Rape victims find courtrooms are dangerous places--so most avoid them. Nine of 10 rapes go unreported. For those that go to trial, annihilating the victim--through insult, innuendo, intimidation, forced repetition of every detail, the pressure of continuing public humiliation before family, friends, co-workers--is still the rapist's best chance for acquittal; and acquittal is the usual outcome. Feminists call the trial "the second rape."
Now, thanks to the New York Times and NBC News, there will be a third rape--by the media. If a woman's reporting a rape to the police means she will be exposed by the media to the scrutiny of voyeurs and worse, a sexual spectacle with her legs splayed open in the public mind, reporting itself will be tantamount to suicide. Because of my own experience with sexual abuse and media exposure, I know the consequences are unbearable.
In February, 1965, I was arrested at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in New York City. I was imprisoned in the Women's House of Detention for four days before a judge released me on my own recognizance.
In the jail, all the orifices of my body, including mouth, vagina and rectum, were searched many times, by hand, by many persons. I was told the jailers were looking for heroin. My clothes were taken away because I was wearing pants and a men's sweat shirt. Only dresses were allowed in that house of rectitude.
I was given a flimsy robe that had no buttons or hooks--there was no way to close it. My bra, underpants and the sash to the robe were taken away so I wouldn't kill myself. For four days, I had nothing else to wear.
To see whether I had syphilis, I was examined by two male doctors. They never did the blood test for syphilis; instead, they drew blood from my vagina. The brutal internal examination they forced on me, my first, caused me to bleed for 15 days--when I finally decided it wasn't my period. My family doctor, a taciturn man whom I had never seen express emotion, even as he treated my mother's heart attacks, strokes and experimental heart surgery, said he had never seen a uterus so bruised or a vagina so ripped. He cried. I was 18.
I came out of jail unable to speak. This is a frequent response to sexual abuse--but in 1965 no one knew that. Sexual abuse wasn't on anyone's map of the everyday world until feminists redrew the map.
I couldn't talk, I couldn't stop bleeding, I didn't know what they had done to me. The men I worked with against the war laughed at me--a girl struck dumb. But they knew someone had stuck something up me and they figured I deserved it. I lived with two men. They said I was sick and unclean--they thought the bleeding was some sexual disease--and they threw me out. My mother said I was an "animal," and my parents threw me out.
The writer Grace Paley took me in, in a sense taught me how to speak again by forcing me to tell her what had happened, convinced me that speaking was right by believing me. So I spoke out. I wrote the New York Times and the New York Post. I went through the Yellow Pages and wrote every newspaper listed. I wanted the prison torn down. I wrote a graphic letter--after all, I didn't know the word "speculum," and it was a speculum that had done most of the ripping.
I had a scholarship to Bennington College--this happened during the work term of my first year. The papers liked that: Bennington Girl Brutalized in Internal Examination in Women's Prison. The doctors had liked it, too. During the assault, they joked about how they liked to go up to Bennington to find girls. Newspapers and rapists tend to find the same facts compelling.
I went to the newspapers because I was an idealist who wanted to stop prison abuses. I believed in sexual liberation, birth control and abortion as a right. I believed in ending poverty, racism and war. I loved reading and I wanted to be a writer. I'm not cynical now and I wasn't then; but I had had a tough childhood. I had learned to take a lot of pain and to do what was necessary to stay alive, including stealing food when I was hungry.
I had been raped twice before. No one used the word "rape." The first time I was 9; my parents didn't report it. The second time, a month before the jail incident, was what is now called "acquaintance rape." Yes, I fought; yes, he beat me; yes, he hurt me, and no, I never told anyone. Yes, there was blood; yes, there were bruises; but the unspeakable physical pain was between the legs--the rape part. Women are human down there, too.
After I went to the newspapers, I learned a new kind of hell. I didn't know the facts about my imprisonment were sexually arousing--to me they were an anguish. I didn't know that in the public eye I became living pornography for men who liked to watch a frightened girl tell the story. I got hundreds of obscene letters from men, taunting, obsessive letters. The man would say what he wanted to do to me or what he was going to do to me when he came and got me and how he masturbated to what the prison doctors had done. The man would describe my genitals or threaten me with detailed sexual assault.
Each day there was another stack of letters. Every day I'd get person-to-person obscene phone calls from men all over the country. I was a student now, back at school. There were cameras everywhere I went. My name was everywhere.
This was when there were still standards, limits, protections--the media followed some rules. A constitutional lawyer wrote a letter for me that stopped someone from making a sensationalist film based on "my" story. But when I asked newspapers to leave me alone--when I explained that I was a student and had a paper due, for example--I was threatened: we will use a telescopic lens, we can see every move you make.
For months, I was followed nearly all the time. I would expect the frenzy to die down but it would only intensify. The women who lived in my dorm started screening my mail and phone calls. Nothing helped me stop shaking.
Investigations into conditions at the jail continued and I had to go to New York repeatedly to testify. People would run after me on the streets. I didn't have money for taxis. I'd run into the subway to escape and find myself trapped by a crowd, unable to get aboveground. Men approached me to offer safe passage. Within a few seconds, it was clear they were sexually excited by the public narrative of my abuse--they'd start talking about vaginal bruises and how they would like to rub their penises up against them.
I left school and I left the country. Photographs of me had been published as far away as Taiwan. I found a place where no one would ever know me. The rapes, of course, you take with you.
I chose to go to the media--in an age without satellite transmission. I am strong but there is no "strong enough." Choice , were the New York Times to grant it--an act of noblesse oblige, since they have the power to do what they want--is not the magic bullet. A rape victim needs control : privacy, dignity, lack of fear. The media use you until they use you up. You don't get to tell them to stop now, please.
Had the New York Times' new woman-hating standard of going after the victim--the only way to characterize using a rape victim's name--been in force, I would have kept quiet about what happened in the jail.
Had the New York Times' new tabloid standard of journalism been in operation, I would have been absolutely destroyed. I was no innocent. I was living with two men and had a third male lover at the time of my arrest; I smoked marijuana; I had already, by 18, spent many months on the streets, destitute. Despite my Bennington affiliation, I was desperate and poor.
I believed then, and I believe now, that still no one had a right to rip up my insides--nor the insides of the many hundreds of mostly black women, mostly prostitutes, in that jail. The City of New York, through its policies, tormented and injured women, based on the conviction that once a woman had had sexual experience, she was dirt. Woman as dirt sells, pornography proves that. The New York Times has just changed sides--from exposing abuse to exploiting it.
The Women's House of Detention was torn down in 1972. A community-run garden flourishes in its place.