I Was Raped at 55. Here Is How I Responded.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 29 2013 5:07 AM

Rape Myths

I was raped at 55. Here is how I responded.

Woman sitting in corner, head in hand (B&W)

Photo by Terry Vine/Stone/Getty Images

Angie Epifano, the woman who was raped last fall in an Amherst dorm room, reported that she could hear her friends having fun in the next room as she endured the ordeal.* I mentioned this to a friend of mine recently, and she wondered why Angie hadn’t banged on the wall or yelled for help. On the surface, my friend’s question may seem legitimate, until you consider that it is less often asked about women who have been beaten or kidnapped, and almost never about women who have been robbed or mugged. Most consider it a sign of coolheaded intelligence for the victim of a mugging, for example, to peaceably hand over whatever the thief asks for, while keeping one’s eyes averted like we’re told to do when confronted by an aggressive dog. Practically the first thing you’re taught in a course on how to respond to a rapist is that you should not fight or make a scene because you could end up dead.

I didn’t scream or fight, either, when I was raped in my own bed at the age of 55. The reasons were logical and illogical, historic, complex, and also smart. He held a knife, and I assumed he was the serial rapist who had been breaking into women’s houses in my Mexican town for eight months. I’d heard accounts of the four women he’d raped before me. The first two had fought and been beaten; the second two, having heard about the first two, didn’t fight and so were not left with black eyes and bruised ribs.

Even if the man who raped me had not held a knife and I’d heard nothing of his other attacks, I’m 99.9 percent sure I wouldn’t have fought. I have never been in a physical fight in my life, have no training in martial arts, and do not consider myself strong enough to ward off any man. Also there was an awful inevitableness about it all, of a worse fear come true, an acceptance: Now, I will be raped. Still, I did try to talk him out of it. “This is sick,” I said, repeating back words he’d used himself with his other victims in a perverse version of post-rape intimacy during which he tried to ellicit sympathy by talking about how sick he was.

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“You talk too much,” he barked at me, then imitated a whining baby, “Na, na, na, na.”

This taunting did not make me angry. I was not angry—or perhaps I was not in touch with my anger. I was too terrified, my heart buzzing like a field of bees, adrenaline charging through every organ, my skin vibrating. Perhaps women who do respond physically to danger possess a fighter’s instinct, physical prowess, or they’ve been taught to stick up for themselves. A friend of mine was once out sailing alone with a man who tried to rape her when they were far from shore. She kicked him then jumped overboard and swam more than a mile to safety. Recently, while the same friend and I crossed a Brooklyn street and a car at a light jumped forward, she pounded the fender with her fist, shouting, “Asshole!” A reaction I admired. Mine had been to believe I must have been crossing out of turn.

We are all different; still, every woman I know, from the moment she’s learned such a thing can happen, dreads being raped. Most of us walk through a dark house, building, parking lot, or down a deserted street, afraid of the shadows, of the strange sadistic man, lurking, stalking, plotting to pleasure himself by the rush of power he will get from our humiliation and the subjugation of our will to his. And then when it does happen—whether it’s a stranger or, even more likely, a person you know—which it will to an estimated one-quarter of the women in the world; when you are physically appropriated for someone else’s pleasure; when you smell him; when his hands and fists and weapons touch your body; when this man, whose intention is to take whatever he wants from you no matter how you feel about it, mimics postures and actions that have been shared before only in intimate consensual moments, a response to this sick perversion of intimacy does happen, even if it’s nonphysical and nonverbal: It’s a plea in your heart, Don’t hurt me; a begging, Please go away. Rape victims do not exactly remain silent during the rape. They’re screaming inaudibly through the whole thing.

Some women  may become silent for other reasons: fear that we won’t be believed, shame of being seen as at best unlucky and at worst damaged, dread of the stigma that will attach itself, and knowledge of the human tendency to blame the victim to avoid empathizing with her, which would require imagining another’s horror and humiliation as our own.

But there’s another reason some women stay silent: Women have internalized the message that if it happened to them they must have at some deep, subconscious level caused, invited, even wanted it to happen. In countries that are still squeamish about sex—I count both the U.S. and Mexico among them—women will never feel comfortable admitting to sexual crimes done to them. I was at an advantage. At 55, I’d been a feminist my entire adult life; I refused to feel guilty and knew better than to indulge my feelings of shame. Yet I still dreaded being known for the rest of my life as a woman who’d been raped, a victim. Gratefully, my indignation soon overrode this: I hadn’t done anything to be ashamed of, dammit, the rapist had. I reported the attack, and wrote the details of it in the town newspaper. Five days after the article appeared, the rapist was caught, and then he was convicted.

Beverly Donofrio.
Beverly Donofrio.

Courtesy of the author

Before the trial, the judge mandated that I talk to a court-appointed psychologist to assess whether I’d been damaged by the attack. The psychologist was embarrassed by his task and apologized for his “backward country.” He told me that if the rapist were found guilty, the severity of his sentence would be determined by how much damage he’d caused. I told him I no longer wanted to sleep in, or even live in the house I’d built and loved; I told him I couldn’t sleep through the night and often awoke screaming, convinced there was an evil presence in my room. Later, at the trial, the judge asked me why I didn’t fight. I told her about my foreknowledge of what had happened to the other victims. I did not even think to say with high indignation, “He had a knife, [you moron].”

As a society, we subliminally hold ancient prejudices. The woman must be at least complicit in any rape and even the instigator, by dressing or acting provocatively, by not being sufficiently wary, by incautiously walking down a deserted street in the night or the day, by getting drunk, by leaving a party with a guy, by accepting an invitation, being too naïve, trusting, sexy. Merely by being women, we’re alluring, and worse: we’re temptresses. With this course of reasoning, the burka seems a reasonable solution.

In societies like ours that accept rape myths—acquaintance rape happens because of “mixed signals,” rapists can’t control sexual urges, women lie about being raped, women invite rape by their actions or their dress—men are more likely to commit rape because these beliefs make it seem almost acceptable.

At my trial, the serial rapist’s attorney read his deposition. In it he said he’d have a few beers then break into women’s houses and “cause a little mischief.” I’ve no doubt that is exactly how he thought of his crime. I’ve no doubt many rapists think the same of their crimes: “Na, na, na, na, na.” Stop whining; what’s the big deal? The rapist was asked if he had anything he wanted to add to his deposition, and he ran on for an hour. Among other woe-is-me statements, this is the most memorable: “These women are ruining the good name of my family.”

How dare we cause all this trouble?

How dare we not?

*Correction, July 29, 2013: This article originally stated that Angie Epifano was raped at a frat party. She was raped in a dorm room.

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