The continuum of rape

Eve Ensler’s article in the HuffPo about rape isn’t perfect, firstly because the phrase “I’m over rape” sort of implies that hearing about it no longer evokes any emotional reaction from me.

Would that that were the case.

But while the article has a couple of small flaws, it’s pretty much on the money.

I am sick to death of rape. Sick of the excuses made for it by its perpetrators. Sick of men who think talking about sex isn’t part of sex, isn’t sexy, destroys the mood. Sick to the back teeth of all the “good” men who blunder blindly through life completely unaware of what the other half of the population are going through, never picking up other men who make sexist comments or jokes about rape, never jumping on the heads of the wankers in the CIF / HYS / comments sections who think it’s ok to accuse a woman of being partially responsible for her own rape, or who compare rape to property theft, or who talk in wounded tones about how often women lie about being raped (for the record, false accusations of rape in the UK are more rare than false accusations of car theft). Never understanding that rape is part of a continuum of abuse that women are subject to, and is indivisible from the rest of that continuum.

Where Ensler’s article isn’t on the money from my point of view is the idea that rape devastates a woman’s life. This idea has existed since time immemorial: that a raped woman spends the rest of her days rocking in a corner somewhere. That isn’t true. Saying that it isn’t true gets women into trouble, because the response you get (from men who hate women, and from women who hate women) when you point this out is: “Oh well, what happened to her wasn’t all that big a deal then, was it?” And before you know it, you’re back to rape being referred to as “just surprise sex”.

Yes, it is that big a deal. Usually the person who’s just raped you was someone you trusted, maybe even loved, and that’s how they ended up in a situation where they were alone with you, and where they felt they could rape you without you subsequently mentioning it to anyone. But the fact is, most women who’ve experienced this get on with their lives, and the vast majority do it without telling anyone at all what happened to them because they know if they DO tell someone, the ensuing shitstorm will make it even harder for them to pick up their lives and carry on. It takes enormous courage to pick up and carry on. It takes even more to trust a man again. And an unfathomable amount of courage to love a man again. But most women who have been raped manage the first of those three trials, and many manage the others, to varying degrees.

Rape is one of the most obvious stages on a continuum of abuse that women face every day, on the street, online, and in their personal lives.

The least obvious part of that continuum is the simple fact that most things in society are male-centric by default. Company directors or board members are overwhelmingly male. Politicians are overwhelmingly male. People whose words are listened to are overwhelmingly male. Men are there to judge and be listened to. Women are there to be looked at and judged.

Films are almost always about men, and men’s stories. Their main character/s is/are almost always male, from Harry Potter to virtually everyone in the Ides of March. Few films pass the Bechdel Test. Most films about women are about women trying to get married to a man. Most female characters are there because of their relationship to a male character. It’s such a pervasive norm, we don’t even notice it. You almost have to ask someone to hand you a pair of feminist-o-vision specs before you realise that that’s how it is. So women are brought up in a society where they are very used to male protagonists being the “norm”. It’s so much the norm that films about women are largely rejected (or watched with an air of comic or real sufferance) by men. Films about women stand out. They’re niche.

Books are slightly less awful than films – but don’t relax. When I say “slightly” … almost 50% of women are avid readers, compared to 26% of men.


the LRB reviewed 68 books by women and 195 by men in 2010, with men taking up 74% of the attention, and 78% of the reviews written by men. Seventy-five per cent of the books reviewed in the TLS were written by men (1,036 compared to 330) with 72% of its reviewers men.

Mary Ann Sieghard writes:

JK Rowling was told that, if she used her first name, boys wouldn’t buy her books. And they certainly wouldn’t have read Harriet Potter. When my young daughter wrote to the author of The Dark is Rising series, Susan Cooper, to ask why her hero couldn’t for once be a heroine, the reply came that she would lose half her readers.

This unthinking sexism lasts into adulthood. Women, by and large, are as happy to read books by men as by other women

(I don’t think that last statement is quite right[1]. Or rather, I think most women are happy to read novels by other women. But when they want to be seen to have read something serious, women also often turn to the male voice. This isn’t because women don’t write serious stuff. It’s because society’s default assumption is that an authoritative voice is a male voice.)

The important things are always by, about, or for men. If something is by, about or for women it is de facto regarded as lacking in substance, or relegated to being special interest.

We can turn for examples of this to television aimed at women (“Loose Women”. I can’t actually think of any other television programme that is aimed specifically at women, but I can guarantee you that you won’t be able to think of a serious programme that is mostly aimed at or hosted by women); to the fact that there is little coverage of women’s sport, or to the fact that women have their own sections in most newspapers – so the little ladies have a place to compare their humps and swap lipstick stories, but there is little discussion of the concrete evidence of how they are being screwed over by society; little outrage about the fact that they can expect poverty in old age if they do not ally themselves financially with a man; and the odd quiet moan escapes them about the fact that cuts to services are being disproportionately aimed at women – yet still women’s pages belong in “Life and Style”, not in “Politics”.

So women’s voices are already socially undervalued even before they’re actively devalued. Let’s move on to that.

Next on the rape continuum is the abuse every woman is subject to online and on the streets, and which has been written about in unprecedented detail this week, starting with Helen Lewis Hasteley in the New Statesman, then by Laurie Penny (Inde), Suzanne Moore in the Guardian, and others. When a woman speaks up about anything, woe betide her, because the feeding frenzy will commence shortly afterwards, and these women know it. All women who blog online know it, because we’ve all had it in one form or another. When a woman speaks up there will be an attempt to silence her. Those attempts include – but are not limited to – threats of rape and graphic sexual insults. The implication in the abusive messages is often that if the woman doesn’t withdraw what she said, things may escalate to physical – usually specifically sexual – violence.

Over recent months Facebook has refused to take down pages promoting rape. Promoting rape. It has since climbed down about some of them but I have looked, and I can tell you there are hundreds of the bloody things. Maybe thousands. I got tired after clicking the “more” button a couple of hundred times. So it’s OK to start a public page saying what larks it is, raping women. And it’s considered socially OK to participate in one of those pages. Sure, it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. Sure, a lot of men and women might de-friend or unsub from someone if they spotted that they were participating in something like that. But a lot wouldn’t. It’s considered unremarkable (or not worth the bother of remarking on) by a lot more people than you’d imagine, and part of the reason for that is that rapists and pro-rape men vigorously and often abusively defend the social validity of rape and rape culture.

Non-rapist men express surprise at this (I’ve never heard a woman express surprise at it, because we run into this all the time). But then, if one in four women is raped or sexually assaulted in this country, one must draw the conclusion that there are a lot of real life has-actually-done-it rapists out there. Men who will get close to a woman because they know if they do that, they can rape her. Men who know the odds of a woman who has been raped in her home reporting it are vanishingly small, because it’s her word against his, and we all know how that pans out. Men who zip up and walk off afterwards, and might crack a risqué joke in the pub about rape, or laugh about how they’ve found this funnneeee page on Facebook, and when you laugh, they think “you see? What I did was just funny. Every bloke secretly does it.”

When the subject of rape comes up, if men participate in the discussion they almost always participate in one of two ways (there are exceptions and god bless them for it). Either they’re the aggressive one, telling you that women lie about being raped, or are responsible for being raped by leaving their house, looking like women, having a drink or otherwise attempting to participate in society in a normal and free way.

Or men make a wounded, blustering noise about how most men are good. How they don’t see that much misogynistic abuse online, and aren’t the womenfolk making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill? Aren’t they over-reacting? Aren’t they being a bit too sensitive?

These men don’t see rape pages on Facebook. They don’t tell rape jokes. And on this basis, most men are supposed to be good.

But I don’t think you’re a good man if you fail to notice how few women comedians there are, how few women board members, how few books have women as their chief protagonists, how few women present programmes about science on the BBC, how rare it is to see two women characters talking to one another about anything other than the male character in a film, if you scroll past sexist abuse, or if you turn the other cheek quietly when someone tells a rape joke, or if it never occurs to you how few women there are talking about what I’m talking about here, other than on niche blogs or articles hidden in a subsection of “life and style”, on a page that probably has a pink border. I don’t think you’re a good man if you’ve failed to notice the crushing weight of absolutely oppressive misogyny there is out there, in response to anything a woman ever says or writes about being a woman, and often just in response to women being women, quietly, privately.

You know why you don’t see much misogynistic abuse online? It’s most likely because you don’t read articles by women, or about women. And you don’t read those articles because you don’t give a rat’s hairy armpit about women.

Let me lay it out for you in plain English: if you aren’t all over that stuff you are not a good man. I don’t think non-participation in this is ok. You would be less likely to walk past if one of your friends was actually being kicked on the street, but somehow another woman being silenced on the internet, another one going friends-only after a bunch of shitty comments she subsequently deleted, that’s under your radar, and if you DO notice it, well, it’s not your fight, is it? It would just be a load of hassle for nothing, and you’re a man of peace.

It isn’t ok. STEP THE FUCK UP.

Because I do, and an awful lot of women I know do. Every day.

There are so many women out there whose voices and experiences and input to the world are silenced or subdued to a whisper, audible only to the people she feels safe with, by the culture that says that men’s voices and experiences and input are the important ones and that men shouldn’t be interested in women’s experience of life, shouldn’t call another guy an arsehole when he’s being one. You don’t notice these women are silenced for the same reason you don’t have the first idea how many women you know have been raped or sexually assaulted (men IME almost always think they don’t know any women who’ve been raped or sexually assaulted). You assume your women friends talk about whatever they want to, in front of whomever they want to, the same as you do.

But the fact is, women who are prepared to speak out in public about the shitty end of the stick women get are a minority, which is why all the women’s articles about abuse that I’ve linked here are excellent, and you should read them.

[1] John Freeman, editor of Granta Magazine was quoted in the Graun: “While numbers and graphs like this are helpful,” he said, “conspiracy theories are not, because we have to ask a deeper question, which is how gendered are our notions of storytelling? I have been on mostly women-run prize committees which questioned their own feminist bona fides and then voted for the men’s books.”

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5 Responses to The continuum of rape

  1. Johnny says:

    THAT, the conclusion, that you cannot just not say anything, that you can’t NOT jump into people’s faces and tell them what shits they are for boiling human beings down to characters in their own interactive video game and that telling people they’re overreacting because they’re reacting and not being quiet and making your nice day not so nice, that is what the fuck is wrong with a whole hell of a lot of self-important ‘just guys’ who think because they’re not actually holding a woman down with their arms they’re not holding down women by not helping them up. If you’re waiting around for someone to stand in front of you bleeding and crying with their clothes ripped, you’re too late. Change the minds and you change the behaviour that allows boys to grow up thinking girls are theirs in any way, shape or form, and allows them to think it’s not suffering because they don’t see it. UGH. SAY SOMETHING, YOU FUCKS. Why not? Because they’ll tease YOU? But aren’t you overreacting? It’s just a joke, innit?

  2. smileyfish says:

    Thank you. We need people like you. 🙂

  3. Helen says:

    Great article.

    I think it’s also worth mentioning the other end of the continuum, too. I don’t think the sharp end is the sort of rape which most of my friends have experienced; the all-too-common domestic abuse, child abuse, bad dates and selfish betrayals from people you thought were friends. Beyond that, there’s the gender balance of serial killers, sexual murders, and kidnappings. On a grand, global scale, there’s sex slavery and rape as a war crime.

    The continuum model is an excellent one, and I agree with you that the subtle, social end contributes to and is inextricable from acts of violence. But if we’re talking in those terms I think it’s important to also connect the violence which takes place on a larger scale than a single act of rape against one woman; the small scale misogyny is connected to, fuels and normalises that, too.

    • chiller says:


      Yeah, I would totally agree that there’s a wider scale of violence also fed by the lower-case-“m” misogyny. You could start with domestic cases like the Wests and gangs commonly using rape as a weapon, and then look at Ecuador’s and DR Congo’s problems, which are the same things writ larger. (However, I won’t address issues abroad or too far outside my own experience for the simple reason that there are women from those places / from that experience, who are far better equipped to talk about it than I am, and the most respectful thing I can do is listen to what they’re saying).

      One of the problems I had while writing this post was simply that there was so much more to say, and I kept developing thematic tributaries, teeming with examples and new branches of the hundred-and-one-ways-to-demonstrate-hatred-of-women, and I had to keep going back and lopping bits off, and saving ideas for other posts.

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