Rape used to really turn me on. As an adolescent, I was sold on the eroticism I found in Milan Kundera’s homiletically pornographic novels. This is a vision most clearly articulated by Jan, Kundera’s fictive mouthpiece in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. For Jan the imagery of rape lies at the hot core of eroticism; pictures of “a woman fleeing and … a man taking” are the engine of male desire; a culture purged of such images would be one in which “making love” (Jan’s words) has become impossible. Kundera gives Jan a foil, Edwidge, a brisk, attractive proto-feminist. Edwidge scoffs at Jan’s anguished yoking of rape to the erotic. Women, she says, are fed up with this nonsense. If eroticism is yoked to rape, so much the worse for eroticism; we had better get on with its reinvention.
Neither Jan nor Edwidge is very appealing. Jan is myopic and selfish—he just wants to know whether he’ll still be able to get it up when the feminists come for his fantasies. Edwidge, though, looks foolish: unlike Jan, she has a theory of female desire, but it’s an awfully rosy one. Men are the beastly bearers of rape fantasy; women are sick of that stuff, ready to get busy decontaminating the erotic. But female desire is not a wholesome antidote to the thanatotic chaos of the male libido; in my own case, at least, it has proved a thoroughly narcissistic indulgence. Sexual desire is the desperate longing to become a coveted object; sexual pleasure, the pleasure at having become just that.
At 23, I stopped finding rape sexy. I was an earnest feminist graduate student, and I decided to volunteer at a rape crisis center. I imagined myself, composed and wise, dispensing high theory to distraught women grappling with the immediate aftermath of sexual violence. This turned out to be just one more rape fantasy. Rape crisis work, I learned, is mainly sitting in a chilly room waiting for the phone to ring. It’s hours of protracted, often circular conversation. You speak to the same women multiple times, seldom about violence, never about theory, often about the weather. You never make anyone better.
Contemporary rape crisis centers descend from the upstart, ramshackle institutions cobbled together by second-wave feminists. These makeshift organizations of the early Seventies reveled in their outsider status: they organized non-hierarchically, made decisions collectively, eschewed cooperation with law enforcement and adopted an explicitly agonistic political identity. By 2012, things were different. Today’s U.K. rape crisis centers, like their American counterparts, tend to be bureaucratized, semiprofessional outfits. The politics are feminist but unobtrusive. When I started my training, in the winter of 2012, only a few of my fellow trainees cited explicitly feminist motivations, as opposed to a desire to “give something back,” or for a CV-friendly therapeutic experience. Our training included a Q&A session with a police officer, and a good chunk of our funding came from the U.K. Home Office, the same branch of government that funds prisons and immigration detention centers, incarceration in which is, of course, a recipe for sexual victimization. It’s possible, then, to see rape crisis centers as useful idiots, their volunteers as cheap alibis for the carceral state. But that too-pat radicalism doesn’t account for what can happen when the phone does ring.
Sohaila Abdulali worked for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center back in the early Eighties, when it was still a ramshackle upstart. She calls the early Eighties “the Wild West days”: if a woman called who was frightened or in danger, Abdulali got in her car and “roared off” to their home in the middle of the night. Her book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, along with Germaine Greer’s slim pamphlet, On Rape, and Mithu Sanyal’s Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo, is one of three recent mass-market, feminist treatments of sexual violence. The books, though different in tone, style and approach, all reckon with the long shadows cast by the second wave, whose theory of sexual violence, institutionalized in the rape crisis center, is its most enduring legacy.
Abdulali’s discussion is the most confessional of the three, and is, like an early rape crisis center, itself somewhat ramshackle: she shuffles vignette, autobiography, polemic and analysis. The polemic has the studiedly spunky folksiness characteristic of Twitter feminism, and the analysis recapitulates that genre’s kitschiest bromides: no one asks to be raped, sex education is important, rape myths are pervasive, and so on. The autobiography is more compelling. In 1980, at the age of seventeen, Abdulali was raped by four armed men. She barely survived—she persuaded the men to let her live with a frantic stream of talk and promises. Later, she wrote about the experience for an Indian feminist magazine, Manushi. After that, she says, “life went on, and thirty years passed.” But in 2012, after the 23-year-old student Jyoti Singh was raped and murdered on a Delhi bus, Abdulali’s forgotten piece started trending. Thirty years ago, in India, when Abdulali wrote her piece for Manushi, “nobody had ever come out and talked about being raped before.” In 2012, she was still the only one who had.
The rest of the book offers scattered peeps into Abdulali’s life. This is autobiography as kaleidoscope and bricolage: we hear about a bat mitzvah in Massachusetts where, unbidden, old memories swamp Abdulali with rage. We hear of her cousins in Bombay, who played music for her constantly in the days after she was raped, “doing their best to drown out the hateful voices in my head,” a moment of terror on a beach, and a crane called Haty, who “whoops” at Abdulali’s father, and races him up and down the garden. Occasionally, Abdulali voices the question that motivates this whirligig treatment: how to represent both rape’s moral horror and its flourishing survival? Her answer: a restless toggling between the two. The results are more than faintly reminiscent of the zany polyphony characteristic of what James Wood calls “hysterical realism,” those glutted, seething novels of the late twentieth century—think White Teeth and Infinite Jest—in which set piece, pun and perspective jostle for attention. In such novels, the experience of fragmentation becomes a vehicle for jouissance; when Abdulali reaches for their whimsy-soaked tools, the product risks something worse than making rape sexy. She risks making it cute.
Germaine Greer’s On Rape risks a lot, but never cuteness. Her opening words are almost savagely clinical: “The word ‘rape’ as used in this essay will apply only to penetration of the vagina of an unwilling human female by the penis of a human male.” Here, tone matches content: Greer wants us to grasp that rape is quite routine. One cannot, she argues, both recognize rape’s sheer pervasiveness and treat it as a monstrous aberration. But in the context of a moral vernacular in which rape’s supposed aberrance offers a rare guise under which its moral seriousness may be grasped and expressed, presentations of rape as humdrum risk flippancy.
And flippant is just how Greer sounds. In a section titled “Joystick or Weapon,” Greer wonders, “Why are women so afraid of rape?” Rape, she thinks, need not be violent: one can “rape a sleeping woman without even waking her up.” This is surely a poor test for violence—murder need not wake a sleeping victim—but the thought is clear enough: it’s very hard to say exactly what makes rape so bad.
There is, I think, a real puzzle here. One response is outraged denial: it’s simply obvious what makes rape wrong. (Insert your favorite highly contested story here.) The second—and this seems to be Greer’s impulse—is to conclude that rape can’t really be as bad as all that; were it so terrible, Greer seems to think, it wouldn’t be so hard to say what is terrible about it. Both responses confuse rape’s moral status—obvious—with an account of that moral status—not at all obvious.
The third response—and the one I favor—requires a careful retooling both of our moral idiom and our folk ontology. Rape is typically understood as nonconsensual sex, but such decomposition mystifies more than it illuminates. Some moral concepts—theft, murder—act, for us, as moral primitives. They are our moral proprioception, orienting us in the ethical landscape, telling us up from down. And they can play this role not because of the special moral charge they hold for any individual but because they are stably socially embedded, dark totems around which our collective lives are organized. By rights, rape should be just such a totem. But it isn’t. Where there is (at least rough) interpersonal coordination on what counts as murder and what doesn’t, and on what counts as theft and what doesn’t, there is fierce, bitter debate even as to rape’s paradigm cases. (“She’d slept with him before,” “She wasn’t a virgin,” “She worked as an escort.”)
In contexts of robust moral agreement, we can do without argument and rely on our raw judgment, confident that others will judge the same; moral totems are built from the layered accretion of such unreflective assurance. When it comes to rape, such assurance is hard to come by. One response is separatism: we can stick with those who share our sensibilities, and make our own totems. This vision of a modus vivendi loses its appeal once we remember jury duty. It’s tempting, then, given our moral fragmentation, to reach for analysis: if we can coordinate on a definition, perhaps we can better coordinate our judgments. But this impulse is mistaken twice over. First, it assumes there are some more basic categories—typically consent and sex—which can, like jigsaw pieces, be slotted together to make us a shared image of rape. But there aren’t. Imagine trying to understand the wrong of theft by thinking of it as nonconsensual gift-giving, or the wrong of murder by thinking of it as nonconsensual euthanasia. The results are rickety, bizarre and distorted; for, like murder and theft, rape is a moral primitive, blocked from acting like one by deep fractures in our moral thinking. Second, the move to analysis neglects the deeply institutional—as opposed to thinly cognitive—character of ethics. What is required is not more theory but a change in our shared forms of life. The point can be put more picturesquely. One of Wittgenstein’s most striking images is the turned spade: we come, he thinks, in all argument, to a point at which all justification has been exhausted; there, he says, “I have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’” At rape, we ought to reach our bedrock, find our spade turned; instead, we find ourselves on a shifting, pebbled shore. At such a moment, sedimentation is the answer, not Greer’s insistent digging and turning of stones.
Rather than analysis, Sanyal’s subtitle—“From Lucretia to #MeToo”—promises a genealogy. According to Livy, Lucretia was the virtuous wife of a leading citizen; Tarquin, a member of the Roman royal family, was received as a guest in her household. As the household slept, he crept to Lucretia’s bedroom with a sword and “confessed his passion.” At first, despite Tarquin threatening to kill her, Lucretia resisted. But Tarquin had a plan: he threatened, Livy writes, “that he would lay the naked corpse of the slave by her dead body, so that it might be said that she had been slain in foul adultery.” Lucretia stopped resisting. Later, “overwhelmed with grief,” Lucretia “sent a messenger to her father at Rome and to her husband at Ardea, asking them to come to her.” When they arrived, Lucretia declared, in tears, “Although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty.” She took a knife from her dress, and “plunged it into her heart.”
Read one way, the story follows a very modern script: male desire, female resistance, male coercion, female shame. When juxtaposed with a “#MeToo,” Tarquin really does present as a Weinstein-style scumbag. This is history as matryoshka doll: crack open a contemporary figure, find its prototype. This requires considerable historical flattening; one must, for example, overlook how Tarquin manipulates Lucretia: he threatens to make it seem that she has been having sex with a slave. A successful genealogy would tug at this stray thread, unravel our archetypes and reveal a system of political economy quite unlike our own. Sanyal leaves the thread alone. She shouldn’t: Tarquin was no Weinstein, and we understand neither if we insist on reading them side by side.
Sanyal shares preoccupations with both Greer and Abdulali. All three worry that representations of rape as moral horror damage its survivors, whether by presenting rape survivors as “living corpses” (Abdulali) or the penis as more fearful than a gun (Greer). Sanyal quotes Vanessa Veselka with approval: “As a culture, we teach girls from a young age that rape is the worst thing that could ever happen to them … aren’t we also setting them up to be destroyed, to feel dirty and impure?” For both Greer and Sanyal, feminist discourse’s rhetorical construction of rape as a deep psychic wound makes it complicit in the very injuries it seeks to represent; unlike Greer, Sanyal seems to recognize, if hazily, the costs of a rhetorical dampening. Feminists, she thinks, face a double bind: either deepen psychic wounds by teaching women to expect them, or lose hard-won political influence by ceding the very language in which that influence has been inscribed.
With the second thought, at least, she’s onto something. Insisting on rape as a trauma was vital to second-wave feminism’s political project. Psychiatry offered feminists a language for suffering unmoored from bodily harm; once articulated, this suffering could be given a political analysis. And with this thought, we are back to the second wave’s most enduring legacy: the rape crisis center. Since the late Seventies, these centers have been the vertebrae of institutional feminism, scattered membranes through which feminist ideology has been diffused into the public sector. While early rape crisis centers were not especially therapeutically oriented—according to Patricia Martin, purely therapeutic agendas were often regarded, in the early Seventies, as conservative and victim-blaming—rape crisis centers grew in influence as the “trauma model” of rape became entrenched in the public understanding. The rise of the trauma model allowed rape crisis centers to present themselves as expert trauma managers, and to anchor themselves in public life under this quasi-technocratic guise. Giving up on trauma risks cutting the anchor line.
Unsurprisingly, then, the trauma model casts a long shadow through each of the three books: for much of contemporary feminism, trauma is the moral grammar of oppression, the coin with which women pay to live under patriarchy. Abdulali, Greer and Sanyal all take it for granted that rape discourse should be measured by its therapeutic potential—by its capacity to manage, heal or shield one from trauma. But none of the three women effectively diagnoses or interrogates their relation—however skeptical—to the trauma model. Greer is scornful and suspicious, Sanyal inarticulately ambivalent. Abdulali’s negotiation of the model—more delicate and sensitive than the others—is the least overt; she tries, with her whirling essays, to give trauma a concrete autobiographical form, as something that does not blot out joy but cannot, in turn, be blotted out by flourishing. The results, while a little hokey, do serve as a valuable corrective to Greer and Sanyal’s panicky hand-wringing—both worry that trauma-talk artlessly recapitulates old patriarchal codes, stripping women of agency by teaching them fragility. Abdulali, though, has agency aplenty, and agency that is scaffolded rather than undercut by her understanding of herself as traumatized. The real problem with “trauma feminism” is not that it makes women fragile—I’m not sure that it does—but that it offers a foreshortened view of violence. Rape traumatizes, yes, but it does other things too. It might, for example, prove useful to think of the labor extracted by sexual violence—the labor of caring and recovery, of managing fear, of checking the backseat—rather than of the trauma it inflicts. In 1989, Arlie Hochschild detailed in The Second Shift the extra labor women perform within the home; like housework, rape work is performed mainly by women, and is hidden, diffuse and open-ended. Labor need not inflict a psychic burden to be an unjust imposition. It can, even in the midst of injustice, be a source of meaning, friendship and solidarity—indeed, rape crisis work was all these things for me.
Doubtless, framing rape as a site of gendered labor won’t capture everything we want to say about sexual violence, any more than framing it as trauma does. No single model will say all there is to say. In the first volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s autobiography, Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, she writes of her childhood frustration with words; when the grown-ups around her defined a thing, she writes, they expressed its substance, as one “expresses the juice from a fruit.” She loathed their tyranny: whatever was real, whatever she beheld for herself with her own eyes had to be slotted into the “rigid” categories of these “bony-structured” concepts. Feminism’s pursuit of political power has seen it develop its own bony-structured concepts: rape as trauma is one, rape-work could be another. But feminism’s roots—as Beauvoir herself shows—are phenomenological as well as political, and phenomenology, in its urge to articulate the flux and the unruly hum of “real” experience, is invariably ossivorous. The will to power and the will to describe make for uneasy companions, and poor allies. Most feminist work can be read, one way or another, as an attempt to negotiate this central constitutive tension in feminist thought; Abdulali, Greer and Sanyal are no exception. Each hopes that, somehow, rape can be thought, written, represented in a way that serves both impulses. But the political project requires stabilization and entrenchment; the phenomenological project, greedy for what Louis MacNeice called “the drunkenness of things being various,” requires the opposite. This is fantasy.
I came to understand my own rape fantasies by reading Beauvoir. For Beauvoir, narcissistic desire is an unstable compound of the pour-soi—self-consciousness—and the en-soi—the insensible. The narcissist seeks delighted awareness of herself as an insensible thing; but she pulls back from thinghood in the impulse to delighted awareness, and from self-consciousness in the impulse towards thinghood. A rape fantasy is just such an unstable compound: fantasy requires the active direction of the imagination; in a rape fantasy, this active direction reaches for its own obliteration. Writing about rape has just this fantastic structure. To write at all, scattered, flighty thoughts are drawn together, like starlings into an inky murmuration. Rape must be made into a stable, cohesive object, something to be grasped in common by writer and audience. But the object resists this handling. The starlings scatter. Some things we pass over in silence.
Art credit: Jesse Mockrin, “The Marks of a Stranger,” Nathalie Karg Gallery