Understanding the banality of rape

The difficulty in writing about rape is the simultaneous existence of two truths. One: sexual violence shouldn’t be normalised. Two: sexual violence is normal.

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Talking about rape is draining. These discussions exhaust me in part because they (perhaps necessarily) flatten any sense of nuance or individual experience. No matter how hard you try to be particular, assumptions are made in an instant and never fully evaporate. Your audience will immediately draw parallels with their own experiences, or the experiences of their friends; comparing what happened to you with films, headlines, and soap operas. Not like that, you want to say. Whatever it is you’re thinking, it’s not like that.

Once you disclose your experience, some people will believe they now know how you feel about men, about yourself, about the event itself: how afraid you were, how it still affects you, or how it doesn’t really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. For a long time, I couldn’t stand to read anything at all about rape – not because it upset me or shocked me or brought me back into it, but because it all annoyed me so much. Anything that didn’t chime with my own experience angered me. Anything I read that referred to rape victims or survivors as a single entity made me feel more alienated and alone – as, I am sure, some people will feel reading this: my own specific story, my specific lack of sisterhood, my specific feelings, or absence of them.

In Sarah Henstra’s novel The Red Word (published by Tramp Press in March and winner of the 2018 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction), rape culture underpins the campus of the Ivy League college our protagonist attends. But to name it is something else:

“‘Rape’ was a red word, a ravenous word (...) it would immediately and forever afterward make it my job to justify myself, to defend myself as the accuser against all manner of arguments. I would somehow have to transform myself into an unimpeachable fortress of sexual righteousness.”

I’ve felt something of this shyness with naming myself. I can talk about all sorts of things, but that word... It’s a skittish word, one I can’t decide upon, always feeling either too big or too inadequate to describe what I’m really trying to say. I noticed on the tube recently that while I was reading the new Mithu Sanyal cultural history of rape, titled Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo I hid the cover with my hands, so that my fellow passengers would not see it. I’ve travelled reading I Love Dick, and Wetlands, and The Vagina: A Literary and Cultural History without thinking twice, but intuitively I needed to keep the word rape hidden, not attached to myself.

The Red Word follows Karen, a sophomore, through a battle being fought between the misogynistic, hard-partying fraternity GBC (nicknamed Gang Bang Central) and the unofficial sorority Raghurst, composed of queer women and militant feminists determined to disintegrate the patriarchy’s campus dominance by any means necessary. Steeped in the classical myths which Karen is studying, the narrative shows us her ambivalence, caught between deciding what is right and a desire to have some mindless, youthful fun.

Karen wants to be accepted by the glamour of masculinity. She is sympathetic to arguments that the GBC boys are abusers – but as it happens she also wants to date them. She has a terrible crush on one golden boy in particular. As she becomes embroiled in Raghurst’s startling plans to take down GBC, moral chaos is unleashed, and we are invited to look critically at the binaries that necessarily characterise such culture wars.

It’s not an attack but a recommendation when I say that the plot of The Red Word made me feel angry, confused and upset. When it seemed to be veering into “there’s good and bad on Both Sides!” territory – and it did, indeed, feel close to #NotAllRapists at times – I hated it, but I hated it in a way which felt interesting and made me re-examine things that I hadn’t thought to for a long time. Henstra mostly depicts the boys of GBC as puppyish, oblivious and careless, rather than cruel and aware, which left me feeling more than a little nauseated. Isn’t the not-knowing a kind of cruelty in itself? Can’t ignorance be its own violence, and no less bloody for it?

There are, certainly, different kinds of rape, even if we can’t and shouldn’t grade them on a scale of horror. To put it broadly, there are rapists who know that they are rapists and derive sadistic pleasure from their wilful acts, and then there are many more who wheedle, push boundaries, wear down, manipulate, lie, go too far “in the heat of the moment” and so on. If we accept it’s true that some or many of the men who do those things don’t know how awful they are being, it seems to beg the question – so what? Is that my problem too? Do I have to decide how to empathise with them on top of everything else? Can’t they finally, eventually, learn these things on their own without me understanding them first?

But then, to turn that same thought around, do we have any hope of changing things if we don’t try to understand them?

Part of the maddening emotional disruption of being a woman who has experienced rape is that it is perceived as a singular crime of life-ruining magnitude (which, of course, it may be)  – and yet it is also common as muck. By basic technical definition, rape is common. A woman who has been raped is not an outlier. The difficulty in writing about this is the simultaneous existence of two truths. One: sexual violence shouldn’t be normalised. Two: sexual violence is normal.

Though I hated and resented reading about Karen’s crush on an abuser, it seemed to show something important, which is that rape can be part of sex and relationships – ordinary sex, ordinary romance. I’m not agreeing necessarily, à la Andrea Dworkin, that all penetrative heterosexual sex is a kind of colonising violence. In fact it has been important to me in my life to firmly state to others as well as myself that despite my past, I remain an enthusiastic enjoyer of sex with men. I don’t need permission for that, or to theorise it away. But nevertheless I fully see that rape is mundane in heterosexuality. For rape and ordinary sex to be nothing to do with one another, almost everything between women and men would need to change, with a far greater totality than it so far has, say, in the last century.

I’ve experienced two major events of sexual violence in my life (apart from all the other in between incidents of unspoken disgust, the grim waiting-for-things-to-end kind). One of those events was typically cinematic, overt, clear cut. It was “worse” than the other by anyone’s measure. It was the kind of thing you could garner sympathy for from pretty much anyone, bar the most extreme brand of victim-blamers. The other came later, far muddier and stranger, and with someone I loved. That’s the one which still hurts me and leaves me lost for words. I haven’t found the right terms for it, and that language has failed me is deeply painful, and makes me want to forget and hide it away.

So it turns out that I think I want nuance, and get angry at its absence. But when grey areas do appear, I don’t want to spend much time in them. Theoretically, I want poised discussion and an intellectual approach. But when I can bear to try and momentarily comprehend the actual scale of rape – as if such a thing might be possible – I have to wonder: can we afford to treat this as anything less than total war? Can we afford nuance?

I am no clearer on these matters than before, but I can at least advise people interested in such things to read The Red Word, which aside from its politics is also a compulsive and perfectly formed novel reminiscent of The Secret History. Read it and get angry and upset yourself – why not? In art, at least, if not life, we can afford the luxury of confusion.

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.