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Mar 11 2011

Don’t Talk, Just Read

You may have noticed that it…bothers me when people say stupid stuff about rape. Yes, it’s harmful, both because it invalidates those who have experienced rape and because it validates those who think rape is no big deal. That’s the part that infuriates me.

The part that annoys me and sticks under my skin, hanging on perhaps even longer than the fury, is that if these same people would just shut up and pay attention, they’d likely learn something important. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not that hard to find people to talk about rape intelligently and compassionately–and with a command of the facts.

Anyone who’s reads a Twitter feed based around information will have seen this great post by Roxane Gay about the need to write carefully about rape. (Those who don’t pay their feed regular attention will see it in the next week or so.) She says what I was trying to say yesterday, but in a more writerly way, plus much more about how we trivialize rape by the way we portray it.

While I have these concerns, I also feel committed to telling the truth, to saying these violences happen even if bearing such witness contributes to a spectacle of sexual violence. When we’re talking about race or religion or politics, it is often said we need to speak carefully. These are difficult topics where we need to be vigilant not only in what we say but how we express ourselves. That same care, I would suggest, has to be extended to how we write about violence, and sexual violence in particular.

In the Times article, the phrase “sexual assault” is used, as is the phrase “the girl had been forced to have sex with several men.” The word “rape” is only used twice and not really in connection with the victim. That is not the careful use of language. Language, in this instance, and far more often than makes sense, is used to buffer our sensibilities from the brutality of rape, from the extraordinary nature of such a crime. Feminist scholars have long called for a rereading of rape. Higgins and Silver note that “the act of rereading rape involves more than listening to silences; it requires restoring rape to the literal, to the body: restoring, that is, the violence—the physical, sexual violation.” I would suggest we need to find new ways, whether in fiction or creative nonfiction or journalism, for not only rereading rape but rewriting rape as well, ways of rewriting that restore the actual violence to these crimes and that make it impossible for men to be excused for committing atrocities and that make it impossible for articles like McKinley’s to be written, to be published, to be considered acceptable.

Read the whole thing.

Nor is rape a new topic. Anyone who had been paying attention a year and a half ago, when the film industry decided to collectively take on jury duty for Roman Polanski, would likely have seen links to this post by Harriet Jacobs about how our society concludes that women haven’t been raped because they’re doing exactly what they’ve been trained to do.

People wonder why women don’t “fight back,” but they don’t wonder about it when women back down in arguments, are interrupted, purposefully lower and modulate their voices to express less emotion, make obvious signals that they are uninterested in conversation or being in closer physical proximity and are ignored. They don’t wonder about all those daily social interactions in which women are quieter, ignored, or invisible, because those social interactions seem normal. They seem normal to women, and they seem normal to men, because we were all raised in the same cultural pond, drinking the same Kool-Aid.

And then, all of a sudden, when women are raped, all these natural and invisible social interactions become evidence that the woman wasn’t truly raped. Because she didn’t fight back, or yell loudly, or run, or kick, or punch. She let him into her room when it was obvious what he wanted. She flirted with him, she kissed him. She stopped saying no, after a while.

Again, read the full post. Read the discussion in the comments as well. They’re well-moderated, so instead of the usual mess, you get insight and exchanges of ideas that could be their own posts.

Then, notice that you’ve learned something, even if you already know something about rape and rape culture. And the next time some idiot comes along, spewing know-nothing blather, feel all the more free to suggest their time could be better spent digging their way out of ignorance.