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I’m not wincing alone

This time Ken set me off (you guys do know it’s conceptual art, right?) but this is a post I’ve wanted to write or maybe a better way to say it is felt I ought to write about once a week since at least last summer. I know I’ve asked before where all these rape jokes among comics bloggers come from, but what worries me more is where they’re going.

I was 17 when I was raped, not even a month into my first semester in college. I was Brilliant, Attractive Girl who seems a Bit of a Headcase, though I was dangerously scrawny under my too-large clothes and had lopped off my hair to try to undermine or circumvent any potential attractiveness. And so I ended up helping a dormmate, an international student, proofread a paper he’d written. I wondered what he was doing at the school with the level of English he had, since clearly he couldn’t keep up with even the basics of his classes. I wondered what I was doing there when clearly I would fit in better if I had the money he did and, like him, spent much of it on beer. And when he pushed me to the ground, I didn’t call for help because I didn’t want it, didn’t want anyone to see me being debased, didn’t want any evidence of the most humiliating, horrifying moment of my life. I sobbed and had a panic attack instead so that he had to pry my spasming legs apart. I went back to my room still sobbing and stayed in bed a few days and crumpled those sweatpants, underwear, turtleneck in the bottom of my closet. I threw them away when I withdrew from school not long after, well before he was forced out for failing grades and drug infractions. I didn’t tell anyone until it was too late to do whatever could have been done.

I know that was a long time ago. I don’t cry about it much, didn’t even feel that gnawing ache when the season came around last year. I did my suffering already, a year I don’t remember spent depressed almost to the point of catatonia, relationships where I tried to destroy myself or let myself be destroyed. I went back to my college and did my time making reparations, working as an educator and crafting policy with the administration, supporting others, being a visible face as the out survivor on campus. I did my forgiving pretty early on because it seemed like the only tenable option to me. I can understand (sort of) how sad and powerless he must have been to think that preying on me could give him any satisfaction or status, because I was the only person around who was lower than he was. When I learned at 17 that he’d told the guys on his floor about it, I had a breakdown. Now I wonder if they pitied him too.

And that was a long time ago and I’m over it to the extent that I’ll ever be, healthy, happy, in love and loved. And so it’s not that I feel personally hurt when I read rape jokes or have to hear guys (guys, always guys) talking about the vengeance they would take if the women they love were assaulted. (And by no means do I want to minimize the extent to which men can be victims of sexual assault, especially as children. But I think a lot of the people who make jokes about prison rape do, because sex and power and masculinity are all tied up in a little package that doesn’t allow them to think of themselves as ever being at risk or unsafe.) I don’t feel hurt but just annoyed, because I know when you talk like that you’re not talking to me. Because I know what it’s like, or know what it was like for myself to suffer at least and have heard others’ stories, and I can’t make the same kinds of jokes. But at the same time I don’t think I should be forced to avoid the Fanboy Rampage comments section just because it’s pretty much guaranteed there will be someone else there who clearly thinks he can. I’m not asking for deference or even really an explanation, because I’ve never gotten one before. I’m just shocked or surprised or amazed that so many bloggers live in a world where people like me don’t exist or at least don’t read their blogs, where the constant references couldn’t be seen as hurtful. I think there’s a reason I never heard a female student say, “Oh, that test totally assraped me,” and it has something to do with the education sessions we’d do where everyone who knew someone who’d been sexually assaulted was asked to stand. While few freshman stood up, by senior year it seemed like nobody stayed seated. There’s some line between gallows humor and something that cuts too close or is just plain disrespectful, and I think that’s another reason I sometimes feel left out of the testosterone stew in these parts of the web. It just doesn’t compute.

And I don’t really know why I’m writing this except that I’m sick of having it in my head every time I do read all this casual rape-talk. I’m not trying to police anybody and I pick on Ken because I’ve talked to him about this a bit before and don’t think what I say will hurt his feelings; he likes to be inflammatory and, I think, sees rape jokes as one more extension of that. And that’s his decision and it shouldn’t have anything to do with me and won’t and doesn’t keep me from reading whatever he has to say. This isn’t a situation where first they came for the rape jokes and eventually all we could joke about were elephants jumping out of trees, or at least that’s not what I hope I’m saying. It’s more that I’m jealous of all these people who somehow have the option not to care about it, not to have that word jump out at them, to be able to use it casually and metaphorically. It’s not that I want to live that way as much as that I can’t and I’m amazed they can. The problem is the way those words self-select similar readers. I can handle them with only minor annoyance, but there are plenty of other people with personal stories much worse than mine who can’t or won’t or shouldn’t. And it bothers me that this sort of talk deliberately excludes them from any conversation it infects. But maybe there just aren’t a lot of rape survivors reading comics and comics blogs and maybe I’m completely overreacting. The problem is that none of us have any way to know for sure.

And it’s not that I think my fellow bloggers are misogynists who live in isolation, either. I think most of them who mention sexual assault, especially in this post-Identity Crisis age do so because they think it’s worth reminding everyone of the extent to which it doesn’t belong in a sensical and healthy universe, but it’s easier to do it by joking about how the only way to have a blockbuster comics is on-panel sexual assault than it is to write an over-earnest post about why sexual assault is bad. So I realize I’m upsetting the balance by taking just that tack, but I figured this was worth saying and maybe now I won’t feel I need to say it anymore.


  1. David Fiore says:

    that was a wonderfully courageous post Rose…the comicsblogosphere is, indeed, a strangely masculine preserve, and I think that, as you imply, it has a lot more to do with assrape jokes than it does with the gender imbalance in the industry, or in the ratio of male to female protagonists per se (although, of course, there is a relationship between these things)…

    and I will say that this definitely has quite a lot of bearing upon our debate about the nature of identity, as well… some of the things that happen to us are so terrible that they cannot help but isolate us, in some ways, from anyone (no matter how well-meaning/sympathetic) that hasn’t gone through the same thing, and maybe even from people that have endured similar horrors (the horrific event itself isn’t really “sharable”–and it’s always there, waiting to ensnare/tempt even the most healthy/recovered, forward-thinking individual away from their life with others)…

    I feel kind of foolish, actually, for failing to take sufficient account of this in our debates (several people that I love dearly have suffered through analogous traumas–one of them on repeated occasions)… but there you have it… I don’t make those jokes…but it’s true that–despite my diminutive size–I have never been made to fear that this kind of thing could possibly happen to me… and this does create more of a gender gap than I want to believe exists… no matter how many times I hear this kind of thing described (even by someone I love that is lying next to me), or how hard I try (and you may be sure that I try very hard) something within me (the facts of my biography, obviously) prevents me from registering the full horror of what it must have been like to be in that position…

    anyway, I think you’ve done an important thing here–I’m glad you didn’t hold off any longer…


    — 18 April 2005 at 11:52 pm (Permalink)

  2. Nik says:

    Beautiful essay Rose, and well put. I too have wondered at all these references, both from the 13-year-old fanboy types and by those who should know better. I chalk some of it up to immaturity, some to insensitivity and some to just plain human meanness. I do know when I was a teen (and surely still today) the worst thing you could call another guy was a “faggot.” There’s a lot of that repressed tension, anger, whatever you want to call it in our world today (probably always there) but I applaud you for making some of us boneheads out there stop and think a little bit.

    — 19 April 2005 at 1:22 am (Permalink)

  3. Greg Burgas says:

    Interesting stuff, Rose. I agree with Nik, too, that “faggot” is just as loaded a word. We say these things because we live in fear, I think, of knowing someone who has been raped and not knowing what to say - it’s a knee-jerk reaction, with the emphasis on “jerk.” I also don’t make those jokes, nor “gay” jokes, not because I’m super, but because there are some things in this world that aren’t funny and shouldn’t be seen as funny. It’s interesting that you mention about people standing up in class. A lot more people, I bet, know someone who has been raped than they think (I am close to more than one person), but the walls we construct between us makes it impossible to discuss it, and so it comes back to the fear. It’s unfortunate that this topic has been marginalized to the extent it has been, because all it does it make it “acceptable” to make jokes like that. Hmmm … three men commenting so far on your post. Could the blogaxy be overly masculine?

    — 19 April 2005 at 11:28 pm (Permalink)

  4. Kerry says:

    I must be in the minority here, as I think that nothing should be “taboo”, and if something hurts your feelings, well, boo-hoo for you. Everything, no matter how macabre, disturbing, or tragic, has an element of humor in it, and if you cannot see that, you are a damaged person indeed. I mean, certainly you would not laugh at a dead Grandpa joke the very day your Grandpa died, but I would expect you to be able to laugh after a month or so. I mean, life is full of tragedy, but that doesn’t mean life is tragic. Just about everything you can imagine happening to anyone has already happened and may be happening right now. The best you can do is educate and look after yourself and those you care about. The worst thing you can do is try to tell people what is appropriate in the realm of free speech. This infuriates people like me, and makes me only want to be more “offensive” in hopes of inuring the oversensitive populus to “hate speech” or whatever liberal tag you apply. Don’t worry about what people say, worry about what you do. Don’t be anti- anything, be proactive. If you think we need to pay more attention to the issue of rape, let’s not wallow in semantics, let’s get out there and prevent the rapists from being able to rape: teach women all the standard safety rules and self-defense techniques we have been pushing since the 50’s, make it easier for women to get help in case of rape, to prosecute and win, to get support. Don’t attack movies, comics, music, and outspoken (if jerky) individuals! And yes, I am a female, and yes, my father was an alcoholic because he was molested by his own mother for years, and yes, I have been “date-raped” and I am still a sane, stable person with a damn fine sense of humor. I feel that humor and common sense are dying traits in this man’s America. It’s about time everyone got over him- or herself and realize that no matter how bad you have it, someone else thinks your life is bliss. And compared to theirs, it is. Words can’t hurt you, people. I am so sick of this pathetic society of infants we live in, I am almost a Republican. And we do NOT want that to happen!

    — 20 April 2005 at 4:02 pm (Permalink)

  5. Kelly says:

    I’ve never in the past felt inspired or compelled to make a comment here, preferring rather to simply enjoy the insightful posts and commentary found here without needing to inject myself into the discussion, but today it seems I’m going to end that streak to respond to Kerry’s post, mainly to ask in all seriousness if she even actually read it, because judging by her response I find that hard to believe. No one here is suggesting that people don’t have the right to say what they wish or to make jokes about macabre subjects or that people shouldn’t be proactive in trying to deal with and prevent the awful things in this world. All that is being suggested, as I read things, is that there are times when inserting juvenile rape jokes or other similar “humor” into a dialogue is unnecessary and inexplicable. What bothers me most about such comments is how it demonstrates at best ignorance and at worst a cavalier lack of concern by people who (almost always) clearly have never had to endure the things of which they joke and couldn’t care less about how such comments are impossible to ignore by the victims of rape and the people who care about them, how it forces people to have to confront the topic again, if only for a little while, when all they were wanting to do is read about and discuss something that likely had nothing to do with the subject at all. For me, the message this post had above all others was to simply ask people to think about how these jokes can and do affect other people and to be aware of that when deciding if it is worth indulging in such humor. What saddens me most of all in this is that Kerry (and undoubtedly others) have and will take an incredibly brave and thoughtful post and will respond with inaccurate readings and holier-than-thou knee-jerk reactions, and Rose and others who speak out about their thoughts on the subject deserve much better than that.

    — 20 April 2005 at 5:12 pm (Permalink)

  6. Rose says:

    Well, I guess I got what I expected in saying this, though I’m still not sure I went about it right. Here’s maybe where I should have gone instead:

    Words have meanings, intended or not. People are going to judge you, the blogger, based on what and how you write or whatever fucked-up interpretations of your writing they take away with them. And so I thought it might be worth pointing out that I have a particular reaction to a word that seems to be increasingly common in comics blog discourse because it’s something people using the words might want to bear in mind or might not. I’m not trying to censor or shame anyone. We have a policy that it’s fine to say “fuck” on this blog, but there are people out there (though maybe not writing comics blogs) who watch their language because they want to write for an audience in which some members would find that unacceptable.

    I never meant to say (and still think I didn’t) that no one should be allowed to talk about rape or even joke about it. Honestly I’m fascinated by the metaphor/joke phenomenon and wish I could figure out exactly why people choose to use that word over others, but I don’t think I could have gotten a good answer and certainly can’t now.

    And there’s also the issue of being “out,” if that’s how you want to look at it. I’ve talked a bit about sexual assault issues here and it’s easier that everything, or at least enough of everything, just be out in the open so I don’t have to worry about what’s going to be read between the lines. This is a field where I do understand the research, can follow the prevalent theories, and I still can’t totally separate myself from my own experience. So now bloggers who’ve read this and don’t know anyone who’s been sexually assaulted can’t really say that anymore. You know and interact with me, at least inasmuch as we know each other online, and so there’s that. And, as has been pointed out, there are lots of people who aren’t out and are still survivors and remembering this can be a good idea.

    As for women in the blogosphere, particularly as it relates to this issue, I’m not claiming I speak for anyone else. I don’t think sexual assault is something that only affects women, for one thing, and I don’t know whether this kind of talk bothers the other women bloggers or not. If “rape” is even being used in a sexist way in these cases, it seems to have more to do with discomfort with masculinity than hatred of women or anything like that.

    And I’m not totally sure how to respond to Kerry. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough that I have worked with survivors, have worked as an educator for men and women, have worked to change and improve (on a university level) judicial policy and increase reporting, have been very active in opposing sexual violence. And yet I’m not going to apologize for talking about myself and about comics bloggers on my own comics blog. My point is that I think for a comics blogger, I’ve done a pretty good job as an advocate for sexual assault survivors and a proactive worker with time in the trenches.

    But the core reason I have a blog is that I believe deeply that words matter. It doesn’t mean any one person gets to figure out what they all mean or what the answers are, but I’m here so that I can play with words. This means talking about the words and pictures others have made. While it’s sometimes more controversial, it means talking about the way words are used by other people in the blogging community, whether as I did here or in response to their posts. I’m not trying to take their words away or say they can’t use them; I don’t have the power to do that anyway.

    And this whole post wasn’t about feeling hurt, but a way to help myself feel better. It’s not that rape jokes and casual references have caused me pain but that they make me feel a little uncomfortable, seem off-color or just wrong to me. This isn’t an existential crisis moment. But what’s even more important is that I was able to talk about something personal and be relatively comfortable getting it down in words (always damned words!) I can present to this blog community. And to my way of looking at it, that’s definitely something special.

    — 21 April 2005 at 1:23 am (Permalink)

  7. Kerry says:

    Obviously this is a very nurturing and supportive environment, but the real world is neither. I take issue with the touchy-feely “survivor” mentality. If you’re living and breathing, you are a survivor. I don’t feel the need to sport a bumper sticker, t-shirt or tattoo letting people know my particular brand of hardship. Personally, I feel that there are things in life that you just have to get over, and once you are over them, words will not “jump out at you” and make you relive those experiences or feel marginalized. If this is happening to you, you are still a victim and obviously need help. That’s all I’m saying.

    — 21 April 2005 at 5:08 pm (Permalink)

  8. Rose says:

    Kerry, I think there’s nothing I say that’s going to make you happy, but I am actually reading what you have written. I don’t know how you got here or how long you’ve been reading (and I’m not sure you have been reading clearly, or maybe you just don’t believe me) or anything like that, but it doesn’t really matter. I don’t know whether you think this post and comments thread are characteristic of all writing at Peiratikos or what. I’m not interested in encouraging a culture of infants but of self-aware intellectuals, which I suppose you may think is just false consciousness, but that’s where I was going here.

    To be very clear for the last time, I’m not a victim reliving my experiences every time I read this stuff. I don’t get angry the way I do when people can’t figure out which form of “its” to use, if that puts things in perspective for you at all. I care about words and I’m interested in speech and the construction of discourse. And so patterns jump out at me because they’re something I’m looking for. I think that in the comics blogosphere rape jokes can be traced pretty directly to the Identity Crisis and Bendis Board-offshoot stuff this summer; because there were serious discussions going on, somehow the serious terms slipped out into more casual talk.

    This is just something I thought might be an interesting talking point and was mostly aiming for people who are comics bloggers anyway. Clearly you think my points are not worth more than a brief dismissal, which is fine. I’ve gotten the message.

    — 21 April 2005 at 6:41 pm (Permalink)