What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape

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‘Unflinching and nuanced… Her structure is disruptive and powerful for it—never letting us forget that there is a person who suffers, a body that gets broken. And, when a body is violated, all of society is at risk. This book could not be more timely, nor could there be a better thinker—herself a survivor—to write it. If the #MeToo campaign is to have any lasting impact for change in women's circumstances across the world, it will be because of books such as this’ —Preti Taneja

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Thoughtful, provocative and intelligent, this game-changing book looks at sexual assault and the global discourse on rape from the viewpoint of a survivor, writer, counsellor and activist.

Sohaila Abdulali was the first Indian rape survivor to speak out about her experience. Gang-raped as a teenager in Mumbai and indignant at the deafening silence on the issue in India, she wrote an article for a women’s magazine questioning how we perceive rape and rape victims. Thirty years later she saw the story go viral in the wake of the fatal 2012 Delhi rape and the global outcry that followed.

Drawing on three decades of grappling with the issue personally and professionally, and on her work with hundreds of other survivors, she explores what we think about rape and what we say.

She also explores what we don’t say, and asks pertinent questions about who gets raped and who rapes, about consent and desire, about redemption and revenge, and about how we raise our sons. Most importantly, she asks: does rape always have to be a life-defining event, or is it possible to recover joy?

The Telegraph

29 March 2019
Many will remember Sohaila Abdulali for an article written three decades ago, remarkable for the author’s refusal to be defined by rape as well as the fresh young face accompanying the article in Manushi. Abdulali’s recent book is, in part, a continuation of her earlier efforts from the 1980s to challenge ideas about rape survivors being “the living dead”. The rage that ensued the December 2012 gang rape set the stage for discussions across the nation, many strands of which were relatively new in their understanding of gender, violence, and the onus of sexual violence. Today these debates are more familiar because of the digitally mediated/inspired #MeToo movement. But years ago, Abdulali was possibly one of the first who publicly refused to be “defaced” by her experience, suggesting possibilities of understanding life after rape. The resurrection of her article and the publication of this book indicate the relevance of her ideas today. The book seeks to blow open the public secret of rape through many anecdotes and to facilitate sensitive, yet pragmatic, discussion. Abdulali attempts to rip apart the pity and shame that inflect much of the talk around rape in connection with “victims”. Through her own experience as well as those recounted by other survivors, she strives to put rape in its place, refusing to grant it the power that can erode identities and undermine people’s sense of being. In the 29 chapters she recounts stories of survivors including male survivors from Maharashtra to Midwestern America to Ubuntu, discussing cases varying from mob sexual assault to rape by a trusted figure and themes from consent to forgiveness. In Chapter 11, for example, she explores how in spite of her earlier dismissal that rape had anything to do with sex, violence and desire are closely linked as reflected in elucidations like little boys bully girls they are sweet on, or in grimmer incidents among adults when the survivor is blamed for not making boundaries evident. A particularly unsettling moment in the book is in Chapter 17 when she recalls the matter of fact reaction of her eleven-year-old daughter when told about her mother’s rape years ago. While she is attracted to how children can have distance from the more grown-up notions of stigma, devastation, shame, there is also a gentle urgency to educate them. The anecdotes are cobbled together cursorily to suggest a sprawling world of rape with many experiences that even Abdulali cannot claim solidarity with, like the forgiveness project between a rape survivor and her rapist. Some chapters are simply an inventory of words as in Chapter 26. The book leaves readers with a sense of incompleteness, abandoning possibilities for contemplation and analysis. But it is also significant and necessary that a book on rape can be unpremeditated and casual, regardless of its intent. The tone of the book is far more striking. Abdulali employs a cheerful voice that often becomes irreverent when talking about her own rape. She recognizes this narrative style “with intonation but no real emotion” in another rape survivor. The politics to this gaiety is reminiscent of philosopher Susan Brison’s reflection that the “rape narrative” can stop being central to a person’s biography with time. Abdulali, no longer held in thrall to her rape, can be vocal and declare that her daughter’s math progress feels more important at present than her long ago rape. The irreverence is not to belittle the trauma, far from it. She returns to the horrors time and again and in spite of her anguish admits relief that in 2012 she “had nothing to do with any of it because I had done my bit three decades ago”. The anthropologist, Michael Taussig, had argued that knowledge or revelations cannot destroy a public secret. Here too, the public secret of rape remains unaltered, even as Abdulali hews away at its shell. But the chinks that she produces through her sometimes distant, sometimes fraught voice, above all, facilitate conversations that have always been much needed.
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11 March 2019

Reality check: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, Sohaila Abdulali

“So what is this book? It’s about what we talk about, but also what we don’t talk about. We don’t talk enough about aggravating phobias. We don’t talk enough about rebuilding trust. We don’t talk enough about joy and rage and how to fit both into our lives. I began college weeks after being raped. I showed up at my freshman dorm still healing from physical injuries – a bump on my head and a bandage on my ankle. The ankle bandage wasn’t because of anything the rapists did. A few days after the rape, I was at the beach, so happy to be alive that I took a running leap off the front steps of the house and twisted my ankle. In college, I threw myself into the feminist movement like a drunken sailor on shore leave – these were my people, this was my place! And it still is. When you’re seventeen, with a bump on your head from almost dying and a bandaged foot from the rapture of living, clichés come easily. I joined marches and yelled, ‘Yes means yes! No means no!’ Later, running in-service training sessions for police officers and doctors, I held forth on how rape has nothing to do with sex. Now I realise that, well, sometimes yes doesn’t mean yes; and sometimes rape does have to do with sex.”
Thirty years ago, Sohaila Abdulali, then only 17, had been raped by a group of men, and defying the age-old practices of silence and shame, she wrote about its aftermath and her life as a rape survivor in the feminist journal Manushi. Later, Abdulali went on to become a novelist. On December 16, 2012 in Delhi, a young woman who went to watch a film with a male friend was brutally gang-raped and thrown off a bus with grievous injuries that led to her death. The country erupted after this tragedy and the conversation on rape was finally reopened in India. Eventually, Abdulali decided to revisit her own story as well as her insights from being an activist all these years to write the much-needed What We Talk About When We Talk of Rape, a sensitive, nuanced and long overdue account of a difficult subject.
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The Hindu Business Line

1 March 2019
Sohaila Abdulali’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is a difficult read. There is no dearth of cold statistics and reportage of rape in the media. But how do we pause, process and then eventually talk about rape? The truth is, none of us know how to grasp rape beyond feelings of denial, disgust, outrage, condemnation, and resignation. It is precisely for these reasons and more that Abdulali’s book must be read by all, especially men, irrespective of how progressive they think their politics are.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape Sohaila Abdulali Non-fiction Penguin499

Abdulali’s book starts where the newspapers finish their coverage of rape. She asks some very pertinent questions: Is rape a fundamentally life-defining event? Is it only about power or can it also be about sex? We talk about the stigmas attached to rape but never about its after-effects, in the form of phobias and triggers. Where is the space that we accord to rebuilding trust and boundaries for rape survivors? In a nutshell, Abdulali takes the discussion on sexual assault and rape from being merely a violent event to examining the very nature of violence and how it is perpetrated. This is a book not just about rape survivors, their family and friends, but very much also about rape culture and rapists. A US-based journalist, writer and activist, Abdulali spends a considerable amount of time discussing rape culture, which is a totality of big and small things that we do, say and believe, leading to the notion that it is okay to rape. She tells us that making fun of women drivers or indulging your son more than your daughter does not mean you condone rape. But what this does is to chip away women’s and girls’ self-respect, giving the boys a free pass to demand and “maraud through the world and take without thinking”. It is this brazen sense of male self-entitlement which makes men unable to take a ‘no’ or a ‘maybe’; or understand that a ‘yes’ once uttered is not an eternally binding contract. This is also one of the reasons why the #MeToo movement made all men uncomfortable, for their sense of self-entitlement may have explicitly or implicitly perpetrated rape culture. This is a book that cannot be read continuously. It demands a certain kind of pause-absorb-reflect-read mode from its readers. Through 29 short chapters, Abdulali dissects rape. Starting with her own story of being gang-raped at 17 in 1980 and later writing about it in the feminist magazine Manushi, she talks about coping strategies, the importance of an unconditionally supportive family, and a very insightful list of guidelines to saving a rape survivor’s life. As survivors recount their stories, Abdulali articulates every possible audience reaction ranging from denial, horror, discomfort, trauma and, appallingly, even awe. She shares how the act of telling is a huge commitment of time, energy and emotion because you can never predict the response. Most unfairly, survivors often have to protect their audience by narrating a sanitised version of the events. This is done either to make the incident more palatable or to avoid being labelled ‘hysterical’ or ‘dramatic’. Survivors do not owe it to the audience to be their educator. When it comes to how to behave with a person who has been raped, Abdulali states that it is a straightforward formula of listening, giving unstinting control, acceptance and support. She further elaborates this as a set of guidelines that include: Be horrified but not so much that the survivor has to take care of you; do not try to understand and analyse but just be there. This effectively speaks to well-intentioned mansplainers and other well-wishers who hasten to theorise and explain. The focus must always be the survivor and what they want. This is a book that moves beyond rape and urges us to relook how we understand sex. The bar of consent cannot be as low as a transactional affair of merely saying yes or no. On the contrary, sex should be seen as an alluring adventure of mutual pleasure and joy. Abdulali also addresses the more tricky conversation around bad sex that has divided many people. Bad sex is awful but is it necessarily rape? It is a complicated but all-too-familiar conversation around so-called good-natured entitled men not caring for their partners’ choices. Thus, bad sex is a part of rape culture. Just like the aftermath of any sexual assault, the book doesn’t follow a linear narrative. The chapters encapsulate grim incidents of assault, the apathy of the state, moments of lucidity, rage and heartbreaking confusion coupled with coping strategies and the choice that entitled men make to assault and rape. What makes this book eminently a compelling read is its rawness. It is almost like Abdulali is talking to us without mincing words or resorting to theoretical terms that at once sterilise realities and alienate people. The chapterisation is cleverly done, enabling the reader to start with whichever title that intrigues them the most. More than women, it is the men who need this book; they are not the problem but their entitlement is.
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Blank Gold Coast

14 February 2019
Rarely does a book’s title so perfectly encapsulate its contents, as it does in the case of Sohaila Abdulali’s ‘What We Talk About When We talk About Rape,’ a modern treatise on rape and rape culture, and the global discourse that both describes and determines it. Sohaila Abdulali was the first Indian rape survivor to speak out publicly about her experience. Gang-raped as a teenager in Mumbai and indignant at the deafening silence on the issue of rape in India, she wrote an article for a women’s magazine questioning how we perceive rape and rape victims that disappeared (she thought) into the ether. Thirty years later, happy and successful, Abdulali saw her story go viral in the wake of the fatal 2012 Delhi rape of Jyoti Singh and the global outcry that followed. While unsentimental in tone – even in the passages where she recollects her ordeal – the book and its wide-ranging look at the broad spectrum of global sexual violence nevertheless inspire a full gamut of (negative) emotions in the reader, ranging from the purest boiling rage to quiet despair. Meticulously researched and referenced, the book holds a mirror up to the frighteningly large numbers of sexual assault victims, and their ongoing victimisation by a society which at times seems set up to excuse perpetrators. However it also offers hope – particularly via the story of its author – that it is possible to achieve a happy life after surviving sexual assault. It is a book to be read over several sittings; one to pick up again once you’ve cooled down or perked up, but absolutely to be picked up again. Abdulali’s offering demonstrates great insight but provides little in the way of solutions, although some solace for victims will almost certainly be found amongst its pages, even if just from the realisation that they are not alone. It is not unlike other treatments of this subject, in that sense. ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape’ explores not just what we say when we talk about rape but also what we don’t say, and asks pertinent questions about consent and desire, redemption and revenge, and how we raise our sons. It’s not an easy read, but it’s an important one.
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Washington City Paper

7 January 2019
Content warning: This pick concerns rape and sexual assault.There should be many more books like Sohaila Abdulali’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape. At 17, the writer was gang raped and nearly killed in Mumbai. She wrote about this experience and her recovery from it three decades later in a 2013 New York Times op-ed. Her new book is somewhat of an expansion of that piece, an expansion on the conversation about rape, sexual assault, and rape culture, and an examination of how different cultures handle sexual violence. In addition to sharing her own story, Abdulali interviewed survivors from around the world and put these intensely personal stories on the page. It’s a book that stresses the fact that there is no singular response to rape, and asks questions that must be addressed: Who gets raped and why? And, if you’re a survivor, how do you recover a sense of safety and joy? It’s essential reading.
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Women’s Web

4 December 2018
What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by Sohaila Abdulali is a powerful, solicitous and hard-hitting read which has the potential to create history. Rarely does it happen that a book leaves me flabbergasted, shattered and reassured, all at the same time. With the “Me Too” movement gaining momentum and changing the conversations around the subject of rape and consent, the timing of this book could not be better. This is an important read for all of us because the truth is that whenever a rape happens, we are all the victims – some of us realize it, some don’t.
 
There are many things about this book that one cannot define in quintessential ways and that is its real strength.  If someone asks me the genre of the book, I wouldn’t know how to answer this. If someone asks me about the writing style of the author, I would say it doesn’t really matter. Neither does Sohaila Abdulali claim to educate the masses about rape nor does she come across as patronizing at any point. She raises the right questions time and again, even though she might not have the answers to some. She makes us introspect and contemplate about our own behavior which is interesting because many of us think we are progressive and are doing it all right, but in reality we are not there yet.

A 360 degree look at rape

The author takes a 360 degree view, if I may call it that, on this extremely sensitive and discomfiting topic and not only does she focus on what we talk about rape but stresses more on what we don’t talk about rape. Her in-depth analysis and understanding does not just come from the place of being a rape survivor herself, but also from being someone who has actively been involved in counseling survivors. At the very beginning, she shares her own harrowing experience of being gang raped in the presence of a friend in the year 1980 when she was all of seventeen years old. She narrates how she penned a poignant account for a women’s magazine in the early 80s on surviving rape which created a trifling stir in the country because in those times, no one spoke about rape. It was soon a forgotten story only to resurface years later after the ghastly 2012 rape case shook the entire nation. Her story went viral, forcing her to face what she was trying to get past without any warning. And then this book happened!

Talking of rape as Indians

Having worked as a counselor with an NGO that rehabilitates human trafficking survivors, I do understand that there are so many complex layers to unfold as we try to comprehend the cause of rape not just in India but anywhere in the world. However, as I read through the different chapters, I realized that there are little nuances about our behavior and talks which we fail to notice, deterring us from being able to deal with the problem head on. Typically, the conversations around rape are limited to consent and harsh punishments. But, Sohaila Abdulali makes us recognize that we need to go beyond that, and make these dialogues all inclusive, specifically mentioning about how we seldom involve trans people and sex workers in these significant discussions. There is a lucid explanation of consent, and how it is not as simple as saying a “yes” or a “no”. For a long time, I thought rape was more about power than sex, which of course is true, but now I know that we cannot keep out sex from our conversations if we want to tackle this issue. The book talks about various scenarios from marital rape to date rape to incest, each viewed differently because of the different dynamics involved, although the crime is same. The survivor tales are distressing to say the least but are necessary to drive home the point, loud and clear.

Including toxic masculinity and male ‘protectors’ in the conversation

My favourite chapter in the book is “How to save a life” which cajoled me to think outside of the obvious. It discusses toxic masculinity and the impact of rape on men who are witnesses to the horrific crime but are not able to intervene. How many of us bother to think about this? This just re-affirms why patriarchy is harmful for everyone because men are expected to protect the honour of women and being witnesses to the rape of a loved one is a double blow for them. What also gave me immense hope in this section of the book were stories of heroes who make a difference. They reinstate the lost faith and reignite the extinguished flame. I think ‘The Abdulali guidelines for saving a rape survivor’s life’should be printed and distributed to one and all. Each one of us needs to know them, no matter how well-read and aware we think we are. We need to be ready to unlearn and re-learn because many a time our actions or words are well-intentioned but detrimental to the cause. For instance, in one of the chapters, Abdulali makes a case for looking at rapists as humans, which I would have never bothered to do earlier. She elucidates why violence is not the answer to violence and that furiously demanding public castration of rapists is not quite a laudable reaction. This made me pause and reflect. I evolved as a person by the time I reached the end of the book because every word in this literary work is a journey, a lesson and a plea to rise above our egos and intolerance to make the world a better place. To sum it up, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape is a comprehensive, honest and enlightening attempt to normalize the discussions around rape. It is also a guide for parents, mentors and guardians on how to approach this matter with the next generation. For all this and more, it is an extremely important read. Did I say this before? Well, I would say it a thousand times over. Read it. Absorb it. Share it. Re-read it. I want to conclude by quoting the lines from the book that I believe should be drilled into the minds of every living human in the world. ‘I want to be very clear that it is never a victim’s obligation to speak up, or report, or do anything but survive. Her first responsibility is getting through it. But we are all culpable in the silence around rape, a “vast international conspiracy” if ever there was one.’
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Laura Barcella, Longreads

28 November 2018
In a 2015 documentary called “India’s Daughter,” one of Jyoti Singh Pandey’s rapists, Mukesh Singh, gave a disturbing jail-cell interview in which he placed the blame for his crime squarely on his dead victim. “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy,” he said. Singh’s quote is despicable, but it neatly summarizes many of the internalized myths that women all over the world walk around with each day: that women have a say in whether we end up brutalized. That we can twist our own fate by making simple choices like staying home at night, or not wearing skirts, or abstaining from drinking. It helps rapists rationalize their actions, and it makes women feel like we retain a semblance of control over what happens to us. Of course, it’s not true. What do you think about when you think about rape? If you’re someone who has also been a victim, you might think about power, the nebulous lines of control. You might think about the outfit you wore and the plan you’d made for innocent fun with a guy you met twice before. You might think about drinking wine on the patio, of consent given and later revoked. You might think about ripped underwear; the dirt beneath the nails of his callused, unfeeling fingers; and the massive blue bruises you got in places you don’t remember being bruised before or since. You might think about the shame and humiliation of the morning after, of not knowing who to tell or what hotline to call or what to preserve in a garbage bag as “evidence.” You might think about what your friends will say; whether they’ll support your story or find a way to warp it into your fault (“I’ve seen how you act with men when you’re drunk,” “but what did you expect, inviting him over so late?”). You might think about the walk-in clinic you visited afterward and the painful tests you endured there (yes, there was blood). You might think about filing a police report, or you might remember taking to your bed for a week and trying to avoid thinking about anything at all. In her powerful but accessibly written new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape, Sohaila Abdulali explores how cultures around the world handle rape. She approaches this intimate, sinister type of violence with a decidedly global viewpoint, delving into how both individuals and governments treat their victims, as well as how they navigate the nuances of sexual consent. Sure, it’s different in America. But is it better? Although Abdulali had never before written a book-length feminist treatise of this sort — she’s the author of two prior novels — she is no stranger to the subject matter. In the summer of 1980, shortly before she was due to leave her family in India and move to Boston for college at Brandeis, Abdulali was brutally raped by four armed men while hiking with a male friend in Bombay. She was almost killed, but her parents supported her, and her life crept on. She headed to college, wrote her undergraduate thesis about rape, and published an account of her story in an Indian women’s magazine called Manushi. The article garnered attention for daring to discuss a kind of violence that Indian women were typically encouraged to keep quiet about.

Fast forward to 2012, when Indian medical student Jyoti Singh Pandey, 23, was gang-raped and disemboweled on a private bus while returning home from a movie with a friend. Singh died of her gruesome injuries two weeks later, and the case, publicly dubbed the “Delhi gang rape,” sparked an international outcry. Singh’s attackers received the death penalty. Asked to comment on the case, Sohaila Abdulali, who went on to work for a rape crisis center in Boston, penned a 2013 New York Times op-ed. The piece went viral, drawing a torrent of personal letters from survivors. Though it was never Abdulali’s intention to be a “symbol of rape” — and she is adamant that survivors can live happy, meaningful lives after even the most grievous trauma — her history informed her work, ultimately leading Abdulali to write What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape (The New Press). The book is not your typical pop-academia offering. It takes a conversational approach to a painful subject, while still managing to avoid making light of rape or its legacy. Abdulali is careful not to speak for all survivors, acknowledging how rape’s after-effects manifest differently for everyone. And she examines the darkest questions surrounding what we don’t say about rape; for example, must rape victims be forever defined by someone else’s crime? Can rape ever be about sex instead of power? How can survivors find joy while still honoring their rage? “We must talk about rape, and we must talk about how we talk about rape,” she writes at the book’s beginning. I discussed the book with the author over coffee on New York City’s Lower East Side. Laura Barcella: Tell me how the book came about. Sohaila AbdulaliI had no intention of speaking up. I worked really hard not to speak up. But somebody took a picture of the old [Manushi] article I had written about my rape, and they posted it on FacebookThen everything went crazy, because rape was the only topic anybody was talking about in India. But they couldn’t find any victims; nobody would speak up. They found me and [I got the] New York Times offer, which worked out really nicely because it was the best possible platform and I could write that one piece and then say ‘no’ to every single person after that. In the last five years, I got away from the topic, wrote a column, did other stuff. Last year, I thought I would do a book. So I wrote to a publisher and said, ‘How about a book?’ And she wrote back saying, ‘What about a rape memoir?’ So I [told her,] ‘I’m fed up of this topic, and I don’t want to write about it. I can’t write a rape memoir because it’s not a main thing in my life anymore.’ She wrote back and said, ‘You don’t have to write a memoir. But you’ve obviously thought a lot about this and you have a lot to say; why don’t you just write a book about it?’ This was before #MeToo. So I started off with the idea that I would write this book about something nobody is talking about. Then I started writing it, and #MeToo happened. Just this week [in mid-October], India has gone crazy. #MeToo has exploded therea government minister just resigned. For the first time in our history, women are being taken seriously there. It’s amazing. The book is coming out at the right time; it happened organically. The minute I started writing it, I was obsessed, and I got to talk to the most amazing survivors.
I had no intention of speaking up. I worked really hard not to speak up.
How did you find the survivors you interviewed for the book? I found them through word of mouth. Also, when my New York Times op-ed came out, about 1,000 people wrote to me from all over the world. I wrote back to every single one, because I felt like, how could I not? Then I felt like I couldn’t [not save] the emails. So I put them in one file and kept them. When I was working on this book, I had this huge data bank of people to contact. In your book, you wrote about India’s Justice Verma Committee report, which was released as an official government response to the horrific 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey. More than 80,000 people weighed in for the report, which laid out new laws and amendments related to violence against women in India. Did the report have much of an impact on women there? Psychologically it had a fabulous impact. It’s an amazing thing to read. The Indian government strengthened some of its rape laws, and they strengthened some reporting. There’s a little more training. But I don’t know if there’s been even one less rape there. So who knows if it’s made any [real] difference. It’s also a historical document. They listened to people, and they went out there and talked to people. I don’t know how they did it in just one month. You touch on how we describe sexual assault versus rape, and how rape is seen as a more ‘forceful’ word for a more violent act. What’s your take on the language that we use to describe sexual assault, and how you decided to include the word ‘rape’ so prominently in the title of your book? Did you ever think of calling it, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Sexual Assault?’ No, because it was about rape. That’s a really good, thought-provoking question. All rape is sexual assault, but all sexual assault isn’t rape. The more interesting thing about language is the way that people talk about victims and criminals. You know, the whole ‘boys will be boys’ thing, and how people [sometimes] talk about rape using the same terms we use for regular sex. Like the term ‘gang bang.’ A gang bang — is that consensual or not? It’s used for both. It seems like there has been a shift in the way people talk about assault, post-Harvey Weinstein and #MeToo. I remember there was a lot of dissent about Aziz Ansari, and whether his alleged actions [as outlined in January’s Babe.net article] ‘qualified’ as sexual assault. So much nitpicking over the language regarding sexual assault versus harassment versus bad sex. We make it more complicated than it has to be, but also less complicated. Because with all those discussions, even if there’s no real answer at the end, we’ve never had them before. It is important. And if you read that woman’s [story], he was disgusting. It was disgusting. He stuck his finger in her [mouth]. But even I hesitate about saying it’s the same kind of rape as some stranger jumping you on the street. Still, that doesn’t mean the trauma is lesser. It is complicated, but we need to talk about it. The more words we have, the better.

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Do you think that our culture has gotten better at grappling with nuances when it comes to sexual consent? Or appreciating the nuances, if not always respecting them? I don’t know about the culture, and I’m not on the dating scene because I’m married. But I do feel that in my own family, among the teenagers, there’s a kind of understanding and discussion that there never was before in my generation. So that’s good. But to be clear, with consent, you can have all the rules [laid out], but if you don’t care how the other person actually feels, then it doesn’t matter what you sayEveryone should actually care if the other party is into it. Seems basic! What do people get wrong when they talk about rape? Oh, everything. For one thing, the idea that women somehow bring it on themselves. I mean, we have countries in the world where that’s kind of the law, right? In Iran, if you show your head and you get raped, then you’re [responsible for] it. And also [the idea] that men can’t help it. Many of the men I know absolutely can help it, and they choose not to do it. We also get the effects of rape wrong. Because we either act like it’s no big deal, or we act like it’s the end of your life. Even more so in India. But here, too, women are considered damaged goods [after being raped]. But the impact is so individual, and it doesn’t necessarily have to correspond to what actually happened to you. Like for me, [my attackers were] strangers, and I’ve always thought, ‘Phew, I am so glad.’ Because I can put that away; it’s not part of my everyday life. What about the psychological trauma? I know it’s very individual and plays out differently for everyone. But what are some of the misconceptions out there about what recovery is ‘supposed to’ look like for a survivor? In America, one of the big misconceptions is that if you’ve been raped, you’re going to have PTSD that centers around sex only. Which often happens! But we don’t realize [that PTSD] can also relate to lots of other things. Like, I have this chapter on dentistry. I used to be devastated over going to the dentist. I had flashbacks of my rape every single time I went to the dentist, but I didn’t have flashbacks during sex. So I thought I was weird and never told anyone until this dentist came along and said she treats lots of people [with PTSD from rape]. We tend to have certain notions of what trauma is like.
We get the effects of rape wrong. Because we either act like it’s no big deal, or we act like it’s the end of your life.
How did you feel about the Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford hearings? Did you watch? Oh, I couldn’t stop. It was so painful and disheartening from beginning to end. The only part of it that was good was her. She’s a hero. I can just barely imagine the courage it took her, and the months and years of thinking, ‘Should I? Shouldn’t I?’ Imagine how she feels — it didn’t even work. It didn’t work, and he was crying and screaming like a stupid toddler, and he got his way. If this educated, articulate, white, blonde, American woman can get up there and nobody gives a damn, what hope is there for the rest of us? In one of the later chapters of your book, you wrote about how there’s this constant knot of anger inside you regarding men who rape. I related to that, and many women I know have that feeling regardless of whether they’ve experienced rape themselves. What do you do with this anger? It’s not the dominant emotion in my life. But I think [many women] do have that anger, and whether we have it in regards to rape or something else, we’re doing the same thing that I’m accusing everyone else of doing in the book: using rape as a symbol for something else. It’s like, yes, I am angry that men rape — but what else am I really angry about? That, and the fact that they get more pay, plus all those other privileges? Rape is just one very easy piece; maybe the most dramatic piece. I don’t know what one does with the anger. Everyone has their own way [of handling it], but I don’t find that anger paralyzes me. It fueled me writing this book. I am also surrounded by fantastic men. So I cling to the notion that rape is a choice they make, and that they can learn not to make that choice. The anger can definitely get tangled up with so many other issues, like Donald Trump’s election — ‘why are these men in power?’ And why are we surprised that Kavanaugh is on the Supreme Court? We’ve heard much worse from Trump, and he’s our president. It’s stunning. Righteous anger is good, but there’s no use getting consumed by it and getting bitter. I was afraid when I sat down to interview people for this book that it would put me into a very dark place, because all the rape survivors I’d talked to before were from years ago when I worked at the rape counseling center [in Boston]. They were all in crisis; that’s why they called. So I imagined I’d go through that again, but the people I talked to for the book are all people who have come through it. It was actually really inspirational to talk to them and see how they survived. Something else you discuss in the book is the idea that rape may not always be about power. What’s your stance on this? Do you think there are instances where rape is not about control, but simply about sex? I believe it might not always be predominantly about power and control. There’s always an element of power there, but I believe that it’s not always the motivation. It’s too simple to say that. We have to think about these oversimplifications. As you were working on the book, did you learn anything surprising that you didn’t know or realize before? There weren’t many blinding revelations. I didn’t actually plan the chapters that much; they grew out of my interviews. The first four people I talked to were all women, and they all had stories of telling people [about their rapes] and having someone really close to them say, ‘What did you expect?’ So that’s when I thought I had to have a chapter called ‘What Did You Expect?’ And then the dentist [chapter]. I told someone I was writing this book and she said, ‘Oh, I know this dentist who works with trauma survivors.’ How long did it take you to finish writing? Six months. But I had four publishers, so every editor had separate comments. Are the four versions slightly different? No, they’re all the same. I really enjoyed the process. I’ve been really lucky. I think if I had written this book ten years ago, I wouldn’t have been as clear about what I wanted. I had this BBC interview last week with a woman in London. And she said, ‘Were you surprised at your father’s reaction [to your rape]?’ And I’d never thought of that before. I said, ‘No. He just acted like my father.’ That’s the other thing with rape, right? Somehow we put all this baggage on it and we expect people to behave differently from how they otherwise would. But people behave true to themselves. If you’re a jerk, you’re going to act like a jerk [when your loved one is raped]. If you really believe that your daughter’s welfare comes above all else, then that’s how you’ll act. Who do you most hope will read your book? I really feel strongly that this book is for everyone. I really, really hope a lot of men read it. Not because it will help them not to rape, but it might help people to think about the dynamics in their lives and how to help people they know to whom this has happened. Of course it’s a feminist book because I’m a feminist, but it’s not a feminist book that is only meant for certain people. I really hope it has a broad readership. And I know it’s weird, but I had a lot of fun writing it, and I hope that comes across.
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