1. in which we have a rape culture
I stood there examining my body beneath the stream of water and decided, I don’t want my body anymore. I was terrified of it, I didn’t know what had been in it, if it had been contaminated, who had touched it. I wanted to take off my body like a jacket and leave it at the hospital with everything else. On that morning, all that I was told was that I had been found behind a dumpster, potentially penetrated by a stranger, and that I should get retested for HIV because results don’t always show up immediately. But for now, I should go home and get back to my normal life. Imagine stepping back into the world with only that information.
The Critic taught theatre theory at the Victorian College of the Arts. There were two main things she taught. The first was that there is no ‘us’ to us: no kernel of truth. Everything we are is the result of a long process of styling our bodies and our minds, a training, in order to represent our category of human. Man. Woman. Poor. Rich. Important. Immigrant. Fuckable. Good. Judith Butler said: “One is not simply a body, but, in some very key sense, one does one’s body.”[[MORE]]
And Erving Goffman said:
Society is organised on the principle that any individual who possesses certain social characteristics has a moral right to expect that others will value and treat him in a correspondingly appropriate way… and that an individual who implicitly or explicitly signifies that he has certain social characteristics ought to have this claim honoured by others and ought in fact to be what he claims he is.
The class discussed that heartbreaking paragraph for hours, trying to understand what it meant if society was a long con. If we all wore our roles, and if your role held little prestige—say, if you were queer or poor or an immigrant or a woman, or perhaps all four—maybe your best bet was to try to pass as something else. Elocution classes. Looking heterosexual. Faking until you make it. To fight structurally—to try to bestow respect on a disrespected category—was more than a single individual could do. The second thing she taught them was that language could change the world, because naming things brought them into existence.
That month, an unconscious woman was raped at Stanford. It was surmised that the case only made it to trial because there had been two male witnesses. The rapist’s father wrote a plea for his release, saying that his son was “paying a high price for twenty minutes of action.” But the victim wrote a long statement, too, where she described the year that followed her rape: finding out the details of what happened in the newspapers; wanting to protect her family; outbursts of rage; panic attacks; having to sleep with the light on. “My life was put on hold for over a year, my structure had collapsed.” The rapist was sentenced to six months in prison, less than the minimum required, because, according to the judge, a longer sentence would have “a severe impact on him.”
No one talked about this stuff when the Critic was raped, at twenty-four. One pretended it never happened, because it was shameful to have been raped. To be raped meant that you had let your guard down, you had low self-esteem, and now you were hurt and damaged. Hurt and damaged people deserved no respect. Only those who were strong got respect. Australia gives no time of day to the weak. If one wasn’t strong, one had to learn to pass. And to be rapeable, strangely but assuredly, demonstrated that you belonged to a weak group, not worthy of respect: woman, queer, all of the above.
A sea change came around 2013: women started to write about rape. Jessica Valenti raged about it, Rebecca Solnit analysed it, Amy Schumer made jokes about it, and Melbourne theatre critic Alison Croggon, whom they all knew, wrote a harrowing essay in Overland in which she said, among other things: “It took me a long time to work out that I had agency in relation to men.” As they spoke, more and louder, it turned out that rape was frightfully common—that the question to ask your female friends was not whether, but how.
And with that long letter, written by an anonymous woman in 2016, it was as if a precarious point finally tipped. It was the first time that the culture at large heard, and listened to, the emotional truth of a raped person. With every read, share, and comment, it shone dignity on what had been shame. That is how language makes the world.
Jana Perković is a theatre nerd. Her writings on theatre and dance appear in The Guardian, RealTime, The Conversation and on guerrillasemiotics.com.