Unsolicited Advice for Bristol Palin: Call It Rape

Posted by Jaclyn Friedman

Dear Bristol,

I so wish you and I could have this conversation on a long girls' night in. You’d get a babysitter for Tripp, I’d bring the popcorn, and we’d hang in our pajamas and watch Heathers. Afterwards, we’d paint each other’s toenails, and I’d tell you how great your chin looks. And then, when we were both feeling relaxed and expansive and had built some kind of trust, I'd tell you this:

I'm worried about you, girl. You say you're not accusing Levi of raping you, but the way you tell the story—he knew you didn't want to have sex, but did it to you anyhow when you were blackout drunk on wine coolers—sure sounds like rape to me.

I sense that you've probably had a lot of choices made for you in your life so far, and the last thing I want to do is box you into another corner. Everyone has the right to describe what we experience with our bodies in whatever language suits us. So if it feels right to you to call what Levi did to you "stealing your virginity," that's exactly what you should do. Personally, it makes me cringe a little bit, because it suggests your sexuality is an object which can be owned by someone other than you. But ultimately, it's your call.

So, let’s go with it: “stealing your virginity.” It sounds like you realize that having sex is an activity that you should be actively engaged in, not one that makes you want to vomit when you piece together what happened the next day. But what really worries me is that you might be thinking that declining to call it “sexual violence” will make the experience less painful for you. If that's what's going on, you're not alone: We don’t always extend rape victims much support in our culture, and few people are eager to have that label attached to them. But as much as I wish avoiding the trauma of sexual violence was as easy as denying that it happened, that's just not how it works.

Like you, I travel the country talking with young women. And the number one story I hear from them during Q&As, in private conversations, and at Take Back the Night rallies goes something like this:

I didn't call it rape at the time. I called it "bad sex." I thought it was my fault for being drunk, or flirting with him, or fill-in-the-blank reason. I tried to just let it go. But it's been three years and I can't stop thinking about it. I'm tired of feeling afraid. Or ragey. Or disassociated. Or ashamed. I'm having sex in ways that don't make me happy, or I'm avoiding sex and it's making me miserable. And I've finally realized: It wasn't my fault. What he did to me was wrong, and it was sexual assault, and I'm angry, and it feels so good to just say those words.

When I hear these stories, I'm so relieved, because I know that's the sound of someone who finally has a chance to heal, and possibly to pursue justice. But I'm also heartbroken, because they suffered so unnecessarily for so long first. Bristol, your story sounds exactly like their stories. And I don't want you to have to wait three years or twenty to start to heal.

So let's talk about the blame thing. You've said you "should never have gotten [your]self into a situation like that." But you were with a guy you loved and trusted. You'd already told him you didn't want to have sex. Sure, you had a few drinks. I happen to believe there's nothing wrong with that. But even if you disagree, the fact that you acted against your values in that one way doesn't give your boyfriend the right to violate your body. Arguing that it does is insulting to all the good men out there who don't assault drunk women. (That’s most of them). And Levi being drunk doesn’t let him off the hook, either. What if he drunkenly got behind the wheel of a car and hit someone? Even if that person was drunk, we’d call that “assault with a deadly weapon,” not "stealing someone's mobility."

Remember what I said earlier about how what you call this experience is ultimately up to you? That would totally be true if you were just a girl from Alaska that no one had ever heard of. And it would still be true if you were an influential voice on some totally unrelated subject. I've often defended Rihanna against accusations that she's not being a "good role model" for domestic violence victims, since she's never tried to make money or a name for herself that way.

But you're consciously making a career educating young women about sex and sexuality. We have that in common (though I get paid quite a bit less than you—thanks for letting me crash here, by the way). So trust me that I know how much this sucks when I say this: Even when you're just talking about yourself, when you are speaking in public, you have a responsibility to all the young women who look up to you because you've asked them to. Like it or not, you’re telling those women that if the men in their lives violate their bodies, they should blame themselves.

I know that's not what you've intended to do, but your intentions don't keep it from happening. Ignoring this stuff doesn't make any of it hurt less. In all likelihood, it's increasing these young women's suffering. And I fear it's increasing yours, too. Because this wasn't just bad sex, Bristol. Bad sex is when you're bored while you're still doing it, or your partner smells funny, or you can't find a rhythm in a paper bag. This is something bad—something illegal, too—that you say someone you loved did against your will. And that something has a name.

Best,

Jaclyn

Every other Friday at GOOD, Jaclyn dispenses sex tips for folks who don't know they need them.

Photo (cc) from Flickr user er3465