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 full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in