Roxane Gay’s “Not That Bad” Shines a Light on the Pain Rape Culture Causes in Daily Life

Note: This is not a sponsored post. I purchased a copy of Roxane Gay’s “Not that Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture” with my own funds.

What rape survivor hasn’t said their experience “wasn’t that bad”?

Not compared to what we hear on the news. Or what we see in the movies. Or how it’s played out on TV.

But that’s because we’re taught very specific things about what rape looks like. We’re taught only certain types of people get raped. It’s drilled into us that putting ourselves in certain situations will “get us” raped. And if any other act makes us feel violated, it isn’t rape.

After all, rape is just a part of life. And if we “get” raped (rather than “are raped”), it’s our fault.

And if we speak out about being raped? We risk ruining the lives of our rapists, and we just can’t have that, now can we?

Roxane Gay’s “Not That Bad”

The cover of Roxane Gay's book

That’s why the title of Roxane Gay’s anthology “Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture” speaks volumes about how rape culture affects victims of rape and sexual assault. As contributor Stacey May Fowles put it, “[t]here is this impossible paradox when you are victimized by sexual assault. You want to — you have to — convince yourself that it wasn’t ‘that bad’ in order to have any hope of healing… On the other hand, you need to convince others it was ‘bad enough’ to get the help and support you need to do that healing.”

Roxane Gay’s anthology is a collection of first-person essays from a variety of excellent contributors, including some names you might recognize, such as actors Ally Sheedy and Gabrielle Union. I’ll admit, my faith in Roxane Gay wavered slightly when I first dove into the collection. As I read first-hand accounts of rape and sexual assault, I worried that this book was really just rape porn in disguise, an accidental anthology of erotica for those who are sexually stimulated by non-consensual violence.

But Roxane came through. Nearly all of the essays that include first-hand accounts of sexual violence don’t actually describe the violent events themselves. And if they do offer details, the details are sparse and fast. The essays focus on what’s important: the impact of the violence on the survivors.

After all, survivors don’t owe the world the details of their traumas. Contributor Zoe Medeiros says it perfectly: “[o]ther people do not get to tell me what my experience means, or where they would like to place me in their pantheon of suffering… No one gets to rake over the details of my life and determine if they think what happened to me was bad enough for me to have earned my scars, my limitations, my superpowers.”

“No one gets to rake over the details of my life and determine if they think what happened to me was bad enough for me to have earned my scars, my limitations, my superpowers.” — Zoe Medeiros

“Not That Bad” isn’t an opportunity to rubberneck and judge other people’s suffering. It’s a chance to get a glimpse of how rape culture truly impacts the people around us.

A Place to Show It Is That Bad

Roxane’s original intention behind putting together this collection wasn’t actually about telling survivor stories. She says in the book’s introduction that she “wanted to assemble a collection of essays about rape culture — some reportage, some personal essays, writing that engaged with the idea of rape culture, what it means to live in a world where the phrase ‘rape culture’ exists… What is it like to live in a culture where it often seems like it is a question of when, not if, a woman will encounter some kind of sexual violence? What is it like for men to navigate this culture whether they are indifferent to rape culture or working to end it or contributing to it in ways significant or small?”

“What is it like to live in a culture where it often seems like it is a question of when, not if, a woman will encounter some kind of sexual violence?” — Roxane Gay

But the original concept for the anthology morphed into something very, very different once essay submissions started rolling in, and Roxane says she had to “give way to what the book clearly needed to be — a place for people to give voice to their experiences, a place for people to share how bad this all is, a place for people to identify the ways they have been marked by rape culture.”

And that’s what “Not That Bad” is. It’s not just a collection of rape survivor stories; it’s a collection that illustrates the pain and suffering rape culture causes in daily life.

The Faces of Rape Culture

The people affected by rape culture are diverse and many, and “Not That Bad” attempts to explore as many of those experiences within the bounds of a 339-page book. Those faces run the spectrum of age, gender and sexuality. Remember: there’s no one-size-fits-all rape victim. Why? Because it’s never about the victim. It’s about the perpetrator and their pursuit of power through sexual violence.

Some of the contributors experienced sexual violence directly, and many discuss the lasting effects of the trauma. Miriam Zoila Pérez says in her essay “Not That Loud” that “[r]ape interferes with how my partners and I can experience joy and connection even with incredibly loving, supportive, and nonnormative relationships.”

In her essay “The Life Ruiner,” Nora Salem reflects on what her life could have been like had she never experienced sexual violence: “I have a sense that there might be endless lives I haven’t and couldn’t live: the girl without my fears or nightmares, the girl for whom trust is not an impressive feat, the girl who can stand to live in her own skin without ever knowing that the ability to do so is a blessing.”

Some of the contributors love people who have experienced sexual violence, and they’re struggling to maintain family relationships and build intimate partnerships. Lyz Lenz’s essay “All the Angry Women” discusses her experiences trying to protect her sister from the man who abused her. She says of her anger and the anger of other women in the face of rape culture that “[t]he anger of men is a powerful enough tide to swing an election. But the anger of women? That has no place in government, so it has to flood the streets.”

Others are trying to help people who have experienced sexual violence. Michelle Chen says in her essay “Bodies Against Borders,” quoting human rights lawyer Elvira Gordillo, that “migrants ‘know the price to pay for getting to the United States … is being sexually violated.'” Chen goes on to say that “[r]ape is integral to the cultures of war, colonization, and forced displacement that have turned gender oppression and sexual violence into a global currency of desperation.”

“Migrants ‘know the price to pay for getting to the United States … is being sexually violated’ … Rape is integral to the cultures of war, colonization, and forced displacement that have turned gender oppression and sexual violence into a global currency of desperation.” — Michelle Chen

These stories aren’t rare. And that’s exactly the problem.

Listening to the Voices of Rape Culture

Rape culture isn’t “fake news” made up by feminists because they hate men. I’m choking a little that I even wrote that sentence. But even in 2018, I still hear people who deny rape culture exists. Unfortunately, “rape culture” has become a piece of feminist jargon that makes people plug their ears and pinch their eyes shut at first mention of it because anything that comes from feminists is most certainly radical and crazy and just way too extreme.

“Not That Bad” contributor Elissa Bassist says “… to mention certain things, like ‘patriarchy,’ is to be dubbed a ‘feminazi,’ which discourages its mention, and whatever goes unmentioned gets a pass, a pass that condones what it isn’t nice to mention, lest we come off as reactionary or shrill.”

“To mention certain things, like ‘patriarchy,’ is to be dubbed a ‘feminazi,’ which discourages its mention, and whatever goes unmentioned gets a pass, a pass that condones what it isn’t nice to mention, lest we come off as reactionary or shrill.” — Elissa Bassist

In other words, mention certain words, and you’ll instantly be silenced because you’re just an angry shrew. But we have to talk about rape culture. We have to talk about how the patriarchal structure of our society and toxic masculinity contribute to rape culture. We have to talk about how rape culture affects everyone, not just straight, cisgender women.

Because it is that bad. And unless we do something about it, nothing is going to change.

Featured image via Eva Blue on Flickr

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