I’m not sure why I started reading about Rehtaeh Parsons. The briefest summary of her life and death (at age 17) leaves you in little doubt that the more you read, the angrier you’ll get. That’s assuming you care about girls being sexually assaulted, photographed and then bullied by their peers until they kill themselves. Of course, Parsons’ assault remains alleged rather than proven. The same is true for the rape of Audrie Pott. Pott committed suicide at age 15 after photos of her alleged assault went viral around her school. According to reports, Potts was unconscious during the attack and awoke to find messages of “X was here” written on her body. There was more than one assailant, many more who saw the photographs.
How strange, these little pockets of society where suddenly the idea that rape is acceptable – a spectacle for the amusement of others – bubbles up from deep underground. How strange, given that we usually disapprove of rape. Sure, we argue about it – about what causes it, about how it can be proven, about whether some rapes are “worse” than others – but not about whether it is A Bad Thing. Even George Galloway won’t stoop to that. All the same, I’m starting to wish that he would.
I look at cases such as Rehtaeh Parsons’, Audrie Pott’s and that of the Steubenville survivor and I start to wonder whether rape is genuinely despised or even disapproved of by those who are not victims. It’s all very context-specific; you might say you hate rapists, but it’s just one of those things you say and don’t mean. After all, everyone else says it, too. It clears the air. “We’re all non-rapists here!” It says a lot about what we want people to think of us, precious little about what anyone thinks about rape.
Unless a woman is gang-raped in a war zone or literally assaulted to death with a sharp implement, I suspect many people aren’t all that bothered. They might say it’s an odious or abhorrent crime but that’s because they’re meant to (especially when they’re all set to follow such adjectives with a “but …”). But what if, for once, we all spoke the truth? If you think rape is no big deal, at least say so. At least defend your position (it might become more unnerving once you hear the words out loud). You might think you’re doing people a favour by obeying “rape discussion etiquette” – saving them all that upset which, deep down, you consider to be self-inflicted – but in truth you’re taking away their right to reply. You take their pain and repackage it – “there, see, all acknowledged and done with!” – and leave them to carry on as though the world cares, all the while knowing it doesn’t.
I simply don’t believe that young people can share photos of girls being assaulted – girls they know, and girls whom they go on to judge – without this forming part of a broader cultural context in which people don’t just say “rape is a grey area” or “some women deserve to be raped” or all the other rape culture crap we’re used to. What’s also there, and what’s really chilling, is the belief that yes, rape happens and it happens a lot, but it just isn’t that bad. This invasion of another person is essentially a bit of a joke. “She is so raped” as one of the Steubenville bystanders said. People know what rape is – they just don’t care. It is not accidental, not something that gets out of hand, not something committed by a vicious few. It is linked to social approval. The point about Steubenville wasn’t just that so many people attempted to cover it up but that there was so much that needed covering once questions were asked.
I wonder what would happen if, instead of getting embroiled in debates about “insertions” and “serious rape”, some of our politicians just stood up and said “unless you’re about to be killed I’m not that interested?” Because I honestly think that’s what some of them believe and what many young people start to understand. So blame is internalised (an attempt at self-protection, perhaps) while the trivialisation of rape – its elevation to extreme sports status – grows. Meanwhile, rape victims are left justifying and re-justifying their right to feel appalled at the lack of humanity shown by others, including those who get in all their “I’m not a rape apologist but -” excuses early. I don’t think this can work, plus there’s more than a little colonial smugness to the idea that the UK and US are countries in which rape is no longer viewed as simply acceptable. This is no more the true than the suggestion that we live in “post-feminist” societies. We’re lying to ourselves. It might now be the done thing – it certainly keeps an odd sort of peace – but I worry that our simulated horror is becoming more dangerous than hurtful but honest indifference.