Exploiting Rape Narratives
Rape stories can be reduced to two types of narrative: the personal and the political. In high school I heard personal stories, began to learn the signs of a survivor, and understood the strength it took to break the silence and share a rape experience. It wasn’t until the first week of college that I encountered rape narratives in a political, public context. My college produced a play where actors read true stories of campus assaults to raise awareness for freshmen. At the time, I perceived this as a positive step. While I had been conscious of sexual assault for years, others had not, and perhaps this was the best way for them to learn.
But what is it that the audience was supposed to be learning? By placing these stories on the stage, a distance is created between the narratives and the audience, automatically putting the survivor in the “other” category. The survivor’s story becomes a performance and, in some sense, entertainment. And this makes me wonder, are stories of exploitation being exploited? In an educational and political setting, sexual assault stories are often used to create fear. If we truly want to educate the audience, wouldn’t a conversation about the legal, cultural, and sociological implication of rape lead to more constructive dialogue about prevention? One can see the use of fear when discussing sexuality in high school sex education. Students are taught about STIs, pregnancy, and emotional distress but are denied any comprehensive discussion about the complexities of human sexuality. This is not education but intimidation.
In my college’s sexual assault performance, a survivor’s story was presented in the theatrical context, which essentially turned the victim from a person into a character who was there for us to compare and contrast ourselves to. Even though each staged narrative ends in more or less the same way, it is the plot that leads to this end that captivates us. And once you see the narrative in terms of plot and character, it becomes difficult to relate to the survivor (unless you have been assaulted yourself). One can leave such a performance believing that if a certain situation is avoided, the possibility of being assaulted will be too, or one can leave feeling terrified and helpless. Rarely do public conversations about sexual assault actually offer steps for constructive action.
[pullquote_right]If we are serious about reducing the rate of sexual assault in this country, there needs to be a broader conversation about the culture of rape.[/pullquote_right]
Now, I don’t think my college had this in mind when it designed the sexual assault performance. One could certainly claim that the ends justified the means—the performance exposed the previously unexposed to sexual assault. Once put in a public context, though, rape stories are mostly situational and rarely societal. The majority of the prevention programs that I have been exposed to give tips like “be aware of your surroundings,” “always have a buddy,” and “constantly watch your drink.” But, if we are truly serious about reducing the rate of sexual assault in this country, with someone being sexually every two minutes, there needs to be a broader conversation about the culture of rape.
Since this prevention programs are often set within a public/political context, why not talk about politics? After experiencing the trauma of an assault, a victim has to answer invasive questions about her personal life. Nearly two-thirds of survivors knew their rapist, and, sadly, this often undercuts a victim’s credibility. Most of these cases do not even make it to trial because survivors often feel uncomfortable reporting an assault to an officer. And the result? 97% of rapists will never spend a day in jail.
While stories of sexual assault can be spoken through a microphone at college orientation, most survivors still have difficulty confiding in family and friends. Survivors often blame themselves. The problem is that by showcasing sexual assault stories as the only means of prevention, we compartmentalize these situations. Instead of identifying a wider societal problem, we are tempted to write off these narratives as “unfortunate situations,” often implying that they could have been prevented had the survivor not been wearing a certain outfit or gone to a certain club. Thus it remains a personal problem instead of turning into a political one. And it doesn’t help that TV shows, movies, and songs often celebrate achieving sex through deceit or drunkenness (e.g. Superbad) instead of acknowledging the importance of consent.
By ignoring the political/societal aspect of sexual assault, we are grasping at the stem but not the root of the problem. We need to begin with education and open conversation. There are evidence-based educational programs that should be nationally adopted into our sex education programs. Youth groups should incorporate conversations about consent. Law makers should establish reporting routes that are more comfortable for a survivor. We should stop teaching through fear and open up dialogue.