Most of you, by now, probably know the second season of Thirteen Reasons Why was released last Friday. Despite my better judgement I binge watched the whole season that weekend. And while the season does some obvious things to start conversation (how they handled sexual assault, how they talked about the athletes role in those assaults, how they handled bullying, etc.), there was one element of the season which I felt was not fully fleshed out: the character of Chloe.
She is the girlfriend of Bryce Walker, a boy who raped multiple girls. This boy feels no remorse but he is a good actor; he has convinced Chloe that he hasn’t done the things he has and he has, largely due to his money, convinced others to cover up his crimes. Part of why Chloe doesn’t acknowledge the reality of who her boyfriend is probably has to do with the fact that she doesn’t want to believe that he is capable of those things because believing that means literally being in bed with a rapist. And, speaking from experience, that’s a dirty feeling. Thus leads us to my secret:
My ex-husband raped me before I married him and I still married him. It wasn’t violent (that time), not that it makes any difference. We had been drinking and watching movies. I passed out. When I woke up, he was on top of me and inside me. I just stayed still, completely limp. I let him finish. I actively didn’t resist. I didn’t have the energy. Maybe to a lot of people this was not rape because I didn’t say no and I didn’t try to fight him off of me. He and I were in a relationship. I was drunk so that must mean I was “asking for it.” But, I was unconscious when he started. I couldn’t consent in those moments and just because we were in a relationship that didn’t mean that he had full access to my body. This was rape. So, why did I marry him? I thought that was the best that I could do. I wasn’t sure, at the time, that what happened to me really was rape since we were in a relationship. I ascribed to antiquated beliefs that he had a right to my body, that it was my duty to pleasure him. I was naive. And, I didn’t want to believe that he was the type of person who could rape someone. Because, he didn’t fit the stereotypical mold. He was kind to me for years. He wasn’t all bad. But he was a rapist. Not all rapists are always malevolent. In fact, usually they aren’t. That’s what makes it so easy to deny reality.
In the second season of Thirteen Reasons Why Chloe finds out that she was also raped by Bryce (we can assume, before they became romantically involved); there is photographic evidence. But she makes the decision to lie on stand, to protect him. I know, to young viewers, this makes her “the bad guy”, too. I know this because of how my students have reacted. They’ve said things like, “I can’t understand why she would stand beside him after what he did.” And, “Why would she do that? Why would she stay with a rapist?” I wish it were as simple as, rape is bad, he raped someone, therefore he is bad. It isn’t. It is complex like most of life’s problems. At 18, they (my students and other viewers) don’t quite get the complexity of the situation. I didn’t get it either. But, now, looking back, I do. And, I’m hoping that my experience and perspective might help people (those viewing the show and those who aren’t) to find some compassion for the women and girls who stay in difficult situations, who adamantly deny who someone is because it would hurt too much to accept the truth.
Chloe wasn’t bad and neither was I. We were victims, too. We were confused young women in a society which tells us that our bodies aren’t our own, that we must have been asking for it, that we got ourselves into those situations. That it was our fault. It is somehow easier to believe that than to believe that someone we love could do such hurtful things to us and to other people. It’s easier to believe that it wasn’t rape because if it is, and we didn’t say anything, then the little voice in the back of our heads tells us it is our fault if they do it to someone else. So we need it to not be rape. But what we need, what we convince ourselves of… it isn’t truth.
The truth is that the people who do bad things are also people. They’re complex. And it doesn’t make me or Chloe or anyone else like us bad people that we denied the truth about those people. It makes us human and fallible, too. It means we are vulnerable and we act in the interest of self-preservation. That isn’t a bad thing. It is natural, especially for those of us who’ve been taught that we have to do whatever it takes to survive. And, let’s be honest, in this world… all women are taught to do what it takes to survive.