Why don’t we talk about rape more? Why is this subject such a taboo one? When I think about the obstacles to getting survivors the support they need after an assault, or getting the appropriate resources in place to prevent rape from happening, the biggest one in my head is the assumption that rape isn’t…that big a deal. Either it doesn’t happen as often as “those crazy feminists” say, or it’s just not that important. I mean, c’mon - if it were really important, we’d hear more about it, right?
This is on my mind because of a tabling event I did this weekend with BARCC. We were providing information at an ethnic fair and as is normal for my experience at tabling events, virtually no one wanted to talk to us. My fellow volunteers and I talked about a couple of the obstacles that might be keeping people away from the table - we didn’t look like members of the community in which the fair was taking place, we had limited language skills for the population we were serving (although I don’t know how anyone would know that by looking at us), and we don’t really have any fun things to give away (compared to the Boston Public Health Commission, anyway, which has TONS of cool stuff). We talked a little bit about the particular obstacles that exist in minority communities to talking about or reporting rape - Dr. Katherine Morrison at Curry College has done some awesome research about those obstacles, specifically for African-American women - but one of my fellows made a great point. He said something along the lines of, “it doesn’t matter what culture or community we’re talking about. No one talks about rape.”
He’s right. While public health specialists have written many books and articles about appropriate ways to discuss rape and sexual assault in minority communities, it’s not like mainstream, white American culture is particularly open about it. It’s not like there’s any magical community where rape is discussed regularly with the type of urgency and honesty that its prevalence demands, except maybe the insides of a rape crisis center. So I’ve decided to ask why we don’t talk about rape. I’d like you all to chime in on the conversation. Here are my theories:
- Rape is tightly wound up in sex, obviously. Our culture isn’t too open about sex in general, and talking about rape often requires talking about sex and how the two are different. Considering that we live in a country where a good chunk of the population doesn’t get any comprehensive sexual education and doesn’t really know how conception works, it’s not super-surprising that people aren’t OK talking about about violence that seems to share so many things in common with sex.
- Rape is scary to talk about. Even in our best rape prevention literature and workshops, talking about rape can make ME feel paranoid. It’s not helpful, most of the time, to tell young women and men that every man they meet is a potential predator and could assault them at any minute, but…with the social camouflage that perpetrators have to operate, and with the casual misogyny that exists in mainstream culture, it’s true that most people have a difficult time telling who the predators are.
- For straight men (or at least for me), there was a slightly different aspect of this paranoia: the realization that I, as a man, was a symbol of potential abuse, trauma, and misery to roughly half of the human population. No, not all or even most women assume that I’m a rapist, but as a social symbol, as a man, I’ve had to learn that one of the things my body and form and gender identity represents to the rest of the world is violence. That was chilling to realize, when it finally hit home.
- Entrenched interests actively work to prevent us from talking about it. Thomas, I think, coined the phrase “the pro-rape lobby,” and I think that’s a pretty apt description of the forces I see at work here. This “lobby” is a group of people who have vested interest in gender relations remaining the way they are: imbalanced and unjust. There is a tremendous amount of power and money in keeping the system the way it is now; talking about rape would shake those foundations a lot. Using that article that Thomas wrote above as an example: how much money do the Steelers stand to lose if Roethlisberger doesn’t play for them? How much do they stand to lose if they don’t make it to the Super Bowl? How many people care about the welfare of a survivor when weighed against all that power and cash?
This is where I think a lot of the stigma of talking about rape comes from - the entrenched power enforcing it. I don’t believe that there’s any inherent shame in being assault by another person. Why should there be? But survivors regularly tell BARCC that they feel ashamed of being assaulted, they feel stupid, they feel like “they should have known better” or similar things. People don’t come to those conclusions from nothing; they come to those conclusions because a large segment of the population regularly tells us that it is our fault for being assaulted, that we are stupid for “letting” someone attack us. Shame and fear and silence are not inherent to rape as a social phenomenon; they exist because we as a culture have made them part of experiencing rape. Survivors in the past who have tried to speak up, and speak up powerfully and publicly, met with powerful social forces that were designed to prevent them quiet.
This is a place where I think allies have a tremendous responsibility, but also a tremendous opportunity, to change our cultural dialogue. Survivors face about a million and one obstacles to speaking out about their experience, and many of those obstacles are dangerous to a survivor’s livelihood or personal safety. It is both unreasonable and unfair to expect survivors to want to speak out about their rapes, but allies can help to shield those that do from the consequences they might face (whether it’s the hazards of the criminal justice system, loss of job or hostility from family members and other friends who knew the perpetrator).
Allies can also try to open up the cultural dialogue about rape overall, and to target that pro-rape lobby directly where possible. One of my pastimes is reading about other social movements to see where they come from and how they achieved their objectives. One that comes to mind specifically in regards to silencing is the LGBT movement’s fight to get the rest of the world to recognize the dangers of HIV/AIDS. The history of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) I found to be fascinating and instructive, and with quite a few parallels to the work BARCC is doing. ACT UP needed to push the rest of the country to understand that AIDS was a real thing, a massive problem; that the mainstream media sources were spreading lazy or incorrect information about it; and that politicians and decision-makers were waiting far too long to take action to stop its spread. Activists who went on to be active with ACT UP also created the now iconic slogan “silence = death.”
This is what I think we need to see to push back against the pro-rape lobby. We need to both provide survivors with the space to speak and the support and tools necessary to shield them from the social forces that want to keep them quiet, and continue to press the dialogue outside of just survivor experiences. The more we talk about rape, the less power shame and fear have, and the less reasonable it becomes to keep the entrenched gender system in line the way it is.