Mondays on the Margins: Rape Culture - We're All Soaking In It

I don't want to talk about it. I don't know what to say about it. People are sick of hearing about it. I feel small and cowardly when I don't talk about it. Some people I know have already said things about it. Hannah did a good from the heart post. Bon did a good from the brain post, which I like to think of as the "it's not that we don't see your side, it's just that your side is whiny and entitled and suckholish - here's why" post. Rehtaeh Parson's father did a post that will rip your heart out, and a while before, this post by Hannah's friend Carol about Amanda Todd really made an impression on me.

I'm going to come at this through books, since that's kind of what I do. In 2010, I read a book called I Don't: A Contrarian History of Marriage by Susan Squire. Reading it was one of those a-ha moments that you have about something where you've kind of been peripherally aware of something but suddenly it hits home with an unpleasant burning thud. I had much the same sensation when reading Betraying Spinoza by Rebecca Goldstein - in that case it was how naive I had been and how incomplete my knowledge was about how far back and how wide-ranging the persecution of Jewish people went and was. With Susan Squire's book, it was a similar realization that really, as far back as the beginning of civilization, it's impossible to escape the conclusion that men as a gender are really deeply and strangely and almost morbidly suspicious of and sort of frightened and disgusted by women. I've been meaning to buy a copy, and to read some of her suggested sources, but the notes I took are enough to remind me of how the whole book made assertions and conclusions that were disturbing and yet oddly recognizable: how men preferred to keep marriage and sexual desire separate; how men, particularly religious men, viewed lust as something shameful but excusable in themselves, and shameful and unforgivable in women; how the thought of women gaining any kind of power made men hysterically and violently afraid. Do I have to clarify that when I say "men" I don't mean "all men", but rather "a monolithic block of male people who had the power and made the laws and formed the interdependent structures of culture, religion and tradition that kept women as a gender subjugated and disenfranchised"? Perhaps it's best if I do. 

 A few days ago I read a book by an author who I've enjoyed in the past. She writes the kind of mysteries that I try to confine my mystery-reading to these days - mysteries with complex characters and intelligent, insightful writing. Most of her books are stand-alones, but as it happens, I read a book that was a sequel to this one and only then realized that there was one that took place before. For that reason, I know that the female police officer in this book and the male detective do become a couple in the subsequent book. 

In this book, the female police constable has a history of an abusive childhood and homelessness. She is working to address a systemic problem of frequent, brutal and unprosecuted gang rapes in black neighbourhoods in her area of England. She talks passionately about rape victims thinking of the rape as killing the person they were, so that a different person is left afterwards.

The male police detective treats her with unreserved hostility for their first few meetings. He says things to her like "You certainly scrub up well" and "Shut up - most women in your position would be scared shitless. How come you're not?"

Then there's this passage:  “I was still wearing high-heeled shoes, so when the hand grabbed the back of my hair I was thrown completely off balance. There was nothing to brace myself against, no way to fight back, as I was pulled down the last two steps and into the shadow beneath. A weight I hadn’t a hope of resisting pushed me forward until my face was up against the wood of my front door. I felt something cold and hard press against my neck and knew there was a knife at my throat.     ‘This is how easy it is,’ said a voice in my ear. ‘This is the last thing Geraldine felt.’     ….Taking a deep breath, I turned round slowly.     Mark Joesbury was shaking his head at me, like I was something forced into his way but far beneath his notice. In his right hand he held his car keys. It had been a key, not a knife, at my throat.     “Are you out of your fucking mind?” he said, in a voice that would have carried easily up to the street.”

So he demonstrates his concern that she's in danger of being attacked by.... attacking her. After she falls in the river while pursuing a suspect and almost dies, he drags her back to the river and forces her to go on a boat, as some kind of 'therapy'. When she says she's not comfortable and asks to go back to the car, he says, "Do I strike you as someone who gives up easily?"

Finally, in her hospital room he makes sexual advances. She tells him he's been a complete bastard and he acknowledges that he has, and says "Dana thinks I fancy you rotten and I’m taking the time-honoured male path of venting sexual frustration through unreasonable aggression.”

I don't know if I would have felt the same disbelieving squirminess reading this if I'd read it before the events of the past year or so. So here is an author that I respect, an author who spends half the book writing sensitively about the effects of rape and the related problem of an indifferent justice system, and the other half  of the book outlining a romance in which the man uses his superior physical strength against the woman, verbally abuses her, and then excuses it in the name of 'fancying her rotten'.

Something's rotten, that's for sure. There's also a scene in which the policewoman's female superior directs the man to drive her home. When the policewoman exhibits a clear reluctance to get in the car with him, instead of asking why or letting her get a cab as she suggests, her superior snaps "Oh for God's sake, he doesn't bite". So there we go - a female figure of authority delivering her neatly into a situation where she's forced to be alone with a man who's menaced her. Complicity - sometimes it's an ugly word, isn't it?

See, the thing is, I don't want to read in this manner. I don't want to view everything through a wary and defensive lens. Few people do, although rape culture apologists thing that we take some kind of self-satisfied pleasure in it. Are these the choices we have now? Either reading or listening and watching and walking and living in a state of humourless, joyless hypervigilance, or risking being the next Amanda Todd or Rehtaeh Parsons, or being her mother, or the mother of one of her rapists or tormentors? 

I don't know. Things have to change, it doesn't feel like anything can change. I don't really know what to say, I don't feel like I've said it properly, too many people aren't listening, but being silent doesn't help. We can't go on, we'll go on. 


Anonymous said…
Thanks for the shout-out. It's a tough and sickening situation, isn't it?
Julie said…
I don't know how to process all of this. All I think is, who are the parents of these boys? Where did they go wrong? How did these boys think this was ok? Am I going to raise such a person? It's keeping me up at night.
Hannah said…
That book about the detective... the tropes, I can see them from space. So sadly typical.

And we *are* soaking in it. At least one sex scene in the 50 Shades trilogy is a flat-out rape; the main character is crying, she wants him to stop what he's doing, she's scared... when she finally *does* get him to stop by using the safe-word, the male "hero" berates her for TWO EFFING CHAPTERS about using the safe-word because it made HIM feel bad.

Talk about soaking in rape culture, sweet christ.
Nicole said…
I know. I know. I don't know what to say anymore. But I do think you said this beautifully:
"Are these the choices we have now? Either reading or listening and watching and walking and living in a state of humourless, joyless hypervigilance, or risking being the next Amanda Todd or Rehtaeh Parsons, or being her mother, or the mother of one of her rapists or tormentors?"

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StephLove said…
When I was in college, or maybe high school, my younger sister accused me of "seeing sexism everywhere." and I replied "That's because it IS everywhere."
Sasha said…
I've been stewing over what to say for two days, and I still can't think of anything. You may not think you've said what you need to say, but you're keeping the conversation going. So thank-you.
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I don't know what to say, either. But I will say that I ... enjoyed is not the word. I appreciate your post. And I'm kind of appalled by that passage you quote - even though I'm also not at all surprised (and couldn't promise that I'd never write a character for whom that was plausible behaviour).
Ms. G said…
This subject has been being discussed at our house recently. Having three daughters makes it a priority. When my youngest chose to join the military my husbands biggest fear wasn't war-but rape within the ranks. And that is just sad.

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