Learning to Write about Rape Culture: Slowly but Surely.

NB: This post discusses rape culture and the prevalence of sexual violence.

Once upon a time, a nineteen year old version of me was just starting to understand the pervasive reality of sexual violence.

While backpacking in Europe, I was reminded that, despite the veneer of concern that is sometimes expressed about sexual violence in society, as a man, I had little reason to fear the legal or social consequences of the fundamentally immoral act of rape. It is a crime that it is rarely reported and rarely punished. My younger self was reminded of this fact quite unexpectedly because a stranger shared her experience of sexual violence with me barely twenty-four hours after we first met, and that was the story she told. She had been raped and she had not reported it. He was a friend of the family.

My reaction to this unexpected disclosure was to say something to myself along the lines of “Why are you telling me this? Don’t you realize you’re putting yourself at risk? You have no idea who I am. We are strangers in Europe. If I am a sexual predator, you've all but said I could get away with it.” It wasn't a very sensitive thought to have, but it was practical. It allowed me to step back from the shock of her disclosure to the safer ground of practical reason. Problem-solving is always much more manageable than empathy. Fortunately, I kept my mouth shut.

Five years ago, I tried writing for the first time about my dawning understanding of rape culture, how all relationships of dominance might be rooted in the fact of sexual violence, and how all of us are affected by the pervasiveness of it, whatever our gender and whatever our personal experience of it may be. I also tried to weave my European encounter with rape culture into this new thinking because I like to weave big grand narratives and, on that day, I happened to be thinking about a play that I had been inspired to write by my European travels. Unfortunately, I did a poor job of it. In fact, the post I wrote is downright weird.

Rereading it now, I am reminded of the fact that people who experience trauma often aestheticize the details and circumstances that surround the trauma when they discuss it, and I think something like this is going on in the post. The trauma around which I am aestheticizing is the experience of realizing how pervasive the normally unexpressed fact of sexual violence is. For people who have experienced sexual violence or for those who ignore it, it may be difficult to understand how deeply troubling the fact of sexual violence can be for those of us who care.

Weirdness aside, the big problem of the post is that I fail to express adequately its key idea, and I fail in a way that may leave some readers justly uncertain about what I intended to express. What happened, I think, is that I was so caught up in the self-satisfying and aesthetically pleasing symmetry of my philosophy that I overlooked one plausible implication of the words I had used, when I tried to express the philosophy in a real world experience and memory.

In the post, I draw a parallel between Camus’ notion that we must confront the absurd and my own idea that we must each confront the fact of dominance -- that is, the fact that we can, if we want, achieve our ends through dominance. After confronting the absurd and choosing life rather than suicide, I think, we must also ask ourselves whether or not we will choose the path of domination. Because we are free to do anything in an absurd universe, the choice is fundamentally moral. We revolt against dominance not because we might suffer legal, social or otherworldly consequences, but because we know it is fundamentally wrong.

In the abstract sense, I think the idea of a direct encounter with the question of dominance is useful. When it is used to frame a memory that may seem, to some readers, to be about a young man’s decision whether or not to rape someone, I have been convinced that, for those same readers, the application of the idea in this context may be disturbing. To make matters worse, I only imply -- rather than explicitly state -- that sexual violence is an impossible choice for me, and should also be an impossible choice for everyone else.

So, in the same way that a man might assume that he shouldn’t have to cross the road to put a woman at ease because, by golly, he knows he isn’t a rapist, whatever that woman might think of him on this dark isolated street, I was making the same kind of assumption about my potential reader. I wasn't careful with my words because I knew, by golly, I am not a rapist, whatever my potential readers might think of the words I had used. It was an insensitive mistake that I hope I have adequately addressed in this rethink.

Upon realizing that my sloppy writing was insensitive, the easiest response might have been to rewrite the original post or relegate it to the dustbin of bad writing. Instead, I have decided to leave the post intact and reframe it, in order to help me think more carefully about what’s at stake when a man discusses rape culture and his relationship to it.

To break the asphyxiating grip of rape culture, I and many more men will need to think, write, and publicly discuss rape culture and our experience of it. It seems likely that many of us won’t get it right the first time we try to do it, and, in many cases, we will get it wrong. Nevertheless, we must try to do it right, and learn from our mistakes.

So, what lesson have I learned from this rethink?

Although the meaning of a text is never fixed and is always open to many interpretations, I nevertheless have a responsibility, when discussing a difficult and emotionally charged subject like rape culture, to consider the implications of my words and ideas from a variety of perspectives, and not only from that of my most charitable readers. I also need to listen carefully to all the feedback I receive, in whatever form it takes. In some cases, it might even be hostile, but I can’t use that hostility as a reason to discount the relevance of their observations. Admittedly, I won’t be able to satisfy every reader, but I should make a good faith effort to satisfy as many as possible, and especially those who take the time to share their thoughts with me.

If you want to read the original post, it’s here. I've added a password to ensure no else one is unwittingly disturbed by its ambiguity. The password is ParisIsDead.