The Myth of the Girl Who Gets Raped

Purity culture’s most insidious gift is damaging us every day

Photo: Bruno/Unsplash

EEvery year, the health teacher at my school organizes a blood drive. If I’m present when she is doing her recruitment in the teachers’ lounge, she takes a moment to say, “Not you, Liz.” We have a long-standing deal that I won’t sign up and I won’t tell my trio of horror stories to scare off anyone else.

There’s the standard fainting story, with the dramatic addition of collapsing in the parking lot and being caught and carried back inside. There’s the rare but gross story of my blood clotting and starting to scab over while the needle was still in my vein. And then there’s the time when I was 19 years old and the staff became convinced I was HIV positive.

Running theory is I clicked the wrong answer on one or two online questions, and I also had a couple of fading mouth sores from the medication I had started for stomach ulcers. But it was a traumatizing hour as one official, and then another, shook my hand and casually turned over my forearm to (I eventually realized) check for track marks from intravenous drug use. Finding none, each new person asked again if there were any way I had had sex with a man who had sex with a man before 1986. Part of the problem may have been that my responses grew increasingly sarcastic. A girl eventually gets tired of saying “no, because I’ve never had sex” over and over.

When they finally shooed me out, refusing to take my blood, I called my poor mother and forced her to talk me down. I could see myself barreling toward the pearly gates as she explained, with waning patience, “Liz, you are at zero percent risk of HIV.”

She was right as a matter of simple fact. She believed I had not had sex of any kind in high school. I didn’t do drugs. I hadn’t even started drinking. Even the more “innocent” causes of HIV were out the window given that I had had a bevy of testing before my doctor had settled on a diagnosis of stomach ulcers — and I had never had a blood transfusion.

But my mother’s reassurance ran deeper than the fact that I had simply never been exposed to the type of bodily fluids that would transmit HIV. She knew I was being silly, because I’m not the kind of girl who gets AIDS.

It was the ’00s, and Rent had just been made into a motion picture, which meant I could finally see it in my small Southern hometown. There was no excuse for the myth persisting from way back in the ’80s, and yet every reason to predict it would still be alive and well around me.

Sweet, straight virgins who kept their noses clean and buried inside their Bibles didn’t have to worry about things like HIV. That was a sinner’s problem. A gay person’s plague. A drug user’s scourge. A victim of ancestors’ bad decisions, at best, or a relic of medical malpractice that had since been abolished.

Victim blaming is one of the most desperate and vicious ways of propping up purity culture because it protects one of society’s most powerful gifts: a comforting myth that grants so many women the ability to sleep at night.

That’s not exactly what my mother meant, but her eye-rolling dismissal of my fears and the sudden comfort I felt rested firmly on the ugly story society tells itself: This is not the problem of the moral majority — or even the actual majority of citizens. You don’t want to get HIV? Don’t be That Kind of Girl.

Remembering all this — my relief and the reasons for it — reminded me of the other Great Myth I see propping up purity culture in the modern era, sadly strengthened as frequently as dispelled by the #MeToo movement.

The Myth of the Kind of Girl Who Gets Raped.

The breathtaking cruelty of victim blaming never ceases to surprise me, but it shouldn’t.

Like most cruelty, there is more desperation than malice at its heart.

We understand the desperation driving male predators to victim-blame, but what about the women joining in with nearly the same enthusiasm? They use different phrases and more concerned tones, but they are just as surely searching for reasons, for faults and poor judgments and moral failings we can lay at a victim’s feet.

Victim blaming is one of the most desperate and vicious ways of propping up purity culture, because it protects one of its most powerful gifts. A comforting myth that grants so many women the ability to sleep at night.

The Myth of the Kind of Girl Who Gets Raped.

Have you ever wondered how women sleep at night, knowing one in five of us will be raped someday? Knowing this number is soft because of the stigma of reporting? Knowing if they did report, they would likely become the victim of authorities’ (and, if they were unlucky, the media’s) determined attempts to put them on trial instead?

I wondered, once, how I got back to sleep after I woke from my standing nightmare of a witch trial with me at the center. Accused of one bit of nonsense after another, as if that were the point of the proceedings.

It is a gift of the patriarchy that lulled me back to sleep. A gift of the purity culture in which I was saturated.

The Myth of the Kind of Girl Who Gets Accused of Witchcraft.

The old-school cousin of the Kind of Girl Who Gets Raped.

Every year, our all-girls Catholic school asks its students in a mostly anonymous survey what Big Issues they are concerned about and want help navigating. It usually turns up with Stress, Depression, Eating Disorders, and a few tentative requests for Drinking and Drug Use.

But when they narrow it down to the junior and senior classes, a huge percentage asks for a session on sexual assault on college campuses.

The first time the school seriously considered addressing it, I resolved to volunteer to give the talk. I didn’t trust the counselors who usually did these talks or the admin who ultimately blocked me from speaking, but these are stories in their own right that I may someday manage to tell in a coherent way.

Years after that fight, I feel like I finally understand what was behind the admin’s determination to stop me, the panicky, uncomfortable nature of the final meeting, and their offensive reasoning: “We’re afraid the students won’t be able to respect you if you share this.”

I think I understand, at last, why I was such a fearsome creature. Once I finally stopped wishing I had retorted, “Wait, do you respect me less after finding out I was (nearly) raped?”

A spot of car trouble, of all things, helped me finally understand.

Debris had been left on a bridge, and I was trapped between two 18-wheelers. I tried to slow down, but I couldn’t avoid running over it with my sedan. Fortunately, my bumper did its job, but I had to pull over because it dragged below my car, not quite coming off. I was almost in the middle of nowhere.

I’ve always been very lucky in such situations. I rolled into a nearby gas station, and I spotted a tow truck sitting under the tree. I assessed the damage and asked the driver if he was a AAA contractor. He wasn’t, but half an hour later he returned with his wife in the cab of the tow truck. He had fetched her so I wouldn’t be spooked when he offered his assistance.

He got my car back in reasonably working order and steadfastly refused all offers of compensation. I was on the road again with the broken pieces in the trunk for “my husband to deal with,” as my personal good Samaritan urged.

In the days that followed, I wondered if this kind man would have helped just anyone in that situation.

Did I owe this kindness to my thorough, if unwitting, signaling? To my straight-passing privilege? My white privilege? Or my ability to play the Southern Lady to a tee?

Most of these attributes are natural, but I am aware of the power of signaling. Of the power and camouflage that being fluent in Bible and catechism afford me.

I thought about my wardrobe that day. I was going to meet my mother at a flea market in another town, so I had worn a mom-appropriate sundress that filled in the summer wind but never rode up. I covered it with a light but full-sleeved denim shirt to prevent sunburn and hide the fact that I wasn’t wearing a bra. It also made me look especially modest, like my friend who wears T-shirts under her sundresses. I even had a big floppy hat (also for sun protection) to mark me as a True Southern Lady.

A modest young lady, wearing a small diamond ring (on the wrong hand), driving a practical but well-kept car, on the phone telling her mother she would be late as she approached his tow truck. He undoubtedly saw a respectable woman in need of rescuing.

The Kind of Young Woman Southern Gentlemen Rescue.

One of the things that has allowed me to survive in the conservative school where I teach — despite my politics and quiet campaign of queer-friendly spirituality — is my ability to project Respectable Southern Lady.

I attend the daily mass offered once a week.

I know most songs at the mass from years in choir, and I sing out proudly.

My wardrobe is modest, feminine, and formal.

I don’t wear makeup, but I do wear glasses.

I smile and use charm-and-disarm instead of harsher discipline, but can turn on a dime when I am crossed or students are endangering themselves — just like every Hollywood depiction of nuns.

What the students wanted, and the administration and parents wanted to give them, was a series of tips on how to avoid being raped.

Most of these attributes are natural, but I am aware of the power of signaling. Of the power and camouflage that being fluent in Bible and catechism afford me.

But that same advantage is precisely what made my sexual assault talk a threat.

What the students wanted, and the administration and parents wanted to give them, was a series of tips on how to avoid being raped. A few extra precautions that could keep them from being The Kind of Girl Who Gets Raped.

That heartbreaking myth propping up purity culture. The fearful specter that makes women participate in slut-shaming victims with the same enthusiasm as male predators.

Because if we define each victim as That Kind of Girl, if we paint ever more absurd sins across her body and soul, then we don’t have to fear that we might be the Kind of Girl Who Gets Raped.

The Myth of the Kind of Girl Who Gets Raped certainly protects perpetrators. It supports campaigns for clemency. It argues for protection against false allegations even at the price of revictimization. Above all, it shames victims into silence.

But it also allows young women (and those who love them) to breathe easier and stop worrying that this is the day, this is the night. This is when I am, inevitably, raped.

Purity culture’s greatest gift may be that reassurance: You are not One of Those Girls. The Kind Who Get Raped.

Follow our rules, and they will protect you.

And I was determined to debunk that list of grand precautions. I planned to tell them this:

I was cold sober and wrapped in multiple layers against the Scotland December when a man tried to assault and/or abduct me for human trafficking. (I got away.) Would you have told me not to be kind to an older man presenting himself as lost in a new town, much like me? You might have told me not to travel alone, thinking yourself a wise viewer of Taken.

I was in a semipublic place within earshot of help when a make-out session became more sexual than I wanted. (He didn’t follow me once I made it to the hallway.) Would you have told me not to even kiss him? You might have, if you espoused Christian dating ethics.

I was surrounded by friends who should have helped me when I got too drunk to fend off the advances of an acquaintance. I managed to find other friends, who laughed and shamed me for my pathetic cries of “I’m drunk and Lloyd* won’t stop kissing me,” but at least they opened the door and took care of me. You might have told me not to drink like that, ever, end of story. Or at least laughed along with my friends.

But would you have told me to be afraid when I was briefly alone with my cousin after having a couple drinks with him, my brother, and my brother-in-law? Would you have said I should have known better than to be vulnerable and a little tipsy, that I should have stepped away immediately when he drew close? That I should have been on guard even with my family?

In any terrible event, you can usually look back and find the If Only I Had moment. And maybe it makes a tidy lesson like not drinking so much or being more wary of strangers or treating even charming men who had been kind to you for years as potential threats.

But that’s not the same as being at fault. Even if we could compile such a massive list to cover every woman’s story, it would not save you.

My administration did not want me to talk about what happened to me because I present so well as the Respectable Catholic Southern Lady.

Not as the Kind of Girl Who Gets Raped.

I was a religious, believably virginal, modestly dressed, feminine-looking, straight-passing, responsibly drinking authority figure. A Respectable Woman if ever there were one.

A living rebuttal to the Myth of the Kind of Girl Who Gets Raped.

And remembering that, as well as my relief when my mother pointed out I was not the Kind of Girl Who Gets AIDS, helped me finally understand their panic at the thought of my talk.

They were afraid I would out myself as someone other than the respectable image I projected. They feared I would lose my students’ respect, but they were even more afraid I wouldn’t appear as less respectable, less worthy of respect, despite having been nearly raped. That I wouldn’t look like One of Those Girls, even though I had been attacked more than once.

The Myth is comforting, and it’s a powerful tool in the hands of purity culture. But it is a lie, and it is doing damage. It makes women feel safer while actively putting them in greater danger.

The truth is that we are all the Kind of Girl Who Gets Raped. Even the boys. And that’s what I would have proven with my very existence.

Of course, they can’t have that.

*Name changed.

A pseudonym to protect my job as a catholic schoolteacher from my radical queer advocacy. Or vice versa. I haven’t decided yet.

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