I'm tired of talking about rape. I'm tired of thinking about rape. I'm tired of thinking about rape even when I'm not thinking about rape--as women always are, on some level, when deciding which street to take when they walk home alone after dark.
We talk about rape in my classes; it comes up when you teach early literature. Usually it's just in passing, when discussing, say, the prehistory of Theseus and Hippolyta when we're reading A Midsummer Night's Dream and someone vaguely remembers something about the war with the Amazons. I put the word raptus on the board and explain that this is where rape comes from: taken, plundered, stolen, a spoil of war. What happens in warfare in the ancient world? The conquered people are taken, enslaved. But it means something different for women.
I also talk about rape in my annual composition class, which is designed largely around contemporary issues. I run hard at those issues, trying to give serious airing to different positions--even positions with which I violently disagree--on topics such as abortion and gay marriage. Officially, we talk about our readings in terms of their rhetorical effectiveness; my students are not allowed to discuss their "feelings," although they can talk about what kinds of readers would and would not be persuaded by a particular argument, and why. But of course, the personal beliefs of some of my students inevitably become clear.
Today was the day that my comp class read a couple of essays on rape and sexual assault. They're a brilliant pair to teach together, as they're rhetorically strong and rhetorically flawed in entirely different ways. But it's exhausting to teach them to eighteen-year-olds, even when (as, unusually, this year) I have a small and charming class of Honors students rather than a room full of jocks. It's exhausting to have to keep one's cool when someone suggests that "girls just need to be more careful" or "one claim of rape, and a guy's life is ruined forever."
"Okay," I say, over and over, "that's a fair point. . . but what's a counterargument?"
I make them do the work, and push them to find the flaws in their assumptions, and sometimes surprising things happen. I had a student come into my office once with a topic proposal for a paper along the lines suggested above: that it wasn't fair that a girl could just call anything rape, when there was no proof, and guys had no defense.
I didn't really know the kid, who'd been a silent and seemingly sullen presence in the classroom. I knew that he was a baseball player, and not unhandsome, and I wanted to punch him in the face. But I gathered all my energy together to work with him: what he was really saying was that rape is a terrible thing, right? And it's such a terrible thing that we have to be careful to use the term precisely, because otherwise it could lead to our taking rape less seriously. Right?
He didn't say much of anything, and after struggling for several more minutes I finally said, in my brightest tone, "You see? The problem is that if you're not careful, you're going to sound like an asshole."
I spent the next couple of weeks hating him. He turned in a first draft that infuriated me, although it wasn't as egregiously awful as I'd expected. I put him in a workshop group with three smart, outspoken women, and I gave him a lot of patient but pointed feedback about the things he was overlooking. And to my astonishment, his final draft was quite good. It still wasn't making an argument that I wholly accepted, but he'd clearly done his own thinking about the issues and arrived at a compromise position that showed imaginative empathy for women.
So it's worth it, I guess, but it's still exhausting--and it felt even more exhausting today, the day after I learned of Roman Polanski's arrest and the day after I received an email from campus police reporting the sexual assault of a student, just a block from my office, by three 18-22 year-old men; presumably fellow students.
Even when it's not dark alleys or famous film directors, shit happens to women. My friend Evey and I once came up with the term "ambiguously non-consensual" to describe the kinds of experiences that lots of us have had that don't count as rape (whether clinically or in our own heads), but that are somewhere on the spectrum. The proper term is probably "sexual assault," but that can feel wrong, too. What counts as ambiguously non-consensual? Lots of things. Let's say the man is someone you're dating, or want to date, or have a crush on; let's say it's someone you were prepared to sleep with (or maybe already had), but not that night. Let's say you were asleep at the time, or drunk. Let's say you said no, but didn't physically resist because you were so surprised or confused. Let's say he asked you out subsequently, and acted like nothing had happened, and you tried to make a relationship out of it.
Stuff like that. And when we don't call it sexual assault, it's not just because it's more comforting to believe that we have some control--maybe we messed up, but we can prevent it from happening in the future--but because we forget, often, that in scenarios like these the man actually did do something wrong.
Does he know that he did something wrong? That I'm not so sure about. I'd bet that most assailants of the type I've described above go on to become basically loving husbands and even concerned fathers of daughters. I'd bet they remember the act as mutually enjoyable. They may talk ruefully about their horndog youth, but not with any sense that they mistreated anyone. They wanted sex, and it seemed available. Active consent wasn't something they thought to look for.
Indeed, if there's one thing that the Polanski arrest proves, it's that society doesn't take a woman's consent especially seriously; as Kate Harding notes, the Polanski case is being treated as "merely" statutory, "merely" a matter of the girl being 13 (though she looked 18!). Forget about the fact that he drugged her, and that she still said no, repeatedly, while she was repeated raped and sodomized.
This week I'm reminded--though I never really forget--that we see women and especially young women as things for taking, rapere. And though I'm tired of talking about rape and I'm tired of thinking about rape, I'm even more tired of that.