WARNING: If you have been sexually assaulted, this blog post may trigger traumatic memories. Read on at your own discretion.
On June 30, Dudzile Zozo, a South African lesbian, was raped and murdered less than a meter from her home. She was found nearly naked, her vagina ruptured by a toilet brush, which was still embedded in her when her mother found her bloody, battered body. Zozo was yet another victim of the violent trend of "corrective rape" of lesbians.
I wrote about Zozo's murder for The Advocate and have written about corrective rape before, in Curve, SheWired and other publications. It's a harrowing crime of such extreme violence that the details will make your stomach turn. Corrective rape is meant to teach lesbians how to be "real" women.
But South Africa seems far away -- the literal other end of the world. And Americans still seem to have a distorted, 19th-century view of rape, one that barely includes heterosexual women, let alone lesbians.
That view, held by some members of Congress and the Pentagon hierarchy as well as many average Americans, depicts rape as something rare, not-quite-believable and possibly the woman's fault. The idea that women are complicit in rape seems especially true when the victim is younger. The term "date rape" implies that rape by an acquaintance is not "rape rape," as Whoopi Goldberg famously said about Roman Polanski's anal, oral and vaginal rape of his then-13-year-old victim in 1977.
When the victim is older -- middle-aged or more -- there's a snide implication that she somehow "got lucky." Rape and sex are still conflated, as they were last month during congressional hearings on sexual assault in the military. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) characterized rape as a natural result of male hormones.
Rape is not about sex. Rape is about violence.
Department of Justice statistics state that nearly a quarter of a million women are raped every year in America.
I was one of them.
Like an estimated 39 percent of rape victims, I was raped more than once, first as a college student, and again more recently. I didn't report the first rape -- by two men with knives -- to anyone but my family doctor. He sewed me up, because I'd been stabbed in my upper thigh; the scar is still visible.
He didn't tell anyone; he obviously knew better than I the stigma that would be attached to a college freshman. He also gave me the morning-after pill, so I didn't get pregnant.
No one expects to be raped more than once. Unlike the first rape, which happened at night in a playground near my college, the second rape happened outside my home, on a warm, sunny September afternoon. My rapist offered to help me bring my trashcans up from the street. Less than five minutes later, he had me in a chokehold, dragged me into a neighbor's yard and proceeded to slap, punch, bite, choke, orally sodomize and rape me.
He told me repeatedly that he was going to kill me. He didn't say that if I was quiet, he wouldn't kill me, like many rapists tell their victims. Instead, he told me over and over that he was going to kill me, that he was going to choke me with his penis in my throat, and that he was going to beat my blonde head in. I'm certain that I am only alive because he was scared off by some people suddenly making a lot of noise down the street, and he didn't want to be caught.
While assaulting me, he also called me names: "bitch," "whore," "pussy," "dyke."
I know I'm not the only lesbian in America who's been raped. But the stigma and harassment that rape victims endure are intensified for lesbians. Being raped forces lesbians to out themselves because so many questions by doctors, police and detectives pertain to sex. Heterosexual sex. Boyfriends, contraception. To which you must answer, "No, I'm a lesbian."
My experience with the police and the Special Victims Unit was nothing like on Law & Order: SVU. There was no female officer, no female detective.
One of the police officers who came to my house wanted me to take him to the spot and describe the rape. The outline of my body was still clearly visible in the ivy in my neighbor's yard, as it would be for several months. A jagged piece of the T-shirt my rapist ripped off me clung to a branch of a shrub.
I know the officer didn't intend to give me a panic attack by blocking my path out of the alley at the side of my house, but he did. I am tall, but he was taller. I had to ask if we could leave. He looked surprised by my request.
At the SVU, the first thing the detective did was warn me: If you are lying, we will prosecute you. (Later, grimacing at the extent of my injuries, he explained that all victims are told this. "We have to know you aren't getting back at a boyfriend.")
After repeating my story numerous times, I was taken into a small room, asked to undress and was photographed. The detective's intake of breath when he saw what had been done to me made him blurt out suddenly that he had two daughters of his own.
The local rape crisis hotline -- one of the nation's oldest -- was no help. I was told I'd be "fine" since I was a lesbian and wouldn't have to deal with having sex with a man again.
I wrote about my rape a few weeks later in my weekly newspaper column: I thought talking about it would give voice to other victims. My rapist had attacked four other women in my neighborhood before me. I put up xeroxes of the sketch the police artist drew. All the rapes had happened within a mile of my house. I needed to do something. I wanted him to be caught. (He still hasn't been.)
The rape left me badly hurt. It took months for the bruises and wounds to heal and fade, months for me to be able to look at my own body without an instant replay of every slap, punch, bite. Months of getting HIV and hepatitis testing.
I searched for support groups for lesbian victims of rape and found none.
I was on my own.
Recently, I became acquainted with two campus rape activists, Andrea Pino and Annie E. Clark (both HuffPost bloggers). Their openness about their experiences is extraordinarily courageous. They have filed suit against their school, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which they allege abandoned them and other victims.
Talking with Andrea about our shared experience of rape made me realize just how much I had needed a support network in those weeks and months after I was nearly killed, how much I needed to talk with other victims as the black bruises the size of dinner plates on the inside of my thighs, the bite marks ringing each of my nipples, the gouges on my upper arms and the cuts inside my mouth and under my lip begin to heal.
Andrea's and Annie's activism is a model for other groups -- like the group I know is much more than just me: lesbians who have been raped.
The FBI and DOJ estimate that only a third of all rapes are reported. The number of unreported rapes of lesbians is no doubt even higher. Revealing what it means to be a lesbian violated by a man is almost unbearable. It was certainly unbearable for me.
The ripple effect of rape seems endless. Reclaiming your sexuality is a long and arduous struggle as sex is reframed through the grotesque prism of rape. How you touch another woman will never be the same. How you allow yourself to be touched may never be the same.
We don't have corrective rape in America. But lesbians get raped; I'm not the only one. We have to speak out, break that awful silence. It's yet another coming-out process. It is also the first step toward reclaiming our lives.
Follow Victoria A. Brownworth on Twitter: www.twitter.com/VABVOX