What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape
by Coco Mellors
I was touched at The Strokes’ concert when I was fourteen years old. At least that’s the word I’ve used when talking about it, which is not very often. Touched can have a religious connotation (you can be “touched by God”) and often has an emotional one (you can be touched by an acoustic version of “Hey Jude”, for instance). But I don’t mean it in either of those ways, the God way or the “Hey Jude” way. I mean touched touched.
I suppose a more apt term would be molested but I’ve always hated that word, especially in its noun form, molestation. It’s a word that begs you to luxuriate in it, four long syllables taking the tongue on a roundtrip around the palate. It’s from the Latin molestāre, to annoy, and molestus, troublesome, and mōlēs, mass. It is a word that causes me a mass of trouble. It’s usually associated with acts against women and children and, since at fourteen I was somehow both and neither, I’ve stuck with touched.
I didn’t know the man who touched me; I never saw his face. It happened on December 5th, 2003 during The Strokes’ much hyped Room on Fire tour (the venue I saw them at, Alexandra Palace in London, has a standing capacity of over ten thousand people and the show sold out in under an hour). It was the first concert I’d been to without a parent and I remember a sense of jubilant, almost hysterical freedom as my friends and I raced through the stadium five hours early to claim our spots at the front. As the space filled, those of us in the front were crushed so close it was impossible to pull our hands from our sides, to turn our heads to look around. I could feel the heartbeat of the girl in front of me through her back. So it was alarming but not totally surprising to realize that somewhere between the opening act, Kings of Leon, finishing and The Strokes coming on, I had been separated from my friends.
Here is what I remember next: I was wearing a pair of low-rise Miss Sixty jeans I adored and had saved up to buy, even though they were a size too big for me. I remember feeling them slide down my hips and trying desperately to pull them up, panicking when there was not enough room to bend my arms. Then I felt a hand grab my crotch. The shock of it made my stomach flip. I remember the hand entering my underwear. In that moment The Strokes came on and ten thousand bodies surged forward in a motion of pure desire. I remember the hand fumbling, looking for a way into me. The air filled with the sound of ten thousand people screaming as the first guitar riffs cut the air. I remember I did not scream. I did not do anything at all as I was elbowed from side to side by dancing bodies, the hand gripping tight to me. I remember it felt like being hollowed out from the inside, the way one scoops seeds from a cantaloupe melon. After what felt like a long time but was probably no more than a minute or two I saw a gap open between a pair of bodies and lunged myself through it. I remember landing on all fours, people stepping on my hands. My jeans were around my knees. Someone yanked me to my feet and I fought my way to the side of the crowd. I remember the relief of pulling up my pants. My hands were black with dirt. The Strokes were still playing their first song. I remember it was “Reptilia”.
I keep finding myself wanting to tell this story a different way, to say something like I never told anyone what happened to me...Until now! That’s how it feels. But I did tell people at the time. A few days after the concert I told my two best friends about “the hand”. Honestly, it’s hard for me to admit it now, but I think I found some pleasure in the drama of it. “It wasn’t that bad,” I’d said stoically as one friend tearfully rubbed my back.
I meant it. On the hierarchy of sexual assault, I figured it was pretty low. Worse than the time I was flashed on the bus by a man wearing a Burger King uniform, but nowhere near as bad as what happened in movies like Gothika. (I’d watched and been thoroughly traumatized by Gothika a few weeks earlier, the highlights of which include Penelope Cruz being repeatedly raped by the guard of the mental asylum she’s incarcerated in.) What happened to me only lasted only a minute, maybe two. It was just a hand. I had the feeling, hard to articulate at the time, that this sort of thing was inevitable for girls anyway. It had simply been my turn. The problem was, there was no guarantee I would not have another turn. The problem is, I am still sitting here thinking about my first turn thirteen years later.
That is in part because it was and always will be my first sexual experience. At that point I had never been kissed, never been touched there by anyone but myself. At the time the word that felt closest to what happened to me was that I’d been fingered, but I couldn’t say that. It felt too intimate, too close to the language other girls my age breathlessly used when talking about what they did with their boyfriends. I think that’s why I eventually settled on the more general term touched. It sanitized and contained, relegated what happened to the realm of unpleasant but ultimately surmountable experiences. I could get over being touched. What I realize now, however, is that there is no “getting over." There is only healing, and that’s easier to do if one has access to language that’s commensurate to how the experience felt.
One thing I definitely did not say is that I was raped. That would have felt like an overreaction—and, in fact, it would have been. In the year I was touched, 2003, the definition of “forcible rape” by the Department of Justice only included penile penetration of a female vagina, a definition that had remained unchanged since 1927. This aligned with my own nascent understanding of rape at the time: that only penetrative sex really counted. Then, in 2012, when I was twenty-two years old, the definition was amended to: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object…without the consent of the victim.” Unbeknownst to me, my assault had crossed a linguistic line. It had officially become rape. This new definition did not impact charging or prosecution of rape cases, it simply meant that they would be more accurately reported nationwide. In other words, in order to change the way rape is legislated, we first had to change the way rape is talked about. It was a victory of language.
This victory was due, in part, to survivors of sexual assault publicly speaking out and naming their experience. In the years following 2003 I read hundreds of articles about sexual assault, looking for similarities with my own. I did this unconsciously, the way one might be drawn to a word that has the same combination of letters as one’s name. In fact, my experience had become rather like a secret name for me—not chosen by me but definitive to me. I was oddly, personally attached to it. But in the early 2000s “digital rape” was barely talked about (the term wasn’t added to Urban Dictionary until late 2006) and almost no cases I read about logistically resembled mine. That is, until Lara Logan.
In 2011 Logan, a CBS News foreign correspondent, was violently sexually assaulted while covering the Arab Spring in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. She was separated from her producer and body guard, then dragged through the square by a mob of men who beat her, photographed her, and penetrated her with their hands. Afterwards, she gave an interview to 60 Minutes, in which she talks with great dignity and clarity about the attack, as well as her choice to break the “code of silence” around the assault of female journalists. I watched her and I cried and cried. The differences between her story and mine were evident: I had been a teenager at a rock concert, she was an adult reporting on a political uprising; she had been attacked by countless men, I had been grabbed by just one. But she, like me, had been attacked while surrounded by thousands of people. Her assault was digital, as was mine. Unlike me, however, she was talking about it—and calling it something I never had. “For an extended period time,” she said to the New York Times afterwards. “They raped me with their hands.” I had never heard the word rape used in that context before. I closed my laptop and whispered to myself, barely able to say the words aloud, he raped me with his hand.
Today, the idea of digital rape is more pervasive. In 2012, two high school football players were found guilty of raping a 16-year old girl in Stuebenville, Ohio, when it was found by the judge that the boys used their fingers to penetrate her while she was intoxicated, as well as distribute pictures of her to their friends. The boys were sentenced to serve a minimum of one and two years in the state juvenile system. Digital penetration or rape is referred to twice in the powerful and widely publicized letter written by the young woman sexually assaulted by Stanford student Brock Allen Turner in January, 2015. He was sentenced to six-months in jail, of which he served three.
These cases, despite their lenient sentences, are still exceptional. Out of every one thousand instances of rape in the US, only six result in jail time for the rapist. This number is even lower if the assault does not involve penile penetration. It’s no better abroad. In 2015, a group of teenage girls in Hanoi, Vietnam, were attacked by a crowd of boys at a water park. The boys pushed their heads under the water, forcibly removed their swimsuits and penetrated them with their hands. There is a video on YouTube in which you can see, between the dripping torsos of shouting boys, a girl dazedly exiting the pool and attempting to re-tie her pink bikini top. The local media sided with the perpetrators and no legal action was taken. Back in America we need look no further than our President, whose claims about harassing women should have been the end of his political career, at the very least, to see we are still a long way from taking this kind of assault seriously. Incidentally, another thing I have never said is that I was “grabbed by the pussy” when I was fourteen years old. Though of course, I was.
What’s in a name when we talk about rape? I still feel that my experience falls in the grey area of rape, that I was only “a little bit raped”, as the comedian Amy Schumer once joked. Ultimately, the people who get to decide what language feels right, or how important that language even is, are the survivors. But we’re influenced by how other people—the media, the victims that speak out, our friends, our political leaders—talk. If the events of that Strokes concert had happened to me in 2017, would I have spoken about it differently? And if I had, would I have felt about it differently? Would I feel a little pang of shame every time I heard a Strokes song come on? Would I get as panicked in crowds? Would I still jump when unexpectedly touched? I like to think not, but I’m not sure. After all, a rape by any other name would hurt as deep.
Coco Mellors is a fiction writer from London. Her short fiction has been published in SmokeLong Quarterly, Journal of Microliterature, The Rig Out Magazine and Mushpit Magazine. She is currently finishing her first novel, All My Human Feelings, about a marriage for U.S. citizenship that goes awry.