The "R" Words


This is a follow up to “On Mothers, Thresholds and Boundaries.” Struggling for words, but hoping something will click with someone and together maybe we will find our way through these deep waters.

Last night after Bonnie Damron reminded us, “Let’s not forget that at the heart of the Eleusinian mysteries is a violent rape,” I felt the energy of the group change. She mentioned the “R” word. She named it. And we all spoke more honestly after that. With care and hesitancy, but honestly. This is tender territory for sure, but it’s important.

I've heard Persephone's abduction referred to as both a rape and a ravishing. And I’d like to suggest that there’s a continuum between the “R” words Ravish and Rape. And within that continuum, there’s a boundary that often gets blurred.

Ravish is defined as:

1. To fill with strong emotion, especially joy.

2. To seize and carry off by force.

3. To rape.

Rape is defined as:

1. Unlawful sexual intercourse or any other sexual penetration of the vagina, anus, or mouth of another person, with or without force, by a sex organ, other body part, or foreign object, without the consent of the victim.

2. An act of plunder, violent seizure, or abuse; despoliation; violation.

3. To seize, take, or carry off by force.

Isn’t it incredible that ‘ravish’ means both ‘to fill with joy’ and ‘to rape’?

This is what the patriarchy does. It blurs the lines to favor the sexual appetites of men.

Noticing that both ‘ravish’ and ‘rape’ have the common definition ‘to seize and carry off by force’, leads me to believe that ‘force’ is the common element. Whether we are overtaken with pleasure or overtaken with fear, we are still overtaken.

I’ll bet most women have been called ‘ravishing’ at least once in their lives. It means extremely beautiful or attractive; enchanting; entrancing. My mother said it to me when I was ready to go to my senior prom, and she meant it as a compliment. But ravishing is a very weighted word. Somewhere in our unconscious we also know that archaically, it refers to forceful sexual attention. So we accept the compliment for our prom dress, but we feel a bit uneasy inside, and we’re not exactly sure why.

Perhaps the answer lies in the systematic objectification of feminine sexuality. I believe that over time, many of us are taught that our bodies exist for the taking. We are ravishing and we will be ravished. Sometime this feels good, but sometimes it doesn’t. So we disconnect from our bodies. They are no longer a sacred vessel, belonging to us. Instead, our bodies become an offering, and we gauge our value by how much they are desired by others.

Many of us were taught in subtle ways that we’re here on this earth to serve at the pleasure of others (the patriarchy). And our mothers were taught this too. Co-opted by patriarchal views, many women of our mothers’ generation modeled qualities such as accommodating, self effacing and deferring. They were compliant with their thoughts, words and deeds.

When you put these things together - confusion about sexual attention, disconnection from our bodies, and a modeled demeanor of compliancy - the stage is set for violation. We are ripe for it.

Add this to the blurred continuum between ‘ravish’ and ‘rape’ and we have a big problem with sexual boundaries.

And I think the patriarchy likes it this way. They like us to be off-center and unsure. At what point does an innocent compliment become a loaded innuendo? At what point does ravish turn into rape?

Some say consent is the determining factor, but consent can be misconstrued too. If a woman is dissociated from her body, she will often freeze when she feels threatened, instead of resorting to fight or flight. And freezing is reflective of the compliancy that was modeled to us by our mothers. But compliancy is not consent.

So even this visceral response becomes unclear. Are we here to serve? Is this what we do?

By endowing the word ravish with so many meanings, the boundaries between consensual pleasure and violation are softened. And when the force of the ‘admirer’ becomes too strong, even if their attention may have felt OK in the beginning, by the end it has crossed a line. There’s a boundary between ‘ravish’ and ‘rape’ that needs to be defined. And until we’ve made it through that uncomfortable conversation, I believe many of us will remain stuck, disconnected and unsure.

This is not about blaming our mothers. This is about naming the complex. Thank you, Loralee, for keeping this need in the forefront of our work. And Bonnie, you’re absolutely right, at the center of the mystery, as well at the center of the needed conversation, is a violent rape. ...or was it a ravishing? Depends who you ask, perhaps.