I suppose I should feel cheated. I’ve got a pilot’s license and a bachelor’s degree -- but I never received the instruction manual for my own body. So that’s why I didn’t know what Rep. Todd Akin does: that I could stop myself from getting pregnant after being raped!
Good grief, if I’d only known that, I wouldn’t have had any babies. Instead I had four, all as a result of repeated rapes by the man I married.
If only I’d had the “Shut That Whole Thing Down 1.0” instruction manual, I could have gone on to do whatever I wanted. All my teenage dreams would have come to fruition years ago. Instead I’m a mother of four and a grandmother of three.
The first time I got pregnant from rape, I wanted to die. Same thing the second, third and fourth times. And I almost did, and so did my three daughters and their unborn brother, in 1995.
Instead, my babies born from rape saved my life. They helped me find my inner warrior and gave me a purpose and a determination to continue living that I would never have found on my own.
As I wrote in a 2009 letter to my children:
Because of my deep and endless love for you, please know that all I comes from my heart. In my book, I write that you saved my life -- and you did, over and over again. I am convinced God gave me each and every one of you so I would have a reason to keep living. If I had not had you to live for all those years ago, death would have been the easy way out. The way to peace from all the sexual violence I suffered."
I was a 16-year-old high school senior when I got pregnant the first time after being raped, but I was fortunate. It could have happened when that very same man, a 20-year-old family friend, began raping me in eighth grade. Luckily, my body did have a way of shutting him down -- It’s called being prepubescent. That’s what I was, at 13. It took some intense physical developments -- specifically, onset of menses -- before my body would allow itself to become pregnant.
I then joined a cloistered, silent sisterhood. I was one of 32,000 women -- that’s more than 87 women a day -- who the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says get pregnant from rape in the U.S. every year. I was that woman four times, and would have been a fifth, had I not, at age 21, gotten a tubal ligation. I did not want to give up my procreative powers. I felt like they were stolen from me. Because I couldn’t stop the rapes, at least not in 1995, it was the only way I could stop the pregnancies.
That’s because I married my rapist. I married him because we lived in the Bible Belt, that part of Appalachia filled with God-fearing church folk. Ironically, more than a few girls I knew in high school waddled down the hallway with big bellies. We were placed in the national spotlight, after our school was featured on an episode of 20/20. Everyone was stigmatized, because the world suddenly knew West Preston High had the highest number of pregnant teens of any school in the country. Overnight, we became the topic of conversation around the nation.
I thought marriage would free me from the shame and humiliation that had dogged my every footstep since the first rape in the spring of 1977. Back then, I didn’t see him as my rapist: he was just my unborn baby’s father. Through marriage, I was merely trying to give that child the best life possible. Saving my family the embarrassment of having an unwed daughter -- something that seemed
to happen in every other house in the county -- was just a bonus.
But most important, from that day forward, never again would sex be wrong or leave me feeling dirty and ashamed. So in a way, I was saving myself, too.
By the time I realized that wasn’t even possible -- it was too late. After our firstborn arrived, my nights became a recurring nightmare. Exhausted and sleep-deprived, I was usually fast asleep by the time he came from home from working second shift in the coal mines. It took me awhile to wake up and realize he was performing oral sex on me, and I begged him to stop. Like I had for so many years, I just lay there and hated myself: I climaxed, which made me feel like such a traitor.
Then he slid up and over me, pinning me beneath him as I asked in a voice devoid of all emotion if I could just get my diaphragm. I didn’t want to get pregnant. Most of the time he said nothing, or he said “No,” and I began to struggle against him. It was no good, and any fight on my part only fed his hunger. I simply learned to accept the fact that he was going to do what he wanted anyway.
I never once uttered a sound, fearing it would frighten our four-month-old daughter who slept in a bassinet just inches from our bed.
By the time I sat down on the bathroom floor in 1985 and planned to kill myself, my three daughters and my unborn child, I felt like there would never be a time when I was not at the mercy of a man who did whatever he wanted, with me and to me, without a second’s hesitation. I wondered if there would ever be a time I wasn’t pregnant.
What kept me from committing murder-suicide was the knowledge the child within me deserved a chance to live -- no matter what. That gave me a stronghold to cling to, knowing I had to be there to take care of them, to raise them into responsible adults -- because no one else was going to do it. The hope was so tangible I could almost reach out and touch it. And that’s what I did for the next five years, until we all escaped.
I don’t know their names but I do know this: many, many of the other 31,999 women who are raped each year are married to their rapists.
Since my book was published last year, my suspicion was confirmed. Many women have written to me, saying the same thing happened to them, or to a loved one. Their stories are poignant and unimaginable -- and all legitimate.
The fact is, it isn’t just boyfriends or casual acquaintances who rape. Until the 1970s, state laws didn’t recognize marital rape since wives were still considered property. Essentially, the law looked at a couple and said, “They’re married, so it can’t be rape.” But guess what? Just because the law said it, didn’t make it so.
Then things began changing. The 1978 Oregon v. Rideout decision helped pave the way for laws to be passed that made it a crime for a man to force his wife to have sex. Eventually, all 50 laws recognized it as the crime it remains.
What does legitimate marital rape look like? The CDC says an estimated 10 to14-percent of women experience it on three levels: 1) Where only the amount of force that’s necessary to coerce is used; 2) Where battering happens at the same time, before, or after sex, and; 3) Sadistic rape, where perverse sexual acts occur that often involve pornography.
I experienced all three levels before I escaped from that marriage. So I know how very violent rape is, even when there's no cut of a knife, cold barrel of a gun or cuts and bruises from a clenched fist.
The act of rape is shameful; the success with which rape shames its victims can be seen in the way it effectively silences them almost immediately. Sometimes it is immediate, when we couldn’t or didn’t know to scream out for help. How could we? We were ashamed of what was happening to us, and experienced a type of shell shock from which many of us never recovered.
In the case of a lot of women like I once was -- when you’re married to a man who habitually rapes you, you’re not going to scream. Do you really want your next-door neighbor, the tenant downstairs, your landlord upstairs, to know your husband’s a rapist?
Instead, the normal tendency for rape victims, especially for married rape victims, is to remain silent while being raped. To not tell anyone else what happened to you. For the majority of those ten years, I didn’t speak to another human being about what was going on inside my bedroom. When I finally found the courage to speak up, it was to someone who minimized the crime, much like Rep. Akin and his cronies.
During the next few years, the guilt and shame I had carried began to fester, making it nearly impossible to function. I did not speak to another soul until 1990, when I first opened up to a dear friend and then later, to a compassionate counselor.
That counselor, and a subsequent hospitalization for the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder that had become my constant companion, saved my life. But my inner warrior saved my life, as well. I didn’t fight back in a tenacious, bulldog kind of way. Instead I kept plugging along, knowing what I wanted from my life, and trying to find a way to achieve it.
Many women who have been raped -- the ones who didn’t scream and even the ones who did -- may ultimately choose to voice their scream in a different way. A more public, more powerful way. Like I did. Which is why I wrote "Sister of Silence," a memoir that is now being used in three universities that I know of, including Johns Hopkins. It’s also why I speak at conferences around the country and why, in August, I was invited by the West Virginia Coalition Against Domestic Violence and WVFree, to help train social workers, mental health professionals and doctors about reproductive coercion -- which can include acts of rape.
I have a confession now, though. I didn’t just start screaming in this very public manner. I started screaming in 1977, while being raped. But only sometimes. Other times I kept my mouth shut, because I was a fast learner. I quickly realized it didn’t matter how loud I screamed: no one was coming to my aid.
Either way, my silent mind screamed for me: it yelled so loud throughout the years that what happened wasn’t really rape, couldn’t possibly have been “real” rape, that I actually believed it myself. Until that final rape in 1990, when I recognized it and all the others for what they really were: legitimate rape.
Kind of like Akin and other politicians of late. They aren’t the only ones who believe a rape cannot possibly be “legitimate” if no openly visible flesh wounds occur.
We rape victims tell ourselves that all the time, and those of us raped as wives tell ourselves that our husbands love us. Therefore, they couldn’t, wouldn’t, ever rape us. How is such a thing even possible?
But then we learned, hopefully like Akin soon will, that it was rape. And that telling yourself something over and over again doesn’t make it true.
Read More from Daleen on her blog.