A Gender Transition Delayed by Rape

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s the personal narrative this reader struggled with:

I’m a genderqueer and male-identified but assigned-at-birth female. I am so glad Conor is writing about this [“The Understudied Female Sexual Predator”], even if I don’t always agree with his writings (I’m much less of a libertarian than he is). Your reader stories by men were sad to read, but they also made me not feel so alone in terms of going through my own experience.

It was only after really dealing with, mentally, my rape (by a female) that I could even start to tackle issues of my own gender identity. That is, the predominant narrative of rape as “male perpetrator/female victim” really did a number on me in terms of thinking through my gender identity—deciding to transition to a more male body—because I was like, “Wait, what did this mean that I was raped by a woman? Can I really be the dude I think of myself as?” Etc, etc. My rape meant that actually devoting time and energy to thinking about my gender identity was delayed for almost 20 years, which is a shitty way to go.

In the end, I’m glad these dynamics are getting more covered by the mainstream press (versus just LGBTQ publications). Those of us who’ve been isolated for so long at least have more narratives to connect to.

Our reader’s own narrative started two decades ago:

I went to law school as a pretty confident person. I had done a lot of non-law-related stuff, and I was hoping legal training would allow me to be a more effective advocate in areas I cared about. The first part of my 1L year was fine. I met a lot of awesome people, broadened a lot in terms of thinking about the world, etc, etc. I also had a study group of people I mainly hung out with.

One of the people in my study group was X. I thought we were friends. We had a similar way of zippy dancing and a similarly energetic attitude towards life. We had the same birthday. Like I said, I thought we were friends.

Then came our law-student LGBTQ-group party. I drank too much, passed out, and woke up to X fingering me while I was slipping in and out of consciousness. I was not proud of the amount I drank that night. But, given my state at the time, I couldn’t stop what was happening to me, because I wasn’t particularly coherent.

And yeah, yeah, it’s the regular date-rape situation, I know that. It took me at least a day or three to realize it wasn’t particularly consensual. You might ask, “WTF, why didn’t you realize that right away?” But when you’re in that moment, it’s hard to understand. It’s a lot to process. It’s hard to figure out. It’s just, well, a lot at once, and if your brain is like mine, you would just rather think about other things (nerdy nerdy administrative law things) and just ignore it all. Which is what I did for a few days. Until I emailed X about it and was like, “You know, I really didn’t consent to any of that.”

Her response? “Yeah, if I were a guy, I guess it’d be rape.”

And so here was my response to X, which is enumerated because it’s easier to think about things in terms of enumerated lists:

  1. It was still rape.
  2. There’s no “if I were a guy about it.”
  3. You’re totally out of our study group.

Along the lines of enumerated responses, here’s some bits about how the rape affected my life, which was COMPLICATED:

  1. No, I never did report it along any official channels. My rational calculus part of me was all, well, where’s the evidence at this point? What kind of hassle would it be to go through official channels? I do believe in the whole presumed innocence thing and couldn’t figure out any information I could present to overcome that. It made me really wrestle with my commitments to criminal law/innocence standards and personal effects. And I feel good about myself that I still remained dedicated to prior principles even though it was hard. I felt justified in my decision not to report stuff by subsequent interactions with both general legal communities, as well as mainstream feminist communities, because when I relayed my account, folks either said, “No, this doesn’t happen,” or “This doesn’t help broader advocacy efforts.” And I really don’t want to diminish broader advocacy efforts, but man, this sucked for me.
  2. I was in PTSD mode for a long time, and there’s still a little bit of that now. It generally doesn’t affect my everyday life, for the most part. It’s just that I can’t handle the feel of fingernails anywhere, and I became freaked out by all short, [certain-color hair] ladies who show any attention to me.   
  3. I went into a mode of not wanting to be physically attractive to people, because I didn’t want to fear RAPE. Because my goodness, that was awful. I know, this is not a real factor, according to empirical studies I’ve read. But it still probably affected subsequent relationships, and that’s too bad. It didn’t help that even before all this, I never thought of myself in terms of visual appeal (and thought of my “self” as more my mental machinery), but holy shit did this exacerbate those previously held leanings.
  4. I found it harder to trust women. You know the discourse of, “Oh, all these women are men-haters because they had one bad experience, they shouldn’t generalize”? Well, I sort of felt like that, but in the reverse. I had steeled myself up for the “male threat” (that stuff is in the papers and all), but this came out of nowhere and it was awful. It probably wasn’t five years before I could make any new emotional bonds with another female.
  5. It threatened my masculinity. And it’s maybe this that has led to the most long-lasting detrimental effects. I think, almost 20 years ago, I was on the verge of really tackling my gender identity, which is resolutely Not Female. But when this happened, I was thrown for a loop. What did it mean that I was raped? What did it mean that I was raped by a female (who did in fact identify as such)? What did it mean for my own gender identity as, well, not really female? Most narratives of rape involve victims as being female and perpetrators as being male, and at the time, I didn’t know what to do with that. Since sharing my story with friends, I’ve heard a number of stories from male friends/acquaintances who (despite being assigned male at birth) still went through the same thing: wondering what that meant for their gender identity. And I know, this questioning of one’s own gender identity as a result of rape is ultimately related to community stereotypes of “men” versus “women,” but hey, we all live in this world, so it’s hard to completely detach ourselves from those stereotypes.

On a broader feminist note, I worry that the general focus on the image of “male perpetrator/female victim” leads to a dynamic where addressing sexual violence is seen as “only” a women’s issue, and thus put on the sidelines (by some). So my hope is that continued attention, in coverage like yours, will change the discourse towards something more reflecting of reality, but also more inclusive of everyone’s experiences.

If you have your own experience to share, please let us know.