Rape: It's a Man Thing

Friday, March 1, 2019

March is Women's History Month. Here to kick things off is Sohaila Abdulali, author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2018, with a vital piece on what men should be reading this month. Check out her appearance on PBS Newshour and join the conversation at Goodreads, where readers are saying, “Get ready to throw out all previous opinions about rape, rape culture, and anything else to do with it. Set them aside and just listen."

Here’s a conundrum: I’m a feminist down to the marrow of my bones; gender equity is my thing.  But I don’t want my new book about rape and rape culture to be confined to the “Feminist Studies” shelf.

Why? Because I wrote it for you too – you who might not look at that shelf (although you should). You who think rape is a women’s issue. You who think it’s an issue for the left, or for girls, or for anyone but you.

Rape is important to me because I was raped, because I care about the future of the teenage boys and girls I love, because I hate the waste and pain it unleashes in the world. But, while it took one person (me) to be raped, in my case it took four people (men) to do it.

Rapists cause rape. Most rapists are men. I’m not foolish enough to think that most men don’t know what they’re doing when they rape. Many are probably well aware. But many are not. A third of the people, men and women, surveyed by the End Violence Against Women Coalition said that it’s only rape if there is other physical violence involved. A third of men and 21% of the women said that if a woman flirts on a date, then anything that happens afterwards isn’t rape. Some people think husbands can’t rape wives. Some people think sex workers can’t be raped.

Like many of you, I was riveted by the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. I watched with awe as Christine Blasey Ford calmly and courageously told her tale. I watched with distaste as Brett Kavanaugh raved and shouted and threw his shrieky toddler tantrum. But I was most interested as I watched the comments from all over that illustrated the massive chasm that opens up between us in society when we try to talk about rape. I listened to smart people wondering why she didn’t report it right away, and other smart people wondering if she could have mistaken the man who was on top of her for someone else. And I realized that things that seem obvious to some of us (Of course she didn’t report it right away! Of course she knows who raped her!) aren’t at all obvious to others. This is not because most people are inherently evil or sexist. Maybe it’s because we just haven’t taken the time to explore the dynamics of sexual assault.

What would you do if a friend of yours – man, woman, trans – came and told you about being raped? Would you take a moment, express empathy, and listen, or would you freak out and change the subject as fast as possible? Would you find reasons to blame your friend, minimize the trauma, make a joke of it? Rape, like death, makes us instantly uncomfortable, and so we tend to blurt out the first spectacularly inappropriate thing that comes to mind. This wouldn’t happen nearly as much if we gave these things a little bit of thought before they blindsided us.

It’s important to understand rape in part because every victim is someone’s sister, daughter, mother, friend. Rape is like that proverbial pebble in a pond that causes ripples far and wide – except it is not a pebble but a boulder, a giant calamity that crashes explosively into someone’s life, and then flings shrapnel into her present, her future, her lovers, her children present and future, her job, her soul, her day, her night, her year, her life. It is never, as the Stanford rapist Brock Turner’s father said, just “20 minutes of action.” It is a trauma that requires everyone in her life to help her come through. That includes you.

But it’s equally important to understand rape because every rapist is someone’s brother, son, father, friend. (I know women rape, but it’s fair to assume that is relatively uncommon.) I also believe there are many men who would rather hurt themselves than deliberately hurt another human being. Men, like women, can be villains, heroes, and everything in between. But men, unlike women, have the ability to stop rape in its dirty little tracks. 

In the words of many a five-year-old: It’s not fair! It’s not fair that women, especially those who have already been through the hell of surviving rape, too often have to explain to men what to do, how to think, how to keep from doing harm, and how to comfort. We all have the responsibility to respond in helpful ways when someone in our lives is assaulted or raped.

Rape is not a women’s issue. I’ll be proud to see my book on the Feminist Studies shelf. But I hope it also appears in Literary Non-Fiction, Psychology, Sociology, Current Affairs…. and what the hell, maybe even Mystery and Horror. But wherever it is, guys, it’s your book too.

Sohaila Abdulali is the author of What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape (The New Press).

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What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape