'Why not choose a happier subject?'

Sorcha Gunne and Zoë Brigley Thompson explain that they study rape and its narratives to understand and demythologise a difficult and unpleasant subject. But such is the taboo, it's tough to discuss their work openly

December 3, 2009

Researching rape stories is a difficult and delicate topic. A crucial aspect of this work is how to do it justice - not only for ourselves as researchers, but most of all for those who have suffered sexual violence, and their families. From a subjective point of view, as editors of the new volume of essays, Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives: Violence and Violation, we see two more major issues. First, how do you deal with the obvious pain involved in the topic (even if it is refracted through literature)? Second, how do you talk about it with colleagues, friends and family? Even mentioning the word "rape" provokes a wide range of responses. For second-wave feminism in the 1970s and 1980s, the primary objective was to put rape on the agenda in an effort to prevent it from occurring. Now what is at stake is not just whether we speak about rape or not, but how we speak about it and to what end.

Sharon Olds' arresting poem The Girl (1987) evidences issues of rape and narrative for writers and researchers alike. Her poem is renowned, if not infamous, because it depicts the rape of a 12-year-old girl and describes how she is also forced to watch the rape and murder of her best friend. Although critics often dwell on the explicit nature of the work, few focus on the political message at its heart, which asks how the rape survivor can live a "normal" life.

In the poem, although the girl does rebuild her life, she is always a site of uneasiness for the rest of the community. Even when she adopts the conventional roles of cheerleader, student and daughter, the town cannot see past the crime. As a symbol of sexual violence, she is an inconvenient and disturbing reminder of the dark side of human experience - all the more so because the rape is not a bizarre crime committed by outsiders, but an act performed by the brothers and sons of the town. Olds concludes that the girl has found out "what all of us never want to know" and so cannot be accepted back into the community.

The response of the townspeople in The Girl is poignant, and it echoes what many rape survivors experience. Often interpreted as a crime that implicates the "victim", rape tends to become an indelible and defining mark affecting how the survivor is seen and understood socially. Consequently, the academic community can - and often does - find sexual violence a particularly difficult topic to deal with, and this position is easy to understand.

Rape is a taboo subject; we ourselves have in the past felt that even saying the word "rape" was a kind of transgression, which left us groping for euphemisms. "Sexual violence", "assault", "violence against women" and "gender violence" are all terms that we have used to replace "rape" when questioned about our research.

Certain aspects of the academic and literary community seem to encourage this euphemistic approach to what is undoubtedly an uncomfortable topic. For example, after a literary event where a poet gave a reading about sexual abuse, a female postgraduate researcher angrily asked one of us: "Why can't she write about something else?" In an interesting parallel, our contributor Moniza Alvi describes how, after writing a poetry collection about rape, she sometimes wished that her subject was "trees and flowers, subject matter that is in itself beautiful".

Alvi observes: "This is not to imply that such 'nature' poems do not have political import, or that they would be easier to accomplish, but just that they are acceptable as part of a given poetic tradition stretching back through the centuries."

For poets, novelists and dramatists, the act of writing about rape is in itself a courageous one, because communities of readers would often prefer to confine sexual violence to acceptable rape narratives in the sphere of slasher movies, the romance novel or the odd episode of a TV drama.

Similarly, when we set up a conference, "Women Writing Rape", a senior feminist lecturer advised us against it, saying that such a topic shouldn't be researched or theorised. This argument suggests that speaking about rape can sometimes be as exploitative as the act itself, which can be true. Our contributor Ananya Jahanara Kabir writes that speaking about rape in politics, the media or literature can create a "double violation" of the rape survivor, who must live the experience for a second time. Researching rape is a thorny task because, as Kabir puts it, "to tread this difficult terrain" demands "care, respect and solidarity".

While demanding this credo of care and respect, researching rape seems to cast a shadow on the researcher, just as the crime of rape negatively implicates the "victim". Over coffee one day, a friend and colleague asked one of us why such "sunny" and "happy" people would want to research such a dark, traumatic and downright horrible topic as rape and sexual violence? (The question had apparently come up for discussion among some colleagues and had sparked a heated debate.)

We are both familiar with the question, and, like Alvi, we ask it of ourselves from time to time. Rape, which is both a political and an intensely personal crime, needs to be investigated. We believe that demythologising sexual violence and destabilising its unspoken social acceptability should be a part of scholarship. Implicit in this relatively reasonable (and innocently asked) question is the idea that when it comes to researching sexual violence, the trauma of the subject matter dictates that the person doing the research is morbid and/or damaged.

To assume that the researcher of rape has suffered some sexual trauma is also a way of explaining away the importance of the research, as if it was only the result of some personal grievance or ongoing post-traumatic damage. The truth, however, is that for our own moral reasons, we have made a conscious decision to research rape narratives. The notion that we would choose to focus on such an area puzzles our friends and colleagues because it doesn't fit with their picture of either of us.

While we would never renege on our commitment to researching rape, there is no denying that what we have to read and research can be tremendously upsetting. In fact, there have been times when we have felt physically ill or nauseous and have had to stop reading. So why persevere? Why put ourselves through it? Why not research a less devastating topic? What can we say in response, except that it is because the world is not always a happy and sunny place, and we cannot and should not ignore that fact.

Perhaps W.B. Yeats' poem The Stolen Child (1886) can help to make our case. Between each stanza is the exhortation: "Come away, O human child!/To the waters and the wild/With a faery, hand in hand,/For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand." In Yeats' poem, the changeling child should, the narrative voice suggests, leave the troubled world for a carefree life among the fairies. This would be nice, but it won't make the world a less troubled place.

Sometimes we need to stay, switch on the light and try to banish the shadows. This is what we aim to do in Feminism, Literature, and Rape Narratives: to put stories about rape under the microscope to show how deeply embedded the rape script is and to try to right that balance of power, to create a more equitable world with one fewer trouble for Yeats' changeling child to run away from.

If this is what we strongly believe - and we do - why then do we sometimes blush and look to the floor when in social situations people ask what our book is about? If we want to "demythologise" rape as we claim, why do we feel embarrassed to discuss our book or research with friends?

We are not alone in asking these questions of ourselves. One of our contributors, Lorna Jowett, says: "The strangest thing (about working on the book), if not the most difficult, was talking to other people (colleagues and family) about the piece: it became my 'rape paper', which never ceased to sound inappropriate, even though I firmly believed in the value of analysing rape representation in television to see what it tells us about gender representation."

To us, even if it is a bit paradoxical, the very fact that we - the researchers working on this collection of essays - feel like this makes our book about rape narratives all the more necessary. To dispel the aura of taboo around sexual violence, we must speak about it - and write about it - despite (or because of) uncomfortable feelings surrounding the topic.

What has been most rewarding about editing this volume has been discovering fellow travellers who are also trying to unravel problematic rape narratives, and they are not only academics. When we were originally seeking other researchers in this field and lamenting the lack of work on rape narratives, the London Feminist Network rightly corrected us: some of the most important work in demystifying and challenging rape narratives is being done by activists. It is this link between feminist academic research and political pressure on the Government, the legal system and the media that gives our research a strong sense of urgency.

Contributor Belen Martin-Lucas sums up this link when speaking about the motivation for her research. She describes how she has been compelled "to bring visibility to these crimes against women's rights in the forums where I contribute. I have always seen literature as a very useful instrument for socialisation and consciousness-raising, proven very much so in my experience as a teacher."

The value of researching literature is that despite its fictional quality (or literariness), it nonetheless represents, refracts and analyses social narratives. Literature allows us to interrogate the rape script from alternative points of view, a research methodology that is radically different from, but no less necessary and productive than, research done in the social sciences.

To not speak about rape, to remove it from the feminist academic agenda, is to be complicit in the often non-productive silence of governments, courts, police and press. Not talking about rape also means that the use of language to mask the pervasiveness of sexual violence will remain unchallenged in the courtroom, the media and the literary text. The essays in our volume emerge from a variety of theoretical standpoints and address narratives from many national and cultural contexts, but they are all committed to breaking this silence and beginning a feminist dialogue across boundaries.

As Anna Ball says about her contribution: "It remains vital for feminists to continue to speak across cultural boundaries - especially on issues as important as sexual violence. This doesn't have to mean that the Western feminist assumes a position of speaking 'for' the 'other'; nor does it necessarily have to involve constructing 'universal' notions of womanhood. Acknowledging one's own fraught position and attempting to negotiate the complexity of cultural perspective plays a vital role in inspiring dialogue - which is ultimately all I wanted to achieve."

And this is what we, as editors, want to achieve with Feminism, Literature and Rape Narratives.

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