“We must talk about how we talk about rape”
Excerpts from What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape
January 24, 2019
Writing from the viewpoint of a survivor, writer, counsellor and activist, and drawing on three decades of grappling with the issue personally and professionally and her work with hundreds of survivors, Sohaila Abdulali, in What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, looks at what we—women, men, politicians, teachers, writers, sex workers, feminists, sages, mansplainers, victims and families—think about rape and what we say and also, what we don't say. The following are excerpts from the introduction and chapters "Shut up or die, crazy bitch", "Boys will…", and "The full catastrophe" of the book.
Much has changed in how we talk about rape. In the last few years, people in India have come a long way in talking about it in everyday conversation. In my household, rape is just another topic. If we can expose our children to talk of genocide, racism, bikini waxing, and the inevitable melting of the planet, why should we leave out sexual abuse?
Happily, the global conversation on this issue is deepening too: the #MeToo campaign has shone a startling spotlight on sexual harrassment. This is all happening while the US has a robust champion of sexual abuse for its president1. It's particularly unsettling in contrast to the last occupant of the White House, a dignified, feminist man who believed in evolution—of the species, of ideas and attitudes. It’s all very interesting, and confusing.
We must notice who is part of the conversation, and who is not. The #MeToo campaign is global, yes, but what is “global”? Let’s not forget that the man who brings buffalo milk to my family home in rural Maharashtra, or the King of Swaziland’s latest virgin wife, may not be on social media. Let’s not forget that, if you’re a trans person, your chances of being sexually assaulted are fifty-fifty2—but your chances of finding understanding and support, or justice, are far lower.
In this book, I will contradict myself. Rape is always a catastrophe. Rape is not always a catastrophe. Rape is like any other crime. Rape is not like any other crime. It’s all true. Except for the foundational belief that rape is a crime, with a criminal and a victim, I will not take anything else for granted.
Rape drains the light. I want to let some light back in. I don’t have answers, but I hope to at least illuminate some of the questions and assumptions we all carry around with us. We must talk about rape, and we must talk about how we talk about rape.
Telling may also rebound on the survivor. Imagine marshalling all your resolve to speak up, only to find that nobody believes you. I have to roll my eyes at all the overwrought fear of false accusations expressed by the current pack of US Department of Education hellhounds in charge of legislating campus procedures. Of course accused abusers should get due process—I love and respect many men, and if one of them were accused I would want him to get a fair hearing. But look around, people. Just look around. Where in the world is it pleasant to report a rape? I find it very hard to believe that droves of girls and women are rushing to say they’ve been assaulted when they haven’t. Women still don’t generally have an easy time reporting sexual assault. In fact, the opposite is too often true. Ask all the women who’ve had to eat their words.
I know what happened to me. The police didn’t believe us, despite our visible wounds, and the doctor was too embarrassed to even examine me properly. If I ever feel crazy and delusional, I just have to pick up the phone and call the guy who was with me, who witnessed it all. Thank goodness for that. But if you look in the dusty ledgers of the local police station you will find a report, signed by me, stating that nothing happened that night. I remember sitting and writing it out by hand. That was the only way I could prevent the police from detaining me for “protection.” If I had insisted on the truth, and on filing charges, I would have been locked up in a detention home. I would not have been allowed to leave the country, go back to the US to my mother, and begin college. So—I lied. But not about being raped. I lied about not being raped.
Do women ever lie about being raped? I’m sure some do. But false allegations are extremely rare.3 Women can be psychopaths, too, and liars and opportunists. But anyone who thinks lying about rape is the default for the victims is delusional.
As if all these reasons for not telling were not enough, there is another false idea doing the rounds. Does telling make you a weak and whining victim?
It’s an astounding, insidious motif all around the world—if you can’t take it on the chin (or in the vagina) and get over it quietly, you’re a wimp. Plenty of women have adopted this ridiculous mantra—the refrain of which goes something like this. If you complain about anything less than a full-on penetrative rape where your life was in danger, you’re undoing all the work women have done to become powerful. You’re giving up your agency and playing into stereotypes of weak, passive women. If you couldn’t say no then, you have no right to speak now.
This is so wrong. The opposite is true. The minute you speak, the moment your own narrative, the second you open your mouth, you are no longer just a victim. It is the opposite of victimhood.
Some rapists have permission to take what they want. Some rapists have had terrible lives full of abuse and despair. As a friend who was raped by a troubled man said, “You get a lot of shit on your plate—it starts to affect you.” It’s not an excuse, but a reality, like witnesses of domestic abuse who grow up to beat their partners. But then, there are the men who’ve had perfectly healthy, wholesome lives and commit rape anyway. What about them? Or the men who abuse their power, like those I’ve talked about in Washington, and Hollywood, whose penises have spent an inordinate amount of time outside their owners’ pants.
It’s time to throw one idiotic notion overboard—the notion that men can’t stop, that there’s a point of no return once you’re sexually aroused. We keep talking about women’s agency, but men have agency too. Guys, tell me this: if you were in the middle of hot sex and really, really into it, and your grandmother walked into the room and peered at you over her glasses, would you stop, or would you keep going?
Rape is like a go-to hobby for men of all types. Godmen in Goa.4 Daddies in Denmark. Teachers in Tanzania. Boyfriends in Britain. Ski instructors in Switzerland. Priests in Prague.
This doesn’t necessarily contradict my earlier point about rapists dehumanizing themselves. Violence has so many motivations. There’s damage rape (you want to cause pain) and there’s casual rape (you want sex).
When you look around at the whole panorama, it’s difficult to muster up wholesale abhorrence of all abusers. They’re so aggravatingly human. So few have bulging red eyes, uncontrollable drooling, and fifteen heads. A therapist told me about how he took on the case of a fourteen-year-old boy who had raped a twelve-year-old autistic girl. “Everyone at the clinic thought he was a monster, and nobody wanted to take the case.” The therapist wondered how he would deal with this twisted teenager. “And then, this sweet young kid walked in.” He had been terribly sexually abused and brutalized himself, all his life, and he was “doing the only thing he knew.”
Why they do it is interesting, but after a point I’m more interested in moving along from this unevolved state of human interaction. I don’t want to care about rapists’ motivations. They should just stop. Whether it’s wired in or because their daddy didn’t play with them or they’re normal or they’re abnormal, who cares? They should just stop what one superior babysitter once called this “third-class behaviour.”
Unfortunately, we do have to spend time trying to understand, if we’re going to stop it. So yeah, we can’t talk about rape without talking about why men rape.
I’d like to say that I have faith in human nature. Human nature is kindness and large-heartedness, compassion and respect. But human nature is also vile and cruel, selfish and entitled. I’ve been intimately engaged with all these sides of human nature, and I don’t have an answer about what we really are. I do know that we make choices about how we treat each other, and too often the choice is to violate, to tear down and not build up. Does rape come from some primal instinct, or is it an inevitable outgrowth of the way we learn to relate to one another? Are we ever going to figure it out, together? No matter what the answer is, we certainly won’t find it if we don’t talk to each other.
In a world full of noise, it’s easy to overlook the silence around rape. It’s easier to talk about statistics and lofty principles than to try to wrestle with issues of impunity and unpredictable memory and illogical justifications; of shame and guilt and the tedium of a trauma that goes on and on and on. Of weird paradoxes that you can’t easily categorize. I hope that all the voices in this book, from Ramallah to Copenhagen to Mumbai to Port Elizabeth, help to end some of the silence, illuminate some of the shadows.
Rape. Redemption. The full catastrophe.
These are excerpts from What We Talk When We Talk About Rape, written by Sohaila Abdulali and published by Penguin. Republished here with permission from the publisher.
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