With the reversal of Harvey Weinstein’s conviction for rape in Manhattan, his victims will once again have to testify, relive the fear, the revulsion, the embarrassment of what happened to them. They will have to own again the word rape, which never comes easy. 

In 2018, emboldened by the #MeToo movement and by Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony about Brett Kavanaugh, I published an essay describing what had happened to me in the office of a music executive roughly 40 years earlier. I was one of many women who finally felt they could break their silence about sexual assaults, about rape, who leaned on the support of a movement that said they no longer had to hide. I had never told anyone – not a therapist, a friend, not even my husband when I was married. No one. But despite the fact that I described how I went numb, how I froze when he pulled my legs apart, I still could not use the word rape. I called it a sexual assault. The word rape hovered above me, like an anvil waiting to come down, and I cowered, afraid I wouldn’t survive its blow.

 Words have power, we all know that. But some words aim for the center of our being and knock the wind out of us. Rape is one of those words. By calling what happened to me a sexual assault, I could stay in a murkier area. I could lean on a phrase that can mean many different things, and even though I wrote about the weight of his body on mine as he penetrated me, the smell of his breath, the way my muscles lost all their strength – by not calling it rape I didn’t have to risk fighting for breath from the anvil-blow of the word.  Weeks later, a friend who had praised me for writing the piece, pointed out the obvious, that I hadn’t called it what it was. Rape. I knew that was coming, and I finally allowed myself to step over the line I had drawn and say the word. On a warm California evening, in an office with a leather couch and fluorescent lights, I was raped. Once I finally called it what it was, there was no going back. We have to stand in front of the word in all its wounding power and remind ourselves that we survived it and will continue to survive. It brands us once we say it whereas the phrase sexual assault keeps us a little bit unbranded.

 It was interesting to me that in the E. Jean Carrol civil suit against Donald Trump, the jury of 6 men and 3 women found Trump guilty of sexual abuse but not of rape. E. Jean Carrol, after not using the word for a while, eventually said emphatically on the stand that he raped her. We will never fully know the reasons, but it made me wonder what experiences the jury members might have had, either themselves or with people they know. It brought me face to face again with the irrefutable power of the word. That one-syllable word transports all of us to a place of violence, humiliation, and fear. People whose lives haven’t been touched by rape often cringe from the word. Those of us who have been raped don’t want to re-visit the darkness it ushers in.   

 But only by revisiting it, only by calling a rape by its accurate name are we able to fully process our feelings and wrestle the memory into a corner of ourselves where we’re not always stumbling over it. We will never get past the memory, but it doesn’t have to trip us up as we go through life. Standing apart from the word rape, from the fact of it, also means we’re still haunted by questions we asked ourselves ever since it happened. In my case, I wondered if I should have known not to say yes to an appointment so late in the day, when it was a given that the office building would empty out. Should I have worn jeans instead of a skirt? Should I not have worn makeup? Was I flirtatious in any way?  In other words, was any of it my fault? Most victims are haunted by questions like this. But once we step forward, straight toward that anvil that’s poised in front of us, and say, “I was raped,” those questions go away. Because rape in all its brutality leaves no room for them.

 It’s much like grief – we have to go through a number of stages before finally coming to acceptance. I didn’t want to define myself as a rape victim, but once I did, the word – even with all its power and dominance – could no longer knock the wind out of me.

 Ashley Judd has called this reversal of Harvey Weinstein’s conviction a “betrayal.” And it is. Many women still don’t report rape because they fear what the legal system will put them through. Rape is not about sex. It’s about power and violence. The legal system is quite often about power, and stepping into that arena can make one feel like they’re being raped again. 

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