Posts Tagged ‘Rape’

Warning the First: The following views are those of a disgruntled person. Long-term conclusions may be more moderate with hindsight.

Warning the Second: Spoilers for All The Things.  

Internets, I have finally snapped on the subject of YA dystopias.

Half an hour ago, I ran myself a bath and settled in with Fever, the sequel to Lauren DeStefano’s Wither, which I read last year and particularly enjoyed. Rather than recap the story so far, I’ll refer you to Goodreads should you require a detailed plot summary, but in brief, the setting is a romantic/sexual dystopia, and at the end of Wither, protagonist-narrator Rhine had just escaped her forced marriage with the help of her love-interest Gabriel. Fever picks up their story immediately after this point, with our two young lovers scrambling out of the ocean to – they imagine – freedom. Heading inland, they encounter a carnival and are quick-smart captured by Madame, the proprietor, for whom this title is also a job description. Within about ten seconds, Madame has given Rhine a new name – Goldenrod – and taken her up in the still-operational Ferris wheel to talk about becoming one of her girls, where, despite her fear, Rhine can’t help but marvel at the beauty of the world seen from on high:

The seat rocks a little as I settle into it. Madame sits beside me and pulls the overhead bar down so that it locks us in. We start to move, and I’m breathless for an instant as we ascend forward and into the sky.

The earth gets father and farther away. The tents look like bright round candles. The girls move about them, shadows.

I can’t help myself; I lean forward, astounded. This wheel is five, ten, fifteen times taller than the lighthouse I climbed in the hurricane. Higher even than the fence that kept me trapped as Linden’s bride…

Even my brother, who is all practicality, would have his breath taken away by this height, these lights, the clarity of this night sky.

And that’s when I stopped reading.*

Because all of a sudden, it hit me: I’d seen this device before. In the opening scenes of Carrie Ryan’s The Dead-Tossed Waves, the second volume in her YA zombie dystopia series, protagonist Gabry and her love-interest Catcher defy the rules to enter a zombie-infested amusement park. Not unsurprisingly, things go wrong pretty quickly; nonetheless, there’s still time for some opening nostalgia about carnivals:

The story goes that even after the Return they tried to keep the roller coasters going. They said it reminded them of the before time. When they didn’t have to worry about people rising from the dead, when they didn’t have to build fences and walls and barriers to protect themselves…

Even after the Forest was shut off, one last gasp at sequestering the infection and containing the Mudo, the carousel kept turning, the coasters kept rumbling, the teacups kept spinning. Though my town of Vista was far away from the core of the Protectorate, they hoped people would come fly along the coasters. Would still want to forget.

More recently still, a decaying carnival appeared in Veronica Roth’s Divergent, another YA dystopia about which I had very mixed feelings. Midway through, heroine Tris and her love-interest Four climb an abandoned Ferris wheel to use it as a vantage point during a wargame:

Four sits down on the edge of the carousel, leaning against a plastic horse’s foot. His eyes lift to the sky, where there are no stars, only a round moon peeking through a thin layer of clouds…

When I stare up at the Ferris wheel from the ground, my throat feels tighter. It is taller than I thought, so tall I can barely see the cars swinging at the top. The only good thing about its height is that it is built to support weight. If I climb it, it won’t collapse beneath me…

When I look at the city again, the building isn’t in my way. I’m high enough to see the skyline. Most of the buildings are black against a navy sky, but the red lights at the top of the Hub are lit up. They blink half as fast as my heartbeat.

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with three separate YA dystopias all including amusement parks. After all, they’re dystopias! It makes sense that the characters would encounter the ruined edifices of modern times, and from an aesthetic point of view, there’s something particularly powerful and haunting about the imagery of an abandoned Ferris wheel. But what jerked me out of Fever was less the presence of a repeated motif than what its usage seemed to represent: the romanticising of our present, and therefore a softening of the pertinent social criticism that ought to be an inherent part of dystopian fiction.

That’s a big claim, I know. But before I go on to defend it, I’d like to present a fourth except in contrast to the previous three, taken from yet another YA dystopia: Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies. Here, protagonist Tally and her friend Shay are hoverboarding along the tracks of an old roller coaster – something Shay has done before, but which Tally has not.

It was like a hoverboard course made solid, complete with tight, banked turns, sharp climbs followed by long drops, even loops that took Tally upside down, her crash bracelets activating to keep her on board. It was amazing what good shape it was in. The Rusties must have built it out of something special, just as Shay had said…

Tally followed at top speed, rocketing up the spindly track. She could see the ruins in the distance: broken, black spires against the trees. And behind them, a moonlight glimmer that might have been the sea. This really was high!…

Suddenly, the board dropped out from under her. It simply fell away from her feet, leaving her flying through midair. The track below her had disappeared…

Then Tally saw the framework of the roller coaster ahead. Only a short segment was missing… Her momentum had carried her to the other side of the gap! The board must have sailed along with her, just below her feet for those terrifying seconds of free fall.

She found herself cruising down the track, to where Shay was waiting at the bottom. “You’re insane!” she shouted.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

“No!” Tally yelled. “Why didn’t you tell me it was broken?”

Shay shrugged. “More fun that way?”

“More fun?” Her heart was beating fast, her vision strangely clear. She was full of anger and relief and… joy. “Well, kind of. But you suck!”

At first glance, it might seem fairly arbitrary as to why I’ve chosen this final scene as a contrast to the others. All four excerpts show female protagonists either experiencing or thinking about the decaying rides of modern-day theme parks; all four mention the height and the view – which is understandable – and all four ladies are in places they shouldn’t be: Rhine has been captured by Madame for trespassing, Gabry is going into a forbidden area, Tris is risking her neck to climb a rickety structure and Tally is breaking multiple laws to follow Shay’s lead. Stylistically, there’s an obvious divide in that DeStefano, Ryan and Roth are all writing in the immediate first person, while Westerfeld uses omniscient third, but that’s vastly less important than the subtext of each scene. Neither is it divided along romantic lines. True, Tally is the only one not thinking about or travelling with a boy, but that’s only because she hasn’t met her love-interest yet, and this is a long-game point.

No: it’s that Westerfeld’s characters are the only ones to find a new use for their carnival, and whose appropriation therefore makes us critique its original purpose. Tally and Shay are the only ones having fun.

Rhine rides her wheel passively – she’s been forced onto it, after all – but takes the chance to reflect on how carefree our world used to be, before it broke into hers. Gabry’s thoughts run down similar paths, despite the fact that she never actually makes it onto a ride. Tris and Four turn their own wheel into a vantage point, true, and there’s a moment prior to their ascension when another character jokes about what a present-day version would entail – “A Dauntless Ferris wheel wouldn’t have cars. You would just hang on tight with your hands, and good luck to you.” – but this introspection ultimately goes nowhere: the scene is about Tris’s bravery and her relationship with Four, not a commentary on funfairs, and though their climb is dangerous, the Ferris wheel is not forbidden territory.

But in Uglies, there’s a double subversion to Shay and Tally’s scene. Not only have they broken the rules by visiting the ruin, but their use of the tracks as a hoverboard route is much more dangerous than if they’d found and ridden a still-functional roller coaster. Where the original ride was safety masquerading as danger, Shay turns the tables on Tally, tricking her into doing something genuinely risky: jumping an unknown gap. And while Tally’s first reaction is anger, she’s also a bit elated, too – her success is thrilling, empowering, and all the more so because the threat of mishap was real. While DeStefano and Ryan invoke a deliberate nostalgia for the present day through the inner thoughts of their characters, and where Roth’s narration makes us consider the image of a decaying past without offering hope for the future, Westerfeld makes his audience realise that, compared to Shay and Tally’s world, our own is safe – but perhaps, in some fundamental way, less satisfying because of it.

As a subgenre, dystopia has its roots in social criticism. The big adult classics – Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale – all end bleakly for the protagonists: their purported futures are warnings, and at least part of their purpose is to make us wonder what horrors our own bad, real-world decisions could ultimately engender. This is not to say that all adult dystopias are concerned with social what-ifs: Cormac McCarthy’s award-winning The Road is unremittingly bleak, devoid of human society – an apocalyptic vision more than a twisted take on human folly – while William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a study of children breaking down into violence, barbarism and anarchy in the absence of any higher moral guidance. By contrast, the archetypal YA dystopia – Lois Lowry’s The Giver – ends on an ambiguous note, leaving its young protagonist, Jonas, hovering somewhere between death and salvation; either way, though, he is free. While Orwell’s Winston is crushed into conformity, Huxley’s savage driven to suicide and McCarthy’s nameless father murdered, Jonas’s story ends on a vision of hope. The closest comparison is with Atwood’s Offred – we don’t see whether her escape succeeds, though the epilogue assures us of her world’s eventual recuperation – but even then, this knowledge is divorced from Offred’s voice. If the job of adult dystopia is to caution, therefore, it seems fair to suggest that the role of YA dystopia is to reassure: not, to paraphrase G. K. Chesterton, because they tell us that broken societies are survivable, but because they tell us broken societies can be changed.

Which tradition is now upheld by Fever, The Dead-Tossed Waves, Divergent and Uglies alike: even in the case of any as-yet incomplete series, the narrative arc is such that progress is definitely on the agenda. And yet, for all that, there’s a maddening dearth of danger and consequence both in the bulk of YA dystopias – danger, which is here distinct from action, and consequence, which is here distinct from loss. Battle scenes and dead companions are staples of YA dystopia, and yet they tend to feel like punches pulled, potential roundhouse blows swerving away from successive protagonists and into their nearest and dearest. Loss is the moment when Divergent’s Tris loses both her parents and keeps on fighting; consequence, though, is where Katniss Everdeen – the battle-scarred heroine of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – is left to live with PTSD, irrevocably haunted by the catastrophe of war. Loss, to draw a comparison with another recent bugbear of mine, hints at romanticised damage; consequence does not. Similarly, action is successive protagonists being thrown into battles where the stakes are either death, which seldom afflicts main characters, or the sort of coercion that leaves no marks (and which, when combined with loss, is typified by an absence of psychological scarring). Danger is when the risks involve actual physical and/or mental change – and when the protagonist doesn’t emerge unscathed.

For reasons which are complex and fascinating enough to merit an essay of their own, a staggering number of YA dystopias with female protagonists are concerned with sexuality and romance. In these stories, partners are chosen by higher powers (Matched and Crossed, Ally Condie), love is branded a disease (Delirium and Pandemonium, Lauren Oliver), teenage pregnancy is a way of life (Bumped and Thumped, Megan McCafferty), and brides are stolen freely (Wither and Fever, Lauren DeStefano). At the other end of the scale are female warriors: gladiators-turned-revolutionaries (The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins), questing cage-fighters (Blood Red Road,   Moira Young), face-changing dissidents (Uglies, Pretties, Specials and Extras, Scott Westerfeld), soldiers-in-training (Divergent and Insurgent, Veronica Roth) and zombie-fighting survivors (The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Dead-Tossed Waves and The Dark and Hollow Places, Carrie Ryan). All of these books provoke questions about identity and agency; all of them, too, relate to ongoing political discourse about the role of women in society, whether in terms of sexual freedom or women as front line fighters. But while some of them actively embrace this critical aspect – seeking, in the spirit of dystopia, to make us question both the real world and the fictional – others instead provoke only a sense of gratitude for our distance from their settings. They might still be reflective of current issues, but they shy away from making us make the connection, because their ultimate purpose isn’t to encourage questions.

And this, to return to my opening statement, is why I’ve finally snapped. It’s the Ferris wheel effect: a nostalgia for the present day rooted in being grateful for what we have, rather than in asking where we’re headed. It’s dystopia with the safeties on – and that is, to me, an alarming inversion of how the genre should work. I have nothing against stories being written purely for escapist purposes, but dystopia is not the ideal genre for it. Of course, as in all things, your mileage may vary, in which case you’re wholly entitled to disagree. Yet I’d ask that you ask yourself: what, exactly, is escapist about an uncritical dystopia? While critical protagonists set out to change society, allowing us the fantasy of  being world-altering revolutionaries, uncritical protagonists remain wrapped up in themselves, dealing with immediate, personal obstacles rather than tackling their root causes. Such characters can still change the world, of course – or rather, be instrumental in its change – but the difference is one of intention: their rebellion stems from a desire to be left alone, not to combat injustice, and this difference shows in how the story treats them. They are kept safer than their critical counterparts – exposed to action and loss, rather than danger and consequence – because if something sufficiently bad were to happen or be realistically threatened, then their stories would no longer stand as purely escapist fictions: the audience would no longer want to share in their experiences.

Trigger warning for this paragraph, because we’re going to talk about rape and sexual assault – which are, for me, the crashing, trumpeting elephants in the room in far too many dystopias. On the one hand: these are big issues that ought not be treated lightly. I can understand entirely why authors shy away from mentioning them. They are dark themes, frightening and raw, capable of completely transforming the tone and scope of a book. On the other hand, though: if you build a dystopian society based around the capture, sale and slavery of women – and particularly if the reason for this is tied to pregnancy – then you are automatically inviting this threat to exist. More, if your protagonist is female and she’s trying to escape this world, then you have guaranteed the relevance of this threat. This doesn’t mean your character must be assaulted. It does mean, however, that you need a convincing explanation as to why. Not mentioning it at all, even in passing, strikes me as a form of erasure; a denial of consequence, and a dismissal of the very real trauma suffered by millions of women. If the audience can reasonably infer that rape is a thing that happens in your dystopia, then you are doing a disservice both to us and to the intelligence of your heroine to keep it hidden. The real world has a vile enough culture of silencing without extending a “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy to fiction, too.

To be absolutely, brutally clear: I am in no way saying that what YA dystopias need is for more teenage girls to be raped. I am saying that in instances where the plots of YA dystopias are heavily concerned with the control of women’s bodies and female sexuality, failing to even mention rape or assault as part of those societies is not only unrealistic, but an undermining of discourse.

In Delirium, Lauren Oliver does an excellent job of pointing out the perils of her society – all save one. In a world where everyone is effectively lobotomised at eighteen to ‘cure’ them of amor deliria nervosa – love – it makes perfect sense that kindness, hugging, casual touching, kissing and other such tactile displays of affection would all be taboo, reclassified as symptoms of the disease. She mentions, too, the reality of cured parents sometimes killing their children out of anger or exasperation, unable to form the usual parental bond, while married couples – forbidden to choose each other for emotional reasons – consent to be matched by the state. The book is beautifully written and world-built, exquisitely characterised and absolutely compelling. Yet there’s a hole in the heart of it, a question I can’t quite shake: the cure erases love, yes, but what about sexual desire? The two are not synonymous, and though there’s some overlap in which areas of the brain control them – both involve the anterior cingulate cortex, which is connected to the amygdala – sexual brain-mapping lights up multiple other regions. Which begs the question: in a world without love and greatly reduced compassion, where emotions are muted but where – we assume, given that people still reproduce the traditional way – human beings continue to experience sexual arousal, what sort of horrors go on behind closed doors?

Oliver’s world is totalitarian. Its military forces are cold and unyielding, freed from the usual human compassion for their charges. Love might be impossible among the populace, but as the story continually demonstrates, violence is not – and at least for me, that opens the door for a society rife with sexual abuse. Incorporating that possibility into the story, however, would have radically changed its scope. I understand why Oliver chose instead to tacitly infer that the cure, as well as erasing love, also eliminated rape. Delirium is still one of the best dystopias I’ve read in years, and a book I heartily recommend. For all that it doesn’t treat with societal sexuality, it nonetheless counts as a critical dystopia, commenting powerfully on freedom of choice, totalitarianism, propagandising, religion and individualism, inviting direct contrast with present day issues. Yet it, like far too many of its fellows, shrinks from discussing institutionalised misogyny and the specific issues of female oppression.

And this is a problem for me, because it seems to cut to the heart of a different discussion: the perennial questing after strong and varied female characters in SFF. I dislike the oft-floated image of YA books didactically Teaching Lessons To Teenagers; dislike, too, the inference that writing for young adults inherently entails a greater moral responsibility than writing for adults. The primary point of fiction – any fiction – is not preaching. But the lack of a moral burden is not the same as an absence of critical thought, and it strikes me that maybe one of the reasons we’re still having this conversation about the merits of various female characters is because, despite our best efforts, we’re still stuck in a mindset of gender protectiveness, particularly in YA. By which I mean: if you consider the image of a little boy hitting a little girl to be inherently worse than if he were hitting another boy, then we have a problem.

To be clear: targeted physical violence against women is still as much of a global epidemic as sexual violence. It would be hypocritical to suggest that YA dystopias ought to tackle the latter but ignore the former, especially given their penchant for producing physically aggressive heroines who are just as strong or stronger than men, and seemingly without effort. Quite the opposite: I’m actually starting to wonder if, rather than representing an idealised physical equality, such warrior-heroines are really gifted with strength in order to keep them safe, in much the same way that their romance-seeking counterparts are protected from sexual violence by the pretense that it doesn’t exist. In both cases, it seems like the fictional solution to two of the biggest women’s issues going – our physical and sexual vulnerability – is not to confront them, but to erase the reason they exist. That’s what I mean by protectionism: we’re afraid to have our heroines suffer the same dangers as real-world women, and so we keep them safe, bestowing on them unnatural strength if they’re going to fight battles, or removing the threat of rape if they’re going to encounter sexual prejudice. This is by no means a problem exclusive to YA or even dystopia, but my suspicion is that this combination of genres in particular serves to magnify it.

Under such circumstances, then, is it any surprise that we’re still asking ourselves how best to write a wide and gorgeous range of women? It’s not that we don’t understand female versatility – it’s that deep down, we still shy away from having our female characters confront real danger and consequence. Fearful of writing victims, we pretend that victimisation doesn’t exist, and so disengage from the dialogue about how such victimisation might be halted; but of all genres, dystopia shouldn’t shrink from ugly truths – regardless of the age of the audience.

By the end of Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, Tally Youngblood has undergone multiple transformations: from her natural self to a cosmetically enhanced Pretty, and last to a fearsome Special. Offered the chance to return to who she originally was, she refuses and finds herself imprisoned: her allies want to indoctrinate her into thinking such a reversal is for the best. But Tally is stubborn. As dangerous as she’s become, the only way forward is for her to rewire herself, alone: to become something new, no matter how uncomfortable her self-acceptance makes other people.

And if YA dystopias are serious about offering social criticism – if they really want to discuss the role of women in society – then they need to do the same.

* For now. I do plan to finish the book!

My current laptop was purchased around early March this year – an act of necessity after its predecessor suddenly carked it. Though I ported all my files across, the one thing I didn’t do – have never done, in fact, because I can’t be bothered – was save my browser settings and bookmarks. Starting afresh on the current machine, I defaulted to Firefox for the first week or two before finally conceding to the superiority of Google Chrome. After that, it was another week or so more before I bothered to set up specific folders for any links that caught my interest. Factoring in the fact that we moved house on March 20, that makes their approximate start date the 1st of April. It is now the 31st of August – meaning that my folders have been live for roughly 122 days.

Since then, based on nothing more than my daily browsing of Twitter, Facebook, blogs and news sites, the folder titled Feminism, Motherhood, Sexism and Sexuality has accrued a grand total of 208 links. That’s almost exactly 1.7 articles per day that have struck me as pertaining to the feminist debate. The first link is to a green paper on rape statistics in Camden, written by PhD student Brooke L. Magnanti – who, as some of you may recall, was revealed in 2009 to be the author of a once-pseudonymous biography titled The Intimate Adventures of a London Call Girl. The paper debunks the previously established idea that the prevalence of strip clubs in the borough directly contributes to a higher incidence of rape. The most recent link is one I added this morning: a t-shirt made by American retailer JCPenney for ‘girls [aged] 7 to 16’ which reads: “I’m too pretty to do homework so my brother had to do it for me.” A random sample of other bookmarked articles includes:

And this is before we cross over to my other folder on SFF, YA and Literary Culture, where a vast majority of the 274 articles bookmarked concern the portrayals of women in narrative, culture and subculture, as well as discussing issues like racism, homophobia, culture and discrimination. Some of these include:

Feel free to look at all those links, or some, or none. There’s not a lot of coherency between them, except for the fact that they all relate to the treatment, perception and acceptance of women, whether in the positive or the negative. But they’re all things I’ve read since April this year – bookmarks of discussions I’ve had, arguments I’ve followed, scandals that have broken, cultural linchpins I’ve railed against. The creation date of some posts predate my finding them by weeks, months or even, more rarely, years; others popped up on my radar almost as soon as they were published. All are relevant to feminism, to women and to society. If I’ve had a conversation with you about anything even vaguely feminist at all this year, the chances are I’ve made reference to something bookmarked in my links folders. Possibly I might even have sent you the articles themselves, if you expressed interest in seeing more.

I didn’t use to be a feminist. As a teenager, I did the weaselly thing of calling myself an equalist, which is a way of saying that I thought women should be treated the same as men (good) but that I was afraid of being associated with man-haters who just wanted to turn the patriarchy into a matriarchy (good in principle, bad in that this is a toxic misconception of feminism). Crucially, I also thought the change in terminology was necessary because, apart from sounding more, well, equal, it seemed as if feminism itself had already succeeded to such a degree that the very word, feminist, had been rendered as anachronistic as bluestocking. Sure, I’d copped my share of flak for having short hair and acting the tomboy, but I went to school and was praised for my brains; I had equal rights with men under the law; I had the vote; I wouldn’t be married off or penalised for divorcing an unwanted husband; I could sleep with whom I wanted, use contraception, aspire to any profession I chose and wear pants with impunity. Surely all of that freedom meant that feminism had seen its use and should gracefully pass on, the relic of a bygone era?  Wouldn’t calling myself a feminist under such circumstances be an innately radical act, putting me in the same camp as those hysterical man-haters I’d heard so much about? What more did I want?

The successes of feminism thus far are many, and huge, and vital – but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing left to fix, nor that all the remaining problems are small. Women are still paid less than men for doing the same work. They must have better qualifications to be hired for the same job. They are still the primary domestics and caregivers for children, even when both partners work. Discrimination is still widespread. Sexism, misogyny and chauvinism still exist. Institutions like the business world, academia and popular culture are still rife with negative stereotypes, to say nothing of the progressive under-representation of  women the higher up the food chain ones goes. Yes, we can vote, and yes, we have rights – lots of them! These are all good things. But they are meaningless if we do not exercise and fight for them; if we ignore every person who impedes equality as an anomalous upstart; if we are afraid to call ourselves feminists because we don’t want to be perceived as radical; if we are content to assume that everyone thinks as we do, because it’s 2011; if we dispute the existence of anti-feminist (or anti-equalist) sentiment on the large scale of culture, institution and subconscious bias simply because we’ve never experienced it ourselves (that we know of).

Looked at in isolation, any of the articles listed above – or, indeed, any of the myriad others I’ve never encountered, or haven’t mentioned – might well seem like a storm in a teacup; a glitch on the social radar that, while dispiriting, is ultimately a minority example of behaviour that everyone knows is unacceptable. Looked at in the context of the whole, however, a different picture starts to emerge: one where, quite possibly, there are still miles and miles to go before we sleep. And that’s why I argue with people in pubs and online; why I get frustrated at having to explain, over and over and over, why I bother; why feminism is still necessary.

Because suffrage wasn’t the end of things. It was only the beginning.

I’ve just been reading the transcript of Kenneth Clarke’s recent interview on rape sentencing in the UK, which has left me feeling angry and flabbergasted. For a while now, I’ve had problems with the idea of statutory rape: not only does it result in some teenagers being branded as sex offenders for sleeping consensually with their slightly younger partners, but by virtue of lumping such consensual (yet illegal) acts together under a non-consensual heading, the terminology has opened the door for what seems to be a sliding scale interpretation of forced rape. Nowhere has this latter problem been made more apparent to me than in Kenneth Clarke’s stumble-tongued assertions: reading through his statements, it is painfully obvious that he views some kinds of rape as being worse than others – and more, that different ‘kinds’ of rape should merit lighter sentencing. When told, for instance, that the average sentence for rape is five years, he defended the statistic by saying:

“That includes date rape [and] 17-year-olds having intercourse with 15-year-olds”.

I’m sorry, but in what possible way is date rape comparable to consensual sex between teenagers? One is unequivocally rape; the other is not. And yet, despite the fact that the majority of rapists are known to their victims – a statistic that the phrase ‘date rape’  was originally intended to publicize – it has somehow become twisted in our cultural vocabulary as a means of distinguishing rape that is somehow less “distressed”. According to whom? From calling one kind rape distressed and another not, it’s a very short step indeed to assuming – as Mr Clarke evidently has – that a smaller amount of physical distress during the rape itself (because, you know, the woman is drugged or drunk or otherwise unable to say no, and therefore less likely to incur the same injuries she would by fighting back) must logically equate to the victim feeling less emotionally distressed afterwards.

This is what I mean by a sliding scale: the idea that the circumstances under which a rape takes place must always be a mitigating factor in how horrific that rape is considered to be. From his comments, Mr Clarke seems to hold that the most terrible form of rape is universally one in which the perpetrator is violent and unknown, and where the woman fights back to no avail, despite the fact that – crucially – she has done nothing at all to provoke a sexual response in her attacker. (Take careful note of that word, provoke: we’ll return to it shortly.) For people who hold to the sliding scale, either consciously or unconsciously, this is what makes date rape different from forcible rape: that the women in question had willingly entered a sexual arena as (however tenuously, however potentially) willing sexual partners; that they dressed a certain way, or dared to become intoxicated, or both, or neither; perhaps even that they consented to kiss, touch or otherwise romantically interact with a man they didn’t want to sleep with, or who they subsequently changed their minds about.

It is not different. A rapist who assaults his victim without attacking her beforehand should no more win points for his ‘considerate’ methods than the law should consider a victim who wasn’t beaten or tied up to have been somehow less raped than a victim who was. Rape is rape, Mr Clarke. Funnily enough, it’s why we call it that.

And then we come to the age-old and sadly non-antiquated question of provocation. Was she asking for it? Did she dress like a slut? Let me give you a hint as about answering these questions: a woman wearing a FUCK ME shirt doesn’t want to be raped any more than a man in a SHOOT ME shirt wants to be shot. However distasteful or improbable you might find these hypothetical shirts to be, the point is that clothes are many things, but an open invitation to assault is not among them – and if that’s still true in an instance when FUCK ME is actually written on someone’s outfit, then you can pretty much assume that the logic holds universally. No, I don’t care how much skin a woman is showing, what fabric her clothes are made of, what she wears on her legs and feet, what her profession is, what time it was, where she was or with whom, or whether she thought to change into a skirt. Anyone still confused by the issue should read Ben Pobjie’s excellent piece, How Not To Rape People: A Handy Guide For Modern Men And Footballers. It’s actually very simple!

For the life of me, I don’t understand why women’s clothing is considered relevant to rape cases. Where does it end? Women who wear bikinis rather than one piece swimsuits are asking for it! Topless sunbathing should be legally reclassified as an unequivocal sex invite! Schoolgirls, nuns and nurses who walk through red light districts deserve to be mistaken for sex workers! Women who dress up for a night on the town in accordance with their own individual tastes all want to have sex with strangers!  Oh, wait…

To carry the argument further, trying to assert that women who join nudist colonies do so because they want to have sex, or because they crave sexual attention, or because they’re tacitly asking to be raped, or for any other reason other than that they like being naked, would be ludicrous. And yet part of our culture persists in asserting that women who dress a certain way must only do so because they want to have sex, or because they crave sexual attention, or because they’re tacitly asking to be raped. Take note of that phrase, a certain way: how bloody subjective can you get? As judged by whom? (One only hopes it isn’t Kenneth Clarke.)

The recent wave of SlutWalks began when a male police officer in Toronto suggested that women should avoid dressing like ‘sluts’ if they didn’t want to be raped. Our culture should be beyond this sort of idiocy – the fact that we aren’t saddens and sickens me. Rape does not work to a sliding scale. Women do not ask for it by dressing a certain way. Rape is rape.

It really is that simple.

Warning: complete spoilers, much rant.

Up until about a week ago, I hadn’t planned on seeing Sucker Punch at the movies, primarily because I didn’t know it existed. That all changed when rumblings in the blogsphere alerted me both to the film itself and to the suggestion that it was a sexist, misogynistic piece of rape-obsessed trash, as opined (among others) by The Atlantic reviewer Sady Doyle and blogger Cassie Alexander. This did not provoke in me a desire to spend money at the box office so much as a profound feeling of disgust – and yet, I remained a little bit intrigued, too, if only because of the amount of controversy racking up. First, lead actresses Emma Browning and Abbie Cornish both defended the film, and then I saw a favourable review that had been published, of all places, on the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center blog, wherein the author praised it as “the best movie about dissociation [he’d] ever seen.” 

Despite my initial reaction, Sucker Punch was starting to look like something I ought to see, if only for curiosity’s sake. Going in, I was prepared for the worst, but also open to the possibility of redemptive surprise, particularly as I’ve found Zack Snyder’s previous three efforts to be something of a mixed bag: I loathed 300, was on the fence about Watchmen, and liked Legend of the Guardians. Given that these were all adaptations, what then might I make of a story that Snyder had written himself? Accompanied by my long-suffering husband, I bought some popcorn and prepared to find out.

Visually and narratively, Sucker Punch operates in three different realms: the real world, where heroine Baby Doll has been committed to an asylum after her abusive step-father frames her for the murder of her little sister; the first dissociative layer, portrayed as a bordello, where Baby Doll and four of the other inmates plot their escape while enduring sexual abuse at the hands of the male orderlies; and the second, deeper dissociative layer, where the girls’ efforts to overcome their situation are expressed as  fantastic battles against giant warriors, dragons, androids and – wait for it – steampunk zombie Nazis. (And I’ll bet you thought only Hellboy had those, right?) In honour of this approach, I’ve elected to critique the film on three different levels – construction, continuity and context – in order to cover all bases.

Are you sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin.

1. Construction 

Besides Baby Doll and her fellow inmates – Sweet Pea, Rocket, Amber and Blondie – Sucker Punch has three other noteworthy characters: villain Blue Jones, a crazed orderly (real world) and sadistic pimp (bordello); ally Vera Gorski, their psychiatrist (real world) and madame (bordello); and a character listed only as the Wise Man, who commands the girls during their fantasy battles.  (He also appears in the real world, but we’ll get to that later.) From the moment she enters the asylum, Baby Doll is on a tight schedule: unless she can escape within five days, a doctor will come and lobotomise her. To this end, the Wise Man lists the items she needs to achieve a “perfect victory”:  a map, fire, a knife, a key, and a fifth thing he refuses to name, which Baby Doll doesn’t mention to her friends. One by one, these items are acquired during the fantasy scenes, returning afterwards to the bordello realm, in which we spend the greatest amount of time. Our only visits to the real world, in fact, are spaced far apart: the very beginning and very end of the film. While this lends a certain sort of symmetry to the narrative, it’s a conceit which swiftly becomes problematic (more of which during the continuity section).

Despite their disparate themes, Zack Snyder’s previous films are united by a common visual aesthetic to which Sucker Punch is no exception: stylistic slow motion interspersed with lighting-fast flashes of violence and a sepia-tinted colour scheme give the film an eerie feel, while his trademark close-ups and swooping vistas provide a strong contrast between personal scenes and battles. The soundtrack is, I’ll admit, catchy, but at a price: the song-to-dialogue ratio is so heavily skewed that vital character development is done away with in favour of what are, effectively, music videos. Snyder’s distinctive visuals only compound this problem: the action scenes are long, almost totally unscripted except for the Wise Man’s briefings, and delivered with such a predictable rhythm that they soon become self-defeating, like endless cut-scenes in a video game.

As per the traditional laziness of the trashy action genre, our five man – or in this case, five girl – army is desperately under-characterised. Although we witness the chain of events leading to Baby Doll’s imprisonment, these opening scenes have no dialogue, leaning heavily on the straw-man Evil Step-Father image to justify her wrongful incarceration. Of the other girls, only sisters Sweet Pea and Rocket are ever given the slightest bit of history, and even this is flimsily done: Rocket ran away from home after clashing with her parents, and Sweet Pea, despite not being part of the argument, followed. How they ended up in the asylum is anyone’s guess – but then, there’s not much real world logic to Sucker Punch, even when we’re actually in the real world.

2. Continuity

As was demonstrated by the recent success of Inception, it is entirely possible for a Hollywood blockbuster to switch back and forth between multiple interlocking realities in a way that actually makes sense. Sucker Punch, however, does not do this. Partly, this is down to laziness, but there’s also an ample helping of fridge logic, too. For starters, it’s inferred that the real world is not the present day, but rather sometime in the 1950s, an assumption supported not just by the cars, technology, clothing and general mood of these scenes, but by the type of asylum Baby Doll is sent to. The fact that her step-father openly bribes an orderly to admit her might still work in the present day, if one were willing to explain the visuals as an affectation; but the threat of a lobotomy conducted via a chisel through the skull-front is undeniably past tense. To borrow from another recent film, think Shutter Island with women. That’s our base level of reality, and even with the dearth of early dialogue, it’s still as plain as day.

And that, alas, is a problem. Even allowing for the creation of an internally dissociative fantasy, I cannot buy the presence in that world of anachronisms – one or two, maybe, but the number here is enormous. Baby Doll’s outfit, for instance, is pure weaponised Japanese schoolgirl, down to the fact that her gun is accessorised with cute little dangling charms. The same is true of all the fantasy costumes, never mind the presence of touch-screen technology, battle suits and silver-gleaming androids. This is further compounded by glitches in the bordello realm: near the end, one male orderly plays with a touchscreen device, his ears adorned with the trademark white earbuds of an iPod, while earlier, a major plot point revolves around Sweet Pea’s ability to photocopy a map of the asylum. Or at least, that’s what we assume she’s done: a machine that looks like a very old, very simple photocopier is shown in Blue’s office, and if Sweet Pea was only going to draw a copy – a lengthy and improbable option – she wouldn’t need to take the original off the wall.

But these are all nitpicks when placed against the bigger problem: understanding how anything in either fantasy world possibly corresponds to the real. In the bordello level, for instance, Baby Doll dances to distract the men while the other girls steal each item – but what does the dancing represent? Sex? Are we witnessing a calculated seduction of all the male orderlies as expressed through Baby Doll’s decision to dance for them, or is she taking advantage of their ongoing coercion? When Amber takes a lighter from one of the men, giggling in his lap while Baby Doll dances nearby, what is actually happening in the real world? Either way, Baby Doll is meant to be so distracting that the men don’t notice the other girls sneaking around – and that’s before you factor in that Baby Doll’s dance is always the cue to segue into the higher fantasy world.

During the botched theft that results in Rocket’s death, for instance, we switch back to the bordello from the fantasy to witness two interpretations of the same event. In the fantasy battle, Rocket is blown up by a bomb on a speeding train, unable to escape because her jetpack is broken. In the bordello, we see her stabbed by the cook, dying in Sweet Pea’s arms while finishing the conversation they’d  started on the train. At no point do we drop down into the real world – because, of course, doing so would reveal the entire action to make no sense at all. If the bordello-dance is already a layer of metaphor, then how do we explain a reality in which Baby Doll distracts the cook in his tiny, cramped kitchen so effectively that he doesn’t notice that four other girls are occupying the same space? The final break with reality comes when Blue kills both Amber and Blondie in the bordello world, with Gorski and several other orderlies as witnesses. Clearly, the girls must die by Blue’s hand in the real world, too: and yet, despite this overwhelming evidence of his savagery, Blue remains in charge. In fact, his next act is to try and rape Baby Doll, who defends herself by stabbing him in the shoulder. So total is the dissonance between the bordello world and reality that when, much later, real-world Gorski is explaining Baby Doll’s history to the lobotomist, she mentions that yes, the patient did stab Blue, but omits to mention that Blue is a murdering rapist. And lest we think she’s simply glossing over a tragic, traumatic event, in the very next scene, we see that Blue is still working at the asylum. As, for that matter, is the equally murdering cook.

Let me repeat that, in case you missed it: three girls have been killed by two staff members in the space of a week. Two of the murders took place in front of multiple staff witnesses. And yet neither man is disciplined, or queried, or imprisoned or suspected or anything until – cue the Narrative Convenience fairy, and also the fairy of Unbelievably Stupid And Offensive Plots – just after Baby Doll’s lobotomy.

Oh, yeah. She gets lobotomised at the end. Apparently, the fifth thing Baby Doll needed was to sacrifice herself so Sweet Pea could escape instead. And by “sacrifice herself”, I mean “get lobotomised”. By a doctor who didn’t really want to do it. In a way that makes no sense. Or, sorry: in a way that makes even less sense than you might already think, because in order to get Baby Doll lobotomised, Blue had to forge Gorski’s signature on the paperwork. Except that Gorski, who is standing right there throughout the procedure while holding the paperwork, objects to the lobotomy taking place. And presumably, if Blue had to forge her signature to get it done – this is, after all, what Baby Doll’s father bribed him to do – then only Gorski has the authority to authorise lobotomies. So you could be forgiven for wondering why, at some point prior to Baby Doll getting lobotomised, she didn’t stop to look at the fucking paperwork and question why the lobotomy was taking place. Oh, no – that particular revelation is saved for three seconds after an irreversible procedure has already happened. Which is also when, all of a sudden, the other orderlies suddenly declare that they don’t want to help Blue hurt the girls any more. Oh, but they’re still willing to leave him all alone with a newly lobotomised girl they’ve just helped strap to a chair – it’s just that they’ll feel bad about it now.

And then the cops come – literally, they reach the place in about two seconds – and arrest Blue, just in time to stop him molesting Baby Doll (well, molesting her more, anyway – he still gets a kiss in). And not because he killed Amber and Blondie, though. Heavens forbid! No: Gorski has dobbed him in for falsifying her paperwork. 

Capping off this carnival of narrative errors and continuity gaffes, we come to the final scene: the newly escaped Sweet Pea at a bus station, trying to find her way home. As the bus doors open, the police appear and try to question her on the suspicion that she is, indeed, an asylum escapee. It looks like she’s doomed, but wait! Who should the bus driver turn out to be but the Wise Man himself?That’s right: the figment of the girls’ collective dissociative imaginations who commanded them through their battles is actually a bus driver, that is to say, a person previously unknown to them who actually exists in the real world. And of course he lies to the police, telling them that Sweet Pea has been on his bus for miles now, when of course he’s never seen her before (But has he? Wait, no, because that makes no fucking sense) and so they let her go, and on she gets, right behind a young male passenger whose face, as it happens, we’ve also seen in the fantasy world, fighting in the trenches of the zombified World War I. Which also makes no sense.

Yeah. About that.

3. Context

Speaking in a recent and undeniably sympathetic interview, Zack Snyder said that Sucker Punch was “absolutely” a “critique on geek culture’s sexism.” Regarding two early moments of metatextual dialogue, he has the following to say:

“She [Sweet Pea] says, “The dance should be more than titillation, and mine’s personal,” and that’s exactly a comment on the movie itself. I think 90% are missing it, or they just don’t care… As soon as the fantasy starts, there’s that whole sequence where Sweet Pea breaks it down and says, “This is a joke, right? I get the sexy school girl and nurse thing, but what’s this? A lobotomized vegetable? How about something more commercial?” That is basically my comment on the film as well. She’s saying, “Why are you making this movie? You need to make a movie more commercial. It shouldn’t be so dark and weird.””

In some ways, this is a perfect explanation of the film’s failure. Snyder has tried to be ironic in his handling of sexiness and objectification, taking schoolgirl fetishism, harem fantasies and sexy nurses and putting them in a situation which is decidedly unsexy -that is to say, a deeply misogynistic environment rife with violence, rape and abuse of power – in order to make his male audience members feel guilty about finding the girls attractive, and thereby forcing them to realise that their lusts align with those of the villainous male characters. To quote the same interview:

“Someone asked me about why I dressed the girls like that, and I said, “Do you not get the metaphor there? The girls are in a brothel performing for men in the dark. In the fantasy sequences, the men in the dark are us. The men in the dark are basically me; dorky sci-fi kids.””

It’s a self-aware sentiment – and yet, the film itself is anything but self-aware. Despite his intentions, Snyder has created a film which systematically disenfranchises its women in order to teach men a lesson about not disenfranchising women. Which, you know, would seem to defeat the purpose. Certainly, it’s possible to empathise with the characters, despite how thinly they’re drawn – but that’s because the entire film is engineered to paint women as victims and men as abusive bastards. What Snyder sees as a dark, edgy ending, perhaps even a cautionary tale about the dangers of male lust – that is, Baby Doll’s lobotomy and the deaths of all her friends bar Sweet Pea – actually reads as a story of victimisation: the girls couldn’t save themselves. Even in the very depths of their fantasies, they still needed a male general to formulate their plans and give them orders. I understand the sexy costumes of the bordello realm, to an extent – it’s a logical leap of dissociation, given the culture of sexual abuse – but why, then, would the girls still imagine themselves in titillating outfits during the second realm’s fantasy battles? The answer is, they wouldn’t: those scenes are there as fanservice, not to make a disquieting point about fetishism and rape, and however much Snyder might have wanted the film to rebuke exactly the sort of objectification its merchandising provokes, the Hollywood factor means that in the end, it can’t help but reinforce the very cultures it attempted to satirise.

In the end, Sucker Punch is a sexist wasteland: a ham-fisted attempt to make chauvinist geeks care about rape by luring them in with action scenes. The idea of creating strong, competent, interesting female characters whose looks play no part in their marketability is apparently too radical for Snyder, who might have saved himself a lot of bother by watching Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof and seeing what real girl action heroes can do, if only you don’t embrace the “rocks fall, everyone dies” approach to storytelling. Because, look: when your five main female characters are all being raped, wrongfully imprisoned and generally abused; when the only names they have are diminutive, sexy-sounding nicknames bestowed on them by rapists, which they then use even among themselves; when you dress them in sexy outfits, call it ironic and then merchandise statuettes of the characters wearing those outfits to your male fanbase; when your female resistors, even in their deepest dissociative fantasies, must still take all their orders from a Wise Man; when all your girls bar one are either murdered or lobotomised at the end, and that selfsame Wise Man calls it a “perfect victory”; then you have not created a film which is empowering for women. Instead, you have taken the old, sexist trope of hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in their male counterparts to a new and disturbing level: that is, you are hurting female characters to motivate goodness, chivalry and protectiveness in the male audience. And I’m sorry, but I just can’t bring myself to see that as an improvement. Because of how, you know. It’s not.

Great soundtrack, but.

So, there’s this online feminist publication called Bitch Magazine, famed far and wide for its intelligence and integrity. And a couple of days ago, their library coordinator, a woman called Ashley McAllister, posted a list of 100 Young Adult Books for the Feminist Reader, the actual contents of which (as opposed to the subsequent shitstorm) can be found here. All was well for about a day – people were commenting, books both on and off the list were being discussed – until this commenter (whose handle, aptly enough, is Pandora) unleashed all the evils of the internet by objecting to the list’s inclusion of Sisters Red by Jackson Pearce, citing agreement with an online review wherein it is argued that the story promotes a culture of blaming rape victims. Not having read the book myself, and being unwilling to judge a whole novel on the basis of a single paragraph, I’m not about to enter into a discussion of that interpretation, although I feel it’s important to point out that, according to those who have read it, there is no rape in Sisters Red. Regardless, as a result of Pandora’s complaint, Ashley McAllister admitted to not having read the book herself and, out of concern that its contents could act as a trigger to victims of rape or sexual assault, removed it from the list.

At this point, author Diana Peterfreund – whose novel, Rampant, sits in 71st position on the list – weighed in, criticising the removal of Sisters Red and pointing out that most of the books on the list, including her own, could similarly be said to act as a triggers for different types of people. After a short exchange with McAllister failed to resolve the issue, Peterfreund requested the removal of Rampant in protest at Bitch’s censorship.

It’s possible that things might have stopped there, but a few posts later, a new commenter expressed outrage that Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan was on the list, too – this being a book which, for many reasons, has never been far from controversy. This time, McAllister’s reaction was to reread the book with the commenter’s objections in mind, and then, two days later, to announce that not only had Sisters Red and Tender Morsels been removed and replaced with different books, but so had Living Dead Girl by Elizabeth Scott. The last of these is particularly puzzling, as nobody whatsoever had complained about its inclusion.

And then, the internet exploded.

Readers of all stripes started vehemently protesting the removal, expressing disbelief and outrage that Bitch had effectively censored their original verdict in response to the comments of just two dissenters. And then, taking a leaf out of Peterfreund’s book, other authors began chiming in, either requesting the removal of their own books if they’d made the list, or condemning the removal itself if not. First Scott Westerfeld, then Justine Larbalestier, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Kirstyn McDermott, Maureen Johnson, Ellen Klages, Lili Wilkinson, Emily Lockhart, Jeff VanderMeer, A.S. King, Penni Russon, Paolo Bacigalupi and Alina Klein – which is a pretty fearsome list of authors, by the way – all made their thoughts known at the site, and now other authors (such as John Scalzi) and feminist websites (such as Smart Bitches) are blogging about it themselves.

Right now, I feel sorry for Ashley McAllister, despite the fact that what she did was stupid. Because clearly, she’s a proponent of good YA novels. And clearly, she was trying to do the right thing – or at least, what seemed to her to be the right thing at the time, being as how her original efforts were intended to make rape victims feel more comfortable with the list. I’m not going to slam that as a motive, because really, how can you? But as the thread itself points out, it is impossible to write a book, or review a book, or do anything even vaguely artistic or critical without running smack-bang into fact that someone, somewhere, will wish you hadn’t, and if your first response to criticism on the internet is to back down – even if your intention was to be considerate – then the question becomes, why put up a list you weren’t confident in to begin with? Saying, “Oh, but we didn’t notice that negative interpretation the first time around,” or pleading ignorance because you hadn’t actually read the book and were just going off what other people said, is the worst possible defence. Abdicating responsibility for your own critical judgement will not win you sympathy with authors and readers who come to your magazine purely to engage with exactly that, and who therefore expect you to defend your opinions as a matter of course.

So when you recommend a list of books for feminist readers, then quickly remove three of them because you didn’t realise that some people would consider them un- or even anti-feminist, what you’re actually saying is, the dog ate my homework. Because, to crib shamelessly from Neil Gaiman, it’s not as though the only true criticisms of Sisters Red, Tender Morsels and Living Dead Girl are hidden in a cave in the black fucking mountains. All you have to do is type any of those titles into Google, look for reviews, and pow! – controversy! In removing those books from the list, Ashley McAllister wasn’t just backing down, no matter how pure her motives. She was effectively acknowledging the fact that a feminist magazine, in seeking to create a list of feminist books, had done their research so poorly as to feel obliged to change their verdict after two commenters told them about controversies they should already have taken into account. The reason so many people spoke out against the removal of Lanagan’s work in particular isn’t because Pearce and Scott’s books are somehow less important or less worthy of defence: it’s because public, prominent and heated debate has raged about Tender Morsels since the moment of its publication – is still unceasing, in fact – and if the team at Bitch were so unaware of that maelstrom as to be blindsided by the outrage of a single ranting commenter, then what the hell else did they miss?

Having made the decision to remove the books in (presumably) ignorance of how that decision would be received, I can appreciate that neither McAllister nor the team at Bitch wants to back down again, even if the subsequent debate has made them regret the initial decision. Doing so would only compound the offence, and cement the idea that their critical approval can be swayed by whoever shouts loudest. But even so, I imagine there’s a lot of soul-searching going on at their HQ – and if, as so many people have said, they are otherwise known as a bastion of good sense and good journalism, then I imagine that, further down the line, a frank discussion of where they went wrong can’t be far off – even if we don’t all agree with the verdict.

Update the first:

Given that the reaction to this whole thing is still ongoing, I’m going to link here to authors and other notable peeps who blog about the decision as and when I notice them to have done so. Thus, you may also like to read the responses of:

Holly Black

Karen Healey

Margo Lanagan

Kirstyn McDermott

Diana Peterfreund

Update the second:

In the original version of this blog, I stated that Diana Peterfreund had asked to have her novel, Rampant, removed from the list in solidarity with Jackson Pearce. Since then, I’ve read Diana’s own blog (linked above) about the incident, and have therefore corrected her motivation.

Scum

Posted: October 21, 2010 in Political Wrangling
Tags: , , , , , ,

I just read this story about a twelve-year-old girl who, while a guardian of the state of Tasmania, was pimped out to over a hundred men by her mother and her mother’s partner.

To say that I’m sicked by this is an understatement.

Legal action is being taken against the state. Which is good. Given my druthers, both pimps would be locked up somewhere so distantly removed from civilisation as to constitute a separate entity. The article doesn’t say as much, but I’ll assume something is being done along those lines, too.

But what I want to know is this:

Who were the hundreds of men to pay for a girl who, apart from being clearly underage, was just as evidently being sold by her caretakers? Going to a brothel is one thing; going to what I imagine was a private house to rape a frightened child and paying for the privilege is another. It is vile, and criminal, and it makes me want to pour bleach on the whole human race. And then set fire to it.

There has been some concern this week about sexism in Australian university colleges; specifically, at St Paul’s College, Sydney University, after it came to light that a group of male students had created a pro-rape/anti-consent group on Facebook called ‘Define Statutory’. Not without reason, this has sparked outrage in various quarters.

Allow me to add to it.

Prior to commencing my time as an undergraduate at Sydney University, I interviewed for a place in two of its co-educational colleges: St Andrews and Wesley. From all the reading I’d done beforehand, St Andrews had been my first choice. Ironically, given that it was where I ended up living in 2004 and 2005, Wesley was something of an afterthought; what swayed me was being introduced to the resident turtles, a trio of doleful chelonians camped in the courtyard pond. During my interview, I distinctly remember joking to the now outgoing master, Reverend David Russell, that any college with turtles couldn’t be all bad. He laughed, and as much as anything else, I suspect it was this which saw me accepted as one of his students.

I was also offered a place at St Andrews. I turned it down. Arriving for the interview, I was already nervous, and when the petite female student giving me a tour of the college mentioned having been stuffed into one of the dryers by a group of male yearmates, my trepidation was not improved. She waved off the incident as a prank, but with a sort of wry, wary eyeroll that wasn’t entirely reassuring. Her anecdote followed me into the interview room. I don’t recall whether I mentioned it explicitly or voiced instead a general anxiety about the behaviour of male collegians, but whatever my words, they caused the master to straighten in his chair, his voice to change. He admitted, seriously and with a mix of shame and anger, that there was still a ‘rugger bugger’ culture in the upper forms, but that I could rest assured that both he and the college as a whole were doing their best to stamp it out. Perhaps he assumed my knowledge of campus sexual politics to be greater than it was, or maybe my concern was more obvious than I remember. Either way, he went so far as to say that, though there had been ‘incidents’ even in recent times, he deplored them. Because of these assurances, he said, I could feel safe at St Andrews.

I appreciated his honesty, his forthrightness and his clear willingness to fix an entrenched culture, but I did not feel safe. On that basis, as much as for the turtles, I chose Wesley, where my chances of being bundled into a cramped metal box seemed smaller. Certainly, I never had to fight free of any laundry equipment in my two years as a resident. I did, however, have fun: I got drunk, I made friends, played copious amounts of MarioKart in lieu of attending morning lectures, went to parties at the surrounding colleges, and acted in most respects like the undergraduate I was. I was never sexually abused at college, nor did I know of anyone during my tenure, male or female, who was. But that is not to say that nothing ever happened.

In 2005, I went, alone, to a party at St Paul’s. I was feeling adventurous, rebellious, flush with the need to meet new people and enjoy my youth. Being an unaccompanied, slender blonde in a short blue dress and rainbow knee-socks, I soon found myself a group of new acquaintances – friendly lads, all of them, and not the least bit menacing. We drank together for most of the night, and at some point, the ringleader of our particular group suggested we retire inside, where the drinking continued in his room. There were about fourteen of us, I think – not a small number – and from hazy memory, I was the only girl. This was not an unfamiliar dynamic to me: the vast bulk of my school friends were male, and I’d often been the lone female presence at various teenaged gatherings. I was confident, if drunk; I laughed with everyone else when the guy whose room it was stripped down to his underpants and tackled a mate, and did not object to his occasional hugs. I did not feel threatened, or preyed upon, or vulnerable, but whether this would be true for every girl in that situation is a different question.

Twice during that night, I wandered into the hallway – not alone, but as part of the general overflow of bodies. There was a boy I didn’t know whose room was across the hall; I’d seen him throughout the night, and he seemed to have noticed me, too. The first time we met, he beckoned me over to his doorway. I went, wondering drunkenly what he wanted to talk to me about, only to find I was being quite unexpectedly kissed and pulled into a room. I disentangled myself as graciously as possible; he grinned as if to say ‘oh, well’,  and let me go. The second time, I was warier, but still lacking in sober judgement: it took several attempts for him to coax me over, proffering apologies and saying that, in all seriousness, he needed to tell me something. It turned out to be a case of fool me twice: I escaped again and left the party soon after, having been jolted back into my senses. Once outside, the cold air woke me up further. Had I drunk just a little bit more, been a little less in control of myself, I might have done something I later came to regret. The guy hadn’t been forceful, or aggressive: just hopeful. That’s not a defence, of course – or at least, it wouldn’t have been, had my decisions been less intelligent. He was soused to the nines, and so was I. We were both stupid, but we were also lucky. There are worse combinations.

On another occasion in 2004, I failed to lock the door to my room at Wesley. I went to bed after a party, fell asleep, and was woken up about half an hour later when one of my male yearmates climbed in next to me. He’d blundered into the wrong room, but after I pointed this out to him, he professed himself too drunk and too weary to correct the mistake: could he sleep on my floor, please? I was tired, he was persistent. After a minute of arguing, I took the path of least resistance and agreed. Inside of three minutes, he had climbed back into my bed, at which point I lost my patience and ordered him out. After some complaints and several futile promises to mend his behaviour, he finally staggered to the door and left. I locked it after him and went back to sleep with little more than a muttered complaint and a weary eyeroll. Really, college men. What else could you do?

Both times, I emerged unscathed. To say that alcohol was a key factor in either incident is an understatement: arguably, it was the only factor. I was never assailed, per se, nor was the behaviour predatory: rather, I chalk it up to drunken male optimism. But the fact remains that it was male, and it was drunken, and it took place at college. Does that make it a consequence of chauvinist culture? Arguably, yes. Had my resolve been less firm, or either male more insistant, this would be a much darker narrative. Physically, I was at every disadvantage. The boys I encountered were undeniably opportunistic, but they didn’t press the issue once my feelings were made clear. That being said, they both made more than one sally; a more tired, more hesitant, less stubborn girl might have made worse choices, or had the possibility of choice taken away from her altogether. Not having spoken to either male in a state of sobriety, I am no fit judge of their daylight personalities. Were they sexist? Did they take pride in their college culture? Were they rugger buggers? I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now, but there are those who would contend, not unreasonably, that it shouldn’t matter either way: sober, they might never have climbed into my bed or tried to pull me into theirs, but sobriety didn’t enter into it.

When I read about the St Paul’s Facebook group, I feel angry, outraged on behalf of men and women alike. Rape is not funny, and it is not simple. Throw alcohol into the picture, and a college environment, and it is even less so. Being too drunk to remember forcing yourself on someone is not a defence, no matter how out of character it is. The act of rape does not fall into a moral grey area, even if the circumstances surrounding it might conceivably, hypothetically, be said to do so. No matter how wonderful a time I had at college, it would be naive and inaccurate to say that there weren’t problems, and that these problems did not sometimes involve a combination of sex and alcohol. The fact that there is a documented history of such incidents is undeniable, which in turn suggests a pattern of behaviour within a particular context. Of itself, this does not invalidate the good times I had at Wesley, nor does it lay a shadow over my undergraduate years. But I will not pretend, for the sake of a rosy-tinted memory, that nothing happened at all, or contend that what did happen was insignificant. In my personal recollection, what matters most is that I was neither harmed nor threatened. I joked about it the next day. I was not the only girl to do so. But there will be others who couldn’t, and still can’t, and never will. In the end, I was lucky, and though it served to help me twice, it is not something I would encourage anyone – man, woman or college authority – to bank on.