Book Review: Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture
Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture by Roxane Gay
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
In an article for The Irish Times, Fionola Meredith, wrote, “It has become a feminist article of faith to believe in the existence of “rape culture”: the notion that sexual violence exists on a continuum, from low-level instances such as leering, wolf-whistling or cat-calling, right up to the most extreme: sexual assault and rape. Well, if that’s the orthodoxy, then I am a feminist heretic. I think “rape culture” is a myth, lacking in logic, which seriously disempowers women and teaches them to be victims. By that logic, a mildly bawdy text message from a colleague, or an unwanted wolf-whistle in the street, is part of the same spectrum that ends in forced sex. Rape culture, as a philosophical construct, simply doesn’t make sense. The span is too broad to be useful. Would we talk about “murder culture”, with nipping or pinching at one end of the scale, and homicide at the other end? What’s worse, conflating the most borderline instances of sexist behaviour with genuine sexual harassment or assault only serves to trivialise these much more serious attacks on women’s agency and dignity. If they’re all part and parcel of the same thing, how do we distinguish between outrageous acts of molestation and minor infringements of the social code?”
On many college campuses today the current rhetoric concerning sexual assault routinely conflates consensual drunk sex with rape, especially given that students are encouraged to see every bad sexual decision as assault. Which is where this flawed notion of “rape culture” really begins to break down, it fails to discriminate between the relatively trivial and the most severe. The majority of campus incidents that have been carelessly described as sexual assault are not even felonious rape, involving force or drugs, but oafish hookup melodramas, arising from mixed signals and imprudence on both sides. In most cases of reported rape where “incapacitation” was the “tactic,” 88% of victims were drinking alcohol and another 4% were using drugs, voluntarily. Judging by this data what we have is not a sex problem or an assault problem or even a lack of respect for women problem. What we have is a drinking problem.
Most states now, due to the hysterical propaganda surrounding “rape culture,” have even begun to enact laws asserting that consent is impossible when a person “knew or should have known” their partner was unable to give informed consent because they were drinking. The reality is that, virtually always, the woman is seen as the victim and the male as the perp. The laws focus now is all about finding who’s to blame for what was, in hindsight, unwanted sex. But there is a defect in this way of thinking that becomes evident when we consider the law regarding drunk driving. When a woman is too drunk to give informed consent, then she is not responsible for her decision to have sex. When that same woman climbs in her car to drive home and then kills a family of four, she is completely responsible for her choice to drive while impaired, and the law will hold her responsible for these tragic deaths. Drunk driving? That’s on her. Drunk sex? Thats totally the man’s fault. This way of thinking does both men and women a complete disservice. With drunk driving, both genders are held to a gender-neutral standard, and both are treated as responsible adults. With sex, men, either drunk or not, are held responsible for their sexual behaviors, while women are treated as if they were children.
Christina Hoff Sommers has commented that, “It appears we are in the throes of one of those panics where paranoia, censorship, and false accusations flourish—and otherwise sensible people abandon their critical facilities. We are not facing anything as extreme as the Salem Witch Trials or the McCarthy inquisitions. But today’s rape culture movement bears some striking similarities to a panic that gripped daycare centers in the 1980s. Today’s college rape panic is an eerie recapitulation of the daycare abuse panic. Just as the mythical “50,000 abducted children” fueled paranoia about child safety in the 1980s, so today’s hysteria is incited by the constantly repeated, equally fictitious “one-in-five women on campus is a victim of rape.” “Believe the children,” said the ritual abuse experts during the day care scare. “Believe the survivors,” say today’s rape culturalists. To not believe an alleged victim is to risk being called a rape apologist.”
However, many feminists will still naively claim that reform is urgent given that one in five women will be raped during her time at college and you will be hard pressed to find an article lamenting campus “rape culture” that does not contain some iteration of this often repeated statistic. But it’s inaccurate. Statistics surrounding sexual assault are notoriously unreliable and inconsistent, primarily because of vague and expansive definitions of what exactly qualifies as sexual assault.
While more sober voices have said that the moral panic surrounding “rape culture,” while perhaps a bit overblown, has at least called attention to some serious problems. The reality however, is that it has done nothing but confuse and discredit genuine cases of abuse and violence. Molestation and rape are horrific crimes that warrant serious attention and vigorous response. Panics such as these, only breed chaos and mob justice. They claim innocent victims, undermine social trust, and teach us to doubt the evidence of our own experience.
Most of the essays in this anthology are also linked, in some way or another, to the now prominent #MeToo movement, which is a movement that, while making clear the insidiousness and prevalence of sexual harassment and assault, has also, unfortunately, and this aspect has been greatly overlooked, been eerily centered mostly on the experiences of affluent women. Just who is able to participate in such activism has a lot to do with economic agency. You can pretty much bet that most photos of marchers wearing pink “pussy” hats during the Women’s March, for example, earlier this year, document middle or upper class women able to take time away from work, obtain transportation to a protest site or afford a babysitter. It is a movement that has quite clearly been reappropriated by the upper middle classes. Even the founder of the movement, Tarana Burke, has said that the movement itself has become, "unrecognizable" and that it, “risks losing its original purpose.”
Slovenian philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, who views the #MeToo movement as revolutionary, has also cautioned that, as in every revolutionary upheaval, there will be numerous injustices and ironies. Thus, for Žižek, the movement runs the risk of turning into just another case where political legitimization is based on the subject's victimhood status. It is precisely this notion of "victimhood as a form of empowerment" that is, for Žižek, one of the two main dangers posed by the #MeToo movement. Which echoes what Arthur Koestler once said, “If power corrupts, the reverse is also true; persecution corrupts the victims, though perhaps in subtler and more tragic ways.” The other is that it remains too obsessively focused on the realm of sexual exploitation within a very narrowly defined milieu, with little or no relevance for, or impact on, the lives of real women in the real world.
Despite all the remarkable advances we have made in the realm of gender equality, the idea that all men are the enemy of all women has been given a new lease on life, due now, to the erroneous belief in “rape culture.” Which is really a return to the misandry prevalent during the 1960s, only now much closer to the mainstream than it was some fifty years ago. The most recent instantiation of which is the bogus term known as “toxic masculinity.” However, if we again look at statistics we come to find that some 43% of boys are raised by single mothers and roughly 78% of teachers are female. Which means that almost 50% of boys have an almost 100% chance of having a feminine influence while at home and while at school. “Toxic masculinity” doesn’t really seem to be a problem. A lack of masculinity however, might be.
Mothers are often venerated as faultless parents, irrespective of the ways many of them screw up their kids’ lives. Yet they are only held responsible for the positive aspects that show up in their children. For example, if a young man becomes an investment banker or lawyer after being solely raised by his mother, she is lauded as a superb role model, even a saint. But if that same young man becomes a rapist? Rather than blaming the mother for failing to instill proper values in her son, it’s men, all across the United States and the Western world as a group, who are instead held collectively responsible for his heinous actions. Whenever the specter of criminal behavior comes up, most notably rape, responsibility that might normally flow to a mother’s parenting can be conveniently offloaded onto the cab driver in Chicago, the window-washer in Seattle, or the policeman in small-town Maine, none of whom will ever meet her son. If this is how society approaches the causal factors of rape, motherhood has to be the most impotent biological and social construct known to humankind.
The ideas of thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau are the source of most of today’s feminist theories, which attempts to identify society as somehow being responsible for every social ill. However, feminist thinker Camille Paglia, has rejected Rousseau throughout much of her work in favor of thinkers and writers such as Freud and Sade, who weren’t afraid to acknowledge the aggression inherent in humanity and, ultimately, nature itself.
Regularly misled by the naive optimism and the “You go, girl!” boosterism of their upbringing, young women today do not seem to see the animal eyes glowing at them in the dark. They assume that bared flesh and sexy clothes are just a fashion statement containing no messages that might be misread and twisted by a psychotic. They do not understand the fragility of human civilization and the constant nearness of savage nature. Too many young women today, raised far from urban environments, seem to expect adult life to be an extension of their comfortable, overprotected homes. But the world remains a wilderness and the price of women’s modern freedoms is personal responsibility for vigilance and self-defense.
Any intelligent person knows, almost intuitively, that society does not teach young men in any way, shape or form, what this book asserts that it does, and if we forget that there are real differences between violent and non-violent conduct, no one is safe. Yes, grabbing a girl’s breasts and sending her a dick pic are both bad, but they’re not equally bad and they’re not bad in the same way. For many feminists, any unwelcome sexual advance is “assault.” But you can get past bad sexual experiences, just as you're expected to get past a bad car accident. But this book doesn't want you to believe that for a second. It insists that men are demons, and that any attempt or expression of sexual desire is dirty and bad, and that a foul experience between a drunken stupid man and a drunken stupid woman inevitably consigns women to chronic anxiety that therapy doesn't seem to help. It’s time we stop pretending that everyone is guilty instead of a few real criminals, otherwise rapists win. No longer will they be just a group of very bad and dangerous people, they’ll just be men. It's utterly painful to read something so monolithic and so lacking in courage as this book. As Paglia, herself, again has argued, “Society is not the enemy, as feminism ignorantly claims. Society is woman’s protection against rape.” In other words, the real rape in this book is the toxic narrative in which it is written.