I was at a little gathering recently. Some food, some drink, and early-evening gossip – not exactly the environment for fireworks or teary politics. And yet, even before the trickle of wine had morphed into a hedonistic gush, and bottles of spirits were dug out of cupboards to help along those heading towards delicious bitching, one of the guests had driven away in tears, while another paced outside, chewing through cigarettes and trying to coax her blood pressure down. What had happened to cause such an catastrophe? Simple; someone had used the “R” Analogy.
Kristen Stewart and Martin Cullen don’t generally have all that much in common (apart from his surname matching her on-screen boyfriend’s whilst rhyming with her face), yet both recently found themselves wincing apologies after likening intrusion into their private lives to being raped. Mindlessly comparing an occupational hazard to a serious crime was, naturally, seen as being extremely offensive to real victims; Stewart’s reference stung because of her rich, privileged status, Cullen’s because he’s a man in a position of influence and power. At the party the other night, our perpetrator spoke of how she’d discovered that a person she thought had loved her had lied to her, in the most heinous way, over and over again, essentially creating a version of himself so far from reality that she had fallen for a man who didn’t really exist. The truth was devastating. She felt worthless, stupid; she had wasted a year of her life on a charlatan. In her confessional state, she let slip that it felt like she’d been raped. The other guest, who had been raped in her teens and has always been honest and open about how she continues to struggle to come to terms with it, was sorely offended.
Her short, angry burst can be summed up thusly: don’t ever use the R-Word to describe anything but the R-Word. You cannot imagine it unless you’ve been through it.
The first guest, chastised and mortified, fled the gathering.
Now. There’s never going to be a place or time when I feel it’s right to wonder aloud how this rape victim or that rape victim feels about the crime committed against him or her. People deal with trauma differently. The aftermath of an assault of a sexual nature is an even trickier minefield for the victim to navigate – everyone knows you just don’t see as much victim-blaming with any other kind of serious, personal crime – which is all the more reason to accept that there is no “norm” here, no tried-and-tested rule for Getting Over It that we can package into a handy guidebook and give out at the Rape Crisis Centre. Some people loathe the term “victim”. Some sneer at the alternative “survivor”. Some refuse to be ashamed. Many, and here’s the kicker, feel such deep shame and fear that they never recount their experience, ever. To anyone. It’s a terrible truth that victim-blaming can apply in the victim’s own head, as well.
Which is where my problem lies with bashing those who dare to use the R Analogy. Yes, it’s an extremely insensitive metaphor to pull out of the ether when you’re feeling lazy and indignant. And it is worrying that likening every personal trauma to rape could normalise something which should never be normal. But who’s to say that celebrities who cry rape-a-like know nothing of rape? Who’s to say that the girl who fled our party had no idea what she was alluding to? Rape is, unfortunately, not rare. There are many people in your social circle who could, no doubt, offer qualified opinions on the matter – quite possibly, a few more than you might expect. People will use the R-word. Some of them might even know what they’re talking about. Is there any real advantage to reacting abrasively?
My friend was certainly well within her rights to feel indignant. I’ve always admired how audacious she can be when recounting her experience; as upsetting as it is for her, she’ll talk it out, she’ll “go there” if it needs to be said. But I wonder too, how would she have reacted had the other girl turned around and told her, “Yes, I do know what it’s like…”