Review of Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture by Roxane Gay
Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture
by Roxane Gay
With the news coming out of the United States about abortion bans and lawmakers who actually use phrases like “consensual rape,” this seemed like the right time to read Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture. Also, I was going on a library run and it was available. Roxane Gay collects 30 essays about rape or rape culture, some previously published and others newly written for this book. This is a serious book, sure, about a serious matter—but it’s such an important read.
It’s also really important to note that these 30 stories are all extremely diverse in the telling. Everyone’s experiences are different and affect them in different ways. If it does anything, Not That Bad hopefully shatters the stereotype that there is “one way” for a rape victim to act, appear, or share their story. There is a way for each person who speaks up—or, as Zoë Medeiros says, refuses to share because the story belongs to her and no one else.
Who gets a voice? is an ever-present theme running throughout this collection. Gay offers space in which victims can speak up. Yet one of rape culture’s most pernicious attributes is how it punishes victims both for speaking and not speaking. I’m not going to get into that here (read the book), but it weighed on me as I read these essays, the idea that, in the end, these people can’t win. There is no way to perform perfectly as “the victim” and not somehow be blamed, shamed, or otherwise marginalized if you tell people about your experience.
But all the voices in this collection are just so interesting in terms of what they have to say. There is not a single essay in this collection that didn’t make my heart hurt in some way. All of these vital, significant human beings whose lives were infected with this kind of experience … it’s staggering, when you really think about it. It shouldn’t be allowed—yet time and again, the authors of these essays speak of friends, teachers, counselors, members of communities, who all urged them to stop talking about it. To forget about it. To feel bad for “leading him on.”
Which is why that subtitle, Dispatches from Rape Culture, is important. There are stories in here of women (and men) sharing their stories of being raped, etc., including details. But there are also stories that are not about a rape itself but instead the way our society enables rape and blames the victims for being raped—and this is rape culture. In a way, it was these stories that often made me think more deeply about my own involvement in rape culture.
I’m a white man, so I have a lot of privilege in our society. I do not worry about walking alone at night, for instance. I don’t ever wonder if the shorts I’m wearing mean that I’m “showing too much leg” and therefore “asking for it.” (The answers, by the way, are, “Yes, but who cares?” and “Um, no thanks….”) As many of the essays in this collection touch on, either directly or indirectly, I can show anger and not be perceived as “shrill” or overly-emotional—indeed, anger from me is considered “macho” (can you feel me rolling my eyes right now?) while any other emotion probably means I’ve been replaced by a pod person. In other words, I benefit from patriarchy and rape culture, but that doesn’t mean I think it’s a good thing, or that this is ultimately good for me.
I think a lot about whether I’m being creepy. When I’m interacting with people (of any gender, not just women, mind you) I wonder if what I’m saying is coming across the right way. Part of that is being aware of my status as a man. Part of it also comes with being asexual—I don’t actually understand what flirting looks or feels like, for example, so I live in terror that something I’m saying or doing will be misinterpreted as a come-on when in fact I really just want to offer someone tea. And while not being sexually active means I don’t, at least, worry about misinterpreting signals of consent, that by no means absolves me of such responsibilities. Not having sex doesn’t let you opt out of rape culture. I still hear have a responsibility to push back against “locker room talk” or similar comments.
Reading this book was hard, for sure. I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who have actually experienced rape, sexual assault, or abuse to read this book—well done if you did. Honestly, though, I really hope that more men read this book. This is, unfortunately, yet another pernicious facet of rape culture: constantly forcing victims to relive and retell their trauma in order to persuade others their humanity is valid. But as long as these people have shared their stories, we should listen. We should hear. We should believe them. And then we should have a good long think, as I articulated above, about our own position in this culture.
Because it extends far beyond how any one person treats women. It’s about the assumptions we hold in our heads and our hearts about women and girls as well. It’s about heteronormativity—assuming straightness—and amatonormativity—assuming everyone wants to hook up in a single, monogamous, long-lasting relationship. It’s about judging people for wearing too much or too little, for acting too slutty or too prudish, for talking too loudly or not enough, for making out with everyone or no one at all, for being gay but sleeping with people of a different gender, for doing anything that goes against the fragile norms we’ve created to put all of us into boxes.
It’s Pride Month right now, and I hope all of us who don’t identify as both straight and cis are indeed proud that we manage to exist in a society that is stacked against us. But I also hope all of us think and actively work towards changing that society, that all of us use whatever privilege we happen to have in the most productive way possible.
No one deserves to have their autonomy taken away, their choices ignored, their right to consent revoked by strength or ignorance. No one deserves to live with the pain or trauma that follows rape. Not That Bad reverberates with the voices of people who, having experienced rape or rape culture, are shaped by this experience far beyond the event itself. This is something we should all be working to eliminate. And it starts with what we do, with what we say, and with the actions of others—friends and family, coworkers and politicians and celebrities—that we tacitly endorse, when we don’t speak up.
Brock Turner got 6 months in prison for raping someone.
Rosa Maria Ortega got 8 years in prison for voter fraud because she was confused about the difference between being a US citizen and a resident.
One of those two people wilfully harmed another human being and probably hasn’t learned their lesson. But sure, go on and tell me rape culture isn’t a thing.