A few months ago, I was doing a burlesque show with this great performer. She was glamorous and charismatic and intelligent. Backstage, in a mirrorless, sweaty boiler room we chatted while drinking champagne. Instead of talking glitter and gossip, we ranted about how we’d both been completely harrassed on the way to the show. We were “sluts” because, I don’t know, we wore fishnet stockings? That sort of thing.
After I launched into a diatribe, she looked right at me and said, “I had to stop talking about it all. I had to separate myself from my beliefs in order to get through my day.”
She said she had learned to keep her feminism quiet, that she bottled her anger and disbelief and rage into a subtle sort of well-behaved perfume. I thought that I might try it, that people were sick to death of me charging into colorful fits of wariness and fear and disillusionment about sex and gender and the body and the mind and what it all means. At the end of the day I want to laugh and be a part of the crowd, and enjoy television just like anyone else.
But, the academia, the deconstruction and the learning is something I can’t -- and don’t want to -- stop.
I can’t just turn it off. I think a lot about what it means to exist as a Female-Identified Woman in this world when people very, very close to me use “rape” as an ordinary verb, like feel or eat or think or do. It just falls, with a certain lightness, from their mouths.
Many people will say, “Who do you keep for friends?!” The answer is not that I surround myself with Bad People, and certainly not that I involve myself with those who intend harm. These are smart people; they have great jobs, work hard. Some of them have known struggle. Others were raised in big, happy, wealthy families. They’re decent. They’re in love. Passionate. Artists. Good people who will be there when you call them. People who have families and buy presents for babies. People who can quote a whole movie. People who matter.
So why do they feel the need to reappropriate such a word as “rape”? By their definition, they use “rape” to signify the “incessant want of something:”
“I’m going to rape that pizza.”
“I’m feeling kinda rapey about that restaurant.”
“Oh my god I would rape a six pack right now.”
“That dump I took raped my butthole.”
More than that, they laughingly alternate between that and the use of “rapacious,” which literally does mean “with force.” This group says, without thought, “I’m rapacious right now.” This means hungry. I watched it happen: when one group member said it without understanding its intense meaning, the others started using it too. It became an acceptable phrase. They alienate themselves from what the word means and laugh about it, because, I don’t know, "South Park" does it so why can’t they? I think we need to be more responsible.
When I was a child, I made up new words: heenu meant glasses and heedu meant shoes. I used them sincerely and consistently and my parents learned to deciper this strange new language, chirping back at me, “Put your heedus on, Lisa!”
This was around the time I learned calligraphy with my grandfather. I studied the feeling, shape and sound of words. I wrote little books on stapled paper. I was born a writer and lover of language. For me, words are a source of freedom, beauty and power.
So, when someone asked me why, as a writer and a poet, I felt so “conservative” about the use of language in this “rape” situation, I was admittedly a little shocked and thrown off-guard. Are you kidding me? There is a fine-ass line between being artistic and being decent.
I get it. Language will always be reappropriated, misused, redefined and constructed in such a way that it aligns with what society creates at any given time. It was always meant to be this way, because society changes the tools with which it expresses itself.
However, language is only one part of being human; another part is watching the news, picking up a book or observing the world around you. You’d swiftly come to understand that “rape culture” is everywhere, and it’s kind of, actually, not that funny. That said, I do love language -- and love the idea that hey, maybe we can get a little more creative here? Instead of using a word that represents a heinous and daily crime against humanity, just pick one of the million-something other words in the English language to take the place of the word you were originally trying to convey. SO DUMB.
I think Annie Theriault defined “rape culture” well when she wrote, “Rape culture is a system that everyone, men and women, unconsciously participate in. It’s a system that promotes the normalization and trivialization of rape.”
I tried explaining this to this group of friends of mine, which, if you’re interested, consists of both men and women. One day, when a new(ish) female friend came over, I sheepishly said, in response to the use of the word rape as it pertained to ordering SUSHI, that they not use the word around new people.
More specificically, I said: “Hey guys, maybe not use the word ‘rape’ around people who might not find it funny?” I tried not being abrasive, and I regret my passive attempt.
The new friend said, “Oh, it’s totally cool. I don’t care, like I know they don’t mean actual rape.” Maybe she was trying to fit in, settle the uncomfortable situation I just created or maybe, just maybe, she saw nothing wrong with the term.
I’ve since asked several times, “Why do you need to use the word rape? Don’t you know anything about rape culture?” Their answer is always, “Come on, you know you find it kind of funny.” I never mentioned that a best friend of mine had been raped time and again, or that I was sexually molested when I was nine and had to “play with dolls in the way he touched you” at a therapist’s office. I never mentioned it because it’s not their business, and I didn’t want to create an environment where people have to tip-toe around my history, or where they might slip-up and say rape and then squinch their face in awkward realization.
I also know that it is more important that we stop rape than obsess over the exacerbation of rape culture. But, I do find it important in a lot of ways.
The thing is this: when my burlesque-dancer friend said she’d felt like she couldn’t even speak up, that she buried that part of herself down so deep every day, I felt a sort of excitement. Is that an option? Can I live my life that way? And, can I enjoy friendships and forgive people for their thoughtless triviliazations?
The answer is no. I can’t.
Here’s what I can do: I can accept that people don’t mean badly, and I can accept that I can’t change people. I don’t want to change people. I want to love people for who they are. I just can’t not speak up.