In her 1989 polemic Misogynies, Joan Smith notes that “three or four times a year, we in Britain go through a ritual known as Outcry Over Judge’s Remarks In Rape Case”:
“What usually happens is that, faced with an offender who has terrified or beaten some poor woman into having sex against her will, a judge imposes a ludicrously light penalty with the observation that the victim’s ordeal wasn’t really so bad – or, indeed, that she should have known better than to get herself into the situation in the first place. Women’s groups and MPs protest; in the very worst cases, the Lord Chancellor may even issue a rebuke. Then the whole business dies down – until it happens again.”
Almost thirty years later, it’s fair to say things have changed. Thanks to 24-hour news streaming and social media, we are far less parochial when it comes to Getting Outraged About Rape. We still follow the same routine – the outcry, the anger, the hope that this time, this particular survivor will change the way sexual assault is understood – only now we’ve gone global. Unlike, say, drinking tea or playing cricket, making ludicrous excuses for rape and then watching the backlash unfold is a well-known ritual the entire world over.
Right now the full force of a global backlash is focused on the appalling case of Brock Allen Turner, the former Stanford University swimmer who was sentenced to just six months in jail for assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. The case has attracted attention not just because of the shockingly low sentence, but because of the brilliant, brave letter Turner’s victim read aloud in court to her attacker.
It would be easy for me to tell you how angry I feel when I read the words of Turner’s victim, who writes of “wanting to take off my body like a jacket and leave it in the hospital with everything else”. You could tell me how angry you feel, too. If you are male, you could reassure me that you are angry at your own sex, on behalf of womankind. But where does it get us? Anger does not take away women’s fear and it does not take away the misogyny of men – so, so many men – who still see women as holes to pin to the floor and penetrate. We can be angry about the Stanford swimmer case, just as we were angry about Steubenville, just as we were angry about the 2012 Delhi gang rape, and all the others before then and since. But it doesn’t stop men wanting to rape us.
The first rape outrage I can remember was the Ealing Vicarage Rape case of 1986, in which the presiding judge, a Mr Justice Leonard, gave those responsible longer sentences for burglary than for rape on the basis that “the trauma suffered by the victim was not so very great”. I was eleven at the time and it was to be another five years before the British legal system so much as came to recognise that husbands could rape their wives. For a long time afterwards I was convinced that this was because men just didn’t quite get it. They didn’t yet understand rape, what it was, what it did. Now I’m not so sure the opposite isn’t true. Men don’t rape because they don’t know the damage it does; perhaps they rape because they do.
As a feminist blogger, I could have a template for all the posts about rape that I could have written, using contemporary examples, at any point in my lifetime: why women are not like laptops/mobile phones/unlocked houses; why the latest police safety campaign is victim-blaming nonsense; why that particular rapist’s sporting/acting/academic achievements do not make his crime less serious; why false accusations are far rarer than is widely assumed; why it is not “common sense” to constantly tell women to restrict their own freedom of movement, etc, etc. As a subject, it’s amazing that rape culture could be both so enraging and so mind-numbingly boring. If we’ve made these arguments once, we’ve made them a million times. It has become a purification ritual. Moreover, it has almost become part of rape culture itself. Just as masculinity reforms and consolidates itself via the repeat performance of being “in crisis,” rape culture has acquired its own cyclical narrative. Violation, exposure, outrage, repentance, repeat ad infinitum.
As feminists have long pointed out, rape culture benefits all men, even the good ones, because it keeps women in a constant state of low-level terror. Is he going to rape me? is one of those thoughts – along with do I look disgusting?, am I taking up too much space?, did I laugh too loud/eat too much? – that doesn’t have to be fully articulated in order to be present in a woman’s head. All the time, we are thinking such thoughts, yet we need not be suffering from depression, or mental illness, or low self-esteem. What we suffer from is nothing more than being female under patriarchy. As such, our suffering is mundane. On the rare occasions we try to describe it, men find it laughable. You mean you’re scared – of penis? Ha ha ha. How silly, to feel so vulnerable, so penetrable, simply because of the millions of men we encounter throughout our lives, there’s probably only tens of thousands who are actual rapists.
A recent study from the journal Violence Against Women showed that in a sample group of 379 male undergraduates, 54 per cent of athletes and 38 per cent of non-athletes had committed at least one act of sexual coercion. While the difference between those who play sport and those who do not is of interest, what’s really staggering is just how utterly commonplace rape is among certain groups of men. Yet we can only discuss it in those crescendo moments, when a particular target has been identified or a particular heroine selected. A holistic challenge to rape culture – one which goes beyond flashes of fear and fury, towards reinforcing, with vigour and passion, the impenetrable wholeness of women – remains a long way off.
Everyone should read the letter written by Brock Allen Turner’s victim. It is the fierce, intelligent assertion of a self in the face of dumb, brutish violence. The point of reading it should not be to remind us what rape does, but who rape survivors are: not walking testimonies to men’s ability to destroy, but thinking, feeling humans with hearts, souls and futures. That the victim could have the same hunger and need for space as the attacker – the same humanity, in fact, only infused with generosity, not hate – should not be forgotten once the shouting has stopped.