Who are rape survivors?

28 January, 2012 § 6 Comments

Recently I commented on twitter “Ironically, a post about making safe spaces for abuse victims made me feel so unsafe, as an abuse survivor, that I’m afraid to post.” The exact discussion isn’t important (and, in fact, linking directly to it is probably counterproductive) but I want to talk about some of the social forces at play, because this sort of alienation from actions putatively in our name is not uncommon for me and, I imagine, is not uncommon for other survivors of rape. I dunno. Maybe it’s just me. Tell me in the comments!

On the surface, social activism / action on behalf of rape survivors is pretty much completely unobjectionable. We are a pretty needy group, in terms of both immediate resources and care and also long term support, and we’re socially seen as very pitiable and in need of help (there’s a separate issue here, but not the one I’m driving at.) It makes for a good cause. But, of course, the reality is much more complicated.

When choosing to help a problematized group, such as rape survivors, an activist can take two options. They can either attempt to help the group in total, which is pretty much the legitimate, morally valid choice, or they can choose to help only the subset of the group that subscribes to their social prejudices and preconceptions, which is pretty much despicable in its effect, regardless of how well intentioned the actor is.

A lot of the speaking on behalf of rape survivors that happens in parts of the internet I frequent is the latter, not the former. There are groups that do the former (Rape Crisis and RAINN, as institutions if not always in specific instances, are really great institutions and wholly deserving of your respect, as well as your moral and material support), but they’re not what I want to address here.

When you choose to deal with rape survivors, you don’t get to only deal with ideal rape survivors. Rape survivors, are, as a class, are not ideal. Compared to the general populace, we are more likely to be criminals, drug users, drug addicts, alcoholics, depressed, have PTSD, have other mental illness, have socially or politically problematic sexualities, be unemployed, be homeless, be socially maladjusted, suicidal, and more prone to, ourselves, be rapists. Further complicating things, rape survivors form an enormous cross-section of our society, coming from all social classes, races, genders, and biological sexes. Rape survivors are, in short, not an easy group to work with.

If a would be actor is made uncomfortable by this, there are three possible responses. The first, totally admirable, is to mold themselves until they are comfortable seeing rape survivors for who we are and working with us on our own terms, whatever those are (and, given our enormous diversity, that’s likely going to vary survivor to survivor.) The second, also totally admirable, is to simply take that altruistic urge and use it towards a different, more comfortable form of activism, or in a role removed from direct interaction with other people. This is great as well. The last, and seriously problematic reaction, is to simply discard any rape survivors that the actor sees as “unacceptable” by any means, to void them of their legitimacy and often of their very existence. This is not acceptable, and it’s actively harmful not only to the rape survivors that it dismisses, but also to rape survivors as a class, because it paints a dangerously erroneous portrait of us, usually one based in patriarchal values and rape culture.

The traditional (patriarchal) view of rape is that it is a crime committed by monsters against innocents, and that monsters and innocents are not legitimately intersecting groups. See nifty venn diagram, below (I worked hard on these Venn Diagrams: if you want to get brownie points with me, praise them.)

In this view of rape, activism on behalf of rape victims, and really anti-rape activism in general, becomes a matter of sheltering the innocents from the ravages of the monsters. See next nifty venn diagram.

This ranges everywhere from the KKK putatively protecting white women from rape at the hands of liberated black men to a modern feminist blog attempting to make a putatively safe space for rape survivors by ostracizing all men, or (in another example) anyone who has a problematic sexuality or problematic sexual history.

The idea is that the activists, as knights in shining armor, are here to protect the delicate rape survivors and would-be rape survivors from the ravages of the horrible rapists. It’s a highly motivating narrative, partially because it casts the activists in a wholly noble role, and frames the entire action in a clear Mannichean duality between good and evil.

It is also wrong.

Here is an actual view of rape survivors and rapists.

In this view, which is considerably more troubling, rapists and rape survivors are both humans, not innocents and not monsters. Thus, there can be (as there actually is) an overlap between survivors and perpetrators. When an activist holds this in their head, and really understands it, the role of activism changes dramatically. It cannot be the role of activist to protect would-be and present victims from the ravages of the monstrous rapists. It must be the goal of activism to provide comfort for anyone who needs it and, in a strategic sense, to shrink the entire diagram whether by psychological support, social change, or other means.

This is much, much harder. I understand not wanting to accept it: if I were in a position not to accept it, I would clearly reject it, on two grounds. First, it creates a lot of headaches for me. Second, it massively conflicts with social indoctrination about what rape is, who does it and to whom. But if we’re going to be see clearly, if we’re going to actually address the problems of rape in a single person’s life, let alone in all of society, we have to be able to formulate our world views in this more complex and more difficult way.

That means that, for instance, safe spaces for rape survivors must also be safe spaces to express problematic sexuality and problematic sexual history, up to and including talking about rape that a survivor committed. I’m not saying that there should be support for actually raping people in the present, and the victims must be acknowledged, but a space in which having done something wrong (whether it be rape or some other violence) 10 years ago invalidates your presence in the space is not a safe space for rape survivors, because, for many of us, it means not being able to address the effects of rape in our personal lives directly and clearly and honestly. Likewise, a space where, say, being a BDSM fetishist is unacceptable similarly leaves no room for honesty. And, without that honesty, there can’t be healing.

Ironically, such spaces are perfectly fine for people who are rapists and actively continuing to be perpetrators. Such people are not particularly interested in self-reflection or honesty, and are often perfectly capable of negotiating the rules (whatever they are) of the space while still silencing victims and recruiting more.

A last point I want to add, which is kinda particular to me, is that the contrasting views of rape above are, explicitly, sexist and patriarchal, even as they are reified and propagated in feminist spaces. It is not by accident that we culturally paint most men as rapists, and most women as victims. To that end, I’d like to just throw up two more diagrams, for discussion and dissection either in the comments or at a later date.


(Note: None of these diagrams are to scale.)

Art and Culture

27 January, 2012 § 1 Comment

This is from a different conversation, worth it on its own.

All art is produced in a cultural context. As a creative person, your ideas don’t come to you from space aliens, they come to you from your own mind, which exists in a cultural frame. A modern white American fantasy novelist talking about how his black-skinned evil dudes are awesome is fundamentally different than a 7th century Tang poet talking about how his black skinned evil dudes are awesome (although not that different: China of that period had colorism, although it was more of a class thing than a race thing.)

That said, there’s nothing inherently wrong about introducing problematic material into your fiction. But good fiction is critical of the self. (likewise, bad fiction is uncritical of the self). Writing (which I’m using here as a sub for all creative arts) is more than being a transcriptionist to some alien idea entity. It’s an exercise in self-examination or a lack thereof, and it provokes in the reader self-examination or a lack thereof. Since the author and the reader both exists in cultural contexts, this extends into an examination of culture as a whole, or a lack of examination (reification) of culture as a whole.

None of what I’m talking about is, like, forced in any way. This is just something that all media does. All media drags in tropes from the society around it, and either uses them critically or uncritically. All media, when read or watched or listened to, brings tropes from the audience’s society to mind, and is critical or uncritical of them.

This isn’t all cut and dried, either. Something can be critical in some respects, uncritical in others. In fact, most media are.

But here’s the other part: Good fiction is humane. It may be cruel to the reader, but it ultimately seeks to make the reader a better person (even if that is simply “a more entertained person”) and to improve their lives. Cultural tropes are often quite negative and harmful to members of a society, and their presence in fiction (particularly in “light entertainment fiction,” where they are less expected) can be quite directly and immediately harmful to people in the society*. This is not something which I speak about in the abstract: I’ve suffered real immediate personal harm, in terms of social and economic rejection and also in terms of days lost to depression, from uncritical trope parroting regarding rape survivors, or Jews.

So if an author who is concerned with work being humane, with it benefiting his audience (including himself), it is a best practice to not uncritically repeat harmful cultural tropes. This doesn’t mean “don’t engage harmful cultural tropes” because that’s clearly BS. It means “maybe you shouldn’t engage them uncritically.” Be aware that this is a sharp, dangerous thing that you’re playing with, and you might cut yourself or others.

Just as a knife can be used to harm or heal, so can fiction, because it is that powerful, culturally, psychologically, and spiritually. If you’re handling a dangerous trope, the only concern is to make sure that the fiction around it is particularly good, with the best interests of yourself and your audience at heart.

This is not to say that fiction which uncritical parrots harmful tropes is necessarily wrong or should necessarily be dismissed. Some great works of literature fall into that category. It would be a tragedy to lose The Tempest, or Huckleberry Finn, or Lord of the Rings. I’m not advocating that, and if you don’t understand why I’m not, please do ask.

*It can also be damaging to the society as a whole.

Three ways to talk about rape

23 January, 2012 § 2 Comments

I’ve run into some real stumbling blocks talking about rape, previously. To some degree this is simply unavoidable: for both personal and cultural reasons rape is an incredibly emotionally fraught topic, and naturally people’s dander gets up when you talk about it. The other is that rape functions at multiple levels in society, and people feel a strong sense of “ownership” over the issue depending on their relationship to it. So I’m going to lay these out early on to have a post to refer to later.

1) Rape as an individual crime, with a perpetrator and a victim, including causes and effects. This is the baseline of experience, and when we talk honestly about rape to some extent we need to talk about this. In particular, I think that we don’t often talk about the motivations of perpetrators in any coherent sense. This is because the dialogue around rape is so culturally fucked that we feel a need to dehumanize both perpetrators and survivors: thus, talking about motivations and effects as things which are done by humans to other humans becomes very difficult. I’d like to talk more about this, upcoming.

2) Rape as a social institution. Rape isn’t an aberration: it happens in every human society throughout all of human history. It is fundamentally built into our social structure, and it forms an important part in both generating and enforcing social norms. If we’re going to take serious action to confront and reduce rape in our society, we’re going to have to address the ways it is part of our social structure. In contrast to “rape culture” we might call this “rape society.” I don’t think a lot of people talk about this, at least not in the corners of culture I frequent, so if anyone has any reading links please toss them out. I would like to eventually get to a point where I can analyze and discuss this level, but I’m not there yet.

3) Rape as a cultural concept. This is separate from the above, because it’s not about the actual practice of rape, but the idea of it and the use of the threat of rape to enforce and perpetuate social norms. A lot of anti-rape activism exists at this level: this is where the gender differences are most pronounced for instance (as a guy, for example, I have never been told that I shouldn’t walk home alone at night because I might be raped, but I have been told that if I break the law I will be punitively raped in prison.) This is where “rape culture” lives.

Of course, these things are actually so interconnected that placing them in three bullet points is misleading. Individual acts exist in a social and cultural context, the cultural context is not separate from the social hierarchy, and so on. But I think that confusion about the differences here leads to a lot of mistakes and mis-steps. When a feminist activist who is not a rape survivor tells me, a male rape survivor, that “I can’t understand rape,” she’s talking about the cultural level, where rape is strongly gendered and I will never have the female experience of it. (This is a charitable reading: she also might be a male rape denier or just ignorant and bigoted.) If I hear her as talking about the other levels, where I clearly have experience and understanding, I’m not going to take it well. So having this laid out will hopefully avoid some of those problems.

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