Words by Alice Stevens
Image: Garry Knight
“Rape is a choice. Rapists choose to rape… We just don’t want to think about the uncomfortable truth that a rapist is just a guy, any guy, who rapes…it’s difficult to muster up the wholesale abhorrence of all abusers. They are so aggravatingly human”.
Whilst researching literature for my PhD proposal, I stumbled across a heart wrenching yet informative book: What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape by Sohaila Abdulali.
I’m not really sure what this book can be defined as, but as quoted by Abdulali: “Essays? Not really. Sociology? Not learned or academic enough. Psychology? No, too opinionated. Research? Not comprehensive enough. Memoir? I hope not.” Regardless of what it is, it’s incredible. The book is heavy, so if you feel that it might be triggering, maybe leave this until you are ready.
Abdulali provides a pragmatic conceptualisation of the problem with our perceptions and how we talk about rape. At only 200 pages long, Abdulali makes this topic accessible to those who struggle with longer academic literature – where instead, this is a conversational piece. Although the book was published in 2018, the year in which India was ranked the most dangerous nation for women, it is still of course a very timely piece – covering topics such as the #MeToo movement and Donald Trump’s ‘grab ‘em by the p**sy’ scandal. The book covers issues surrounding victim-shaming, BDSM, and what it teaches us about consent, attitudes to intimacy, language issues, and how institutions are failing survivors.
All of this precise information is established by someone who is both a survivor and an academic of rape. In 1980 at the age of 17, Abdulali was gang-raped in Mumbai. Through years of activism work and writing, Sohaila Abdulali has fiercely advocated deconstructing perceptions of rape, from everything we do and don’t talk about.
A particular horrendous fact that made me put the book down for a 20-minute cuppa break was that rape is still legal in 38 countries if you’re married to the rapist. Although this book was published over three years ago, marital rape is still a huge issue word-wide.
Secondly, Abdulali emphasises the importance of gender inclusivity- especially with regards to transcending the intersectional coalitions of identities, such as gender, class, ethnicity and the ‘ideal’ victim. For instance, the book was published around the time of the #MeToo movement in America. Abdulali encompasses that “Defining moments shine a light on this or that group, this or that country, this or that event. The problem with spotlights is the surrounding darkness… The rest of us aren’t even conscious of the millions of people who don’t share our language, media access and privilege, who won’t read this book, and who won’t wear pussy hats and march to have rights over their own bodies.”
Abdulali’s conceptualisation of the stigma attached to BDSM is also poignant. She notes that: “before getting down to the business of pleasure, check with your partner. Agree on what you’re doing, how to signal that you want to stop, and how to pick up that signal.” This connects the idea that BDSM can be completely safe and enjoyable for those who want to partake in such sexual activities, addressing the stigma associated with BDSM and the importance of consent.
In essence, ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape’ is a gut-wrenchingly vital book that I believe everyone should read to understand the realities of rape across the world.
“Rape doesn’t have to define you, that it doesn’t have to reflect on your family, that it is terrible but survivable, that you can go on to have a joyous life.”