When you die you’ll go to hell

Wendy Steiner

  • Virgin or Vamp: How the Press Covers Sex Crimes by Helen Benedict
    Oxford, 309 pp, £22.50, February 1993, ISBN 0 19 506680 4
  • Reproducing Rape: Domination through Talk in the Courtroom by Gregory Matoesian
    Polity, 256 pp, £45.00, February 1993, ISBN 0 7456 1036 6

‘Sticks and stones may break my bones ...’ Like most children, I learned this piece of wisdom with tears streaming down my face, hurt to the quick by the taunts of my playmates. At the time, it seemed a very foolish statement. What was this splitting of hurt into ‘real’ injury and ‘unreal’ feeling? I certainly felt hurt. Recently I learned that there is a second verse: ‘When you die you’ll go to hell, and suffer all you called me.’ I think I would have liked these lines when I was a child. Growing up in a secular culture, I never expected retribution in another world – unreal words turned back into real hurts and visited on their perpetrators. I lived instead with a paradoxical stoicism: that insults were not injury, words were not deeds, representation not reality, and art not life, but at the same time that insults, words, representations and art were important in the realm of the real. This is a piece of casuistry necessary, as I see it, to First Amendment freedoms, liberal democracy and sanity. But that does not mean that it is any the less problematic than that first, childhood splitting of word and reality.

In America today, the delicate distinction between representation and reality is under assault. The photographing of children in the nude is often prosecuted more vigorously than actual child abuse. The media and the academy waste endless hours debating the morality of politically correct language, while the economic inequality suffered by minorities remains unaffected. ‘Rap music is really rape music,’ say some feminists, arguing that outlawing pornography will end violence against women. Were those who use this argument to get their way, we would sink into a fundamentalist nightmare where verbal insult is injury, punishable as crime.

Helen Benedict’s Virgin and Vamp and Gregory Matoesian’s Reproducing Rape are part of this assault: they seek to combat rape by reforming the way it is described. Although Benedict’s book is a journalist’s critique of rape coverage in the press and Matoesian’s a technical (i.e. jargon-ridden) analysis of the exchanges between defence lawyers and victims in rape trials, they proceed from virtually identical assumptions about the role of rape in our culture. Both present America in a state of crisis. William Kennedy Smith, Mike Tyson and Clarence Thomas are just the tip of the iceberg; the statistics are horrific. Rape is increasing four times faster than any other crime. Anywhere from 20 to 44 per cent of girls in their early teens can expect to suffer rape or attempted rape in their lifetimes, and most of their assailants will go unpunished. In one survey, ‘out of 109 rape cases, only eight – four trial and four plea-bargained – resulted in a rape conviction’ compared with 51 per cent for manslaughter; in another, only 9.5 per cent of rapes were reported to the police, 2 per cent resulted in arrest, and 1 per cent in convictions. And to those who suspect that all these unpunished rapes occurred only in the victims’ imagination, it is worth pointing out that the FBI estimates the rate of false reports of rape at 2 per cent – the same as for other serious crimes. No, we are told, rape is real and it is epidemic. ‘It’s becoming open season on women,’ a rape victim’s father protested. ‘Kill your date, trash her reputation, and pay big bucks to get away with murder.’ How is it, these books demand, that such a vicious crime is both so widespread and so ineffectually prosecuted?

Until the Eighties, rape was thought to be a consequence of psychological dysfunction. When studies revealed the prevalence of the crime and the fact that fewer than 5 per cent of rapists were clinically psychotic at the time of the assault, this explanation was abandoned in favour of the feminist account, according to which ‘male violence constitutes a socially structured mode of domination in which rape and the fear of rape produce and reproduce patriarchal social organisation – sustaining female subordination to males.’ Rape is most common, the experts say, in cultures in which the sexes are segregated, males are dominant, and interpersonal violence is frequent; ‘rape-free societies’ (which apparently exist) are built on greater equality, respect and everyday contact between men and women.

The next step in the argument is most famously made in the work of Catharine MacKinnon, a professor of law and anti-pornography activist, and her co-polemicist, the novelist Andrea Dworkin. They and an army of feminist journalists, artists and scholars blame art, the media and language itself for reinforcing the patriarchal ideology promoting rape. ‘Rape and sexual violence against women are reproduced and legitimated through culturally mediated interpretative devices which justify, excuse and glorify male violence against females.’ Matoesian writes: ‘patriarchal myths severely constrain the contextual discovery and reporting of rape by blaming the victim, by limiting our perception of rape to “real” rapes, that is, to the cultural stereotype of the rapist as a violent stranger jumping out of the bushes and attacking a woman, and by rationalising rape through culturally approved sexual scripts which define males as aggressive and females as passive.’ Matoesian goes so far as to claim that the defence’s cross-examination is a symbolic re-enactment of the rape itself: ‘Trial talk is the incarnation of rape.’

The same rape myths, according to Benedict, determine the way newspapers cover the crime. Since most crime reporters and editors are men, rape is presented to the public from an overwhelmingly ‘male perspective’. Benedict cites as typical New York Post reporter Bill Hoffman’s comment on the Jennifer Levin case: ‘It was sex, tits and ass, and a strangling – we knew it would sell.’ Benedict compiles a list of the rape myths: that rape is motivated by sexual desire rather than violent aggression; that the assailant is usually perverted, crazy, black or lower-class; and that women provoke rape or are so loose or so careless that they bring this punishment on themselves. The truth, she insists, is that rape is a crime of opportunity in which a usually sane man of any class or race dominates a woman (or in 7 to 10 per cent of cases, another man), humiliates her, and causes her bodily injury. Benedict calls it ‘sexual torture’.

In the newspapers, as in the courtroom, the victim is presented in one of two ways: as a vamp, who ‘by her looks, behaviour or generally loose morality, drove the man to such extremes of lust that he was compelled to commit the crime’ or as a virgin, a total innocent sullied by a depraved monster. Even in the most virginal of scenarios, however, the victim’s culpability is at issue. In the Jennifer Levin case, where a wealthy young woman was raped and killed by a boyfriend, the papers explained ‘how Jennifer courted death’, and in that of the Central Park jogger, gang-raped and left for dead, the tabloids harped on the fact that she had gone running in the park alone at night – that in all her privilege ‘she knew no fear.’ In cases where the victim can’t be presented as a complete innocent she becomes a defendant. The press described the woman in New Bedford, Massachusetts, who was gang-raped on a pool table in Big Dan’s Tavern with a roomful of cheering onlookers, as an unmarried mother who had gone out alone to a bar late at night. This woman (played by Jodie Foster in The Accused) was finally hounded out of town by the general opinion that a no-good woman – a woman who had been asking for trouble – had disgraced the proud Portuguese community of New Bedford.

Benedict points out that the earliest reporting of rape in America was associated with lynchings. The ‘folk pornography’ of the Bible Belt, these stories helped to establish contemporary rape myths by picturing a pure, white, middle or upper-class victim assailed by a poor black who attacked his betters by dirtying their proudest possession – their women. The legacy of this stereotype is still with us. The fascination of the press with the Portuguese character of New Bedford was taken as a slur against Portuguese-Americans. With the Central Park jogger, ‘because the preconceived narrative would not allow the press to portray the jogger as having enticed her assailants beyond endurance [sic], it had to slot the youths into the alternative “weird pervert” cliché instead ... The press described the suspects’ – who were black – ‘as monsters, animals and mutants. In doing so, the press came to sound more and more racist.’

As both Benedict and Matoesian proceed, their books begin to read like an attack on clichés as such. Get the clichés and you get the crime. If we consider which clichés are in question (‘virgin’, ‘vamp’, ‘racial monster’), their concern seems understandable. But when Benedict wants to know why the press went to such lengths to attribute Levin’s murder to ‘anything but’ her attacker, Chambers ‘himself’, she is trying to bypass any notion of group identity. Her objection would lead to the explanation that Chambers committed rape because he was Chambers, and though this is possibly as informative as much of the press speculation, it isn’t exactly a causal account.

Clichés of race, class and gender are often condensed ‘folk’ accounts of motivation. Poverty, inadequate socialisation, psychological disorder are the only ways we have to make sense of transgression. They are the backbone of the social sciences and the realist novel alike, whose histories are intertwined with those of crime reporting and penology. That these causal ‘stories’ are racist, sexist and classist is obvious. If a white middle-class woman avoids situations in which she might encounter a black man in a slum, she is shaping her life in terms of clichés that are unacceptable. (Of course, if she ignores them and has a bad experience as a result, the papers will call her reckless.) In deploring these clichés, however, both Matoesian and Benedict replace them with a stereotype as simplistic and offensive as the ones they seek to eradicate: patriarchy, the culture-wide prejudice against women. Benedict complains about the frenzy of ‘explanations’ in the Central Park case: ‘They tried to blame the crime on rap music, on the lack of fathers in the boys’ lives, on the lack of a death penalty, on Mayor Koch, on television and the movies, on schools, on boredom, on teenage lust, on peer pressure and even on the full moon ... The press never looked at the most glaring reason of all for rape: society’s attitude toward women.’

The desperate proliferating of causes here resembles the procedure in The Executioner’s Song, where Mailer documented the attempts of experts and laypeople of every stripe to explain Gary Gilmore’s ultimately inexplicable murder of two petrol-station attendants whom he did not know. Deprivation, drugs, bad parents, bad karma – the causal clichés pile up. The one thing Mailer never considers is society’s attitude to men.

Though patriarchy doubtless plays its part in rape, the ‘reason’ such violent crimes occur is unfathomable. People come up with inadequate explanatory clichés in order to convince themselves that they have some control over this situation, that they are not subject to utter randomness. Rape happens only to bad girls, they claim; or if a good girl is raped, it’s because the world contains some monsters – crazy or vindictive – and you can stay home if you want to avoid them. Naive as this may be – a great many rapes occur at home – the thought that we might be living in a world in which ordinary men rape women without guilt or remorse, and in which the establishment condones their behaviour as a way of keeping women in line, is unbearable. Nightmares sometimes come true, of course, but it is not surprising that people resist such a version of reality.

The standard account of patriarchy, moreover, leaves every man at least a potential rapist. Since most rapes will not be surprise attacks by strangers, the problem has been to determine, when there is no proof of violence, whether a rape has taken place, or what, ultimately, counts as rape. The reason defence lawyers badger victims about their previous contact with the accused, their sexual history, and the familiarities they permitted prior to the alleged rape is to discover whether the accused might have been justified in thinking that sexual intercourse was consensual. According to Matoesian, this kind of thinking is pure patriarchy – ‘the male all-or-nothing, impersonal and aggressive standard of sexual practice and access’ in which a woman who agrees to intimacy in effect consents to intercourse. This convergence of the law and patriarchy ‘enshrines male predatory sexual activity as the normal model of sexuality’.

For Benedict and Matoesian, women are disadvantaged by definition; so when it comes to a clash of interpretations in the bedroom or the courtroom, they inevitably lose. Catharine MacKinnon comments that ‘the legal problem has been to determine whose view ... constitutes what really happened, as if what happened objectively exists to be determined ... The rape law ... presumes a single underlying reality, rather than a reality split by the divergent meanings inequality produces.’ The implication in all such thinking is that if a woman feels she has been raped, she has been raped. The purpose of the patriarchal rape trial or reportage is to translate her characterisation of her experience into one that does not involve male criminality. There is no room in such a scenario for the presumption of innocence; any defence that entails a determination of whether the accused had good reason to assume the victim’s consent becomes an instance of blaming the victim. What had a victim’s ‘intelligence, schooling, dates or boyfriends to do with her murder?’ Benedict asks. ‘Indeed, why was she being scrutinised at all? Her very presence in this story served to condemn her because it implied that her behaviour had as much to do with the crime as did his’ – and this possibility, apparently, should not be entertained.

‘Patriarchy’ in these books involves some extraordinary assumptions about what is male or female. For example, Matoesian is incensed when a defence attorney asks a victim whether she was voluntarily necking in a car with the man she says raped her: ‘“necking” naturalises a trajectory from touching ... to intercourse ... that is not gender-neutral, but ... male-governed.’ It may not be a good thing, but it isn’t only men who take this ‘trajectory’ for granted: I find it hard to believe that a large percentage of women have not ‘naturalised’ it as well. When a defence attorney tries to discredit a victim by showing inconsistencies in her testimony, Matoesian claims that since the attribution of inconsistency involves power (and power is male), ‘inconsistency is inconsistency from a male, not female perspective.’ One might argue about whether a given inconsistency is enough to invalidate a victim’s testimony, but surely the fact of inconsistency is not a matter of gender perspective.

Lest Matoesian’s pro-feminist stance itself seem an inconsistency, considering that he is a man and that he claims that patriarchy is all-determining, we should bear in mind that he is talking about a patriarchal ideology – manifest in language, the courts and the press – and not masculinity or men per se. And yet, as soon as we make this distinction between ideology and individual, claims about the totalising power of ideology become questionable.

The critique of patriarchy is at its weakest in its assault on representation. Matoesian cites several authorities to back him up in his view that words are deeds. J. Thompson, for example:

The analysis of ideology is fundamentally concerned with language, for language is the principal medium of meaning (signification) which serves to sustain relations of domination. Speaking a language is a way of acting, emphasised Austin and others; what they forgot to add is that ways of acting are infused with forms of power ... ‘Language is not only an instrument of communication or even of knowledge,’ writes Bourdieu, ‘but also an instrument of power. One seeks not only to be understood but also to be believed, obeyed, respected, distinguished.’

One may seek to be believed through language, but success is not thereby preordained.

Some usages may manifest patriarchal attitudes, but their disappearance would not eradicate the injustice, violence and inequality women often suffer. It is a sign of the powerlessness people now feel – after so much equal-rights activism and legislation have still not rid America of sexism (or racism) – that the attack has switched to an analysis of language.

Few would deny that the thinking that lies behind civil rights laws would produce a more civil society if translated into everyday behaviour. But this transformation hasn’t happened yet, and activists are becoming impatient. Who would imagine, Richard Perry and Patricia Williams ask, ‘that the brave people who faced fire hoses and police dogs and who sat-in at lunch counters in the Fifties and Sixties were after nothing more than, say, the market freedom of an individual black American to eat a grilled cheese sandwich in the company of raving bigots’? And yet the problem is how much exposés or scholarly treatises or the barrage of discussion in the universities can do to bring about genuine tolerance, empathy, and ultimately, politeness. If patriarchy is as ingrained as Matoesian and Benedict tell us it is, ‘verbal rape’ will hardly shrink at the onslaught of reason. It is also hard to credit an anti-rape activism that proceeds from assumptions as crude as the misogyny and anti-feminism it seeks to eradicate.

‘Let’s play cops and robbers,’ one little boy says to another. ‘Get out your guns.’

‘I don’t have any.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because my daddy and mummy can’t tell the difference between toy guns and real ones.’

It is time we learned to tell toy guns from real ones, and attacked social problems through their real manifestations – not because words can never hurt us but because injustice does so much more to break our bones and spirits.