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.