instead of the worst, and misplaced trust in someone we respect and like. Those who think its OK to use force, whether sexual, physical or verbal, when no one else can see what they are doing, are two-faced hypocrites, and no matter how much “public” good they do, when they take advantage of someone else, they undo that good and more.
    Education and legislation are feeble tools against social networking that can further humiliate and hurt the victim while glorifying the perpetrator. I really feel for the young who have yet to realise the full extent of the horror that has been inflicted on them. We have been able to choose whether our experience is “outed”; modern victims do not even have that small privacy any more.
    I have no idea how this will all end; in a perfect world this would not happen, but in our imperfect world there is little or no justice for anyone, let alone help and support for the victims. We have all become enablers by default every time we go online, or switch on the TV, or read the paper.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful response, Caroline. Maybe I’m an optimist, but I believe the world changes one person at a time. I surely did not want to write this post, but I’m glad I could. Because I think this is how we heal, this is how we call for change, this is how we make change happen. One person at a time.

  2. Very powerful words today, Quinn. The whole Penn State debacle has brought forth a huge outpouring of support for the victims. (Except for the crowd outisde Paterno’s house who were more consumed with losing their football coach than the horrific things these boys had to endure.) How difficult it had to have been for the tyouhg men to come forward, always knowing that there are those who won’t believe them, who will always think their idols couldn’t do anything like that. As a former law enforcement officer, it always appalled me when parents were quicker to take the word of anyone else over that of their own child. I have nothing but admiration for those of you who went through trauma, then had a mother who called you a whore or just “got what you deserved for leading him on”, but you came through it anyway, even though you were victimized twice – once by the guy and again by your mother.
    It’s hard – whether you were lucky enough to get him to stop, whether you had to endure his cruelty, or if you ended up pregnant from that violent act. Those who speak up are extremely brave and those who believe them are as well.
    Thank you all for your courage.

  3. This whole Penn State thing has brought my past to surface again. My ex use to abuse our whole household over football games. If his teams lost then he would start with the dog, then move on to the kids and at last me. I was never allowed to say ‘no’ at night, the abuse I would go through was far worse than just giving in. I spent 10 plus years like that. I left with my kids when his younger brother was caught exposing himself to my daughters. We found out in shelter that my ex had started laying on top of our oldest daughter in her bed and it made her feel uncomfortable. Out of all of that, the years of abuse for all of us, his brother walked no charges, no treatment, just walked, my ex walked as well, only had to take a parenting class and we had to take it together. No child support was ever awarded to me, nothing. The system failed me and my children. It is time to speak up and protect this over protected institutions and people.

    • It’s a horrible story, and I hope you have become stronger for going through it. I’m so glad your daughters didn’t have to repeat your sad story. The system fails because the system protects itself first.

  4. It happened to me too. When I finally told her my mom said: you probably asked for it. All this has left a big empty hole in my being.
    I used to be a very creative person, a fashion designer and textile designer. After the rape it was all gone.
    This was in my early twenties and only now in my late fifties, very recently tiny creative bubbles are beginning to form again.

    Each month of the year should have a rape awareness day.

    • That refusal of mothers to come to the aid of their children makes me so angry. But it was very common. And it takes all our creativity to keep that emotion pushed down. It’s time to nurture your own creativity back to life. I’m so glad you can see those little bubbles coming up again.

  5. OMG Quinn, your post brought up an incident from my past. During the first month of my freshman year at college, I got involved in a situation that I should have know better than to get into, and was assaulted. I was stubborn, screamed and yelled until the boy released me, “relatively” physically unharmed. But that did impact the rest of my life, without my even realizing it.There was no enabler in my situation, and your mother betraying you like that must have been devastating. And as you say, the situations contunue. Take a stand. Thank you for your courage in posting this.

    • These stories need to come out. So many women hide these stories and let them eat through their lives. There was an enabler in your story–from someone who heard you scream and did nothing, to the society that brought you up to say nothing after screaming “No!” I was my own enabler when I told my mother “nothing happened” to avoid her wrath. We can learn from everything, no matter how damaging.

  6. {a gentle, supportive hug for your 16 year old self}
    The point that got me was that judging and taking action concept. I´ve realized that the constant “do not judge” attitude is not helpful in certain situations.
    Off to read the other links. Thanks.

  7. I am so sad that awful experience happened to you. I also celebrate not only your courage in fighting him off that night, but your persistence in believing in yourself despite your mother’s abandonment. Your post is a call to action and consciousness – Thank you!

    • Now that I’m reading more and more of these stories, it is so comforting to realize, even now, that I am not alone. And that so many worse things happened to so many innocent children. And yes, at 16, I was an innocent child. But how many other children never got to have a childhood?

  8. I am so PROUD, PROUD, PROUD of you, for your courage to speak out on this subject! I am standing and applauding you! You are speaking out for millions who have been victimized. My heart also hurts and tears are streaming down my face while reading your experience. It makes me feel sick inside. A deep heart ache for you. I’m so, so sorry this happened to you, but so incredibly thankful for your courage to stand up and be counted for change. I’m proud to know you, Quinn. So proud and deeply honored.

    • It’s a big pile, Jackie. Your story was so well written–so filled with strength. I would say that not everyone has your strength to stand up, but when you pointed out the enablers, I saw that it was the place to start. No more looking the other way. I hate what happened to you Jackie, and I hate how rape can change the life of a child. Thank you for standing up. You have many people cheering you on.

  9. I read your post, Quinn. I read all of the posts that you linked to –which I really hope everyone who reads your post will take the time to do. Your experience–together with the experiences of the other brave women who wrote–all of you who are tired of remaining quiet, unable to remain quiet, who no longer are willing to acquiesce power — may it give others of us who have our own stories, the courage to stand up and refuse to be silenced.

    Maybe it does take a village – a village to call out rapists, to call out enablers. Or maybe it takes each of us who has a story to call out the perpetrators, call out the enablers, refuse to look the other way because our jobs may be in jeopardy, our reputations may be muddied. If we take back our power, perhaps we can prevent others from experiencing the horrors of being violated in body and spirit, and the resulting dehumanizing feeling of not being believed or taken seriously or protected.

    Can we take back our power and free our words, free our spirits? Can we speak with such force? Would the would-be perpetrators then know that there would be repercussions to their heinous actions, that power is in truth not coercion, that institutions would no longer look the other way in the face of wrongdoing, but stand up for morality and what is intrinsically right?

    Can we change our world–one person at a time, one voice at a time?

    • I think we can, Bo. If women support each other in this–and that’s a big IF, because, in my experience, women don’t support each other, then rapists won’t be able to hide, to use women to gain their power. It starts with outing enablers.

  10. Thank you very much for this post. It made me step back and think of so many amazing things and I thank you for the courage to be so forthright. I realize I work in a building of enablers. I choose to leave, yet not silently.

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