Re-examining society's stories around rape

Submitted by AWL on 24 October, 2021 - 9:31 Author: Roxana Fraser
Mithu Sanyal

A review of Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo, by Mithu Sanyal (Verso, 2019)


I've spent my whole life avoiding rape, looking over my shoulder before I put the key in the door. Sadly, it’s an experience that most — if not all — women are familiar with, which is why Mithu Sanyal’s book, Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo, is so welcome. Covering a huge amount of material, and using moving personal accounts throughout, the book is a bold and refreshing assessment of the gender narratives and social roots underpinning how society views rape and rape victims.

Sanyal looks at the language we use to talk about rape, and how that impacts how rape is processed by victims and judged by society. Readers are invited to reflect on how rape has throughout history destroyed a woman’s life. Societal perceptions have informed how a rape victim should feel: for honour to be seen to be intact, that sense of shame should never go away. You are told, “you never get over it.” Any other response other than trauma is taken to suggest that you’re not a real victim, and is met with disbelief and hostility. This is despite, as Sanyal emphasises, many victims of violence do “get over it”. People experience and process violence differently and each of these different experiences is “normal’, shared by countless others, and absolutely valid.

I don’t think the concepts she covers are all new but Sanyal’s book could be a catalyst to start new dialogue about how we assess rape and sexual boundaries. Sanyal says, “...because we lack social scripts for victim’s healing after rape, we also lack scripts for rapists to reform and re-enter society.” Quoting Brensell, she continues, “If, for example, a person is living in a situation where their boundaries are transgressed regularly, healing will be harder. That applies not only to violent personal relationships but to exploitative working conditions. Healing begins with the most basic things.” In other words, poor social conditions and unequal power relations can be an obstacle to healing from trauma.

In her chapter ‘Black-and-White thinking, Sanyal points to the recurrent trope of the black rapist and draws parallels with the media and public response to the widely-reported incident at Cologne Cathedral on New Years Eve 2016, which saw 500 reports of crimes of a sexual nature, 21 one them sexual assaults. Local and international press reports focused on the perpetrators being foreign, men of Arabic and North African appearance, and the aftermath saw a clamouring for refugees to be sent “home” and for increased measures to deter illegal immigration. Sanyal writes, “the stranger behind the bush is back, only now he is the stranger of Arabic appearance.” These are nationalist, anti-immigrant and colonial narratives, that we see played out in Britain too

Sanyal also interrogates how we understand gender. She quotes bell hooks:

"So far the feminist movement has primarily focused on male violence, and as a consequence lends credibility to sexist stereotypes that suggest men are violent, women are not; men are abusers, women are victims. This type of thinking allows us to ignore the extent to which women (with men) in this society accept and perpetuate the idea that it is acceptable for a dominant part or group to maintain power over the dominated by using coercive force.”

Looking at case studies on sexual violence challenges simplistic narratives of women always being victims and men always being perpetrators. Sanyal cites one study which revealed that 79% of perpetrators who forced penetration on men were women.

Sexual violence and rape is, of course, a deeply gendered phenomenon, however. Sanyal presents evidence that the rates of incidences of rape are highest where an institution or a community is hierarchical and favours rigid gender roles where: “hierarchical command structures are the opposite of consensual communication where decisions are negotiated collectively.” Prisons, boarding schools and, above all, the military are all examples where this is the case. In these institutions, misogynistic and anti-individualistic behaviour are systemic: “the moment a person enters the military, they surrender the right of self-determination over their bodies’’. People are forced to discard or bury the “feminine” parts of themselves, like empathy.

Sanyal argues this process of institutionalised behaviour is not the domain of military men alone but military women as well: that research suggests a reduction in empathy makes it easier to disregard a person’s boundaries and when your own boundaries are regularly transgressed, you’re more likely to replicate that behaviour. When we have empathy for ourselves, we have empathy for others.

Sanyal alludes to the solution when she affirms “...that social equity, gender equality, balance, consent, respect, and nonviolent communication — outside of the sexual sphere as much as within it — are direct ways to prevent sexual violence.” She goes on, “the more equal a society and the higher its opportunities for participation, the lower its rape rate.”
And here:

"At the same time, we know full well that not all decisions are free. So it seems obvious that preventing abuses of power must involve reducing inequality. This means understanding that policies we might not ordinarily associate with sexual violence may have far-reaching consequences — for instance, granting people a living wage, access to education, health care, and safe living conditions increase their access to self-determination and allows them to make freer choices. The bad news is that this can only be achieved through fundamental social change. The good news is that every step to reduce inequality is a direct step toward the prevention and reduction of sexual violence. And this is not restricted to questions of gender."

Here is where, for me, the book feels incomplete. Sanyal is right to point to inequality, meant in the broadest terms, as the context which allows violent and abusive relations to flourish — and ending inequality as our starting point to tackling gendered violence. The above excerpts come incredibly close to identifying the structures that allow and perpetuate these inequalities, but had I blinked I could easily have missed it.

The origins of the word rape: “literally the meaning of the English word rape, comes from the Middle English rapen, rappen — ”to abduct, ravish, snatch, carry off” — which in turn comes from the Latin rootrapere — or, “robbing.” Capitalism is the system that’s founded on robbing us of our value as human beings; without the critique of capitalism we are only ever looking for change at the limits of a capitalist society.

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