Trigger Warning for explicit discussion of rape and its attendant traumas.
Rape culture is an institution, to be certain; one whose powerful manifestations and expressions are found in all too many quarters of our society and whose influence is wide as it is deep. But like any social phenomenon one is well advised to take a magnifying glass to the small drops of mortar that bind together the brick wall of this institution. In reading a thread on a popular website about rape, a woman, who has since deleted her account due to the shaming she endured, stepped forward to make passionate arguments against rape apologism. Eventually she would describe her own experience. I do not have her permission to republish her story, so I will only quote a powerful line from her post that speaks to a general experience:
Have you ever been raped? Do you know what it feels like to be turned into someone else’s object? The worst is how filthy you’ll feel after. You just want to be clean. You want to die, you want to be alone and scream in utter agony. You want to be skinned alive because that’s the only way to get the filth off of your skin and out of you. Despite all this, you’re brave enough to make your way to the police station. You’re alone, you don’t want your friends to see you like this. You’ve got cold cum congealing on your inner thigh and bruises on your neck and wrists. You feel disgusting. You are at the lowest point you’ve ever been.
This began a powerful piece that told the story of her experience levelling an accusation against her rapist, a young man who- in a rather shocking and thoroughly unexpected turn of events- was so popular that the police officer she spoke to warned her off pressing charges lest she “ruin his life.” Popular, well-liked and talented men, after all, do not rape. Their victims, meanwhile, are silenced and shamed into invisibility and forced into finding a way to negotiate with their pain on their own terms as best they can.
Their lives are forever changed while their rapist walks free, unaccounted for, and nowhere near as scarred as his victim. We rightly heap scorn on the people who rape: I myself spared no kind language for the rapist of my friend in last night’s article, calling him a bastard. No words in our tongue are too unkind for him and his ilk. But rape culture is not just about the people who rape. It’s about the vast networks of social support that underlie those incidents of rape, that condemn rape when ‘the perfect rapist’ rapes ‘the perfect victim’ but otherwise excuse, deny, encourage and otherwise call into existence the circumstances that make rape inevitable. To illustrate one manifestation of this that will be the subject of today’s piece, let me quote to you one man’s response to this woman’s moving story on that same site:
One bigoted small-town police officer can’t be representative of the entire society. and there are hotlines and such, etc.
I really hope nobody thinks, “wow, Internet people really don’t take rape seriously. I shouldn’t even try to report it.”
That’s it. That’s all he could muster in response to a lengthy and detailed story of pain. As I read this, blinking, I wondered at whether or not he was moved but could not bring himself to say so. I wondered if he was like Ebeneezer Scrooge, beholding the metaphorical urchins of Ignorance and Want and haunted by his past tirades of “are there no prisons!? Are there no workhouses!?”
“Are there no hotlines and such?” is about the only way I could read that dismissive post, a small effort to banish from this man’s sight the horrible thing that had just manifested itself before him- the ugliness and sheer horror of rape, spoken with certainty by an eloquent survivor. Shocked as surely as Scrooge was shocked when the Ghost of Christmas Present revealed those urchins, shocked by being confronted with the underside of a society that he prefers to ignore and yet has to exist in order for him to enjoy the comforts and privileges he does. This woman dared to show him and all he could do was ask “Are there no hotlines?”
He asks this because he will not face up to the terrible truth that this bigoted small town police officer is a very common character in the narratives of rape survivors. Their dismissals, their bigotry, their scorn and heartlessness are enabled by people thinking that surely most police officers and people in general would be incapable of this. Bigotry is an evil contained only in a few bad individuals, after all.
Are there no hotlines?
This woman bares her soul and she finds only a feeble response that all but mocks how a survivor might feel on stumbling onto the all too copious and common words of pitiable fools on the Internet. They’re “Internet people”- which means they aren’t real, right? They aren’t part of our society, they do not socialise within it, they do not vote or otherwise have an impact on their social worlds. They are merely “Internet people” and if a rape survivor finds herself triggered or wounded, reminded of the shame and the filth that is made to cling to her when one of these “Internet people” pours misogynist scorn upon those who dare to survive and dare to say they have been raped… well she’s just being silly, isn’t she?
After all, are there no hotlines?
To pick up that phone as your hand shakes, as you find yourself struggling to not take up a knife instead of a mobile, is an exercise in will whose difficulty is hard to quantify. To do this means something critical that this man completely elided: you have to admit that you were raped and that you belong to the class of people these hotlines were designed for. Admitting that takes some people months, even years. Admitting it makes you part of that shamed class of people, opening yourself up to incessant second guessing by everyone around you, even those who may call themselves feminist will eventually be guilty of doing this to someone. Far easier, one thinks, to pretend one was not raped in the hopes that the pain will go away. But it doesn’t. It doesn’t because one does not heal by giving a patriarchal society the silence it begs for.
Are there no hotlines?
This also says nothing of the fact the resources that do exist for rape survivors are not distributed equally. As Sady Doyle has pointed out, RAINN, one of the largest anti-rape organisations in the United States, supports organisations that deny assistance to transsexual and transgender women. To be trans in this society is to court shame already, you grow up being told none too subtly that your identity makes you a freak, unworthy of life. To add being raped to this is beyond unbearable, it is a pain that these foregoing words do a poor job of describing but that I have seen first hand in my own life through those I love most. The anguish that comes with admitting you’ve been raped is already hard. Doing so when your rape was framed by your rapist as gleeful transphobia is even harder. You know right away that even if you live in some supposed oasis that white cis progressives adore, like Portland, Toronto, New York, or San Francisco, that you will deal with police officers who will automatically assume the worst of you, who think you’re a lunatic just for being trans, and that your rape was just desserts for being such a freak.
But after all, are there no hotlines?
Are there no laws?
Are there no crisis centres?
On and on the echoes can go, and it is quite clear, as it was in the case of Ebenezer Scrooge that the pitiable questions that queried about ‘some resource’ were a feeble effort at ignoring social responsibility and the enormity of the great crisis before him that his wealth was, in part, responsible for. The existence of rape culture is everyone’s responsibility. Through feeble gestures like that of the gentleman whose words I’ve mocked throughout this piece we try to deflect responsibility, whether we are women or men, cis or trans, we may find ourselves doing this. Let the hotlines take care of the poor victims, let the law take care of the evil people who rape. Just like a nice and neat Law & Order: SVU episode the drama is over at an appointed time, the TV set is switched off, and we go on with our lives. Any time a thought of the want and ignorance in the rape culture of our society intrudes upon our minds we can simply hum to ourselves:
Well, are there no hotlines?