Eve Ensler, Chauncey De Vega and Rape Culture So-called

by Robert Appelbaum

Eve Ensler, Chauncey De Vega and “Rape Culture” So-called

“Rape culture is both a noun and a verb.” Did you get that? It appears in the introductory remarks to an interview with Eve Ensler, the author most famously of The Vagina Monologues, and now of a book called The Apology, an account of her childhood as a victim of sexual and physical abuse.

A noun and a verb? Actually, it is neither; it is a noun phrase. And it certainly cannot be used as a verb. You cannot say, “to rape culture” someone, or “I have been rape-cultured” without twisting the language into untieable knots

Here is more from the same introductory remarks: “because it is a type of ‘culture,’ rape culture is taken for granted as something that is natural.”

Did you get that too? In other words, because it is “culture” the phenomenon in question is the exact opposite of what its name indicates: it is nature.

I am wondering what to say about a work of journalism in a well-respected journal by a well-known journalist where words are allowed to mean the exact opposite of what they mean. In the second remark the author seems to confuse “culture” with “ideology,” which is sometimes taken to mean a form of thought that “naturalizes” social conditions that are in fact very much social and by that token artificial. But the author, Chauncey De Vega, is not interested in the fine points of social analysis. He is interested in bullying his way past difficulty and nuance.

Now I don’t want to be a curmudgeon about this and spoil anybody’s fun, but I don’t think the ills of modern social life – and there are many – can be solved by using language so sloppy that it openly violates the principles of self-contradiction, insinuating that in doing so the language is not only true but also profound, and capable of inciting social change. I don’t think that kind of mental bullying is in any way helpful.

And one may ask, is the author really talking about anything at all? Is there really some such thing as “rape culture,” and has our culture somehow become a natural phenomenon? The discussion De Vega leads with Ensler doesn’t do much to cast light on the subject.

Now Ensler’s book, The Apology, is well-worth reading. It is a moving account, from the point of view of the ghost of her late father, of what he had done to her, and how if at all he can apologize for it. The premise may seem contrived, but it works. We hear from the late father how he began molesting his daughter Eve when she was five years old. He regularly came to her bedside at night and shoved his fingers up her vagina. We hear how, in the face of her growing resistance to his ministrations, he stopped molesting her when she had reached the age of ten and started abusing her in other ways, verbally and physically. We’re talking serious beatings and other forms of cruelty. The psychology of this monster of a man, a highly successful businessman, a pillar of his community and all that, is rendered convincingly. I came away from the book deeply affected, and I came away with even greater admiration for Eve Ensler than I had before. To have suffered what she had suffered – the unthinkable – and then to have succeeded as she succeeded, as a playwright and activist, is truly heroic, although it was as she admits by no means easy. There were periods of drug abuse, alcohol abuse and pathological promiscuity before she managed to make herself whole enough to carry on as a productive human being, in possession of herself.

So read the book, if you don’t mind spending an hour or two with such troubling material. I was reminded of how I felt when I watched Louis Malle’s Murmur of the Heart. But as for a “culture of rape”? As for a culture that is actually nature? I don’t think so.

A strong case for rejecting the notion of a “culture of rape” appears in Why Rape Culture is a Dangerous Myth: From Steubenville to Ched Evans, by Luke Gittos. A strong rebuke of Gittos’s argument appears in “Denying Rape Culture: A Response to Luke Gittos,” by Johanna Stiebert. The question is whether the concept of “rape culture” is pernicious, useful, revolutionary or simply un-useful. Gittos is in the “pernicious” camp, Stiebert in the “revolutionary” camp, and me, I just think it is un-useful, and un-useful because it is incoherent.

The main question would seem to be this: is it a good thing to think of rape as an expression of a “culture”, which in Stiebert’s repeated phrase means a culture “where rape victims are denied a voice, where their testimonies are dismissed as inconsequential, and where non-consensual sex is normalized”? Or might it better to think of rape as an abnormality, a truant behaviour undertaken by those guilty of it in spite of the fact that they know it to be both illegal and wrong? Think of the question by analogy to the question of murder. Is murder undertaken because of a culture where victims don’t matter, evidence is overlooked, and homicide is normalized? Murder happens in spite of taboos and laws against it. (People are perfectly capable of doing things they know to be wrong, to make excuses about their not being wrong in certain cases, or to do bad things because they know them to be wrong.) My proposition is that rape also happens in spite or because of taboos and laws against it. It is known to be wrong, and yet it happens. In other words, and here I agree with Gittos (I don’t agree with his argument about “rape hysteria”), rape is criminal, not normative.

And one can ask, if rape by contrast is “normative,” where do we find, outside of the testimonies and other communications of psychopaths, men extolling rape as a normal thing to do? What father tells his sons to rape their girlfriends, or jab their willies into strangers they come across in an alley, especially if they are passed out drunk? What father tells his sons that rape is manly? And besides, if rape is normal or normative, why don’t more men commit the crime? Gittos cites the evidence according to which 3% to 7% of undergraduate males in Britain commit rape while at university. He asks, then, why 93% or 97% do not commit it? First of all, it could be answered, they know it’s wrong. Secondly, and perhaps more to the point, it could be answered that they don’t do it because they don’t want to. Why would they? Who could assert that an impulse to rape, not to mention dominate, is lurking in every male heart? (There is a frequently quoted study that claims that one in five women will be the victims of sexual assault or attempted sexual assault during the period in college, but that study is deeply flawed.)

But Stiebert at one point tries to take us down the garden path of “intersectionality.” Everything is interconnected. In her interview, Ensler is encouraged to go down that path too. Along with her interviewer Ensler draws a parallel between Donald Trump and her father, both privileged white males. Now, it wouldn’t surprise me if some of the stories about Donald Trump and rape are true. But Trump was going after grown women. Ensler’s father was not a philanderer; he was not, so far as Ensler knew, a sexual felon outside of the home, preying on women above the age of consent. But in the home he was not only a rapist but a perpetrator of incest, injuring for life a five-year-old child. What is the connection between the two? If you say “rape culture,” then you are bullying yourself against the facts of the two cases.

Ensler is a master of analogy. The Vagina Monologues make one analogy after the other to make the case for the dignity of the female body, beginning with the vagina; and as a piece of theatre it works, it makes us think and feel in ways we might not have thought and felt before. Ensler is a courageous and eloquent poet for the oppressed, among whom she can surely count herself. But is she a critical thinker? She is notorious for once having claimed that earthquakes and tsunamis are caused by global warming. In the interview in Salon, De Vega baits her on the subject of Donald Trump:

“Trump’s behaviour and that of other powerful men,” he says, “sends a signal that women are to be submissive. Women do not have agency, freedom or control over their own bodies. Women’s bodily autonomy is to be secondary to male desire and power.”

The clichés are all there. (A query to any women readers out there: has Donald Trump’s behaviour ever encouraged you to be submissive?) But Ensler ups the ante:

“It is not a coincidence that we are now seeing laws asserting the ‘parental rights’ of rapists being passed in places like Alabama. The laws support a worldview and belief system in which men are entitled to do what they want to women’s bodies, to take women’s bodies, to have women’s bodies, to invade women’s bodies with no consequences.”

Alabama in fact has rather punitive laws against rape:

Rape in the first degree is a Class A felony, which is punishable by both imprisonment and the imposition of a fine, in the following manner:

An offender shall be imprisoned for not more than 99 years or less than 10 years.

However, when a firearm or deadly weapon is used or attempted to be used in the commission of the felony, the minimum sentence is 20 years.

Additionally, where the felony consists of a ‘sex offense involving a child,’ the minimum sentence is also 20 years.

An offender is also subject to a judicially-determined fine, in an amount not exceeding $60,000.

Having lived in Alabama once, I suspect that law enforcement is somewhat uneven there, and I would not doubt (although I have no information) that juries can be harsh against victims of sexual assault, or to both culprits and victims if they happen to be black, or that many criminals serve less than their full sentences. One statistic I have uncovered is surprising and troubling: in 2017, a fairly typical year, and the last year for which I have data, 78% of all reported victims of rape were black, but only 46% of all accused of rape were black; 50% were white.

But in any case, back to Ensler: what can she possibly mean by “It is no coincidence that we are now” seeing certain kinds of laws against abortion? No coincidence: so what caused this outbreak of new laws? The obvious answer is politics in Washington D.C., and the stacking of the Supreme Court with conservatives. Another answer is that some people, even in the Alabama legislature, really do believe that a fetus is a person. But can one say that there is “no coincidence” here because Trump is an unrepentant predator and many congressmen in Alabama are hypocritically devout Christians? If there is a “culture of rape” in the United States, it has nothing to do with the outbreak of anti-abortion laws, which are passed into law in an entirely different frame of mind.

And so finally: is there any sense at all in characterizing a society as harbouring a “rape culture”? There is, but only in a limited way. Here is Stiebert, again:

Rape does not occur in a vacuum – it takes place within cultural contexts that allow it to happen in the first place, contexts that invalidate the centrality of consent within healthy sexual relationships, or cast doubt on victims’ testimonies, or treat non-consensual sex as normative. The ways that rape is understood, characterised, depicted, responded to, and addressed in law and the public domain all help to shape the cultural context in which rape occurs; in turn, cultural contexts give meaning to the phenomenon of rape, influencing how it is perceived, portrayed, and received.

What Stiebert says here cannot, I think, be opposed; and it will be helpful for anyone to keep it in mind when trying to analyse rape in any particular time and place. But she is referring to “culture” in the broadest sense, and much of what she says about the cultural contexts of rape could be said about almost anything that human beings do. For example, try this: “The ways that marriage is understood, characterised, depicted, responded to, and addressed in law and the public domain all help to shape the context in which marriage occurs.”

I am not objecting, I hope it is clear, to the cultural study of rape. Nor am I suggesting that there are not communities where rape is more prevalent than others, either because of the way it is reported or because rape is actually committed more frequently, such that something is clearly going on in the minds or perpetrators that is not going on, or not going on so much, in other communities. It is not irrelevant to study why some communities are more rape-prone than others, and to look therefore at their “culture.” But still, there are complications and nuances to attend to. My country of residence, Sweden, has by far the highest rape per capital in all of Europe – but I don’t think that that is because Swedish men are particularly rape prone. Sweden just reports rape differently (ask Julian Assange!) – and partly for reasons that could be ascribed to a kind of “culture.” Another country I have resided in, South Africa, has the highest rate of rape in the world. And that is probably because South Africa both has a lot reporting and really does have a horrendous number of rapes occurring within its borders, for which again a cultural explanation would be helpful.  

But the sloppy thinking that makes rape culture a noun and a verb, that makes culture into nature, that blames earthquakes on global warming, that assimilates Donald Trump and his predatory liaisons to an incestuous, child-beating father, or that thinks there is no coincidence that Alabama is run by opportunistic bigots and that women get raped there (at least for “forcible rape” Alabama scores about average among the states) – that kind of thinking gets us nowhere. 

In one her concluding comments, Stiebert writes: “It is easier to dismiss rape culture if you have white skin, a voice people will listen to, and financial security, plus the sense of privilege and entitlement that often come with these.” Really? Then why is it so hard for her, a white tenured professor, not to dismiss it? And in any case, Stiebert is deliberately fudging her categories. There is a difference between saying that the concept of rape culture is seriously flawed and saying that rapes aren’t a serious problem, that the frequency of rape doesn’t vary with the community in which it occurs, or that we shouldn’t be trying to minimize the occurrence of rape as much as possible.

Is there a big political problem at stake here, requiring a political programme? Intersectionalists would urge that of course there is, since everything is interconnected, and the interconnections are inherently political. But is it and are they? I believe that what we are really facing here is what Wittgenstein would call a language game, played by rather rigorous, stultifying, self-instantiating rules. And since it puts the blame for rape on “culture” rather than individuals, on “man” rather then men, on a general condition of social life rather than truancy, there is nothing political about it at all.

I suppose I should conclude by citing Joanna Burke here, who is cited in Gittos (page 14), referring to what I am calling the intersectionalist position, for she know more about it than me and has inspired my own thought:

By subsuming (the problem of rape) under a broad term like ‘rape culture’, it obscures the identities of both rapist and raped. There is also an unfortunate tendency for those who argue for a ‘rape culture’ to link it with masculinity. I seek to argue that rapists are not part of a ‘culture’ but are the inadequate rejects of a culture of masculinity… The idea that Western society is a ‘rape culture’ is one of those phrases that are churned out by people who like thinking in clichés . . . The notion that ‘all men are rapists, rape fantasists, or beneficiaries of a rape culture’ (the most important category) is simply not true. It is not good politics either.

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