"Rape has a history. Histories, actually. One of the patterns of a more local history can be seen and felt in the ways some instances of rape have the effect of mobilizing, even galvanizing people in ways that other acts of violence do not. I am not just speaking of feminists. If my dashboard is any indication, folks in my orbit have expended exponentially more outrage on the recent Julian Assange rape case, and the left’s response to it, than, for example, the human rights abuses that have spurred the prisoner-organized and coordinated strike that’s been going on in Georgia.
“If we get rid of prisons,” they’ll say, “what are we going to do with all the rapists and murderers?” When I hear this, I think that feminist descriptions of rape culture have actually not accounted for the ways in which the idea of rape—is tied up not only with a culture that punishes women for attempting to tell the truth, but with a culture that punishes, full stop. That punishes populations that include women, but also include people who are gendered differently. I think about how much we rely on the law, and ultimately, on the penal system, to define what it means to be safe. To the extent that we experience the incapacitation of the rapist—the locking of those convicted of rape—as if it were justice, overlooking conveniently the persistent evidence that more prisoners do not mean fewer instances of sexual violence.
I think about the idea of prison rape, and how rarely I see this invoked in descriptions of rape culture. I recall the “dropping the soap” joke made by a women’s studies professor in a classroom, and the uncomfortable receding of laughter once it was recognized that I wasn’t participating in it. I think about the degree to which indifference to prison rape is also an essential part of popular culture, and how rarely I hear this in feminist outrage toward rape culture. About how the condition of “prisoner” has an underrecognized resonance with the condition of “woman” to the extent to which becoming a prisoner is, to some extent, not only to become rapeable but to be seen by many as deserving of it. Rape culture tells you that you shoulda thought about that before you committed the crime. Crime as submission, before the fact, to rape culture.
I think about how rarely I see the myth of the black male rapist referenced in discussions of rape culture, and I think, at the same time, about witch hunts. I think about the systematic rape of black women categorized as the master’s use of his property. Rape culture as the protection and promotion of the sancticity of white womanhood—all of which, I suspect, did nothing to decrease the instances of rape against even those women whom it enshrined as ideal.
I wonder if the victims of prison rape are not victim enough for the feminism I see on my dashboard. I wonder if a black body swinging from a tree will be seen as the victim, or victim enough of rape culture for that kind of feminism. I wonder these things because I want to see a movement that doesn’t isolate rape from other kinds of violence, or as a violence experienced by an amorphous and undifferentiated category of “women.” Because, I suppose, I want to be part of a feminism that understands that certain uses of the idea of rape culture can actually strengthen patriarchy, and that being accountable to complicated histories is not to participate in apologism. So I have to wonder if it isn’t more than a coincidence that the feminists I am reading are not organizing in support of the strikers. I have to wonder at the sense of risk I feel in writing that I don’t think that extending the reach of an already problematic criminal justice system is a solution. I question the flinch I feel in saying that I think it lets this state, one so deeply and fundamentally complicit with rape culture, off the hook. I question my reservation in saying that I want to recognize our reliance on this very state to protect some of us from violence and to enact justice as a tragedy. In saying that I think that rape culture is actually part of a culture that relies on incarceration to solve problems. This really has so little to do with Julian Assange."