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What We Talk about When We Talk about Rape by Sohaila Abdulali (2018) (read in 2019)

Published by marco on

Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

While this book offered a few interesting insights (mostly in the conclusion), it was rather thin on the ground with information. While there were a few statistics, many of them were either unsubstantiated or cited shaky sources (AlterNet, Jezebel, etc.) These are not bad sources, per se. They sometimes have quality articles, but they just as often have unhinged screeds that you can’t really take seriously. It’s unclear which ones she cited—but some of the “facts” she cited seemed nearly unbelievable (e.g. “In the US, more than ninety percent of people with developmental disabilities are sexually assaulted”).

Unfortunately, throughout the book, she devolves to the “all women are victims and all men are monsters” rhetoric that should be beneath her. She interviews much better than she writes. The book was actually very short and had no central theme or line through it, other than all of the material being more-or-less about rape and its consequences.

Sometimes the switches between chapters was jarring—and often topics that had come up previously were brought back up again later, but without any cohesion. It felt like a scattershot collection of essays and thoughts, with a copious amount of quoted material to fill in what ended up being a short book. The conclusion contained more interesting material, with more cohesiveness and balance, suggesting that the person I’d heard interviewed was the same one who’d written that material.

While I applaud her for writing a book about rape all over the world, she doesn’t properly indicate which country she’s talking about when she makes some of her more incendiary statements. For example, earlier in the book, she writes:

“Sexual predators deserve due process, but they don’t deserve blanket immunity from accusations any more than any other criminals.”

Again with the straw man. Even if a lot of people believe this, do you need to spend so much time debunking it? Might as well prove that 2+2=4.

As well, while this might be the case in people’s minds in some places in the States, it’s not the legal case anywhere.

Boys will be boys is stupid. So is pretending that people aren’t animals who have to be trained to resist biological impulses. Anyone who says they haven’t ever felt a nearly overwhelming biological urge is lying, man or woman. Giving in to it without consent is rape. Controlling it takes training.

Again and again throughout the book she claims that rape is something that happens all the time, but fails to back it up with data from any reliable source. For example, she writes that

“out of every 1,000 rapes,”
  • 310 are reported to the police;
  • 57 lead to an arrest;
  • 11 get referred to the court system;
  • 6 rapists go to jail.

But how do we know that’s abysmal? Are we assuming all 1000 are true? Is she saying that only 0.06% of rapists are punished? As I wrote above, these unsubstantiated “facts” are just presented as if they don’t need any justification, even though the accusation is incredibly monstrous. Abysmal would be false convictions or acquittals of rapists (perversion of justice).

At a few points, she writes that her husband is brilliant, which left me thinking that she should have had him write the book.

After she several times cites that 70-80% of rapes occur in the home or with close relatives, she fills the rest of the book with (possibly apocryphal) stories of rapes outside of the family. They’re almost certainly true (hoping she did her research), but they’re so over-the-top, they can’t represent even the average of the experience for those rapes that do occur outside of the family.

For example,

“Late night/early morning, there was a knock on the passenger window. I looked up and saw that it was my ex. I cracked the door. The next thing I know I’m being dragged out of the car and slammed onto the ground. “There were nine guys. Four I had known. The other five were strangers. One was my best friend’s boyfriend. Some had bats. One had a gun. They kicked me and beat me. They zip-tied me and put me in the trunk. They took me to a basement and took turns raping me.”

Who does this? Madness of the highest order. Who plans this? How do you have nine friends who’ll come along on a gang rape/kidnapping party? I’m not doubting it, but it’s at the absolute extreme end of sexual assault, to say nothing of harassment. Those that call everything rape would throw this in the same category as unwanted hair-sniffing or shoulder-touching? It’s madness, and she offers no guidance.

We’re all trained to just believe everything we hear, but this seems beyond the pale. I know it must happen sometimes, but the story is presented as if this is a risk that faces anyone at any time. Just like the story of Alexa (included in citations below), where she ended up doing tremendous amounts of blow and being passed around her Wall Street–office like a sex toy. This is not a common danger.

To round out the critique with one of the better ideas from the end of the book (even though the grammar is a bit slapdash):

“[…] if someone forces you to have sex, it is rape. The narrative that says: good girls don’t get raped; bad girls can’t get raped. In either case, the nuns’ infamous Boys are off the hook. We’ve created a narrative that says that either it didn’t happen to you, or you deserved it.”

Citations

“Weinstein, a Hollywood mogul, has been accused, arrested and indicted for sexually abusing woman after woman for years.10 His victims stayed mostly silent, or if they spoke out, it was only to their closest people. Then, in October 2017, the story burst wide open with a New York Times article about Weinstein’s predatory behavior, which apparently had been an open secret in Hollywood. Star after star said she had been harassed, or worse, by him. Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Rosanna Arquette, Ashley Judd, Asia Argento, Rose McGowan … the stories were revolting. The response, for the most part, was heartening. Others in the industry lavished support on the women who spoke out. Those who didn’t were a distinct but vocal minority. Words turned out to be more powerful than Harvey Weinstein’s grip on the industry, and certainly more powerful than his dick, which way too many people have seen. Words are the enemy of impunity. They can create real change.”
Page 24

Not indicted. Arrested, but not charged. Perfect example of the exaggerated and quasi-mendacious style.

“In the US, more than ninety percent of people with developmental disabilities are sexually assaulted.”
Page 38

Thats nearly all. No footnote.

“So what? So what if she was the initiator? If she was drunk, or she changed her mind after they were in the room, or she changed her mind after they were both naked and the condom was already on—if she changed her mind at any point, and he didn’t listen, that was the point at which she stopped consenting. There’s no guaranteed ticket to the end of the line.”
Page 48

This runs counter to her prior citation about eliminating the myth of woman as submitter and man as aggressor.

“It’s complicated to look at women’s agency in a system of abuse, but we must.”
Page 48

Why is that? Because it contradicts your all-women-are-victims narrative.

“So often we tend to talk about the victims and the ways they went along with, or took advantage of, or kept suspiciously quiet about, rape. They didn’t leap up and stab the man and go running out clutching their clothes to their outraged bosoms, therefore they consented.”
Page 49

That’s different from men using rape as gatekeepers to power. It shouldn’t happen either, but these acts are more avoidable. Report and suffer the non-rape consequences. Torch a potential career.

It wasn’t consensual sex, but it was a deal. Avoidable by not taking the deal. Shitty that she’s blocked from pursuing dreams, yes, but more avoidable and in a different class than assault on a street or in the home or by family.

“The case was dismissed. The judge said they were normal men, and therefore they couldn’t be criminals. Audrey had been sexually active before that night, therefore she hadn’t been raped. A friend to whom she explained this reasoning was as flabbergasted by it as I hope you are, dear reader. She”
Page 52

I don’t believe this is so simple as she makes it out to be. In the US?

Maybe. It’s very difficult to eliminate this mindset. But her example seems quite extreme.

“Sexual predators deserve due process, but they don’t deserve blanket immunity from accusations any more than any other criminals.”
Page 61

Again with the straw man. Even if a lot of people believe this, do you need to spend so much time debunking it? Might as well prove that 2+2=4

Boys will be boys is stupid. So is pretending that people aren’t animals who have to be trained to resist biological impulses. Anyone who says they haven’t ever felt a nearly overwhelming biological urge is lying, man or woman. Giving in to it without consent is rape. Controlling it takes training.

“All of us men are guilty in some way or the other for these atrocities and crimes against our dear women.”
Page 77
“As a man, I apologize for what those evil men did. All of us men are guilty in some way or the other for these atrocities and crimes against our dear women. I hope”
Page 77

Strongly disagree.

“It’s no wonder the conviction rate in American rape trials is abysmal. Consider this: out of every 1,000 rapes,

“”

  • 310 are reported to the police;
  • 57 lead to an arrest;
  • 11 get referred to the court system;
  • 6 rapists go to jail.
Page 79

How do we know that’s abysmal? Are we assuming all 1000 are true? Abysmal would be false convictions or acquittals of rapists (perversion of justice).

“In the US, thousands of rape kits (the packets of forensic evidence containing semen, hairs, fibres, etc. collected from victims) are gathering dust awaiting testing while rapists go free.”
Page 82

Ugh.

“The official version matters. Sticks and stones may break my bones, and words too will always hurt me.”
Page 82

Always?

“Someone needs to tell Ted that you don’t annoy girls to show them you like them. When Ted goes to college and has an unrequited crush, how’s he going to show it? Ask for a movie date? Or break into the woman’s room and rape her?”
Page 84

Knock it off, Ted. Ted the third-grader is obviously already a fully formed rapist-in-waiting.

“One of my smarter moves was marrying this man.”
Page 128

You should have had him write this book, I think. This is less a book and more a collection of loose notes and unsubstantiated Live Journal–links on a topic.

“Reading these accounts reminds me why it is dangerous when we say that rape has nothing to do with sex.”
Page 139

This is a good point, but could have been made without the possibly entirely apocryphal stroke story from reddit.

“I’m just pointing out that it makes perfect sense to me when I see photographs of famous women smiling and hugging men whom they later point out as rapists. The fact that you have confused feelings about the person who hurt you doesn’t make you guilty. It makes you human.”
Page 149
“Alexa is a Puerto Rican New Yorker.”
Page 151

This lady’s story just keeps piling it on. Possibly true, but an absolute disaster of a person. Everything just “happened” to her. No agency.

“Imagine what would be unleashed if so many people didn’t have to waste so much time dealing with flashbacks, secret-keeping, suicidal thoughts, low self-esteem, crippling fear of … everything, and on down the dreary list. Imagine the fantastic, the amazing, the mind-boggling things so many rape survivors could do, say, create or be if they didn’t have to waste time being traumatized and stymied and made small.”
Page 161
“LIFE, UNLIKE GOLF, doesn’t allow for handicaps when you go out to play. You come yowling out into the world into a random set of circumstances, and they mark you forever, for better or worse.”
Page 162
““Late night/early morning, there was a knock on the passenger window. I looked up and saw that it was my ex. I cracked the door. The next thing I know I’m being dragged out of the car and slammed onto the ground. “There were nine guys. Four I had known. The other five were strangers. One was my best friend’s boyfriend. Some had bats. One had a gun. They kicked me and beat me. They zip-tied me and put me in the trunk. They took me to a basement and took turns raping me.”
Page 163

Who does this? madness of the highest order. Who plans this? How do you have nine friends who’ll come along on a gang rape/kidnapping party?

We’re all trained to just believe everything we hear, but this seems beyond the pale. I know it must happen sometimes, but the story is presented as if this is a risk that faces anyone at any time. Just like the story of Alexa above, where she ended up doing tremendous amounts of blow and being passed around her Wall Street–office like a sex toy. This is not a common danger.

“Almost every one—male, female, trans, gender-fluid, gay, straight, bi—had multiple stories of rape. Gang-raped by eleven of his lover’s friends on a hotel terrace; set upon by more than a dozen of her brother’s political rivals in a forest; raped by policemen as the price of staying out of prison and earning money for her children …”
Page 186

India sounds utterly loathsome. Are there similar undercurrents in America? Switzerland?

I just heard a story yesterday about a school class of a good friend’s son in Switzerland. There were boys in his class who were shouting down the teacher, telling her that women’s rights aren’t relevant and to stop teaching such crap. They were fourteen years old. They’ve been removed from the school because they’re too unruly, reprobate and likely irredeemable. I wouldn’t know where to begin undoing that boy’s mindset.

“Sangeeta is a second-generation sex worker. She would have liked to do something else, but she couldn’t finish school because of the abuse she got for being a sex worker’s daughter. Her teacher threatened to burn her alive, and she left school and became a sex worker at twelve. She lives with her children and sister. She talked about feeling safe working out of her upstairs room, rather than visiting clients. “If a client calls me somewhere else, and suddenly four or five men appear, that’s rape.”
Page 189

Every word is horrifying.

“if someone forces you to have sex, it is rape. The narrative that says: good girls don’t get raped; bad girls can’t get raped. In either case, the nuns’ infamous Boys are off the hook. We’ve created a narrative that says that either it didn’t happen to you, or you deserved it.”
Page 192
“It’s time to throw one idiotic notion overboard—the notion that men can’t stop, that there’s a point of no return once you’re sexually aroused. We keep talking about women’s agency, but men have agency too. Guys, tell me this: if you were in the middle of hot sex and really, really into it, and your grandmother walked into the room and peered at you over her glasses, would you stop, or would you keep going?”
Page 200
“Why they do it is interesting, but after a point I’m more interested in moving along from this unevolved state of human interaction. I don’t want to care about rapists’ motivations. They should just stop. Whether it’s wired in or because their daddy didn’t play with them or they’re just jerks or they’re sexually frustrated or they do it because they can or they do it because they can’t not do it or they’re normal or they’re abnormal, who cares? They should just stop what one superior babysitter once called this “third-class behavior.” Unfortunately we do have to spend time trying to understand, if we’re going to stop it. So yeah, we can’t talk about rape without talking about why men rape.”
Page 201
“It’s hard to believe in people’s innate humanity when you can go to a local shop in India and buy a rape video for a hundred rupees. That’s a real rape video, by the way, not a simulation. In North India, it’s sometimes euphemistically called a “local video” or a “WhatsApp sex video.”107 You can go to a small general store and buy one for a pittance. Men rape women, film their actions, and then sell the videos. I’d like to say that I have faith in human nature. Human nature is kindness and large-heartedness, compassion and respect. But human nature is also vile and cruel, selfish and entitled.”
Page 208