Crying Fire

They tell us, "Cry fire,
It's the only way to draw a crowd."
Guess no one wants to hear about
Another woman going down.

Been crying fire
For so many years now,
But we're still dropping like flies.
These fires are not going out.

You know women, they make these things up,
Crying rape, crying wolf, crying fire.
If all of their stories were true,
Then all of these men would be liars.
They're just crying fire.*

I like to use imagery.  I like to think in images, really, always trying to draw a picture with words.  But I can't use imagery when I talk about this because, as anyone who has experienced it will tell you, the memory of it is so visceral, so close, it can spring up and squeeze the air out of your chest any moment of any day.  I can't talk about what it looks like in my head without going back there.

So, I can't tell this story as I tell other stories.  This is not a story to me.  This is not legislation.  This is the truth lived out by 1.3 million girls and women a year in this country alone*.  Almost one in five American women will live through a rape in their lifetime.  Only about 15% of those women will have the decency to get themselves "legitimately" raped by a stranger.  The other 85% are attacked by someone they know at least well enough to be called an acquaintance.

This is not a theoretical crime.  Though its victims are often afraid to name themselves, they are all around us.  They are 20% of the female population, which comes to roughly 10% of the general population.  One in every ten people in line around you at the grocery store, one in every ten people in the movie theater, along the church pew, sitting around you in traffic.

Rape is built into the fabric of our society in a way that is so sinister and pervasive it has managed to terrorize and dehumanize a significant portion of the population while somehow still masquerading as a rare, isolated kind of crime.  Something done to women in dark parking lots.  Something done at gunpoint, behind a parked car, on oil-stained asphalt.  Not, as it so often is, something done in a familiar place, by someone you had reason to trust.

It happens to one in five women, and yet a curtain of silence hangs around it.  We splash murders across the news, murders, bombings, robberies, police car chases, drug busts, beatings.  But we don't talk about rape, not unless we're forced to address it in the context of an abortion story.  In fact, we are told that even if we are attacked in a parking lot and scream that we are being raped, no one will come to help us.  No, instead we need to scream that there's a fire because then someone might actually care enough to come to our aid.

And the women who have lived through it get the message: no one wants to hear about your rape.  No one wants to see the face of the crime. No one wants to stop it.  No one wants to fix the broken parts of society that make rape a daily reality for 10% of the population.

So those of us who have lived it find quiet ways to cope.  We swallow the violence against our bodies, and we swallow the vow of silence.  We swallow it like a piece of old charcoal smoldering in our bellies, filling our mouths with ash.  We swallow it and we cry in secret.  We turn the shower on as hot as it will go and try to blast the violence off our skin.  We hide in bathroom stalls.  We drink too much or run ten miles or try to eat away the bitter taste of being a victim of a crime that everyone wants to pretend doesn't really exist. 

And we're not man haters, but we can't help but see that the men who are in power, the men who say they stand for family values, belittle that struggle by saying things like "legitimate rape."  The men in our lives, even the ones who abhor rape, keep their mouths shut about it, too, not willing to be the one who shatters the silence on the subject.

People like me, they look at that, and they want to scream.  They want to kick at the walls and throw the TV.  They think about how the women in the bible would rend their clothes.  They think about cultures that keen and wish they had a cry of agony all their own that could come out of their ash-filled mouths.  They see the insidious spread of rape culture in their society and ask the sky: When is someone going to stand up and stop this?  When is someone going to speak out against this mentality?  When is someone going to finally put an end to the silence around rape and start a real conversation about how close and how prevalent this act really is?

They don't want to see the answer, even when it becomes unavoidable.  They don't want to admit they secretly knew all along who would have to stand up and clear the dust off their tongues.  They don't want to be the ones to start the conversation.

I don't want to start the conversation.  But it's becoming increasingly clear that no one else will.  And so today I will start here, start by saying that the issue of sexual assault deserves more attention and more respect than a clumsy afterthought to the abortion debate. Rape is happening to 1.3 million American women every year, all around us.  It's time to admit that women don't need more self defense classes.  Women need a society that says in no uncertain terms that rape is wrong all of the time, in all circumstances.  Women need to be told the burden of preventing rape falls not on the victim but on the rapist.  Women need the shame of rape to be taken off of the victims and placed squarely on the shoulders of the perpetrator. 

It's time for us all to sweep the veil of secrecy from our eyes and the ashy taste of shame from our lips. For me, the conversation starts here.  It's time to stop teaching girls to cry fire. 

*Various notes and explanations: The stats in this piece come from a 2011 U.S. government survey on sexual violence as outlined in this New York Times article.  The stories of coping mechanisms are all true, lived by me or told to me by other women I've known who have shared with me about their rapes.  The lyrics in the intro are from a song I wrote many years ago called "Cry Fire." For a gut-wrenching description of rape culture (and overall indictment of its prevalence in society) read Shakesville's Rape Culture 101. Finally, though I did not address it directly here, I do not in any way mean to discount the 1 in 71 men who survive rape in their lifetimes. 


  1. I just have to say that this is an intensely painful topic for you to post on, and to read about. You continue to awe me with your courage. The only thing I want to say is that, as a man, I am appalled by the thought of so many women being so savagely abused. Truthfully, I knew these numbers, but it is so hard to even grasp the full extent of the pain caused by evil men. I WANT to say something. I WANT to speak out. I just don't know how to. Also, it is such a taboo issue, that I can't think of an environment where women will say they were raped, and I could in any way support them or speak out for them. It is not tacit approval when we don't advocate for rape victims, I truthfully don't know the vehicle for change.

    1. Chris, I understand what you are saying. Because this is such a taboo subject, it's hard to broach the subject for anyone, including those who want to help. I think one way to start is by speaking out when anyone makes comments like Akin's because those kinds of comments imply there is "real" rape and some lesser version that is not as terrible to experience. Since the vast majority of rapes are committed by acquaintances in a familiar environment, comments like Akin's "legitimate rape"comment imply that the most common type of rape is not as bad as the stranger in a parking lot scenario. They could be perceived, in essence, almost as tacit approval of the non-legitimate kind of rape. The more we speak out, wherever we can, to say that rape is rape, that is always the perpetrator's fault, and that it is always terrible, the faster we will begin to make a difference.

  2. Thank you for a beautifully written response to the idiocy of people like Akin. I admire your strength and courage.

    1. Thank you. It's not an easy or fun thing to talk about, but I think it needs to be done.

  3. Once again you take what is in my heart and mind and give it a voice. Thank you. Shame and guilt will no longer hold me hostage and keep me quiet.

    1. I'm so glad it spoke to you. When I start to write something hard, I have to remind myself that it is worth the discomfort of being honest if there is a chance it could help even one person.

  4. The "1 in 71 men have been raped" stat from the CDC survey doesn’t tell the whole story. It defines "rape" as the attacker penetrating the victim, which excludes women who use their vagina to rape a man (rape by envelopment) which is counted as “made to penetrate”. The very same survey says “1 in 21 men (4.8%) reported that they were made to penetrate someone else,” which is far more than 1 in 71. Also, the study says that 79.2% of male victims of “made to penetrate” reported only female perpetrators, meaning they were raped by a woman.

    The above, lifetime stats do show a lower percentage of male victims (up to 1.4% rape by penetration + 4.8% made to penetrate = 6.2%) than female victims (18.3%) although it is far more than the 1 in 71 you stated. However, if you look at the report’s stats for the past 12 months, just as many number of men were “forced to penetrate” as women were raped, meaning that if you properly define “made to penetrate” as rape, men were raped as often as women.

    1. Thank you for this clarification. I thought the 1 in 71 number looked low. I am the first to admit I have not done much research on the male end of sexual abuse. I really don't intend to leave anyone out, but I guess I feel ill equipped to speak about a subject I don't have much information on or experience dealing with. Clearly, the problem is widespread on both sides.

  5. Imagine someone was injured in a car accident. But instead of getting help and support right away, they were told by the world at large that being in a car accident was shameful and unspeakable. Worse yet - maybe they were driving, so they deserve the pain and the fear that will haunt them for the rest of their lives. Or they aren't believed - "but So-and-So is such a careful driver, you must be mistaken!"

    We don't do this with car accidents, but we do this with rape and child sexual abuse. The culture of shame and silence needs to end. Thank you so much for your powerful words that are helping shatter the silence.


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