In a recent article, Dear Abby, a well-known advice columnist for the Chicago Sun Times, wrote a response to a teenage girl asking her whether a recent non-consensual sexual experience qualified as a rape. In her letter, she described a young man who had shown her sexual interest in the past, and whom she had rejected. The same young man recently renewed his interest and asked her to have a study session together. His invitation did not include sex – he only informed the young woman that they “might” make out. As someone who was a virgin and had never even kissed anyone before, the most she was interested in was kissing. However, when she got into the young man’s truck, he took her to a remote area and proceeded to have sex her, despite her saying no to him. In fact, it took her saying no three times before he ceased what he was doing – and he made it clear that he was very upset about having to stop. Needless to say, for this young woman, the experience wasn’t fun, pleasurable, or indeed, consensual. You can (and should) read the whole story, and Dear Abby’s response, here.
Obviously, as a sexologist and a woman, this story saddened and angered me. In fact, it will sadden and anger anyone, no matter their profession or gender, if they have a basic grasp of how sexual consent works. From her response, it’s evident that this understanding isn’t a major part of Dear Abby’s otherwise impressive knowledge base. This is unfortunate, but can (and should) be remedied by further education. In this case, all Dear Abby had to do was forward the letter to a rape counselor, psychologist or sexologist who would have replied in a way that would have been helpful to the young woman (and to many others of any gender who find themselves in her situation). But this was not the course Dear Abby chose to take.
Setting aside her victim-blaming for a moment (which is not easy to do, believe me), I will focus on the first thing that struck me. It was Dear Abby’s cold, judgmental tone. It didn’t even occur to her to say a simple “I’m so sorry this happened to you” to this young woman. It didn’t cross her mind to warm her tone, to show a modicum of compassion to this girl who is currently going through the worst experience of her young life. Even the title of her article, “Teen girl has sex, wonders if it’s rape” is infused with judgment. Dear Abby, “having sex” as an active participant requires unequivocal, enthusiastic informed consent. In that sense, this girl didn’t “have” sex – sex was forced on her by someone who felt entitled to it, despite her making it clear on numerous occasions that she wasn’t interested. This is an experience that is bound to leave anyone, let alone a teenage virgin, extremely traumatized and upset. This girl reached out to you in her darkest moment, and your first response was to coldly point out a “severe breakdown in communication”. As a reader, I saw a different breakdown, much more severe: a breakdown in basic humanity and compassion on your behalf. You were entrusted with a huge responsibility, being one of the first adults this young woman turned to for help, and you totally blew it.
Furthermore, you could have chosen to comment on the sad state of our society, in which young men are taught that women’s consent, opinion, boundaries, or pleasure don’t matter. A society in which women are taught that they have no right to their bodies; no right to assert themselves and to say no; and no right to have sex on their own terms, when they are ready, and with the people they choose. You could have talked about this and more – and instead you talked about the need to teach “responsible behavior” to teenagers. Again, putting the responsibility for her assault at least partly on the young woman.
So, what should you have said to this girl, Dear Abby? How about the aforementioned “I’m sorry”. I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m sorry that your first experience of partner sex was traumatic, painful, completely devoid of pleasure, and forced on you against your will. I’m sorry your boundaries were violated, your body assaulted, and your basic faith in humanity shattered. I’m sorry that not all your friends were supportive; that some implied that you should have made it even more clear that you didn’t want to have sex with this young man. I’m sorry for their ignorance and judgment, and for discounting your experience and your pain as somehow not real enough. You did nothing to deserve, invite, or encourage this man’s assault. The responsibility for his actions rests solely on him.
I’m so sorry, dear girl, that you are so young and already have to bear such a burden. Please know that none of this is your fault. Also know that your experience was (unfortunately) very real and that yes, it qualifies as rape, since it was done to you without your explicit, enthusiastic and informed consent. You deserve to get qualified help from a professional, compassionate source. You can start by looking here. You can also search for a rape crisis center in your area, or visit your local Planned Parenthood office, where you can also get medical attention (especially if the man who assaulted you didn’t use a condom). These qualified professionals will guide you and help you make the best choices and decisions moving forward. What matters now is YOU. Your emotional and physical health and wellbeing. Please know that, no matter how hard this is right now, this experience does not taint you, make you any less of a woman, or take away anything from your worth, your humanity, or your dignity. You can and will get through it and emerge strong and powerful. Please find the help you need, from kind, supportive, well-informed, non-judgmental people who will guide and nurture you through the healing process. I will hold you in my heart with compassion and hope.
I don’t know whether this young woman will ever read these words. I do hope that she will hear them from the people in her life. It’s the least that she needs and deserves. And I also hope that next time a sexual assault survivor reaches out to Dear Abby, she will show less judgment and more humanity. Compassion is one thing you can’t have too much of in this world.