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Writing & Cultural Transformation: A Response to Roxane Gay’s Rumpus Essay

Roxane Gay’s Rumpus article, The Careless Language of Sexual Violence, has been receiving a lot of well-deserved attention. One of the many things I appreciate about Roxane’s piece is her examination of how language, discourse and representations contribute to the creation and perpetuation of “rape culture,” which I understand as the construction of women and women’s bodies as inherently rapeable, of men as inherent rapists, and of rape as an inevitability — as opposed to a set of concrete, historically-specific incidents of violence that result in part from systems of injustice (patriarchy/patriarchies, etc.)  that we all bear some responsibility for dismantling.

Roxane’s post got me thinking about a couple of things that I wanted to follow-up on here.

In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous.

This is the tagline for Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, a series Roxane spends a good amount of time attending to in her examination of how popular culture sensationalizes and profits from representations of sexual violence.

One of the results of decades of feminist activism to address sexual violence has been that the dominant culture more increasingly encourages women to prosecute offenders. The professionalization of anti-violence activism — its transition from an insurgent, frequently survivor-led movement calling for an end to sexual assault, into a whole slew of entrenched, professionalized service provider organizations — ie shelters, rape counseling hotlines, etc. — has had negative as well as positive consequences. These services are vital to survivors. But unfortunately, supportive services, which are a way of helping address the harm rape inflicts on survivors’ lives, are confused with solutions for ending rape. Rather than transforming rape culture, the solution to rape is to prosecute. And because our criminal justice system’s treatment of women who have survived rape and other forms of sexual assault is so effed, many survivors of violence wind up re-traumatized by the process of prosecuting their perpetrators.

The criminal justice system cannot possibly end sexual violence (unless you are seriously invested in the notion of laws as deterrents) because that is not its aim; its aim is to address rape after the fact, not prevent rape. This model assumes men will rape women, and so the responsibility lies with individual women (as opposed to all of us, collectively) to prevent this from happening to them.

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) attempts to garner anti-rape cred through its glorification of the criminal justice system as a “solution” to sexual violence, while also profiting from lurid depictions of rape, assault and murder. Central to SVU’s operational logic is its emphasis on sex crimes as “especially heinous.” It is perhaps true that violence of this nature may have particular effects on the folks who are victimized by and/or survive it (as all forms of violence are particular?), but when people talk about the “very special” (I’m reminded here of Roxane’s analysis of the “very special episode” phenomenon) nature of sex crimes, they generally are not talking about the effect of rape on women’s bodies and psyches. Generally speaking, “especially heinous” has much more to do with our culture’s understanding of women’s sexuality as simultaneously shameful, dangerous and child-like, as something that needs to be alternately controlled or obliterated.

Related to the notion of particular kinds of crimes as “especially heinous” is the notion of sex criminals (a category wherein it should be noted there exists a shit ton of variation) as representing “the worst of the worst.”  A friend/colleague of mine here in Chicago, a fierce prison reform activist named Laurie Jo Reynolds, talks often about how this notion of the “worst of the worst” has been used to perpetuate violence by justifying all manner of abuse of prisoners — be it the death penalty, or the Illinois “supermax” facility Tamms, where prisoners are literally driven mad by longterm solitary confinement  and subjected to numerous human rights violations. Tamms claims to house “the worst of the worst,” but has no concrete and transparent criteria for determining who that category encompasses.

Where rape and other forms of sexual assault are concerned, I believe what “the worst of the worst” accomplishes is to distance the rest of us from feeling any responsibility for preventing and ending sexual violence. If we believe in “the worst of the worst,” then we believe only certain kinds of people are capable of committing rape (whether this manifests as a particular subgroup called “sex offenders” or men in general — I believe both phenomenons are concurrent and not wholly unrelated), that these individuals are somehow almost biologically predisposed to committing rape, that rape is thus inevitable and all we can do is lock these people up. Whereas if we believe that all of us possess the capacity to commit acts of violence, than we can collectively take responsibility for transforming the culture to ensure rape and other forms of sexual violence do not occur.

(I want to make sure I am 100% clear before I go on that nothing I am saying here is new, these are not my own ideas, that I am indebted to numerous feminist writers and activists as well as prison reform/anti-prison industrial complex writers and activists).

In one of my undergraduate Women’s & Gender Studies courses, a course called “Feminist Frameworks” which was intended to introduce us to a number of different feminist schools of thought in preparation for “Feminist Theories,” our professor shared with us several readings on sexual assault by authors representing different theoretical threads within feminist theory and activism. We broke into groups, and each group was assigned one of the articles.  Our task was to identify the author’s framework, then suggest what kinds of activist responses might result from said framework.

My group was assigned a “postmodern feminist” analysis wherein the author (authors? I can’t remember) discussed how the language and discourse surrounding rape and our culture’s construction of men and women’s bodies perpetuates violence. In contrast to our classmates, who were assigned frameworks that lead more organically to policy-oriented solutions, my group struggled with how we should use these “postmodern” theories to generate activism.

I remember suggesting — half-joking, half serious — that we hang signs in every bus and subway saying, “Parts that dangle are more easily removed.” This specific statement was perhaps questionable (I have some discomfort now with its violent connotations), but my general impulse — that one component of cultural change is resignification of bodies — is one I still think has some merit, perhaps especially for writers and other cultural producers.

One of the things I greatly appreciated in Roxane’s essay was her focus on the bodies of victims and survivors, in a really concrete, visceral and tangible way, a way that makes it nearly impossible to ignore that rape is violence, not sex. This focus on the body reminded me of Roxane’s fantastic review of Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water, which in turn reminded me of the many fantastic authors that I count amongst my favorites who have written the body in brilliant, subversive and politically transformative ways — Dodie Bellamy, Rebecca Brown, David Wojnarovicz, Bob Gluck, Kathy Acker. And another thing many of these writers have in common is that they are often writing in a style that while it invokes visceral experiences of the body and subjectivity, also explores broader political and theoretical questions about signification and the stability of identities and subjectivities and desire and violence.

As I think Roxane’s essay calls attention to time and time again, because we are cultural producers, our discipline does have culturally transformative potential.

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