Rape must rank as a woman’s darkest nightmare for it represents the most total of all possible invasions of her body. The crudest assertions of power have always had the physical body as their object. That is why the first spoils claimed by victors in war are the local women. That is also why in macho cultures like ours, where men are the victors, all women are potential spoils of a war that takes place daily in schools, offices, and homes.
Yet, for all that it represents, rape has been mostly treated as an offense against chastity, rather than as an act of violence against persons; a private crime, rather than as an injury against the entire community. We have barely moved from this position, that is why the law on rape in our country has remained unchanged until now. It still bears all the marks of an instrument made by men, and of a culture that tends to confer a greater stigma on the victim than on the rapist.
It is this that Karen Tayag Vertido, Executive Director of the Davao Chamber of Commerce and Industry, must contend with as she goes through the process of a court case against the man who raped her, a former president of the same organization and a prominent Mindanao businessman. As in most rape cases, the offender here is not a stranger, but someone known to the victim.
Accepting what she thought was a kind offer of a ride home after an official function, Karen found herself last March 29 being forcibly driven instead into a motel where she was raped. On reaching home finally, 30-year-old Karen, mother of two, could not immediately bring herself to tell her husband. She spent the night furiously washing and scrubbing herself, and ridding her body of any trace of the man who had violated her. She could tell her story only to an officemate the following day, and it was only with the assistance of close friends that she could finally share it with her husband.
Dam Vertido has been the picture of a totally supportive husband. An active figure in the Davao NGO movement, he has called on all his friends to help him secure justice for his wife. There is every reason to think that Karen’s recovery from this traumatic experience would be greatly hastened by the steady presence of such a loving husband and of a nurturing community that has quickly found expression in a “Justice for Karen Movement.”
Karen would need all the courage and support of family and friends as she faces the prospect of re-living and recreating the entire nightmare in court. Her motives would be put in question. Her recollection of the events would be placed in doubt. Even her personal circumstances would be carefully scrutinized for any piece of information that would impugn her credibility. At some points, she will get the feeling she is being interrogated as the offender rather than as the victim.
The first struggle she has already won. It is the struggle against the temptation to keep the incident private, precisely because of the stigma that it confers on the rape victim. Having decided to go to court, she now has to prove that she went into the motel against her will, or even worse, that she was not the one who led him on.
Why did she not struggle to free herself, the lawyers would ask. Couldn’t she have shouted for help? How did she finally get out of the motel? Was rape committed in the first place? Is there evidence of penile penetration? Are there traces of semen in her vagina? Because it is now done in public, the reconstruction of the events through such interrogation is potentially more humiliating.
The credibility of a rape victim’s account is usually subjected to the test of what a reasonable person might be expected to do under the same circumstances. But do the courts really care to know what can possibly happen to a person’s spirit in the face of rape?
In theory, it appears difficult for a lone aggressor to rape a fully conscious woman. She is expected to struggle wildly and to fight off her attacker, except maybe when a weapon is being held at her. Yet counselors and psychologists tell us that most victims freeze in terror. Their minds fail to function properly.
Opportunities for getting away, which seem so clear in recollection, are inexplicably not seized. That is why all kinds of doubts tend to assail the victim herself immediately after the incident. How could she have been so stupid, so unsuspecting and so helpless? Before long she loses all selfconfidence, and may even begin to blame herself for what happened.
Lawyers always insist that a rape victim must have herself immediately examined by a doctor before she washes or cleans herself. One wonders how many women victims can realistically postpone cleaning themselves after being raped. For that matter, one wonders how many people, women or men, can hold off washing themselves even after a simple medical vaginal or anal examination.
One reads of accounts of rape victims helplessly and endlessly revisiting the smell, the saliva, and the sensations of violence inflicted upon their bodies long after the actual event. They continue to scrub off the sediments of the trauma, and traces of the rapist, as if he had permanently lodged himself under the skin. These accounts are far from exaggerated.
Only a view of rape as a total invasion and violation of a person’s body and spirit, rather than simply as a stolen sexual act, can bring out the full meaning of the injury it inflicts on its victims. All too often, the injury and the pressure from the culture so disable the victims as to prevent them from coming out publicly to seek justice. Thus, their wounds never heal.
It is a fate that Karen Vertido and a growing number of women who refuse to remain victims will no longer accept, as they emerge as survivors from the shadow of what has long been regarded as a heinous but victimless crime.
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