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Artillery Row

Every crime is a crime

We must distinguish between stories and their misuse

Most women and girls are raped by men they know. One reason why they rarely report it is not because they won’t be believed (although often they won’t) or because they’ll be punished (although often they will), but because they are told they owe it to their community not to bring what has happened to light. Their account will reflect badly on their family, on their religion, on their social group, on men who have qualities or identities in common with the rapist but are not rapists themselves. The damage done by that, it is felt, will be worse than anything done to the victim by failing to acknowledge her trauma. 

“For women, and particularly Indigenous women and women of colour,” writes the Indigenous feminist Cherry Smiley, “we endure immense amounts of pressure to stay silent about men’s violence and men’s discrimination in our own cultures. We are often punished for speaking out against male domination and female subordination in our own cultures and it takes great amounts of courage to do so.”

In this way victims of sexual violence endure an extra degree of shaming for what has happened to them. Their trauma threatens to harm the moral authority and political purity of the group. Other women are encouraged to withhold empathy and compassion lest they, too, become complicit in spreading the taint. 

This has been a feature of feminist responses (or the lack of them) to the rapes committed by Hamas on October 7th. The reticence of many organisations has been justified on the basis that to show too much compassion or even anger for real victims of gang rape is just too risky “in this context”. As the law professor Heidi Matthews tweeted earlier this month “is wartime sexual violence a horrific crime? YES, with no mistake. But sex exceptionalism is also traditionally used to whip up support for entire military campaigns — we see Israel and the U.S. doing this now to justify a prolonged disproportionate air and ground war”. (Don’t worry everyone – she used capital letters for the “yes” before the “but”, which makes it okay.)

Of course Matthews is not entirely wrong. It is true that those whipping up support for their military campaigns will call on narratives which portray their targets as depraved sexual predators. It’s also true that one side in a conflict may use opportunities to highlight their suffering in an attempt to diminish or justify the suffering of the other side. What Matthews is also doing, however, is making a broader point about genuine, not fantasy, rapes. It is one that is very much in line with the broader treatment of victims as threats to one’s chosen purity narrative — whether that narrative relates to one’s family, one’s community or one’s political affiliation. It involves overwriting the experience of the victim with that of other people — usually men — who will seek to use it for their political gain. Victims of rape, with their inconvenient victimhood, acquire the status of participants in a propaganda war (even if they’re dead).

The rapes that took place on October 7th were not symbolic rapes, pre-weaponised rapes, rapes in which the victims offered themselves up as props for those who might wish to capitalise on them to commit mass bombings. They were real rapes, not recruitment campaigns for the enemy. It is important to state this not just in relation to this particular sequence of events, but because this way of emphasising the political inconvenience of rape is becoming a common feature of a certain type of “feminist” analysis. To put it bluntly, if your rapist is aligned with the “goodies” — or is a member of a marginalised group — you are not so much a “pure” victim (which you would be if, say, your rapist was Donald Trump or Harvey Weinstein) as a potential flaunter of victimhood. 

The gender studies professor Alison Phipps exemplifies this position when she writes of “victimhood as violence”. In Me, Not You Phipps compares responses to rape which victims themselves seek to “take back control” to racist border policing and colonial violence. “When filtered through race and class supremacy,” she writes, “the willfulness that follows violation may create a deep need for our will to be done”:

I fear that the white feminist focus on infliction may be an example of what Lennard calls ‘fascistic habit’. This is the love of power and authority, and desire to dominate, oppress and obliterate the Other, that exists in all of us.

Whether or not it “exists in all of us”, here it is projected onto rape victims in a very particular way. Yet as Jane Clare Jones has pointed out, “what rape means to women is not the same as what rape means to racist patriarchal right-wing men, and it’s actually absurd — and exhibits profound disregard for women’s experience and repeats the patriarchal assimilation of women to male default — to suggest otherwise”. There is patriarchal rhetoric which reduces rape victims to territories to be fought over, or prized possessions which have been defiled, but the fact remains that they are not. They are human beings whose attacks should not be reduced to political inconveniences, embarrassing black marks which shouldn’t be talked about. 

Every woman’s rape is politically inconvenient to someone. Every rape story could, if you are uninterested in the perspective of the victim, be reduced to a “gift” to the other side. You might claim that there are special rules that apply in times of war, but these “rules” apply to rape all the time. In a situation in which both sides are victims — and even acknowledging this is fraught — it has to be more important than ever to distinguish between the story and its misuse.

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