Just Listen: What can we do about our attitudes towards rape?

I’ve just started reading Just Listen by Sarah Dessen. I was introduced to her work fairly recently by a friend and this is the second book of hers I have read, the first being her excellent Lock and Key.

Pretty early on in Just Listen it is clear that the protagonist is carefully not telling us that she has been raped. She’s not telling anyone else either, not even herself. Dessen is a master of the first person narrative, her protagonists are articulate, loveable and untrustworthy. They will lie to us, but it will be lies of omission rather than fact.
Annabel perhaps isn’t aware that what happened to her was rape, we the reader can be pretty damn sure it was before the reveal of what happened. After all, vomiting is not the usual response to seeing or talking to a man you have slept with.
It is also clear that Annabel is being slut-shamed by her peers and one-time friends. So clearly it is widely known that something happened ‘that night’ as Annabel calls it.
Dessen, like many writers of YA is keen to explore the issues that teens are coming up against in their lives and rape and slut-shaming are all too common.

Which brings me to real-life. I recently decided to stop following the excellent Jezebel on Twitter along with a couple of others as my dreams were increasingly full of rage and traumatic images and I felt sure that my evening reading choices were at fault. In the run-up to the 2012 election American politicians seemed keen to reveal their opinions on rape. In particular, where they affected their opinions on abortion. Since Christmas the BBC has been reporting the terrible case of a young Indian woman who was abducted along with a male companion, gang-raped by the six men who took her and then beaten with iron bars. She was lured onto a bus and the men who took her were not concerned that she wasn’t alone. What could two unprepared people do to fight off six who are following a plan? After over an hour of torment they were thrown back out onto the streets and the driver of the bus attempted to run her over. Her friend saved her life, but only temporarily, by pulling her out of the way. After being flown out of the country and undergoing intensive surgeries including the removal of her intestines, she died.
There has been an outpouring of grief in India, but also of rage. This is far from being an isolated incident.

I have decided this morning that I am fighting not just a losing battle in trying to avoid such horror stories, but also the wrong battle. I must not hide away from such horror, I must, we must, bear witness.

We must read fiction about difficult subjects, we must listen to victims we read about online and hear about in the news. But maybe we shouldn’t just listen. We need to stop and examine our own attitudes towards victims. All to often I come across discussions where the preventative methods circumscribe the victims. Women should drink less, wear more clothing, must always take taxis home, shouldn’t accept the company of strangers. Very rarely do we examine the perpetrators choices or actions in such ways. We assume we know the perpatrator, he is a man who has taken advantage of a woman, because he feels sexual desire for her, or he is some sick man who needs to be chemically castrated, as if that will prevent him from finding ways to hurt women.

Whenever the emphasis placed on men, with campaigns such as Don’t be That Guy there is a fall in rape cases.
As the article suggests this isn’t as simple as a few confused men walking away when they might have had sex, this is rapists of crime coming to see that they might not bet away with it this time, and choosing not to risk their freedom. Because campaigns like this make it clear that society as a whole demands a certain level of behaviour, and will not excuse rape as something committed in ignorance. As this illuminating article shows what often gets dismissed as accident very rarely is.

We must listen to victims of rape, we must listen with our full minds, not with pre-conceived ideas about what rape is or does. Because the evidence shows that when people get away with behaving as Annabel’s rapist does the worst is yet to come.

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