Rape, shame, and women

Where did we get the idea that humiliation doesn’t apply to women? That humiliation is a petty ego thing that only men experience, while women’s reality is more simply that of violence, threats to our physical safety and our psychological well-being? How did we ever get the idea that the act of rape can be described without talking about the violent humiliation of the female victim by putting her to the sexual use of the rapist, simultaneously turning her into property and claiming her to be used and discarded? Why don’t we think about the act as one of humiliation, and the experience as one of humiliation as well as pain and terror?

Before I wrote the above paragraph, I had written two paragraphs, which disappeared from the page, on the patriarchal idea of rape as something a woman ought to be ashamed of. Rape was a crime against her reputation, or the reputation of her family, since she could no longer claim sexual innocence, equating violence with sexual initiation and placing blame on the woman for the fact that this initiation took place outside marriage, marriage being the route by which men legitimated their economic control of women and children through the status of fatherhood. Sexual pleasure could not belong to women, they were supposed to be passive receptacles of a husband’s sperm, and his act of depositing that sperm was declared to be not-rape. Rape carried with it a sense of defilement of the woman as sexual property of her husband, father, or an entire community (thinking of the use of ‘white womanhood’ to justify lynching black men on rape charges of which they were innocent).

In combating the stigma placed on women for ‘having been raped’, we reframed the act rightly as ‘a man raped a woman’ and denounced rape as an act of violence against a female human being for which the male rapist has to be held accountable. Yet criminalization of rape was not enough to either make any credible moves towards stopping it, or to politicize it as a systematic reign of male terror against the female half of the human race. Therapy or ‘rape crisis counseling’ became the response to women’s rage at being treated like a receptacle and made to witness oneself being treated as such by another human being who did this deliberately and used his maleness as weapon and shield, flaunting his power to rape and not be raped (by a woman) in turn as a mark of his superiority and her inferiority.

So I say again, where is our politics of humiliation? I think it went the same way as women’s privacy. Disappeared into … shame. Disappeared into a language that tries so hard to dismantle men’s privacy, men’s claims of humiliation that mean a woman shouted at them, a woman fought back, a woman asked for help in fighting back, that it swallows itself and meets itself coming back again. We swallowed shame together with pride, looking for survival. Safety first. But women’s privacy means something. It starts with our bodies as inviolable – unassailable – as they must be if rape is to be eradicated. I hear derision in my mind at the word ‘inviolable’, as if I am trying to keep us sexually innocent, children. But can we only imagine the female body as inviolable if sexually innocent? (Or, thinking also of the synonym impregnable, vs our capacity for pregnancy – do we really have such trouble differentiating female sexuality from a dissociated accommodation of rape?)

If my body is inviolable, it starts with recognition of my humanity; my body is not separate from myself as a woman – a female human being. A human being of the female sex. Being inviolable means I defend myself, with whatever I have at hand, no apologies. Not my patriarchal reputation or honor, but myself. And I demand that the particular sexed humiliation that is rape, the sexed act of violence that is designed to humiliate women as women, be eradicated. You and who else, I hear. What can I back such a demand up with?

I want our pain to be recognized as something other than a psychological problem requiring healing, other than a trauma. I want it politicized, to bare its teeth. Whatever else it is, if it means that we face the fact daily that we’re living as subjugated human beings until we eradicate this systematic violence that is practiced with impunity, that targets us as its particular and designated victims. We nurture a rage that has a right to boil over and destroy everything that cannot withstand it.

I want that rage to be alive in the world.

Coda: Yes, I know, I’m not the first woman to talk about rape this way, or to nurture the rage. Every time a woman does this she is right, and the world has to change. As a favorite quote of mine by Alice Walker says, only justice can stop a curse.

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