When I was a kid, and living in Des Moines, the old woman across the street was raped. I was in fifth grade, so probably ten years old, and ran with a pack of boys and girls who migrated up and down the street freely and unwatched by our parents. The neighborhood was “in transition” whatever that meant. It was affordable to my law school parents, and we lived next door to a rare black family. Apparently there had been property value conversations when they had moved in. They were clearly wealthier and more respectable than anyone on our block, and my parents, hippies to the bitter end, had discussed it at the dinner table in tones of outrage. My dad probably took the homeowner’s side briefly in the argument; they would do that as law students. They discussed and argued everything, as far as I can tell the only thing that kept us from learning much about the world was boredom with adult topics.
I can remember going outside the house that day, and seeing police on our street. There were cars outside, and cops going up and down the narrow wooden staircase that led to the old woman’s apartment in the back. It was an unusual sight. Even though we knew there was danger lurking around us in our neighborhood where muggings and robberies sometimes happened, we all thought our block was safe. We kids knew every corner of it, every mulberry tree, every back alley. And later, in the twilight as we played statue and tag and caught fireflies, we discussed it.
Some “kid,” as he was described by one who really was a kid, had broken into her apartment. Another said it was someone who delivered groceries. Someone else said he’d come to her door with a knife. Everyone knew the same thing. He’d raped her. He’d stolen her money. He’s run away. She was in her sixties. And He’s stolen twenty-eight dollars. Both seemed equally impossible. Who rapes a woman in her sixties? Who chances jail for 28 dollars? and we went back to playing in a world that made no sense at all.
But at dinner my dad said what we had said, how strange it was. And my mother said “Rape is not about sex. It’s an act of violence.” She was burning with anger. My dad did not take the rapist’s side. Not even as an exercise. Not when my mother’s eyes glowed like that.
Later I saw the old woman, briefly. She was back from the hospital, carrying bags of groceries up her back stairs. I watched her closely. She looked incredibly old to me then, though now my mother is the same age. She had white-yellow hair, and a long camelhair coat, and a purple and yellow bruise around an eye. No one would have accused her of aging well. No one would make catcalls to her as she walked by a construction site. She was invisible with age, or I would have thought.
She moved away at the end of the month. Some students moved it. I forgot about her.
But I’ve been thinking about her lately, as politicians discuss rape. She was too old to conceive, so the question of her carrying to term was not one she had to deal with. If the politicians thought of her, when they thought of rape, they would think of rape differently. The politicians wouldn’t think of young women scantily clad off to clubs where they can be misunderstood when they say “no”; they’d think of their mothers and wives.
I also burn with anger like my mother did. I picture the politicians up late at night, reading the “good parts” of the bible, like Judges 5:30 ‘Have they not found and divided the spoil?— A womb or two for every man; spoil of dyed materials for Sisera, spoil of dyed materials embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for the neck as spoil?” or Deuteronomy 20:10-14 “And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you.” And perhaps they think the womb of a woman is the right of every man. And I shudder.
Rape is an act of violence with a portable weapon. and just because that weapon can be used for love or to get children, at the moment it is only a weapon. When a person is beaten to death with a rolling-pin, no one thinks it’s an act of baking gone wrong.
If a pregnancy results, no matter what you think that means about life, it doesn’t change the act was rape. It was not a method of conception. These are not the days of Judges 21:10 when there was fear the tribe might die out. Rape is nothing but another way to beat a woman into submission, to terrorize another human being, a prove to yourself you have power when you are a small, wicked thing. It is a beat-down with a particular weapon on a particular body part. But it’s still a beating.
Only the language of crime should be used when discussing it. Only a tone of and utter immovable intolerance should be used.
Please vote today. Please make sure we remove anyone who thinks there is any excuse ever to treat a woman like spoils of war, like a piece of cloth or livestock.
Please stand firm and unbending for all the women. We need you.