On how many stories we’re telling, when we tell a rape story

The fall Jian Ghomeshi was fired by CBC I was TAing for an Intro to Fiction class. The professor was one of my favourites, with whom I’d taken two classes during my undergraduate degree. The respect she routinely showed her mostly first-year students impressed me. While many profs and TAs (myself included) participate in the good-natured practice of whinging in private about students – their work ethic, their rude emails, etc., she demonstrated a deep respect, both for their experiences, and their potential through the ways she talked about them, as well as the material with which she challenged them. This particular class featured a number of “difficult” texts, including J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, which includes two rapes, or, according to about 30% of the students in the class, as well as plenty of published literary critics, one rape.

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When Jian Ghomeshi played to his strengths as a man with a presumption of innocence, talking about a woman with a presumption of lying, and posted to Facebook about how CBC fired him because of his “kinky” sex life, and a “jilted” ex-lover, many people I knew and cared about started talking about how unfortunate it was that BDSM was getting a bad rep. I wasn’t sure if they meant because apparently CBC had fired their golden boy over his practice, or because a prominent, powerful man was using BDSM as a cover for violent abuse, and was able to successfully tarnish his accuser by simply painting an image of himself as a bad boy who was being repressed by the powers-that-be. Over the course of a number of conversations I learned that in most cases, it was the former.

Afterwards, when more, and then more victims came forward, folks who hadn’t immediately distrusted Ghomeshi’s account of things argued they hadn’t had the full story. Indeed, they hadn’t. But that hadn’t stopped them from coming to the defence of a powerful star fired by a corporation that had so much invested in him. What most of these folks also conveniently forgot is that they did know he was accused of sexual assault. Ghomeshi’s own statement admitted as much. He made a calculated risk by preemptively sharing that fact himself, and relied (successfully) on the presumption that women making accusations of sexual violence are likely lying.

A few months after Ghomeshi was fired, a former friend of mine (a friend who’d initiated a sexual relationship with me when I was 16, and he was in his 30s) told me over FB private message that he’d unfriended me at that time because I’d posted a note saying I’d block anyone who engaged in rape apologism on my page. In his message to me he paraphrased my post as saying “[I] would unfriend anyone who disagreed with [me]”.

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In lecture, the professor brings up the Ghomeshi case. All the newspapers have been publishing stories about “lifestyle” and sex, none without the requisite reference to Fifty Shades of Grey. The professor discusses the newly common knowledge that in Canada a person can’t consent to being beaten, except as part of sport. In my tutorials, I’m asked to explain what BDSM stands for. I end up giving an improvised, five minute crash course in Kink and consent.

A few weeks later I’m marking a batch of journal-type informal reflections on the novels. My computer track pad starts to bunk out, and the assignments are already later than I promised them. I text a friend whom I’ve been casually seeing for a few months. By “casually seeing” I mean we spend a few nights a week together at his apartment, support each other emotionally, go for dinner, meet for drinks, and sleep together pretty much every time we see each other. He describes this as “hanging out”. He’s staying at a hotel downtown for a conference, but I can come over and use his mouse. He gets a second room key for me and I spend the next two days in his hotel room marking. He has breaks and sometimes comes back to the room. We have sex. He goes back to his conference, and I go back to my desktop folder of assignments.

At one point he comes back to the room and I’m in tears. I’ve been trying to mark a journal assignment wherein the student describes one of the rapes in Disgrace as an “affair”. My student asks why the young, black / mixed race South African student doesn’t push away her middle-aged, white professor when he pushes her onto a bed, when he pushes himself into her. I open a comment box reminding my student that the student in the book did say “no”. I remind my student of the power the professor has over the student in the book. I start to cry, as this is the third such assignment on which I’ve made these comments. I start to panic because I know this shaking isn’t anger, but a physical sign of being triggered. I start to panic because I’m pretty sure it’s unethical for a teacher to mark an assignment that’s triggering her PTSD. My friend comes over and holds me, a bit awkwardly, for a few minutes. He wants to be helpful, but there is no solution to my situation. The assignment structure of the course means in the next few weeks I’ll receive a new batch of papers on this novel, which mostly means, a batch of papers on the rape(s). I tell myself if I can’t teach this novel, I can’t teach this course. It’s too late. I switch from coffee to wine, and sit back down at my computer. I erase what I wrote in the comment box because it’s probably “too harsh”. I rephrase.

*

Three and a half years ago, after my then-partner rolled off me, we were both silent for a moment before he said “I can’t believe I just did that”.

When I recounted this to a mutual friend of ours later, who said she believed me that the rape happened, but that she also didn’t quite trust me, she took this line as him admitting his guilt. She used this as part of a basis for shifting her position of support towards me.

But I had shared his words for a very different reason. I had shared them because what struck me about them at the time, and what stays with me still, was his focus on himself, even in that moment. To him, even my rape wasn’t about me.

Our criminal justice system, and thus our public, treat situations of sexual assault and rape as zero sum games. Or rather, our public, and thus, our criminal justice system treat them this way. In the majority of cases, wherein the victim knows her assailant, the issue is framed not as “what happened?,” or even “who did it?,” but “did it happen?”.

To experience a rape is to experience a violation. An intrusion into one’s body, and into one’s control over the boundaries of one’s self. A person can experience a rape while the person raping them doesn’t understand what they’re doing is rape. It’s only in framing every conversation about rape through the lens of a jurisdiction’s laws defining culpability, that we collapse this experience into a single event of action = impact. We can’t seem to wrap our collective mind around the importance of understanding a victim’s experience on its own terms.

While each rape involves at least two subjects, the violation may sometimes be experienced by only one person. When discussing rape, we often rely on a myth of communication as perfect, i.e. there being a one-to-one relationship between what is communicated by one party, and what is understood by another. I hesitate to raise this, because I don’t want to be misunderstood as suggesting that there are a significant amount of rapes that happen where the perpetrator just didn’t realize or hear the victim express a lack of consent. Creating positive conditions for consent can greatly reduce the possibility of misunderstanding, and besides, I think this is used as a red herring in most discussions of sexual assault. But I bring it up to draw attention to the ways in which we don’t usually make space for a person to express their experience of being raped, independent of a discussion of the perpetrator. While it’s critically important to hold violent abusers accountable, that process is not necessarily the same process as a victim’s around their own experience.

Not every discussion about my rape is about my rapist’s guilt.

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance who does strong writing around consent and anti-patriarchy work shared a link to sex coach Charlie Glickman’s post entitled “Consent Accidents and Consent Violations”. Glickman, though not the originator of these terms, posits two kinds of situations in which consent is violated: “consent accidents” and “consent violations”. A “consent accident” is defined as a situation in which a person violates another’s consent, but doesn’t intend to, nor do they realize they are violating consent. A “consent violation” is defined as a situation in which a person intentionally violates or disregards another’s consent. These terms construct the violation as pivoting around the violator’s experience, rather than that of the person being violated. Constructed in relation to each other, the terms “consent violation” and “consent accident” collapse two distinct experiences into one: a person being violated, and a person intending to violate someone else. By removing the word “violation” from the term that describes an unintentional violation, we suggest that the absence of intent to harm = the absence of harm.i

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Judge Horkins declaring Ghomeshi “not guilty” was not a surprise. Anyone following the trial with a sense of how testimony by women sexual assault victims is treated, and a basic understanding of the threshold of certainty required for a guilty verdict was likely very skeptical that an outcome other than “not guilty” was possible. Horkins’ comments regarding the complainants did surprise me a bit. They surprised me in the way that I’m still surprised when, online, a man I don’t know makes a completely uninvited sexual demand of me. If surprise were determined through an objective analysis of the amount of times such things occur, instead of through the lens of how I expect and want to be treated, then I would, of course, no longer experience it.

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It’s heartening that Ghomeshi’s case isn’t being talked about only through the lens of legal guilt or acquittal. A lot of people are saying our legal system is unable to deal justly with sexual assault cases. I agree. And even within our current legal system, we need judges who are better equipped, or perhaps just more willing, to accurately interpret medical and qualitative research on the behaviour of victims of sexual assault, and the ways in which trauma affects us, rather than relying on myths and their own ideas of what makes sense. But if we are going to shift the way our society deals with perpetrators of sexual assault, I (and many others) think we need to start looking beyond a carceral model of responding to this epidemic.

I don’t say this lightly. Even though I am generally very skeptical of the carceral model, and am horrified at the ways in which colonialism and white supremacy shape our criminal justice and prison systems, they are the governing model. And while I am generally friendly towards the prison abolition movement, I still haven’t been convinced about what we do with people who are serially violent and won’t stop. At least in theory, our justice system regards the prospect of taking away a person’s freedom very seriously, therefore the (theoretical) threshold for conviction and imprisonment are very high, and since cases of sexual assault often rely solely on victims’ and defendants’ testimony, getting a conviction is incredibly difficult. This means that historically, people who commit sexual assault have been largely sheltered from criminal consequences – well, at least white people who commit such violenceii. So, in a period when survivors’ experiences are being heard and believed more than ever (at least in broader publics, if not in the criminal justice system), a part of in me feels bitter about now saying, “oh, let’s not focus on the criminal consequences for abusers, let’s talk about everyone’s feelings, and try to help the abusers change”. But, even as this flash of anger rises in me, I am reminded that rapists still barely ever go to prison. While Canada doesn’t keep statistics on rape specifically (the offence is included under “sexual assault”), American Department of Justice data suggests only 2% of rapists spend even a day in prisoniii. So do we really have anything to lose by moving away from the carceral system, and trying to build alternative structures with which to hold abusers accountable?

Many folks are criticizing the judge and defence counsel in Ghomeshi’s trial for focusing too much on the victims’ actions, and not enough on Ghomeshi’s. I agree with these critiques. What’s additionally frustrating is that focusing on the victim’s actions is a way of telling the accused’s story: it centres the victim as an object situated in the accused’s gaze (“she wore this,” “she stayed over afterwards,” “she wrote me a love letter”), and the court then judges what happened from the accused’s perspective on the victim. If we are to build another system what I would like to see most is the decentreing of the (alleged) abuser’s experience, and the amplification of the story and experiences of the person who was violated.

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In the year and a half since Ghomeshi was fired, I’ve learned about five new abusers in my community. Four of them are men with patterns of abusing women. One is a very close friend, whom I love. By “new” I don’t mean they newly started abusing others. I mean their names are new additions to the list I keep of people in my community (whom I know of) who have abused their partners, dates, or friends. I long ago lost track of the number of names on the list of people, mostly women, I know who have been abused.

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i While this is not how Glickman describes the term, my analysis is based on what the language does, and from whose perspective it is constructed. While I’m not interested in linking to his site, you can easily find this post online.
ii Historically, rape has been constructed along racial, as well as gender lines. It would not be accurate to suggest men of colour, particularly black men, have been sheltered from criminal consequences of committing sexual violence, whether they were guilty or not.
iii
 
https://rainn.org/get-information/statistics/reporting-rates
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2 thoughts on “On how many stories we’re telling, when we tell a rape story

  1. A gut-wrenching and empathetic reflection on the complexities and contradictions inherent in abusive relationships and their aftermath, underscoring the centuries of HIStories forstering and condoning such behaviours. However, I am aware that many men also are abused and suspect that the obstacles to coming forward and seeking some kind of restorative justice may be as big, or even bigger in such cases

    Like

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