Content warning: sexual assault, rape
When I was six years old, my dad, who was at the time training to be a medical doctor, took me into my brother’s room and did what I can only now construct as inserting an applicator into my vagina to treat a yeast infection.
I say this because I don’t know. No one told me then, or since, exactly what happened. What I do know is that I was alone with my dad, that my vagina was hurting before we went into the room, and that when he laid me on the floor, whatever he did made me feel like I was being ripped open – like something was inside of me, lighting me on fire. I screamed and I squirmed, and it did not stop. I know I dissociated because I have a vivid memory of what the room looked like from the floor. And then it was over and we left the room and my vagina stopped hurting and no one explained to me what had just happened and we never talked about it again.
The US Department of Justice defines rape as “the penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” What happened to me in my brother’s bedroom fits this legal definition of rape, and, importantly, it impacted me in ways consistent with the experiences of rape survivors. From childhood into adulthood, I have been terrified of doctors, especially male doctors, believing that if I did not comply with their requests something bad would happen. I resisted affection from my dad, afraid that returning it to him would be read as consent to rape me, and at the same time I protected him, keeping the secret of what happened in my brother’s room. He visited me in nightmares, chasing me with needles that would inject me with medicine to incapacitate me, making it impossible for me to resist whatever he chose to do to me. As an adult, I was diagnosed with vulvodynia and vaginismus, both of which have been linked to childhood trauma and abuse (see here and here). For 25 years, my thighs were so tight I could not feel them, involuntarily clenching at the first sign of danger or stress, at the ready to protect me from being harmed again. I swallowed vomit as I recounted this event to my therapist for the first time. I Googled “can children get yeast infections,” questioning whether the story I had constructed could possibly be true.
And yet: most of my life I have believed that no one would call what happened to me rape because “it needed to be done.” My dad was helping me, not hurting me. And I was a child when this happened, and have the memories of my childhood self, memories whose legitimacy would surely not count as “beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
For these reasons, I have until now chosen not to call what happened to me rape, and in doing so have downplayed the significance of this event in my life. This choice is aligned with what the literature calls “unacknowledged rape,” which is “when an individual has an experience that satisfies either a legal or empirical definition of rape, but they do not label the incident as rape.” Unacknowledged rape is common, and researchers link this phenomenon to the pervasiveness of rape myths, “prejudicial, stereotyped, or false beliefs about rape, rape victims, and rapists” that are externalizations of patriarchy. Rape myths include stories like “she asked for it,” “it wasn’t really rape if…,” “she wanted it,” and “rape is a trivial event.” These stories significantly narrow the range of experiences that are socially acceptable to label as rape and communicate shared responsibility for assault – that is, they communicate that rape survivors are partially at fault for what happened to them, no matter the circumstances. (Note that they also frame gender in binary terms, preserving patriarchal language even as they resist one violent outcome of patriarchy.)
My claim, rooted in my experiences as a rape survivor and as a person whose childhood-onset chronic illnesses have precipitated a lifetime of experience in Western medical culture, is that Western medical epistemologies (what is considered valid knowledge in a discipline), ontologies (what kind of thing medicine and bodies are thought to be), and axiologies (what is considered valuable) are mutually reinforcing of rape culture.
In my particular case:
- Splitting my body into “parts” (ontology) made it possible for my dad-acting-as-doctor to imagine that he was “treating my vagina,” without consideration of the ways in which it might traumatize me as a whole person.
- The notion of ideal bodies (and especially young bodies) as pain- and pathology-free (ontology) advances an ideological “of course” narrative where treating my vaginal pain/yeast infection is in primary focus (axiology), with my sexual wellness and consent out of focus.
- Conceptions of medical expertise (epistemology) that cultivate hierarchies of knowledge (axiology) created an expectation of compliance with an external assessment of what is right for my body.
These epistemologies, ontologies, and axiologies construct a world in which my dad-acting-as-doctor was right, even benevolent, in his choice. Even as his choice was to penetrate me without my consent.
For me to call this rape is to deny any responsibility to comply with his expertise. It is to challenge the often-deployed rape myths, fueled here by Western medical ways of knowing and being, that “it wasn’t really rape” and that “rape [of this kind] is a trivial event.” To really and truly call this rape is to say this is a big deal not because I’m too sensitive, because the compliance expected of me by Western medicine says that I should really just toughen up already. It is a big deal because rape is a big deal. (And if, at this point in this essay, you are still asking, “But was it really rape?,” you have missed my point entirely and are reifying the rape myths that I mean to challenge.)
Just as I am exercising my agency to claim this definition of rape as a lens for my experiences, it can absolutely be empowering to reject it, assuming that you are doing so in the context of something that has been done to you (and not that you have done to another person). I have felt kept from the freedom to write my own story; I want you to have the freedom to write yours.
To those of you thinking that this is extra complicated because it was my dad: Yes, absolutely, unquestionably. But if you are using complexity to dismiss the role of Western medicine in my story, I answer this: My dad was the original offender, but a lifetime of interactions with medical professionals have reified and normalized the conditions that supported his decision. A lifetime of interactions has communicated that my role is to be compliant and to be tough, to be grateful and unassuming. A lifetime of interactions has put me in my place.
Telling my story is an act of refusal, action in service of my dream of a world where Western medical epistemologies, ontologies, and axiologies no longer turn children into rape survivors and silence stories that need to be told. I believe another world is possible because I have seen it in my own care, in contexts where consent and trauma-informed care are prioritized.
To those of you saying #metoo: I believe you. You deserved so much more, so much better.