NEW YORK — Rape victims find courtrooms are dangerous places--so most avoid them. Nine of 10 rapes go unreported. For those that go to trial, annihilating the victim--through insult, innuendo, intimidation, forced repetition of every detail, the pressure of continuing public humiliation before family, friends, co-workers--is still the rapist's best chance for acquittal; and acquittal is the usual outcome. Feminists call the trial "the second rape."
Now, thanks to the New York Times and NBC News, there will be a third rape--by the media. If a woman's reporting a rape to the police means she will be exposed by the media to the scrutiny of voyeurs and worse, a sexual spectacle with her legs splayed open in the public mind, reporting itself will be tantamount to suicide. Because of my own experience with sexual abuse and media exposure, I know the consequences are unbearable.
In February, 1965, I was arrested at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in New York City. I was imprisoned in the Women's House of Detention for four days before a judge released me on my own recognizance.
In the jail, all the orifices of my body, including mouth, vagina and rectum, were searched many times, by hand, by many persons. I was told the jailers were looking for heroin. My clothes were taken away because I was wearing pants and a men's sweat shirt. Only dresses were allowed in that house of rectitude.
I was given a flimsy robe that had no buttons or hooks--there was no way to close it. My bra, underpants and the sash to the robe were taken away so I wouldn't kill myself. For four days, I had nothing else to wear.
To see whether I had syphilis, I was examined by two male doctors. They never did the blood test for syphilis; instead, they drew blood from my vagina. The brutal internal examination they forced on me, my first, caused me to bleed for 15 days--when I finally decided it wasn't my period. My family doctor, a taciturn man whom I had never seen express emotion, even as he treated my mother's heart attacks, strokes and experimental heart surgery, said he had never seen a uterus so bruised or a vagina so ripped. He cried. I was 18.
I came out of jail unable to speak. This is a frequent response to sexual abuse--but in 1965 no one knew that. Sexual abuse wasn't on anyone's map of the everyday world until feminists redrew the map.
I couldn't talk, I couldn't stop bleeding, I didn't know what they had done to me. The men I worked with against the war laughed at me--a girl struck dumb. But they knew someone had stuck something up me and they figured I deserved it. I lived with two men. They said I was sick and unclean--they thought the bleeding was some sexual disease--and they threw me out. My mother said I was an "animal," and my parents threw me out.
The writer Grace Paley took me in, in a sense taught me how to speak again by forcing me to tell her what had happened, convinced me that speaking was right by believing me. So I spoke out. I wrote the New York Times and the New York Post. I went through the Yellow Pages and wrote every newspaper listed. I wanted the prison torn down. I wrote a graphic letter--after all, I didn't know the word "speculum," and it was a speculum that had done most of the ripping.
I had a scholarship to Bennington College--this happened during the work term of my first year. The papers liked that: Bennington Girl Brutalized in Internal Examination in Women's Prison. The doctors had liked it, too. During the assault, they joked about how they liked to go up to Bennington to find girls. Newspapers and rapists tend to find the same facts compelling.
I went to the newspapers because I was an idealist who wanted to stop prison abuses. I believed in sexual liberation, birth control and abortion as a right. I believed in ending poverty, racism and war. I loved reading and I wanted to be a writer. I'm not cynical now and I wasn't then; but I had had a tough childhood. I had learned to take a lot of pain and to do what was necessary to stay alive, including stealing food when I was hungry.
I had been raped twice before. No one used the word "rape." The first time I was 9; my parents didn't report it. The second time, a month before the jail incident, was what is now called "acquaintance rape." Yes, I fought; yes, he beat me; yes, he hurt me, and no, I never told anyone. Yes, there was blood; yes, there were bruises; but the unspeakable physical pain was between the legs--the rape part. Women are human down there, too.