[Today we are dealing with some very hard topics: rape and child tragedy. Please use caution before reading onwards. Be good to yourself.]
This is part one of a two-part essay and has been edited since its original publication.
Out of the myriad of terrible things that happen in our world, few unnerve and rattle our souls as much as rape. The violation of someone’s body is bad enough, but to do so on the most sensitive and personal areas that many only reserve for those they trust and care for yields a crime so intimate that to even speak its name sends shivers down many spines.
However, the way we talk about rape seems to suggest the opposite. We make jokes; we disregard many survivors’ stories; we flippantly pass over the topic in conversation. But as any person with life experience can tell you that this does not mean that rape does not affect our psyches; it just means that everyone reacts differently to uncomfortable, scary subjects.
A particularly prevalent reaction to hearing the news that someone we know has been violated is to somehow construe the situation in such a way that the person who has been violated is, in some way, responsible for what happened to them. This is typically called victim blaming.
In circles of people who seek gender equality, discussions about the ethics of rape jokes and victim blaming are everywhere. From my understanding, it seems to be the running consensus that if we can get rid of rape jokes and victim blaming, then we will be one step closer to ending rape in society.
This analysis is fundamentally flawed. It arises from a narrow scope: only considering rape that happens to women and ignoring victim blaming that happens in other cases of tragedy.
Rape jokes, and why we can’t forget men
Saying “what about the men?” when talking about that which is largely considered to be a women’s issue is incredibly unpopular. However, in this case, disregarding the rape of men, particularly prison rape, would be irresponsible. We have a culture of ignoring and even condoning prison rape, a problem made all the more serious when people who seek to bring rape into the national conversation as a social issue completely ignore the sexual violence done to prisoners.
Rape jokes with regard to women, though not uncommon, are generally left to social deviants (read: assholes) or circles in which anonymity is protected. This suggests a social taboo of some sort, even if such a taboo is minor. Much more prominent in our society are prison rape jokes (“don’t drop the soap!”) and jokes about rape survivors. Jokes about rape against men are so common that TV Tropes has two separate entries about them.
Prison rape jokes are particularly insidious because wrapped in them is also victim blaming. For women rape survivors, victim blaming usually consists of: “[Insert “immodest” behavior here] is clearly what sluts do, so they shouldn’t have done that, or they wouldn’t have gotten raped.”
For those who are imprisoned, however, not only do we laugh at their expenses, but we do absolutely nothing to prevent their torture. We have no empathy for those who are raped in prison—we laugh cruelly at their expense—because we think they deserve it.
Why do we think they deserve it?
If you ask anyone on the street whether or not they think someone deserves to be raped, most of the time (unless you get someone who is particularly sadistic or who hasn’t fully contemplated the severity of rape), they will tell you “no.” We condemn rape as an evil act, and evil actions do not do good, even in “justice.” So, why is it that so many people are quick to condone rape of prisoners? Or, for that matter, rape of women?
Cue “Emily” from XOJane. I was sucked into an article wherein she recounts screaming at her therapist for noticing her short skirt and found myself on the stunningly beautiful article about why she discusses her rape. She says:
“We want it to happen to drunk girls or slutty girls or girls who were somewhere they shouldn’t be because the alternative is that it can happen to any girl. That it could happen to us.”
And here we revisit the core thrust of this article: Blaming the victim isn’t about thinking that the person who has been raped is at fault. Blaming the victim—both in the case of the rape of prisoners and the rape of women—is about sorting the victims into a different group of people such that you can say to yourself “rape happens to those people, not to me.” We can go about our lives pretending that the world is orderly and that as long as we follow the rules, we’ll be safe.
*I find it difficult to post appropriate visualizations for an article about rape, but the article is long so it needed to be broken up. I like dragons; so we get dragons.