“What we were not prepared for was everything else. Rape was something we could identify, an act with a strict definition and two distinct scenarios. Not rape was something else entirely. Not rape was all those other little things that we experienced everyday and struggled to learn how to deal with those situations. In those days, my ears were filled with secrets that were not my own, the confessions of not rapes experienced by the girls I knew then and the women I know now.” – Latoya Peterson, The Not Rape Epidemic
Last week, Bristol Palin released her memoir, Not Afraid of Life: My Journey So Far, a book that examines Bristol’s experience growing up in the political life of Mama Palin, her current spotlight and of course, her relationship with Levi Johnston, father of her son and soon-to-be author of his own Palin influenced memoir, Deer in the Headlights: My Life in Sarah Palin’s Crosshairs. The book is par for the course as far as tell-all pseudo celebrity memoirs by twenty-one-year-olds go, but one of the most concerning pieces of information that comes out of the book is Palin’s first sexual encounter, ever, with then boyfriend, Johnston. Palin, while in still high school, had gone on a camping trip with Levi and had had one too many drinks, only to wake up the next morning with obvious signs of Levi having had sex with her the night before. She had no recollection of the incident.
The 20-year-old single mom reveals that, while drunk for the very first time, she lost her virginity to Levi Johnston during a camping trip. Palin says she woke up alone in her tent, with no recollection as to what happened. Johnston, meanwhile, “talked with his friends on the other side of the canvas.” From the book: “I’m not accusing Levi of date-rape or rape at all, but I am just looking back with the adult eyes that I have now and just thinking that was a foolish decision.” After stating this, she later went on to say that she should have “never put herself into a situation like that.”
Of course, nothing solid has been said here. It becomes an incident in that murky, grey area known as “not rape,” where nothing is outright, yet it’s not right either. If rape was hard enough to defend from the ignorance that can spout from people’s mouths, “not rape” is a whole other beast that comfortably lives as part of the ever-evolving rape culture and attempts at defining what rape actually looks like. Rape is often defined as this type of solid attack. A woman walking down the street at night and held up at gunpoint. A struggle. “Not rape” is everything else, the incidents that make up our consciousness of what it means to be part of a culture that sees little justice for those who drank too much, who wore the “wrong” thing, were in the wrong situation, are incarcerated or sex workers, who might be married or partnered or aren’t cisgendered or heterosexual. It is the blame we issue on women for making mistakes that caused them to get into this situation. They shouldn’t have lied to their parents, or been drinking, or whatever it is they were doing or being. Otherwise, it obviously could have been avoided. I almost need not mention the pathetic absence of conversation we have around educating young men with the premise of not taking advantage of women, of not raping. One only has to look at the recent situation of Lara Logan’s assault, where editor of the online arts magazine Broad Street Review , Dan Rottenberg said, “And if you want to be taken seriously as a journalist, don’t pose for pictures that emphasize your cleavage”, to know that this problem isn’t going away anytime soon. Nor is the victim blaming of what happens when you aren’t the “perfect victim” and your assault isn’t so black and white.
We fumble over instances of rape and “not rape” all the time. Whoopi Goldberg has talked about the difference between rape and “rape-rape,” whatever the fresh hell that is. During the Julian Assange case, AOL news seemed to be absolutely comfortable with making up the “Swedish rape law” which defined rape as sex without a condom or by surprise, a claim later proven very untrue by the Swedish legal system. The actual claims made against Assange are proof of what happens when rape takes place after consensual acts and the ever-failing dialogue on what rape and “not rape” can actually constitute. Koss M.P of Hidden Rape: Incidence, Prevalence and Descriptive Characteristics of Sexual Aggression and Victimization in a National Sample of College Students, released a study that defined 75% of sampled men as committing acts of “date rape,” by meeting criteria of coercion by alcohol, relationship status and pressure. When these men were asked what they viewed as rape, of course, none of these acts met their qualifications for rape. These things were just part of sex, or even more liberally applied as the benefits and downfalls of “hook-up culture.”
Rape, though most of us could define it like porn, being that we know it when we see it, often rests in a realm of othering when alcohol, drugs or coercion are involved. One only has to look at the comment section of any article covering Palin’s claim of “stolen virginity” to see examples of how people don’t view rape as a possibility when you “bring it upon yourself” or when you are in a relationship, or even if two people are drunk. This becomes even more complicated when you consider queer, immigrant, incarcerated, transgendered and disabled people affected by instances of not rape and rape. How can we equally serve justice and bring attention to it, when there is so much lacking in it’s acceptance?
The story of plying younger women with alcohol for sexual possibility is nothing new, yet there is truth to the slipperiness of what becomes consensual and not. One can hope that Palin’s experience raises questions about the nature of what sexual assault can and often does look like:
Levi wasn’t even there to help me process – or even confirm my greatly feared suspicions… Instead of waking up in his arms, I awakened in a cold tent alone.
If Palin is telling the truth, then she is shedding some light on one of the many ambiguous ways in which women experience “not rape,” as well as how we deal with it. If its just an exaggeration created by the Palin clan to keep Bristol’s book hot on the shelf, well… I can’t even mentally go there. The intentions of them doing so, leaving the consequences it reaps for everyone else who actually has to deal with being in a situation like the one Palin describes, is terrifying. The fact that I am having trouble taking the Palin word for credibility leaves me questioning my own internalized victim blaming and misogyny, which speaks of the even larger issue of when “questionable” people come forward to talk about their sexual assault. “Not rape” is something I still have my own issues with and leaves me wondering what a young woman from a highly conservative family might define as rape, as well as “not rape.” These are the things we have been trained to not see, the things that we have been trained to accept as part of the natural consequences of having a hole between our legs. This is the ever evolving aspect of what rape culture actually looks like.
We can’t define each others sexual experiences, whether good, bad, or even questionable, bordering on assault. Palin’s language around the incident reflects a nameless hesitancy that young women feel when reporting violations of their own sexual autonomy. When incidents of rape are treated as finger pointing cases of women just getting what they had coming to them, then what happens when we try and talk about all the violations in between? It would be easy to end this on one of the most solid points of the movement to end sexual violence and rape, the idea that rape is rape is rape. But what happens when we can’t even define it for ourselves?