Not That Bad: Dispatches from Rape Culture – review

Edited by Roxane Gay, this collection of personal accounts of sexual violence is important, exhausting and should not have to exist

The unfortunate problem with a book on rape and sexual violence is that it isn’t an easy or comfortable read. Neither are the #MeToo tweets, the newspaper essays or the magazine special issues. It is absurd, but rape is having a “moment”, despite happening since for ever. This is, obviously, a good thing, but sometimes it is hard to avoid feeling that, as well as being exhausted by insidious rape culture, one is exhausted reading about it. I suppose what I am saying here is that Roxane Gay’s Not That Bad is an important book, but it’s also one I wish didn’t have to exist.

Gay notes in her introduction that she originally envisioned Not That Bad as a series of journalistically reported essays and features, genuine dispatches. Instead, the book is mostly confessional, first-person storytelling. And the storytelling is very good – observationally sharp, the writing often as vivid as bruises.

The contributors are varied. There is a male voice (Brandon Taylor writes about his rape by an aunt’s husband). There is trans representation and the intersection also of mental illness and the effect of sexual violence, in which some women try to cut the pain from their bodies. There are the college rapes among the litter of red Solo cups and laughing frat boys, which bring to mind Christine Blasey-Ford’s recent testimony. There is the graphic street-heckling a mother faces with her four-year-old present and an indifferent policeman.

That last contribution, by the poet Lynn Melnick, is one of the book’s best, at once awful and funny. “I wanna fuck your asshole,” someone shouts to her on the street, before she adds in parentheses: “I was wearing a down coat.” Melnick, who is 42, is also strong on what Amy Schumer’s infamous sketch with Patricia Arquette, Tina Fey and Julia Louis-Dreyfus calls society’s judgment on women’s apparent “last fuckable day”. Melnick’s piece, called The Luckiest Milf in Brooklyn, also hits the nail on the head with the observation that “it’s a pretty sorry situation when the choice is either objectification by intimidating strangers or invisibility”.

Slaughterhouse Island, Jill Christman’s account of a college predator, is breathtaking in both its assertion and description. “The thing about telling this story even 30 years later,” she says, “is that even though I know where the culpability lies – firmly – I have trouble shaking off the most dogged shame.”

And many among us – “survivors” in the current vernacular – would recognise that. Staring at therapists’ shoes, mumbling. Women in particular have been conditioned by society to internalise blame. Some tell themselves, in an attempt at self-preservation, that people who bad things happen to must somehow be bad themselves.

But the strength, and problematic horror, of this book is that, in the bluntest meaning, we’ve heard it all before. In the past year alone, I don’t know how many mentions of the keys women hold between our fingers, an improvised preemptive defence weapon, when walking home. My concern is that the people reading most about these accounts of rape and sexual violence are the people most vulnerable to rape, sexual harassment and violence or likely to have experienced it.

Perhaps the most important books on rape, sexual abuse and a more generalised cultural misogyny will be ones tailored towards men and towards educating children. Boys before the porn pop-ups get to them. There is a mass of work still to be done. Aubrey Hirsch notes it when she writes about challenging men who catcall her. Not all of us are comfortable doing this, but I have done it before. Maybe more of us should. We need to transfer this shame to its rightful owners.

Gay notes, optimistically, that “Harvey Weinstein has fallen from grace”, which is true and righteous. But thus far, he has managed to have charges dropped in New York. The extremities men go to to avoid accountability, from hiring former Mossad agents to, say, hiding out in an embassy for five years, speak to their faith in eventual escape. The mainstream actor who calls a public official “sugar tits” and then smoothly reappears in front of a rolling camera and takes a seat on the redemptive chat show couches.

How bad is it to call a public official “sugar tits” when drunk? Is it Not That Bad? Should it be career-ending? How do we discuss this everyday instance alongside what happens in Michelle Chen’s excellent piece, Bodies Against Borders, in which she tells us “rape is endemic in the migrant parts of Libya”.

There are no actual answers or proper explorations here, which is maybe why Gay might have stuck with her original idea. But it is true that everybody in this book and all those who have experienced rape deserve a voice and the voices here are clear and compelling and crushing. I am tired. I am so, so tired.

Not That Bad, edited by Roxane Gay, is published by Atlantic (£14.99). To order a copy for £13.19 go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Hannah Jane Parkinson

The GuardianTramp

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