I had been intending to write a post about rape for a few weeks—ever since That Scene in Game of Thrones. Like everybody else, I have a lot of opinions on the subject of rape, rape culture, and its place in art and entertainment. The shootings in Isla Vista and the subsequent #YesAllWomen movement brought the subject to the fore for me again.
And then this happened:
I went to a poetry reading this evening, where I read a piece about domestic violence. It sparked a discussion about Isla Vista and violence against women in general. The majority of the writers in attendance were white, male, and over the age of 45. They immediately took offense at the idea that all men are rapists. (No one said they were.) They certainly don’t condone rape, and they don’t know any men who do. In fact, it's a man's job to defend women. They insisted that the number of rapes is going down every year, that there is no rape culture. One of them said that I, as a woman, couldn’t understand the urgency of the male sex drive. “Men need women,” he said. “We need you. When sailors come back from leave, what’s the first thing they want to do? They want to get laid. If a man can’t get laid, it affects his mind.”
“Please,” another one grumbled, “Can’t we talk about something else?”
I don’t know what I found more troubling—the fact that these guys basically made my point for me, the fact that they were in such a hurry for me to shut up, or the fact that the other women in the room hardly uttered a word during the discussion.
So since this piece began with Game of Thrones, let’s just get that out of the way first, shall we?
I’ve read all the Song of Ice and Fire novels. I frequent a lot of TV forums. I read all of the TV recaps I can get my hands on, and, subsequently, peruse the comment sections. A lot of people are decrying the quantity of rape and torture depicted in the show. They complain that it’s not necessary to the plot, and that it’s “too hard to watch.”
To which I say, GOOD.
I think the minute rape and torture become easy to watch, then, my friends, we have a problem. In the meantime, I think that we, as a culture, deserve to have our nose rubbed in all of the horrible shit we do. (Note: I say we. Me, you, man, woman, gay, straight-- we’re all in this together.) I think art is the perfect medium for it. And yes, I get that most of you watch Game of Thrones to be entertained. But there’s a fine line between art and entertainment, and the best books, TV shows and films should blur it early and often. Entertainment that makes you think is art. I’ve said it before, and I’m sure I will say again—art gives us a safe zone in which to explore uncomfortable ideas.
As for whether rape and torture are necessary to the plot—well, George R.R. Martin has said specifically that he wanted to write about the human cost of war. By which he means the cost paid not just by soldiers, or, in his case, armored knights, but by the common people. So he has given us Westeros, a quasi-medieval setting, which has been experiencing massive political and social upheaval for over fifty years. It’s a world without mass communication, mass transit, or any sort of organized system of law enforcement. I would find it sort of remarkable if rape, torture, and general mayhem weren’t happening. But then, maybe I’m just Hobbesian that way.
My question is, if we can’t explore rape and torture and its consequences in a fantasy world, then where can we? I don’t think we can question anymore whether it’s necessary to explore such subjects. In a world where Sarah Palin can make waterboarding jokes; where over 237,000 people are sexually assaulted annually in the U.S. alone; where, more often than not, the first question asked when a rape is reported is, “What was she wearing?” we need to start having these conversations.
I wrote Under Julia, a novel about sex offenders, all of whom are male. (Women can be sex offenders, too. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that around 8% of sexual abuse crimes are committed by women, though, as with all other crimes regarding sexual abuse, that number is probably low due to lack of reporting.) I co-authored Where Flap the Tatters of the King, a sci-fi/fantasy about a viciously patriarchal culture. I mention these two works because I like to think that I have spent a lot of time researching, thinking about, and writing about gender politics, sexual violence, and the societies that inform their dynamics.
Where Flap the Tatters of the King depicts a world called Corbenic where women are regarded as property, and, as such, have no rights-- they are denied education, have no voice in government or legal matters, and I suppose it goes without saying that they have no reproductive rights. Most importantly, it is a culture in which rape is not considered a crime. If a woman is taken against her will, she has obviously done something to put herself in that situation. One of the characters remarks on how brutality begets brutality, "Rape and the whip go hand in hand."
In the course of writing this book, my co-author and I would frequently pause and ask ourselves, “Is it too extreme? Is it too unbelievable?” And then we’d turn on the news and hear about the Steubenville rape case. Or about the gang rape of a minor in India. Or Todd Akin would open his mouth.
And we’d look at each other and go, “Nah.”
Which brings me to the Isla Vista tragedy. Yes, I get that there are mental health issues that fed into Elliot Rodger’s rampage. Yes, I get that he murdered four men and “only” two women. Yes, I get that, by talking about Rodger and his manifesto, we are adding fuel to the potential copycat fire. But, unfortunately, the only way to prevent such things from happening again is to talk about it. We need to understand the psychological and social underpinnings that have sparked so much hate.
This is a huge conversation that encompasses a lot of sub-issues—lots of uncomfortable topics. Rape is only the tip of the iceberg. Sex, body image issues, inequality in the workplace and in education, human trafficking, female genital mutilation, pedophilia, rape fantasies, prostitution—the list just goes on and on. These are subjects that, even in these TMI times, seem to go seriously unaddressed.
I would strongly encourage anyone who uses Twitter to peruse the #YesAllWomen posts. Thousands of people who have tweeted that hashtag have shared some incredible stories and insights. And some are . . . well, not so incredible.
Here are a few of the naysayers I’ve seen pop up on Twitter (and not just from men):
“You’re just a bunch of man-haters.”
I can’t speak for all women on this, but I love men. I’m married to one, my best friend and co-author is one, my brother is one, Robert Downey, Jr. is one. But this isn’t really a love/hate issue, it’s an I-want-you-to-acknowledge-my-basic-humanity issue.
“It’s not all men.”
Of course it isn’t. But when somewhere around 92% of sexual abuse is perpetrated by men, it’s hard not to be wary. One of the issues I really wanted to raise with Under Julia is the fact that rape and sexual violence is everywhere and can take on a variety of forms. It occurs in every strata of society, regardless of color, creed, ethnicity, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, or education level. A rapist is more likely to be a friend, acquaintance or relative, but it can still be a stranger hiding in the bushes.
Also? When pretty much every man I’ve ever met, including my 5’5”, buck-twenty-five husband with an autoimmune disorder and only one functioning kidney, is stronger than me, it’s hard not to feel vulnerable.
“Well, women aren’t saints. You treat men pretty badly, too.”
Too true. But that doesn’t mean men get to answer bitchiness with violence. And if women are being violent with you, you know what to do—get as far away from her as you can and call the police on her crazy ass. And if you’re afraid that that will make you somehow less of a man—well, that’s the problem with misogyny. It’s a sword that cuts both ways, creating toxic images of both femininity and masculinity. But, I mean, is it somehow more manly to knock out a woman who’s probably half your size and can’t open a ketchup bottle on her own? Think about that for a second.
“Men can be victims of sexual assault, too.”
Also true. And, like female rape victims, men are usually blamed for the attack, though for slightly different reasons. There’s that pesky patriarchy problem again. Women are blamed for their rapes because they’re “slutty,” men are blamed for their rapes because, “c’mon, don’t guys always want it?” If the male victims aren’t blamed for their attacks, they are dismissed outright . . . again, kind of like women. And of course, men are frequently raped or assaulted by other men, which is somehow worse because it means you are treated the way we’re treated. In our world, it’s sort of the ultimate insult to a man, isn’t it, to be treated like a woman? Are you sensing a pattern here?
“Your paranoia is killing you.”
That word? I don’t think it means what you think it means. Paranoia implies irrationality and illusion. See what I said above about every man I’ve ever met being stronger than me. Also, it’s hard to call it paranoia when literally every woman I’ve ever met has been pressured, harassed, shamed, stalked, coerced, abused, and/or attacked in some way. Multiple times.
“You’re blaming men for all of your problems.”
Not all of them. Mostly just the ones where you rape us and beat us up. While I believe that we are living in a patriarchal society, I also think we’re all responsible for its perpetuation. If everyone could agree to recognize it, do away with it, and move on, I think we’d all be a lot happier and healthier.
“I’m not a feminist. Don’t you dare speak for me!”
Okay. Then do me a favor. Get in a time machine and go back to 1900. Be sure to check any education or personal liberties you may have made use of at the door. Lace yourself into a corset, bind your feet, or do whatever it is you need to do to feel like a possession, because that’s what you’ll be. And maybe you’re more comfortable in that role, I don’t know. Just be sure you’re not confusing, “I like to have men open the door for me,” with “I like being a man’s property.”
Because if you don’t consider yourself a feminist, then you’re telling me that you have no use for the right to an education, to have a voice in government, to testify on your own behalf, to own property, to receive equal pay for equal work, to have sex with whomever you wish, to use birth control, or to wear skirts above the ankle. Drop me a postcard when you get there. I hear the latest treatment for hysteria is quite stimulating.