The Stories We Tell About Rape Culture Matter
An examination of the portrayal of sexual assault in fiction from the 18th-century novel "Pamela" to 2012's "Gone Girl"
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I once broke down in a gender studies class while watching a video of Tori Amos performing the song “Me and a Gun.” I’d heard the song dozens, maybe hundreds of times — it would not be an exaggeration to say I was one of Those Tori Girls in high school. What made this time different was that the night before, one of my closest friends had told me about her own rape, which happened near our college campus shortly after we met. Like the personal incident Tori Amos sings about in low, punishing a cappella, it had involved a stranger and a weapon — the kind of rape that’s supposed to be vanishingly rare.
Sometimes I wonder, though. My friend didn’t report hers; she just survived it.
As the lyrics soared into a wail, my eyes filled with tears and my stomach heaved. I stood and left the room.
I hadn’t been assaulted, so my response felt inappropriate, hopelessly beside the point. It was not until a few years ago, when I started providing on-call volunteer hospital advocacy for recent victims of sexual assault, that I learned the name for this type of response. “Secondary trauma” describes the experience of those who have been in recent contact with a traumatized person, and for whatever reason — perhaps over-identification with that person, whom they feel powerless to help — has taken on secondary symptoms.
Secondary trauma is certainly not the same as firsthand trauma, but, if not dealt with through self-care and good boundaries, it can cause some wear and tear. That time, I cried it out in the bathroom and returned to class. And everything was fine.
Sort of. For me, anyway.
One thing I learned from my year of sitting in on forensic exams, aka “rape kits” — a job I quit after only a year because I couldn’t process the secondary trauma and was getting sick — is that stories matter.
Stories provide context. The context for that Tori Amos meltdown was a college class in which rape was acknowledged to be more than just an isolated incident that happens to unfortunate women over there, but rather something that invisibly surrounds us, affecting both men and women. It was understood, in that class, that rape is something every woman must spend her whole life navigating, if not through her own personal experiences, then through the friends and family who tell her about their experiences. The first time a close friend told me she had been raped, I was in sixth grade. (So was the friend, but it had happened the summer before.) The second time was in seventh grade. And so on. In between these careful revelations, which, as a kid, I was completely unable to take in, were the dozens of silences of those who didn’t tell — at least, not me.
For women, navigating the thing we call rape culture involves an ongoing balance of fear and denial. The fear is only logical, if you do the math. The denial is so linked to self-preservation that it is not at all unusual for it to persist in the aftermath of assault. In my advocacy work, I stopped feeling surprised when a description of nonconsensual intercourse during which the assailant choked the victim was followed by the words, “But he’s really a nice guy” or “I don’t want him to get in trouble for this” or “Does that really count as rape?” (With his hands around her throat, she couldn’t say “no.”)
Although the term “rape culture” had not yet been popularized back in 1998 or so, this was a class where the term would likely have been taken seriously, which is why, after all, we were watching that Tori Amos video in the first place. I felt embarrassed about my visceral response, but not ashamed; because of context, I knew that the response was normal. This helped.
When I think of the trigger warning debates on campuses — first, I breathe a sigh of relief that I no longer teach undergraduates. But then I think back to that moment of being triggered when I was an undergraduate myself. I remember what I learned in that moment about what was and wasn’t normal, what was and wasn’t okay. What was acknowledged, in that moment, that usually goes unacknowledged: that we are all survivors of rape culture, until we aren’t.
In the courtyard of the dormitory where I lived at the time stood a statue of Diana the huntress. As campus legend had it, her bow was drawn for the men peeping into the windows of the all-women’s dorm across the way. I think about that statue, and about Ovid’s Metamorphoses, so beautiful and wise and funny and also kind of a rape parade; about Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus; and, of course, about Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa. And I realize that what I’m describing here isn’t a list of books I’d like to see banned from the classroom; in fact, it is a list of my favorite books. It also a solid bit of evidence that Western culture is rape culture. Or, to put it another way: rape culture is just culture-culture. If only there were a trigger warning big enough for that.
Fun fact: each sexual assault forensic exam begins with a questionnaire. A specially trained forensic nurse carefully reads dozens of yes-or-no and short-answer questions out loud to the victim, almost like a test. First come a lot of weirdly specific questions not even the forensics nurses understand — the questions about bowel movements always seemed to confuse the victims most — and then the nurse covers the details of the assault itself, going over every potential word and deed, limb and orifice, in such granular and close-up detail that the assault hardly makes sense at all.
At the very end of the questionnaire, the grand finale as it were, the victim is finally asked to tell her story from start to finish, in her own words, while the nurse types up the story on a laptop. This is the first chance some victims have had to tell the whole story straight through, uninterrupted, in their own words.
Between the questionnaire version of events and the narrative version, the story changes, not so much in its details, but in its emotional valence. Details shared dispassionately during the clinical question-answer session seemed suddenly to strike survivors differently when contextualized by everyday activities — eating dinner, getting off work, dropping a kid at daycare, going home to feed the dog — or by an everyday relationship with the perpetrator — their mutual friends, what he texted her earlier that night, the movie they were going to watch this weekend. There was a moment I witnessed again and again, a black hole that opened up in the middle of the story, as the survivor’s bodily response to her own words suddenly seemed to overtake the words themselves, spilling into tears. From the outside, it looked like a moment of reliving what it felt like to be robbed of agency, forcibly, by another person, sometimes a person trusted or even loved.
After the story is told, and before the physical part of the exam begins (the whole exam, including questionnaire, usually takes from two to four hours), the nurse turns the laptop around and asks the survivor to read her own dictated story back through carefully, making changes or corrections until the story seems right. On my watch, survivors never cried reading over these narratives spoken just a moment earlier from the heart of powerlessness. Instead, they got an intense look of concentration on their faces, sometimes even satisfaction. They would nod, as if to say, There it is, outside me now. The story. A story that once had happened to them; now a story they had told, and had control over.
From the outside, this moment looks like a tiny moment of agency.
As a culture, we are terrible at imagining that agency and victimhood can co-exist. Agency is the capacity of an individual to make choices. If there was a choice, we say — a choice to fight harder, a choice to scream louder, a choice to report, a choice to go to the emergency room afterward — then there cannot have been victimhood. If there wasn’t a choice — he had a weapon, or said he had a weapon, or wrapped his fist around my throat, or told me he would ruin my life if I told — there cannot have been agency.
Among the more interesting side effects of this difficulty reconciling agency and victimhood was a novel.
Make that the novel.
No one ever tells you that the novel started with rape, but it did. Several thousand pages of it.
Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela, or, Virtue Rewarded (1740), sometimes called the first English novel, is a prolonged tale of sexual harassment in which, for several hundred pages, the hired servant Pamela fights off her employer Mr. B.’s unwanted advances. Mr. B. isolates, imprisons, and repeatedly assaults Pamela, who tells her story in letters home to her parents until Mr. B. intercepts them, after which she turns to journal writing. Eventually, worn down by her impregnable virtue, Mr. B proposes, and lucky Pamela wins the prize. The humble maid marries the wealthy landowner, and the two live happily ever after.
If modern readers are horrified that Pamela married her would-be rapist, it’s wise to keep in mind that subtitle — Virtue Rewarded — and the fact that rewards for feminine virtue were in short supply at the time, limited to either a secure marriage or a saintly death. As I used to remind my students, there was no “self-determined badass” option in a world where women were legally limited in the ways they could own and inherit property; where they were themselves considered a special sort of property, in fact, legal appendages of fathers or husbands. That is why significant exceptions to the marriage-or-death rule from the era, such as Daniel DeFoe’s Moll Flanders, tend to be about female criminals, for whom virtue is not a concern. So difficult to out-think was this marriage-or-death model that fifty years later one of the most brilliant English writers ever to hold a pen, Jane Austen, would still find herself confined to it. Austen’s dazzlingly nuanced expansion of the palette of women’s potential virtues is all the proof you need that she was not so much a miniaturist as an inventor of worlds.
At any rate, back in the 1740s, Richardson’s readers were just as horrified by Pamela’s marriage as we are today, but for very different reasons. The reward of marrying out of class — a would-be rapist, sure, but a gentleman rapist — was considered by many too great for a chambermaid, so great that it cast suspicion on Pamela’s motives, and, by extension, her virtue. Richardson’s ribald contemporary, the novelist Henry Fielding, now the most famous of the anti-Pamelists, eventually rewrote Pamela as a farce in which a common slut of the servant class pretends virtue in order to manipulate a foolish man. (In Shamela, Fielding helpfully provides Mr. B’s full name, which Richardson had left blank: it’s Mr. Booby.)
Appalled by this response to Pamela but presumably pleased by its sales figures, Richardson did what any sensitive novelist who had unwittingly stumbled into rape culture would do: he tried again, but this time he switched the reward from secure marriage to saintly death. His follow-up novel, Clarissa, or the History of A Young Lady, also written in letters and diaries, is longer by approximately a zillion pages (I love every one of them) and rhetorically masterful. It features an even more virtuous and unassailable heroine — one who starts out richer, so that her motives cannot be questioned — holds out longer, against a bolder and smarter villain — is abducted, psychologically tortured — drugged to unconsciousness — finally, raped. When she realizes what has happened, Clarissa Harlowe goes mad and dies a saintly death (ding!), bequeathing her possessions to the poor, wringing deathbed conversions out of miscreants, and ascending to heaven in a casket that also functions as a sermon for the illiterate.
Richardson, bless his heart, thought this would work. Ask an eighteenth-century specialist if it did back then. All I know is that when I was reading academic criticism on Clarissa in 2005, it was still considered acceptable, even delightfully roguish, to adopt the position that Clarissa was, in one way or another, “asking for it.”
Together, Pamela and Clarissa represent Richardson’s fundamental misunderstanding of rape culture. He mistook women for human beings at a time when it was illegal for them to be. That’s an endearing mistake you won’t catch Austen making — not out loud, anyway — not so the men can hear. But Richardson’s mistake was a fertile one. Out of his strenuous attempts to give us a sense of Clarissa as a human being with agency who nevertheless had no control over her own violation came one of the greatest triumphs of literature in English — Clarissa’s very soul — the agency she exerts from inside the depths of powerlessness and madness simply by continuing to write.
Rape culture is still with us, but so is Clarissa, a novel that breaks and renews itself over thousands of pages, unfurling a rich interiority that the novel, in its psychological form at least, continues to this day to chart.
Perhaps it was this sensation of living and reading in a post-Clarissa world that attuned me to the importance of another form-breaking novel that happened to be on the bestseller list when I first started reviewing books three years ago, and shortly after I had begun working on my first novel Good as Gone.
I speak, of course, of Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel Gone Girl. As a book critic, you could say I came up in a post-Gone Girl world; based on the think-pieces and the publishing boom in woman-written psychological thrillers, from which I have very much benefitted, we’re still living in one.
Gone Girl generates endless discourse because, much like Pamela and Clarissa, it functions as a kind of Magic Eye for its contemporary readers. The dual protagonists, nice-guy Nick and his super-villain wife Amy, are locked in a battle of wills fueled by, on his part, self-confessed misogyny, and on her part, that bugaboo of false rape charges: female narcissism.
Female narcissism, the attention-seeking behavior we ascribe to women who speak out against their abusers, was invented because women can now vote, own property, and work for a living. It is of course still possible to accuse a raped woman of having entrapped her rapist for the sake of a pay-off, but far less plausible. There are now easier ways for a clever woman to make a dollar. Anyway, being raped is not nearly the lucrative gig people seem to think it is. But rape culture is nothing if not adaptable. There must be a reason so many women claim to have been raped or assaulted, and that reason cannot have anything to do with the fact that until relatively recently women were chattel who could be legally raped by the men who “owned” them; it can’t be that Western culture, which we teach in universities and reproduce in books and film and TV with scant attention to what it shows men about women or women about themselves, is rape culture, which is just culture-culture. It can’t be that.
So, cue George Will, who in 2014 explained that the rape epidemic in universities is a mere phantom of female narcissism, calling sexual victimization a “coveted status that confers privileges” to young women.
Speaking as a former volunteer advocate, I can only assume he meant the privileges of sitting in a cold hospital exam room for three hours in the middle of the night while you are poked and prodded and scraped without lubricant because it might corrupt the evidence; followed by the privilege of receiving an astronomical hospital bill a couple of weeks later because the medical costs associated with the emergency room aren’t covered by the State’s Attorney’s office; followed by the privilege of having your evidence kit get dusty on a storeroom shelf for years at a time, untouched. Those privileges.
At any rate, one thing Gone Girl shows is just how extreme the female narcissism hypothesis has to be in order to make any sense at all. More than just a run-of-the-mill narcissist, Amazing Amy is an actual sociopath, willing to endure any amount of seeming self-erasure to exact revenge on Nick, whom she’s framing for her murder.
Yet if there’s something truly addictive about Gone Girl, something exhilarating (and I believe there is), I would argue that the secret of it lies not so much in Amy’s exaggerated narcissism as it does in the form-breaking moment when Amy’s victimhood narrative flip-flops, as if by magic, into a victimizer narrative; when the diary we’ve been reading as truth is suddenly revealed to be a fake, produced by Amy for the sole purpose of implicating her husband in her presumed murder. Amazing Amy is above all a writer, expertly abusing the power of story to exploit our, and the characters’, endless appetite for narratives about beautiful young women being abused and killed. It’s Pamela’s mea culpa, Clarissa’s confession.
But it doesn’t end there. In the tradition of Patricia Highsmith, Gillian Flynn is an equal opportunity misanthrope. As the book wears on, Nick, suspected of murdering his wife, behaves and thinks more and more like a stereotypical abuser. Not only does he fantasize about choking Amy in increasingly disturbing detail, but he also exhibits the kind of behavior that research shows is often co-morbid with abuse and assault, blaming all the women in his life for his problems, from the female detective working his case to his lover to his beloved sister Margo. Moreover, by the end of the book, Amy herself has become the very real victim of violent crimes, including kidnapping, imprisonment, and sexual coercion at the hands of her old high-school flame Desi. This is hardly the glorious reward George Will would lead us to expect for such a successful manipulation of victimhood.
Revenge fantasies are, among other things, a time-honored way of restoring a sense of agency to victims. Gone Girl expertly dismantles that pathway by internalizing the split between those who default to believing stories of rape, and those who default to believing they are all elaborate lies.
My novel, Good as Gone, is about a rape victim who lies. When I started writing her point-of-view chapters, all I knew about her was that she lied, and that made it hard to access her interiority for a long time. All of the other characters, whose storylines move forward in the present tense, had given themselves up to me so easily; Julie, whose story moves backward, into past trauma, resisted.
Some have called Julie an “unreliable narrator” in the vein of Gone Girl’s Amy, but that’s not exactly right. The stories Julie tells may be false, but her narration is a true reflection of her experience. There is a language at the heart of powerlessness, and in that language, the language of trauma, Julie always speaks the truth. I learned that language in volunteering for sexual assault victims in the emergency department. I didn’t use their words, or their stories. But the language they taught me has helped me bear witness. Which is all, sometimes, you can do.