Tuesday, September 29, 2009


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 when I teach composition, which I design 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. 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 an athlete, 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.


moria said...

Thank you.

Renaissance Girl said...

Thanks for putting into words some things that I should be thinking more frequently, and less glibly, about.

Dr. Crazy said...

Yes. Exactly.

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Sing it, sister.

Your students are incredibly lucky to have such a fearless, dedicated teacher. I have to believe that the work that you & so many others do will someday, eventually change the discourse about these matters.

Janice said...

It's tiring to have to keep fighting the fight but you obviously do a great job at teaching these tough topics.

Sisyphus said...

Wow. Great post. Keep fighting the good fight!

Bardiac said...

Wow. I wish your students would read this, and mine, too.

hd said...

oh i hear you. once, a long time ago, when i taught an intro to WS course in grad school, i blurted out loud pretty much the same thing... that i was already tired of talking about rape with my friends, but i was really, really tired of talking about rape with my female students. while ranting, and trying to make the point that representations of rape matter a *lot*, i happened to mention that i had a friend in college who only counted bjs as "half a point" on her list of sexual partners because a few of them were ones she had to give just to get let out of cars and she just didn't want them to fully count in her personal history of sex. anyway, FOUR students out of 25 came to my office hours to talk about how similar events had happened to them. These women said the same thing my friend did: that they didn't think of these experiences, necessarily, as rape but they certainly didn't think of them as consensual either. that's when it hit me: it's college. their bodies really are battlegrounds. now that i have some professional distance, i teach a whole course on the history of rape and representation (and it's fueling a new project of mine about really strange early modern stories about rape that fall out of our histories, like tales of animal ravishment). it's an oblique way to get at this same issue, and to finally think through my friend's way of dealing with things through creating new narratives about sexual violence. Which is all just to say that i think these conversations have to happen, but it's exhausting work.

the rebel lettriste said...

I love it that you told the baseball player that if he wasn't careful he was going to sound like an asshole.

My current lament in my classes is that students LAUGH at moments of sexual violence in the early English texts we're reading. Like the rape of the maiden in the WoB's Tale. So funny!

Flavia said...

HD: oh, that's a marvelous (by which I mean horrible, but usefully illustrative) story. I know I'm inclined--almost to the point of irrationality; to the point that I would probably ask to be excused from serving on the jury of a rape case, because I'm not sure I could render a fair verdict--to take the woman's side in such situations, but I really don't think most men know or think about these things AT ALL.

To my knowledge, I know no one who has been stranger-raped, and I know no one who has ever reported ANY form of sexual assault--and that includes friends who were quite unambiguously date-raped. But probably half of my friends have had somewhat coercive, somewhat nonconsensual sex. If you limit the pool of my friends to those who spent more than a few adult years single/dating around, it's the majority. It makes me so anxious for my students.

Your class and current project both sound fantastic.

And RL: !!!

Nels P. Highberg said...

Great post. I'd love to hear what articles you teach.

I talk about rape a lot in my classes, but since I'm the Director of Gender Studies, that is not a surprise. I'm curious if the subject of men being raped every comes up in your classes? I always bring it up in my classes mainly because I know a fair number of men who have been raped, and they often keep quiet about it because of shame.

I'm actually doing a guest lecture next week on rape jokes for a gender studies class. It's a lecture I give a lot around here, and I'm hoping to turn it into an article. The Polanski case is making it even more timely, unfortunately.

Anonymous said...

'God, that test raped me.'

Evey said...

I remember our conversation well, and think of it often. This post is so great, I want to hug you.

p.s. I am also very sick of jokes--sanctioned by sitcoms and sprite commercials!--about rape in prison.

hd said...

I *totally* agree about being excused from a jury... and man, i'm sick of the jokes, too. especially about institutionalized violence, like prison rape, or education. ten years ago, i was a first year law student at a law school located in a dilapidated urban space. it had gone co-ed in the 70s, which meant that the women's bathroom was a converted broom closet. anyway, there was "rape tape" around the perimeter of the bathroom. small bathroom+ large lawbooks+ many women= the alarm went off all the time, with no response. so the joke was that it was only there to alert the janitor to come clean up blood. ugh. ugh. ugh. rape was part of the institutional infrastructure, for chrissakes. this story came to haunt me last year when a student at my university was sexually assaulted in a classroom on campus.

so, flavia, teach on. and know that i've got your back!

Azulao said...

OMG, people *joke* about rape? I must be either unforgivably naive or extraordinarily sheltered.

My discipline is about as far away as you can get from one in which you'd read Chaucer, so I have to ask -- was *Chaucer* making fun of rape and that's why the students are laughing, or are they laughing because that's who/what/where they are?

I love it that you looked a student in the eye and told him he'd sound like an asshole if he wasn't careful. I'd have stopped at saying he sounded like an asshole, which would not have been nearly as effective.

Jack said...

ambiguously non-consensual. shit, that is a sadly brilliant coinage.

Flavia said...

Nels: I deliberately didn't name the essays, since I didn't want this post to turn up in a Google search if my students search their titles--but the better (more interesting/provocative) of the two you can perhaps guess: it's short, created a huge buzz in the very early '90s, and was written by a woman. I'm not sure the other essay is so great, but it's a useful counterpoint.

I don't, in fact, talk about men being raped, too--I only do the one day on the subject--but I should. I'm thinking of revamping this course before I teach it again, and I'd like to do a bit more on gender issues.

As for rape jokes: gah. I hate them so much. And jokes about prison rape do seem to me possibly to be the worst of all, since part of what is ostensibly high-larious about them is the idea of a man being in the abject, helpless--and thus naturally female--position.

the rebel lettriste said...

Chaucer is not making fun of rape in the WoB's Tale; indeed the knight-rapist almost gets himself decapitated for his crime.

I don't really know why my students laugh about it. I'd like to think that they are laughing because of the whole "hey, I'm a privileged knight riding around and check out that innocent maiden I'd like to fuck" aspect of the story is horribly ridiculous and sadly true.

But I suspect that they're laughing because maidens and stuff should just be MORE CAREFUL. And because our culture makes rape jokes all the time.

Tenured Radical said...


Neo-Victorianist said...

A good article.