Content warning: This article contains personal accounts and descriptions of sexual violence and its effects.
Recently, there’s been an explosion of articles about rape in videogames, both the depiction of the act and how the word gets used in slang. This one’s going to be different. You’re not going to read the words “rape culture” in this editorial, though it’s been discussed in-depth elsewhere. Also, since I’m male, I’m not going to address sexism and gender issues because I have no interest in speaking on behalf of women like Patricia Hernandez , Susan Arendt , and Cara Ellison , who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves. In fact, when writing here, I represent myself and myself alone.
I’ve seen a lot of comments on these articles suggesting that blowback about rape is part of some sort of “feminist agenda.” This bothered me for a number of reasons, the first being that I think the “feminist agenda” can be summed up by the phrase “we would really like it if you treated us like people.” The second fact is that I, as a rape victim, identified with a lot of the parties feeling upset about these topics, and I think there’s been a disconnect. See, this isn’t about feminists being offended, this is about how the ill-use of sensitive topics can hurt people.
Despite all the articles, I have yet to see one that helps people understand, in detail, why this is such a personal topic for people who have had rape in their past. Perhaps it’s our fault for not taking you there, for just assuming you’d care about something that for you is an abstract idea, but for us is a painful reality.
I don’t blame anyone for not wanting to discuss that aspect. None of these are pleasant reminiscences. Writing this article took two weeks of stalling, restarting, and insomnia. When I can sleep, the nightmares pour in fast and dense. I’ve gained four pounds. The fact that I haven’t thrown up has been a victory. The first time I wrote about my abuse, I found myself dry-heaving over the toilet every half hour.
Believe me, I didn’t want to be the one to do this, but it has to be said. Someone has to open their psyche and take you down the mineshaft, straight to the bedrock, to show you the things that live there. Fair warning: This isn’t going to be pretty. If you want to turn back, this is your last chance.
It happened when I was seven. I’ll spare you the gory details. Let’s just say I know the exact sound a child’s arm makes when it breaks after he’s thrown on a bed — it’s two muffled snaps, one right after the other like a revolver being cocked. Let’s just say I try not to think about the sobs and screaming that came after that. Let’s just say that I never think about what came after the sobs and screaming, because when I do, I look up to find myself four bourbons deep.
I didn’t tell anyone what happened until four years later. By then, the fear had eaten me.
In the Eighties and early Nineties, AIDS was all over the TV. AIDS is an epidemic, said the TV. AIDS is a death sentence, said the TV, AIDS is something gay men carry around with them like black plague. The sensationalism got to me. I was convinced that because I was raped by a man, I had AIDS. A fairly religious child, I used to pray until three in the morning that I wouldn’t die in my sleep. Moments of happiness from my childhood were always undercut by the belief that I was terminally ill. Whenever my parents told me they were proud of me for winning a trophy or acting in a play, I would lie in bed that night and cry, imagining my mother grieving over my casket. Everything I did to be a good son only made my coming mortality more tragic. I had recurring nightmares about being cryogenically frozen until a cure was invented, and awaking to find everyone I knew dead.
I told my parents what had happened far too late to catch the guy who did it. Far too late to save his son, who had to grow up in that household, and whose snapping arm bones still echo in my subconscious. Far too late for any kind of psychological help to keep my violation from becoming the dominant event of my upbringing.
The experience of being raped has touched every aspect of my life. People like Ron Rosenberg, the PR head for Tomb Raider, tend to talk about rape like it’s some character-building challenge to overcome, a wound that heals into scar tissue, making you tougher. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding. Rape isn’t a scar, it’s a limp — you carry it with you as long as you’re alive, and it makes life harder, not easier. Being raped does change you: it’s more than non-consensual sex, it’s psychic murder. The person you were beforehand ceases to exist and you can never, ever be them again.
About a year ago I was diagnosed with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, conditions that had flown under the radar since I’d learned to live with them over the decades. It explained a lot.
My whole life I had felt worthless. I always tried harder than anyone because I was afraid of what authority figures, those who had power over me, would do if I failed. That’s not uncommon for rape victims, it turns out. Trauma like that changes your brain chemistry, makes you feel helpless and inadequate even in situations you’re perfectly capable of handling. I could hold it together for school and work no problem, and friendships came easily to me, but dating was always a disaster. I undermined every relationship I tried to get into, either from talking myself out of dating the girl or not being capable of showing my feelings. It was classic subconscious avoidance — I wanted a girlfriend so badly, but unconsciously I was trying my hardest to never be intimate with another human being. I associated sex with pain and death. Whenever I sank another potential dating prospect, I’d console myself the same way: Make it a double barkeep, with plenty of ice, same as the last four.
Thankfully, I was self-aware enough that my drinking never spiraled into full-blown alcoholism, but my depression and flashbacks worsened after some instances of adult-world bullying popped the champagne cork. When I started to have thoughts of self-harm, I ran directly to a therapist’s office. Despite my skepticism, it helped a lot. Being aware of my problems has allowed me to perform preventive maintenance on them to head off what might’ve been a catastrophic breakdown had I left them untreated. I manage my moods far better now. I’ve stopped binge-drinking. My girlfriend and I are talking about moving in together.
Part of that preventive maintenance is avoiding things, known as “triggers,” that might dig up the raw emotions of my abuse. If you want to know what that’s like, think of Bruce Banner in The Avengers, constantly looking over his shoulder for something that might make him lose his grip on himself. I’m particularly fond of the scenes when Banner’s hanging out with Tony Stark. While watching those scenes, you probably saw two science nerds geeking out together. I saw a pair of men with impulse-control issues; two brilliant people who know that a lapse in their vigilance will allow their self-destructive tendencies to consume them. Bruce and Tony don’t gravitate toward each other because they share interests, it’s because they understand each other on a visceral level. I get that. I also have to avoid things.
The moment I hear the name “Sandusky,” I turn the radio off or flip the TV channel. I learned the hard way last year that hearing about what he did to those kids and worse, hearing people defend Paterno, made me a wreck. Sometimes the impact isn’t that direct. I made it through The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo alright, but Sin City gave me a panic attack. It was the Yellow Bastard that did it — the way he scowled. That expression of rage was the same face my abuser made. His face made it clear that what he was about to do wasn’t driven by desire, it was because he hated me. He wanted me to suffer.
I stayed through the credits of Sin City because I didn’t want anyone to see me shaking. Flashbacks aren’t visual for me, they’re more like a download of old emotions, carrying with them all the pain and fear of the moment, bringing back my old dread of dying. I feel cold and nauseous. Sometimes I feel things, like a ropy, bulging muscle inside my throat, as if someone’s rammed their tongue down my esophagus. The urge to cough becomes overwhelming.
Patricia Hernandez’s Kotaku piece on players using the word “rape” on Xbox Live hit me the same way as a Sandusky report. It wasn’t what she said that put me in a tailspin, it was the comments: the “damn feminazi”s and the “this is the last place where this is okay”s and the “you’re ruining our fun”s and the “you’re just looking to be offended”s. They made me angry until I realized that they came from a lack of understanding, and sometimes, a lack of straight-talk from those of us who are upset.
First of all, let’s get one thing straight: Using the word “rape” in an online game is not some kind of longstanding tradition or a definitive part of the culture. I’ve been a gamer for well over two decades, and this term hasn’t been around more than a handful of years. Good-natured trash talk is fine between friends, but that’s not what this is. I’ve played basketball with at-risk youth from inner-city Chicago, and the things they said to me, even when I was being crowded and fouled and knocked to the pavement, were nothing compared to a single hour on Xbox Live. You can play aggressively and still be a good sport.
Second, games are not the last place where telling someone you “raped” them is ok — it’s not okay to say that to strangers in any place. I’d even caution you about using that term around friends. Rape victims in general don’t advertise, and you have no idea when you’ll be in our company. I nearly had to leave a Game of Thrones party the other day because my friends, male and female, were yelling rape jokes at the screen during every scene of sex or violence. The first few didn’t faze me, but by the time they were chanting, “Rape! Rape! Rape!” at the mob attacking Sansa, I’d lost any chance of enjoying my night. If my friends don’t even know I’m a rape victim, how do you know the strangers on your server aren’t? Often I won’t say anything, even when I’m upset, because I don’t want to be negative and ruin everyone’s fun.
Except “ruining fun” is exactly why I dislike it when people use that word. It ruins my fun. It sucks the fun out of a game like oxygen through a blown airlock. Being raped was the worst thing that ever happened to me, and I don’t like to be reminded of it when I’m supposed to be enjoying myself. Imagine if someone captured your flag or dominated you in deathmatch, then rubbed in your face how your sister was killed by a drunk driver or your dad abandoned you when you were little. That’s how close it cuts. People keep using the word “offended,” in this discussion — I’m not offended, I’m hurt. Hearing this word causes me emotional pain.
One thing I hear a lot is that “rape” has a different definition in online slang. People point to the South Park episode “The F Word,” which satirically suggests that the meanings of words change, and that the word “fag” has come to mean inconsiderate people. Actually, I’d say the South Park episode that’s more applicable is “With Apologies to Jessie Jackson” and its discussion of the N word. Now, of course I’m not suggesting that the use of “rape” in online slang is comparable to racial slurs — it’s not, though I also tend to hear racial slurs on Xbox Live — but that the episode explains how you may never understand the emotional baggage attached to certain words. Sure, I know that when you say you “raped” my team you aren’t trying to upset me, but that doesn’t stop the word from dredging up extremely negative feelings.
Whether you like it or not, if you use “rape” as a slang term it’s going to have an effect on people. And yes, I think there is something to the argument that using the word all the time normalizes it, but let’s not complicate this debate any further.
Here’s the bottom line: I can’t order you to not use the word “rape,” but I do want you to do me a favor before you use it again.
Before you jump back on the server, sit somewhere quietly and think for a moment. Reflect on what I’ve told you, and try to understand how raw and difficult it can be for someone to hear it. Imagine for a moment what it’s like to have game time, the thing you do to relax and escape from your troubles, interrupted by painful memories.
Ask yourself if a little word is worth making people not want to play with you.