Our culture tends to see rape in heterosexual terms—with a male perpetrator and a female victim. For women sexually assaulted by women, this makes the experience all the more confusing and isolating.
Photo via Jenna Carver
Cassandra Perry awoke to find everyone passed out around her. Afraid to make any noise, she tiptoed around the sleeping bodies in search of her belongings, stealing a pair of flip-flops in place of her missing shoes. The last thing she remembered from the night before was a man telling her he wouldn't be bothering with condoms and a woman's hands parting her legs. That night, two people had had nonconsensual sex with Perry. The danger of being raped by a man was something Perry had heard of—but being raped by a woman was terrifying new ground.
It was the same for Maria*, molested at age four by an older girl; for Sophie*, forced to have sex throughout an abusive relationship; and for Emma*, assaulted by two women before she turned 23. Their stories make up a largely undocumented section of survivor accounts, experiences that often are untold, underreported, and discredited by those around them. They are the female victims of female perpetrators—the survivors of sexual assaults that many believe impossible.
While statistical data varies, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about one out of every five women in the US will experience rape or attempted rape in her lifetime. A 2013 US Department of Justice special report indicates that white males are the most common offenders. But what about when the assault doesn't fit the narrative of sexual abuse we have come to expect?
Jennifer Marsh, the vice president of victim services at the Rape Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), says that while not as common as accounts involving male perpetrators, stories of women being assaulted by women are something they encounter on a regular basis on their national sexual assault hotline. "It's a very gendered crime," Marsh tells me over the phone. "We so often categorize perpetrators as male."
As a result, RAINN staff are trained not to make assumptions about the gender of the perpetrator when answering calls. "On our hotline, we use gender-neutral pronouns for that reason," Marsh says, adding that she doesn't think that's the norm when talking about sexual assault. "People [typically] use female pronouns when they talk about a victim or survivor, and they use a male pronoun when they talk about a perpetrator. That's certainly something that we try and make a very concerted effort not to do."
There are women who have as much of an issue with power and control and relationships as there are men.
RAINN's decision to use gender-neutral pronouns is born of a desire to help all victims feel accommodated. "There's nothing more alienating [than using the incorrect pronouns] for a survivor who doesn't fit into that box," Marsh says. "They are already feeling as though 'nobody understands me, this hasn't happened to anyone else, I feel very alone.' Then to have the people [who] are supposed to help you make those [gendered] assumptions can just validate those negative feelings."
For many survivors of woman-on-woman assault, a lack of similar stories leaves them unable to identify their experience. Liza*, now 48, was 11 when she was molested by a female cousin. Like many of us, she had received no education about same-gender assault. "I didn't even know it was possible," Liza said in a phone interview from her home in Wisconsin. "There was absolutely no language I could attach to it. It didn't fit anything I knew."
Everything Liza knew about sexual assault made perpetrators out to be powerful, unknown, and male—not young, familiar, and female. The assault she experienced was unlike anything she had been taught was "normal" or "believable," and the lack of education, examples, and support specific to the type of trauma she experienced left Liza with no way to name—let alone process—an experience that ultimately made a lasting impact on her life.
In terms of impact, being a woman assaulted by a woman brings with it a set of "unique barriers," says Laura Palumbo, Director of Communications at the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. "When we talk about healing for [heterosexual assault] survivors, there's this element of knowing that other people have survived and healed from this experience." But, says Palumbo, women who are survivors of sexual violence perpetrated by a woman don't typically have that same knowledge or familiarity. According to her, "[survivors of non-heterosexual assault] don't have access to narratives of what it is like to heal, nor do they receive public validation, nor do they have spaces where their experiences are honored."
Rape crisis counselor and founder of the As One Project, an organization that provides support to survivors, Angela Esquivel agrees. "People assume that if it's two women, well, of course, they are loving and caring and sensitive and all these things," she says of observations she's made based on her work, "but that's just not the case."
Survivors of nonheterosexual assault don't have access to narratives of what it is like to heal, nor do they receive public validation, nor do they have spaces where their experiences are honored.
She explains that power and authority transcend gender. "There are women who have as much of an issue with power and control and relationships as there are men," she says, adding that "same-sex couples are not immune to those power imbalances or abuses of power that occur within relationships."
Data collected by the Centers for Disease Control seems to confirm these observations, and, according to the agency, lesbians and bisexual women are at a higher risk for experiencing intimate partner violence. Forty-four percent of lesbians and 61 percent of bisexual women—as opposed to 35 percent of heterosexual women—will experience rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.
However, the female victims of same-gender assault can come from any sexual orientation, and these numbers do not account for the added component of straight women assaulted by women, survivors of a one-time offense, or other types of assault that fall outside the more "typical" narratives.
"In my work as an advocate, I have heard countless stories of women and girls being assaulted by female perpetrators, from date rape and early childhood sexual abuse to female traffickers and recruiters exploiting young women for profit," says Brooke Axtell, the Director of Communications and Survivor Support for Allies Against Slavery and the founder of Survivor Healing and Empowerment.
Axtell says that female perpetrators are less likely to be identified as a legitimate threat, adding that this is a result of how we legally and culturally define rape. As a result, the prevalence and impact of non-heterosexual assault has been what Axtell calls "artificially diminished," pointing out that "female-on-female sexual violence is no less violating." In fact, she says, "it can be even more confusing and disorienting because it does not fit into the traditional social script of what qualifies as sexual assault."
The statistics that we do have also don't account for the women who have chosen not to report their stories. According to a Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) study, women reported only 34 percent of attempted rapes, 36 percent of completed rapes, and 26 percent of sexual assaults in the eight years between 1992 to 2000. The reasons for choosing not to report are many, but for Sophie, a survivor of same gender assault, the decision not to come forward was based on the fear that her experiences would reflect poorly on queer and trans communities—perhaps another "unique barrier" of being a woman assaulted by a woman.
Sophie, assaulted by a trans woman, was concerned that sharing her story would become about her perpetrator's gender identity, rather than the abuse itself. "I was really worried about transphobia, and people reacting in really transphobic ways, which would not have felt supportive at all," says Sophie. So, instead of speaking to others about her assault, Sophie generally chose to remain silent. Being vocal about assault is an already challenging task; worrying that it might jeopardize the reputation of a marginalized community creates an added obstacle that makes it even more difficult to request the needed resources in the wake of a traumatic event.
But is there anything that can make the process of working through a sexual assault less excruciating? When asked about what would have helped her, Cassandra Perry said the struggle to name her assault, and, in turn, process it, stems from a much larger issue centered on discourse: "Until we have a bigger vocabulary to have these conversations with, so we can better describe what happens to us, what happens to others, then we're not going to be able to really understand what's going on out there."
*These names have been changed.