Bob Shacochis wrote this essay for Roxane Gay who is putting together a rape anthology that will be coming out next year. After reading it, I asked Bob if we might put it up on our site, as in this piece he discusses several rapes that happened to women — and almost Bob — in the Peace Corps. As we know, the issue is a serious one for PCVs women, and what is being done about it — and not being done about it — continues to be a problem for Volunteers in-country and for the Peace Corps here at home.
NOTES ON THE COMMON PRACTICE OF RAPE
by Bob Shacochis (Eastern Caribbean 1975–76)
A friend, an architect in Manhattan, has a default mantra, an unwanted but repeated thought that loops through his brain as he walks from his Soho loft to his downtown office or further south to Battery Park — There is something wrong with us. Homo sapiens. Is there even a persuasive counter-argument to that belief, that feeling that resides like a deposit of dread beneath the topsoil in every optimist’s heart? Every religion on earth takes the supposition for granted and offers in turn a menu of corrections to human nature. Shuffle the menus into one big pile and what you get is a lot of inspiration but mostly indigestible.
When we talk about rape, and what has been described as its attendant culture and dark composition of pathologies, what are we talking about, how do we measure the dimensions and deconstruct the substance of what we’re talking about, where do we even begin, even if we’re fairly sure where the discussion ends? Rape is evil, consent is good? Clarity has been achieved?
One third to one half of women report fantasies of being overpowered or raped (according to a reliable 2008 study), most permission is tacit (and therefore easily misconstrued), consent can be coerced, and what is she actually consenting to anyway, when she says no five times and finally, yes.
Awhile back I heard the writer Steve Almond reading from his recent book, a polemic about football as a type of societal crime, and he mentioned American football was a rape culture, and I suggested to him afterward he had the cart before the horse. American football was first and foremost a reflection of a war culture, and rape, symbolic, implied or literal, was a sideshow to the greater sport.
You could box the pairing — war, rape — into a chicken-or-the-egg dilemma and offer forth abundant evidence for either point of view — Helen of Troy, anyone? — and let’s start here anyway, in classical antiquity, to bronze the conversation with the mythology that serves as, if not the egg itself, then at least its shell.
Who were the first rapists? The gods, of course, and their surrogates, usually in the guise of a pet beast. Our creation myths seem like a divine Rapeathon, culminating in the Bible’s Book of Genesis, which transforms the heavenly command Go Forth and Multiply to the earthly mandate Fuck Anything That Moves, all that old time rutting eventually arriving at a procreative headscratcher, the Immaculate Conception. Theological orthodoxy aside, who could blame aperson for asking, Wait a minute, did God rape the Virgin Mary?
The gods (and an occasional inflamed goddess) populated the foundational narratives of Western civilization with a screaming multitude of rapes, some of them clever and magical and others just astoundingly brutal and heartless, and they were indiscriminate in their prey, in the sense that they raped mortals and immortals alike. In fact, as the plastic arts — drawings, frescoes, sculpture, painting — evolved in their journey from the cave and the campfire to the city and the salon, sexual assault, and its “intensely passionate struggle,” tenaciously established itself as one of the favored subject matters of artists of all genres — painters, poets, dramatists, sculptors et al — enshrining rape in marble and colored oils and ink and song.
The Rape of Proserpina, Andromeda raped by a sea monster, the attempted rape of Daphne by Apollo, The Rape of Europa. The wholesale rape of the Sabines, directly responsible for the birth of the eternal city, Rome. Even in prehistory swaddled in legends, rape was mantled in a legitimacy impossible to scour from our origins, from our sense, if not our understanding, of who we are.
Before the Romans gave us the verb rapere, or the noun raptio, the Hellenes introduced us to Amazonomachy, a battle between the ancient Greeks and a nation of all-female warriors, who by their very existence must have impressed the guys as a bunch of uncontrollable females begging for comeuppance. Tame me with your sword and prick. I dare you. It did not go well for the Amazons.
But in the 8th century BC, Rome’s very foundations were cemented with raptio, the immortalized in the legend of The Rape (Raptio) of the Sabine Women. Raptio meant the abduction or kidnaping of women for both marriage or sexual slavery. The Roman historian Livy swears the abductors treated the Sabine women like gentlemen, but I doubt it, and so did the sculptors and painters who depicted the event centuries later.
One of the reasons the United States doesn’t win wars today is because it no longer chooses to fight the way it fought in World War Two, or even Vietnam, which is the way the Roman legions fought since time immemorial, wiping out towns and villages and sometimes an entire city like Carthage to the last inhabitant, the last baby, the last house, the last cow and the last dog. The only way you were going to survive a legionnaire’s bloodlust was to become his slave. In the aftermath of Germany’s surrender, it’s estimated more than a million German women (and girls) were raped by Allied and Soviet troops. It would be convenient to tell ourselves that only Islamic fundamentalists fight this way today, an abomination of warrioring which earns them not just the hypocrisy of our contempt, but the moral nicety of laser-guided bombs and missiles. Yet an estimated 50,000 Bosnian and Croatian women were raped by the Serbs in the ’90s, and we can add to that toll the countless rapes committed by Hutus against Tutsi women in Rwanda, and the ongoing use of rape as a tool of war in central Africa, or central Asia, or anywhere men throw themselves into battle against one another.
Policy-wise, for the most part, civilians are now spared our inhumanity. As a nation we’ve become more sensitive killers, lashing ourselves to more restrained rules of engagement, though as individuals we still rape with a sense of entitlement and impunity, in uniform or not, with or without a war.
Raptio, originally the seizing of women, slowly morphed its meaning into the act of forced sexual intercourse, traditionally a crime (or, in the absence of any legal codification, a transgression or sin or naughtiness) committed by a man against a woman, but later interpreted to include unwanted sexual activity by either sex. Its current meaning — sexual violation, rather than, abduction with or without sex — began to materialize, both linguistically and judicially, in the 14th and 15th centuries.
One of the greatest, most accomplished painters of the Baroque era was an anomaly, a 17th century woman by the name of Artemisia Gentileschi, who displayed her first major work, the Susanna and the Elders, with its focus on sexual misconduct, at age 17. A year later she was raped by her tutor, the painter Agostino Tassi, and perhaps a second man. A female friend overheard her cry for help but ignored it. With a promise of marriage, Tassi convinced his student to continue to have sex with him for several more months, but when Tassi reneged on his marriage proposal, Artemisia’s father pressed charges, a case that could not be filed in court unless it could be proved that Tassi took the girl’s virginity. As far as I can tell, Artemisia became the first woman dragged into a legal proceeding for accusing a man of rape, which earned her a court-ordered gynecological exam and a torture session with thumbscrews in an attempt to verify her testimony. Tassi was found guilty, sentenced to one year, but never went to jail. It goes without saying that the entire affair earned her a notoriety that all but threatened to eclipse her extraordinary talent, and the single-minded perogotives of the patriarchy, all orbiting the central tenet of dominance, remained intact.
Abduction or elopement? Seduction or rape? Up until the 20th century, the answer to the the following questions was NO – Can a master rape his slave? Can a husband rape his wife? Can a fellow rape his date? Not no because it was against the law, no because it was perfectly fine to take your slave, your wife, your date against her will, with whatever violence necessary to subdue her. Whatever he was doing with them, his actions were never going to be formally classified or adjudicated as rape. That’s tens of thousands of years of collective male sexuality cooking in the oven of consciousness before the loaf of conscience begins to puff ever so slightly and rise in modernity. Yet what sentient person among us thinks we’ve consigned savagery and debasement, sexual or otherwise, to the ancient world?
Millennia ago, during the reign of Augustus Caesar, in a city renowned for its libertine and adulterous ways, an apparent spark of male compassion and empathetic imagination flared and faded, contained within the myth of Apollo and Daphne. The god Apollo took a fancy to Daphne and pursued her a la raptio. Desperate Daphne prayed to her father, a river god, to help her escape the lustful grasp of Apollo and her father answered her prayers by turning her into a tree. In his Metamorphosis, the poet Ovid wrote, in the voice of Daphne, “Destroy the beauty that has injured me, or change the body that destroys my life.” Is it too much to suggest that Ovid successfully identifies with Daphne’s trauma? Are we seeing here a hairline fracture in the historical acceptance of rape? A male making an effort to correctly imagine the turmoil and suffering of a female victim, a condition to which loving fathers and protective brothers have no trouble making a visceral connection? Nothing much ever came from Ovid-like moments of enlightenment in literature and art, I know, and we’re still quarreling about the overriding question, Do men get it? Any casual attitude toward rape is not only repugnant, it’s nascently criminal, yet still not a crime. And whether men get it or not, the solution to rape remains timeless, Daphne’s unfortunate remedy to the provocation of her body, for a woman to become not-a-woman, which is why you might have an attractive female friend who dresses in loose, unflattering clothes and binds and flattens the prominence of her breasts when she’s out on the street. Don’t look at me, I’m a tree.
In the mid-’70s, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, serving in the West Indies, and one day in the summer of 1976 I boarded a flight back to the States from St. Kitts and sat next to another Volunteer, a woman I didn’t know very well, who occupied the window seat. I had been newly transferred to the island from my post in St. Vincent, where things had gone horribly wrong. She had just finished her service on St. Kitts and was going home, a much different person than when she had arrived on the island two years earlier. As the plane took off from the capital, Basseterre, and banked along the mountainous coast, contoured fields of sugar cane plantations spreading out below her, she had burst into tears. She was an agricultural engineer and what she was looking at, the green foothills with sharp creases and embankments, was her own handiwork. Before she had arrived on the island, those mountainside fields of cane had been eroding into the sea at an alarming rate and she had introduced the planters to a conservationist program for tilling the treeless slopes and their steep and gullied landscape that would prevent the ground from sliding away during the rainy season, though her efforts had been interrupted mid-term by a nightmare. One evening a group of men had invaded her house and violently gang-raped her. Her physical injuries, severe enough to get her medevaced to the States, proved easier to heal than the psychological and emotional damage that was, and perhaps always would be, the consequence of the attack. Regardless of the very real, clearly present PTSD she was experiencing, she insisted she be returned to St. Kitts to complete her work there. She was, and she did, and as much as the island had changed her, she had changed the island.
I don’t know why what I’m about to say has proven to be so controversial in my experience, but it has: Throughout my life, women I have known, more than men I have known, have been my role models for bravery, the standard bearers for courage. Yet when I’ve declared this personal truth in public, from a podium, I’ve come to expect catcalls from somebody in the audience — always a woman, chastising me for somehow distorting her overwrought sense of equality between the sexes. Once a woman shouted out at me at a panel discussion in New York City, “Men can be raped too.”
Yes, that’s true, but most men don’t walk around the world with that on their mind. Most men outside of a prison lock-up have never entertained the notion of sexual vulnerability or fear, and especially sexual terror, as having anything remotely to do with them as prey. But among Peace Corps women, rape was always a topic du jour, and the prevailing wisdom implied that the rape you experienced overseas was not always as devastating or humiliating as the one you experienced back in DC, being debriefed and “counseled” by the bureaucracy. That old story, the victim re-victimized by the inherently unsympathetic and institutionally skeptical system.
Boys cry wolf, girls cry rape.
The night I became a target the context was sexual, but the targeting itself was inadvertent, for me a coincidence of time and place rather than gender. As a Peace Corps Volunteer I was stationed in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. I was a journalist assigned to the Ministry of Agriculture, and lived in a two-story house perched on a cliff above a yacht harbor a half-dozen miles outside of the capital, Kingstown, in a small village called Ratho Mill. The ministry had begun a program for registering farmers throughout the country, I was the public relations operative for the plan, and after we had finished registering farmers on the main island, we took a boat south to register the peasants in the Grenadine archipelago. A business trip then, and I was gone for about a week.
At the time I lived with three women in that house in Ratho Mill – Chiqui, a marine biologist from Colombia; Susan, a former girlfriend traveling through the islands, and Barbara, a new girlfriend who would later become my wife. Susan and Chiqui occupied the upstairs floor of the house, Barbara and I lived down below in a separate apartment with its own outside entrance.
Anyway, while I was away in the Grenadines, the three women were there in a man-empty house, and the house was being watched by a guy who would have also observed that my neighbor’s house was similarly empty.
I returned from the Grenadines to the main island of St. Vincent late on a Sunday afternoon, retrieved my motorcycle from the ministry parking lot, and drove out of the city for home, arriving in time for dinner, surprising my housemates, who didn’t know when to expect me back. I suppose I also surprised the man who had been watching the house, because it seems he was under the impression that only the three women lived there. Exhausted after dinner and several rounds of drinks, I headed outside by myself to the downstairs apartment, turned on the night light beside the bed, and lay down to read a book until Barbara came down to join me for the night. Before I dozed off reading, apparently I had removed my eyeglasses, because they weren’t on my face when I was startled awake sometime later to discover the dark shape of a man standing between my bed and the outside door. I remember my tongue forming animal noises and gibberish before the sounds coalesced into a sentence — Get out of here — and I jumped out of bed, blindly, to push the man back through the door. If I had on my glasses, perhaps I would have seen that the man had picked up my diving knife from the top of my desk and was holding it in his hand. But I never saw the knife until he swung it at my throat, when I blocked the thrust upward away from my neck and the blade caught me in the corner of my right eye, a centimeter short of taking my sight. By this time the three women on the upstairs floor had heard the commotion below and bolted the doors. The man had come for a woman, not me, and now as we stood facing each other, he made a half-hearted attempt to rob me and then, deciding to just abort his mission, flung the knife at my chest and raced out the door.
Upstairs, the women were terrified, their horror magnified when they finally opened the door and let me in and saw the blood pouring down my face, splattering my t-shirt and pants. I decided to get on my motorcycle and drive myself to the hospital and Barbara insisted on coming with me. As we left, Chiqui and Susan locked the door behind them and hunkered down with a machete and a heavy, iron-headed hoe to defend themselves if the man came back; and an hour later, the man came back, cutting the electricity to the house and slamming his shoulder against the door in a futile attempt to break in and assault the women, but after awhile he left and went up the road, I would later learn from the police, and found another woman to rape, a crime for which he had become a notorious local legend over the course of many years and many rapes. A very bad man, the people said, and never once prosecuted because his victims were too afraid to testify against him.
His wicked luck ran out with me however, and the rapist Delves McLean was convicted of Grievous Bodily Harm, the British Commonwealth’s version of attempted murder, and sentenced to seven years of hard labor in a prison camp, where he later died.
It would be an inaccurate use of the verb to stab to claim that I was stabbed by Delves McLean, the way a penis could be described as an instrument that stabs, but penetration is penetration, just like apples and oranges are both fruit, and a piece of steel was used to violate my flesh, to enter my body without consent, but I don’t really want to have to choose between a cock and a knife. There’s a common bond there of experience between any and all persons who have survived a physical assault, and then naturally the stories begin to separate from each other depending on biology and race and cultural baggage. Yet a truth endures — Bodies possess gender, meat contains no such thing. Meat doesn’t even have a name, let alone a voice. Is there any other revelation that can so shatter a life?
For almost a year I slept with my eyes open. For many years I would get angry with my wife if she did not close the blinds or the curtains when she would dress or undress or sometimes just stand clothed in front of a window of our house at night. Although I can’t say I ever had any general anxiety about her being assaulted or raped, I had developed some twilight sense of vigilance about prevention, and a sense of dread about the consequences for both of us should some miscreant get it into his head that here, inside my house, was something he had to have at any cost.
I am not a cop or a judge, measuring a gal with stone-faced certitude as I half-listen to her allegation. If I say I get it, I get it, I do, and yet I know my assertion gains me, in the opinion of some, nothing less than disbelief and scorn. But if you don’t think it’s possible for a man to understand the experience of a woman, stop reading right now and spend your time thinking of me, if at all, as you will. I honestly think there are worse things in life than being labeled a sexist or a racist or some other ugly thingist by someone who doesn’t know you, or care to know you. Some rancor-filled person looking for someone to blame and finding me.
If you’re not a white guy like me, what exactly do you want from a white guy, a white haired white guy at that, when it comes to identity politics? Wincing mea culpas? Loathsome confessions of guilt? If you want vengeance or reparations for historical crimes, chances are that tomorrow’s history and demographics will soon provide you with sweet victory. Congratulations. I’m fed up with white men running the world too, and I welcome the opportunity to be fed up with women and non-white people running the world. That’s the sort of egalitarianism I find perversely soothing.
Some women allow me to get it, other women bristle at the very idea and tell me not in a million years. Not in a million years could I understand the experience of a woman, not in ten million lifetimes could I, as a male, ever understand the experience of a woman who’s been raped. Can that be true? Are women truly that special, that unique? Are molestation, violation, humiliation, terror and trauma not to be comprehended across gender boundaries? Is it true that I could never fathom what it’s like to have a vagina torn and bruised. Are vaginas always a trump card in this discussion? Or perhaps I could imagine some aspect of the experience — the physical, the emotional, the psychological — but never the whole package? If I became transgender, would the door swing open? From their writings, it seems to me women have little difficulty imagining their way into the lives and psyches of men — why wouldn’t the converse be true? If women ever expect men to behave decently, they might then hope that men make an effort to imagine their way into a woman’s experience, to develop a well-toned faculty for empathy towards the lives of others. Once a man truly imagines his way into the terror and suffering of a sexual assault against a woman, how could he ever then choose to be intentionally responsible for that terror and suffering? And if the terror turns him on, even if only in his imagination, he’s got a problem, and it’s serious, and let’s ensure we separate him from other men when we try to define masculinity and male sexuality.
No matter how females may or may not behave, when men inflict physical injury upon women, the hurt expands far beyond hurt feelings, and it bewilders and outrages me that there have always been men on this planet who could care less, but their lives are the summation of the misogyny that has resided in us for tens of thousands of years.
I have a lot of straight guy friends who are misogynists, and they mystify me. For whatever reason, they seem to lack a certain patience — substitute whatever word you like here — when it comes to women. I’m not even sure they have libidos. They’ll go looking for a piece of ass every so often, but don’t really want to have a conversation with its owner afterward.
My fantasy life seems, more often than not, to be a production of my libido. I daydream quite a bit about sex, and although I’ve idly wondered what it might be like to have been a Roman legionnaire or a conquering soldier, pillaging and plundering and raping, I’ve never dwelled on the scenario or tried to visualize the experience, and I’ve never fantasized about rape, even if it seems as if I’m splitting hairs here. I’ve never watched a beheading on the internet, or the immolation of the Jordanian pilot, and I’ve never played a video game except Pac-Man back in the Paleolithic Age, let alone pissed away hours and days on the blood-drenched games that make billions of dollars a year for their creators. Although I’m well aware that we Americans are a war-crazed tribe, I don’t get violence, except to acknowledge its dubious value as entertainment in our culture, and my fantasies about violence last about as long as it takes to pull an imaginary trigger when I see some asshole run a red light. I do watch my share of porn on the Internet, and I’m happy to, although I consider misogyny to be the enemy of eroticism, and I’ll click off, not jack off, at any obvious degradation of women, like money shots, which fill me with disgust. Are there women who actually enjoy having their faces slimed with jism? Really? Gee whiz.
Am I confused or ideologically promiscuous? No, but our post-modern culture (or whatever we’re calling our culture these days) has a tendency to mix up too many things that cannot be readily sorted. It’s harder to separate the good from the bad when the boundaries insist on blurring.
It’s a Saturday in February in 2015, and I’m riding down the road with two women friends, let’s call them Sally and Jill, and our dogs, which we’re going to exercise in the forest south of town. Sally and Jill are successful writers, feminist activists, good humored, middle aged, sexy without trying, one married and one newly separated, always easy to talk to about anything, and we’re talking about rape, because that’s what I’ve been thinking about lately, given the headlines from campus and the imminent release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. Then we’re talking about women who fantasize about being raped. Jill says she often does. I say, Really? Sally says she never has. Jill says, Really?
I’ve known women who have confided in me such a fantasy. Twice in my life a woman has asked me to pretend to rape her, but faux rape, just-for-fun rape, has no more appeal to me than the real thing, although, like the tens of millions of female fans of Fifty Shades of Gray, I get that domination has a magnetic allure, and power dynamics are an inevitable part of sexual encounters. But pretending to attack you? I can’t do it. And I’m pretty sure that when Jill fantasizes about rape she’s not composing scenes where she’s lying there with a broken jaw or teeth marks on her breasts or purple bruises on her inner thighs.
Navigating the paradox between fantasy and reality is tricky play, sometimes even dangerous, for both sexes. But if either Jill or Sally let it be known to me she nurtured a fantasy of purity, I would have been appalled.
Am I a good guy? I hope the people who know me best would answer yes, but I’ve never got the sense from women, except my mother, that they needed me to be completely good. Occasionally, I can’t decipher where the boundaries are, their boundaries, but I do know mine, my own limitations across the spectrum of action and consciousness, and they don’t include the inability to imagine my way into your life and understand you. Can we please strike that from the conversation and go from there.
I realize that, except in broadstrokes, one person’s experience is not another person’s experience, and what I find repellent you might find desirable, but sometimes the universality of human experience is just as important and vital as the details that create distance between me and you. From reading the literature about rape, from talking to generations of students and talking with my female friends, I have a pretty good idea how many women in our society have been raped, but I don’t know how to use that information except as a caveat and a prayer and a sort of fiber to help build what Immanuel Kant called “the moral law within.”
For homo sapiens without that internal compass and code, if they were beasts in the wilderness, and devoured us to satisfy their hunger, that would be a better course of affairs, and justifiable in the cosmos. Instead, whether presidents or paupers, they bring misery and untold pain into the lives of decent people, for no good reason, for no reason whatsoever except their own depravity, and that is the shame of our species.
Bob Shacochis’ first collection of stories, Easy in the Islands, won the National Book Award for First Fiction, and his second collection, The Next New World, was awarded the Prix de Rome from the Academy of Arts and Letters. He is also the author of the novel Swimming in the Volcano, a finalist for The National Book Award, and The Immaculate Invasion, a work of literary reportage that was a finalist for The New Yorker Literary Award for Best Nonfiction Book of the Year. The Woman Who Lost Her Soul was a Best Book of the Year in ten major publications and on NPR and a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.
Shacochis is a contributing editor for Outside, and his op-eds on the U.S. military, Haiti, and Florida politics have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal.