Girlhood, a brief history of everyday violence
(After Anne Thériault)
I am not sure how old I am. My great aunt slaps my legs and tells me not to sit like that. Good girls don’t sit with their legs open.
I am in fourth grade. I walk home followed by two boys from my class yelling at me about my breasts. I don’t yet wear a bra.
I am in fifth grade. At camp I share a cabin with a friend of Kristen French. We talk about being afraid to walk home alone. I am in fifth grade. Walking to school with a friend. A man walks by with his penis out, masturbating. We don’t have this language, obviously. We giggle nervously. Tell no one. I am in fifth grade. Children are getting snatched. The ubiquitous white van of childhood. Free kittens and candy and all that. At the park, where I am allowed to go alone, I see a man under the jungle gym. Masturbating while we play above him (Vito Acocconci redux? I think now, ruefully. Angrily.)
I am in sixth grade. I am told by a classmate that I am obviously a slut because when I stand straight my knees don’t touch. I work to make them touch.
I am in ninth grade. I run through the woods to escape a man who is trying to force me into his car.
I am in high school; I get my driver’s license. My mother gives me pepper spray for the glove compartment. I am grateful, think nothing much of it, put it in my glove compartment. Not once do I think “why should I carry pepper spray?” I just know it’s wise.
Still, I am in high school, still. It is interminable, high school. At a party one of my classmates, who is drunk, gets aggressive and insistent that I make out with him. I laugh, try to keep him laughing, as I fall over furniture trying to get away from him. He pushes me. I fall down. Just then, another friend comes in the room.
There’s more. I don’t talk about it much.
I am in university. I am living in British Columbia. I am living in Quebec. I go to Europe, alone. I am living in Alberta. I am living in Nova Scotia. I am living in New Brunswick. I am a student. I am a café worker. I am unemployed. I am traveling. I am a graduate student. I am a wife. I am divorced. I am a professor. I am a mom. I am a partner. I am a daughter. I am my own person. I have a history of sexual assault that I don’t talk about. I am careful. I regulate my movement. I worry. I fret. I get fucking angry at having to pay for a cab rather than walk. I walk and am scared. I am in my office and am scared. I am alone at a gas station, late, filling up the truck, scared. I lock the doors. I don’t wear my earphones at night when I am walking. I regulate my movement. Now and then I still have nightmares. I regulate my movement.
Am I teaching my baby to regulate her movement? Is the world already teaching her that?
Notes on Rape Culture
I have a thin scar on the top of my right foot. It isn’t particularly eye-catching. In fact, I usually can’t see it until the summer months, when my winter-white feet have been in the sun for a bit, and the bumps and nicks of my life are more visible on my skin. It isn’t the kind of scar that you’d ask someone about. I have several like it.
I got this particular scar when I was running through the woods wearing Birkenstocks. Don’t judge me, it was the 90s. Actually, who am I kidding, I still have Birkenstocks. Anyway, I was running through the woods in my sandals because this man had just tried to get me into his car. This was in rural North Carolina. It was midday. The man in the car—I want to say it was a Camaro, but that might just be a whim, the bitchin’ Camaro—had pulled up alongside me while I was walking.
It isn’t so common, people walking along the Drewery-Virginia Line Road, so I wasn’t immediately put on edge by him stopping. He asked if I wanted a ride. I said no, thanks. He said why not, are you too good for me? And I said I’m happy walking, that’s all. He said come on, girl, I’m going to give you a ride. I said, no, you’re not. He said I’m going to make you get in this car. I said fuck you and took off running through kudzu and pine needles and into the woods. I was between my house (empty, my parents still in Canada working) and my neighbors’ (retired, wonderful, letting me stay with them so I wasn’t alone).
There were only two houses between where I’d come from and where I was going.
It was about a mile and a half.
I ran parallel to the road; through the trees I could see the maybe-Camaro rolling along the road, parallel to me. Windows down. I could hear the man yelling, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying.
After cutting across the tobacco field (okay, soybean, because this was the 90s, like I said, and there were lawsuits in the courts, and the farmers were changing their crops over to something less litigious), I got to the K.’s house. Colonel K. was home, and came right out because I guess I was yelling. In a rush, I told him what had happened, and he went back outside. Maybe with a shotgun, but again, it was a while ago, and I don’t remember clearly. I think I may have imagined the shotgun. By this point the adrenaline had subsided a bit, and I was feeling panicky. Scared. Less in fly-to-survive mode and moving toward oh-my-god-what-almost-happened mode. So whether or not there was an actual shotgun when Colonel K. stepped out and stared down the car, which had circled back to drive by the house, it felt like someone was there with a weapon protecting me. It felt good and not good.
Good because, hey, I just ran through the woods in my sandals scared that I was being chased. And here was someone safe! Colonel K.!
Not good because I was also scared that I was overreacting, that my fear was foolish.
So, the scar. It was from some pine twigs that had become jammed under the strap of my sandal as I ran. All I had to show for this, my twenty minutes or so running parallel to the road I lived on: a wee little scar on my foot.
We went inside, had lemonade, and never talked about it again. What was there to talk about? Nothing had happened.
I kept walking on the road in front of my house. Of course I did. It was the country, I like walking, what are you going to do? But I started walking with the dog. And once, when a car went by and honked at me, without thinking I gave it the finger. Later, my friend called to tell me it was him in the car with his grandfather. Oops, I said. Sorry, I said. My fault. Please tell your grandfather I’m sorry.
Looking at the scar on my foot makes me angry. I look at it, from time to time, and think is this when I learned to fear rape? And more specifically, is this when I was taught to fear a particular kind of rape? Is this when the “stranger-danger” mantra of childhood finally made sense? And speaking of sense, is this when the vague but ever-present sensations of being in danger were finally made concrete? Was this the moment in which all my self-surveillance and hyper-awareness was vindicated? Like, aha! I was in danger all this time?
What makes me angry is that the answer is no. No, I learned about rape—and the system of cultural oppression that makes it possible—some other, earlier time. Not through an individual event but through an accretion of small and big aggressions working themselves out on my body and my mind. The senses, tones, discourses, and experiences that actively taught me to shape my behavior and my thinking: these aggressions live in my body. I am a somatic archive. We all are. And the culture we live in, a culture in which women fear for their safety and must protect themselves from sexual violence, begets the oppressive system that has taught me to enact or metabolize concrete and abstract acts of devastating violence. Women are surveilled, regulated, and objectified. I know this. I learned it young. We all do. This—this makes me angry.
Emilie Buchwald, among others, has defined this infuriating culture as rape culture. She writes that rape culture is a complex set of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm… In a rape culture both men and women assume that sexual violence is a fact of life, inevitable… However… much of what we accept as inevitable is in fact the expression of values and attitudes that can change.
In other words, rape culture is short hand for the reasons why women are taught to protect themselves from being raped, the consequence of which is that men are assumed to always-already be potential rapists. Moreover, rape culture encompasses all facets of sexualized violence, which means that it shows up everywhere, from sexualized advertisements to campus hazing rituals, to drug kits for testing your drink at the bar. Rape culture normalizes sexualized violence. That normalization is what taught me—so early—simultaneously to fear rape and not to make a big deal about that fear because the forces that catalyze my fear are “natural.” Indeed, the effects of rape culture may well have you thinking but being able to test my drink is a great idea! rather than thinking marketing and selling a drug testing kit to women rather than eradicating a culture of date rape drugs is kind of crazy. I—we—have been taught to both fear rape and know it is inevitable in some valance. That normalization has created moments of what Rebecca Blakey calls meta-cognition: when you know you’re being taught something, but you don’t have the language yet for what it is you’re being taught.
Good girls don’t sit like that.
Smart girls don’t walk alone.
I’m sorry that you scared me and that I gave you and your grandfather the finger.
I think surely some percentage of women hasn’t been raped. I don’t know though, really. Perhaps this is the kind of thing I could find out on Google.
I have been trying to remember the first time I heard the word “rape,” never mind the term “rape culture.” I can’t remember, and this seems significant to me. Certainly, I can pin point key moments in my childhood when I could feel the charged energy of what I would now name rape culture. I can list moments of warning that taught me to be careful, taught me to be aware, and, I see now, taught me that my own safety was my responsibility. But I can’t come up with a key moment I heard the word rape. Not until I was in university. Not until I was in a course on feminist political theory. So, not until I was about twenty.
Don’t get me wrong, I knew what rape was before I ended up taking the course as one of my electives. But honestly, my understanding of what “counted” as rape was pulled from spectacular and shocking representations of it, the likes of which ended up on television. Law & Order: SVU. CSI. That sort of stuff. It never occurred to me—or many of my friends—that non-consensual sex, especially with people we knew, could ever be named. Instead, if we talked to each other about it at all, we did it in vague and veiled terms. It was a bad night. No, I’m not going to see him again. No, I don’t want to talk about it, I’m fine. Nothing happened.
Why is it that rape and the spectre of rape—that vague, hazy, ever-present possibility of rape—are so difficult to define clearly? Why is it that every time an assault case makes it into the mainstream media there is so much time spent speculating about what happened, how it happened, and whether it was, in fact, an indefensible instance of sexual assault or rape? Or, worse, that there is so much time spent framing the assault as benign, an unfortunate misunderstanding, an over-reaction on the part of the hysterical accuser. Why is it that so much time and energy is spent denying the validity of someone who says: I have been assaulted. I have been raped. I have been hurt. Something has happened. Someone did this to me. I think a space opens to deny or deflect accusations because rape is primarily represented as an unmistakable spectacle of violence when, in fact, rape encompasses a devastatingly wide array of public and private violences. We learn quickly that, like a spectre, the possibility of rape is everywhere at once. We are taught that, like a spectre, rape is almost impossible to pin down.
Do you remember that Stephen King novel It? That’s the novel with the terrifying clown-killer. In the novel, It hunts its prey, who are children, by taking the form of their deepest fears. I hate horror as a genre. I appreciate the ways in which scholars have demonstrated that horror reflects deeply contemporary anxieties and pathologies, but me? I get nightmares. Still, I’m struck by the prescience of It, by the incredibly succinct way King gives form to the haziness of fears we learn before we have words for them. Rape and its spectre are both an It.
In my feminist theory class in undergrad at UNC we read what I have now come to think of as some of the canonical feminist texts: Marilyn Frye’s The Politics of Reality, Patricia Hill Collins’s Black Feminist Thought, Gloria Anzaldúa and Cherrí Moraga’s anthology This Bridge Called My Back, Catherine MacKinnon’s Towards A Feminist Theory of the State. I struggled with all of these books, for different reasons. New language, new paradigms of thought, knowledge written on bodies that were differently raced and sexed than mine.
The readings in this course, which clearly situate me as a university student of the late 1990s, were the first places I started to grasp the kind of language and thinking I needed to understand the world in which I, in my gendered body, was living. It was here, I think, that I started to develop a language to articulate what my body had internalized already.
The French language makes linguistic room for different ways of knowing. Connaître means to know viscerally while savoir is to know factually. It was in this classroom, listening to other, more politicized students that I started to find words to give shape to the hazy it of knowledge. I became savvy (linked to savoir?), I suppose. I found words for what my body already knew. Though at times, what my body knew stood in opposition to what appeared as “fact.” It was poetry that taught me that paradox was real and valuable. Poetry taught me that paradox was also a form of knowledge.
Here’s the thing: we don’t know how to talk about rape. We don’t know how to differentiate between different experiences of rape. We don’t know how to address the perniciousness of rape in history as a calculated tool for violence and subordination any more than we know how to discuss rape as a sometimes-facet of otherwise consensual sexual relationships.
Without clear terms and clear lines that define rape, assault, and rape culture, we wind up with a climate of public discussion that, as its means of addressing violence, almost-always veers to blaming the person who has endured rape.
In Canada, sexual harm and rape are defined in a series of specific provisions in the Criminal Code of Canada. The laws and provisions themselves are extremely specific about what does and does not constitute consent, but the application of those laws is troubled because it emerges from entrenched gendered assumptions about sex and sexuality. In short, a society’s assumptions about gender, sex, sexuality, and sexual violence profoundly affect how laws are interpreted and applied by juries and judges alike.
It occurs to me that a task of the feminist killjoy is killing the slippery, hazy, vagaries that surround discussions of both rape and rape culture. The killjoy’s job is to interrupt the habitual flows of patriarchal discourse, of rape and rape culture. This act of interruption—of interruption as articulation—brings the spectre of gender-based and sexualized violence into focus, makes it harder to deny or justify. Naming that violence, articulating the conditions of its existence, and working to alter those conditions is the work of killing this so-called joy.
I think the figures of the strange and the stranger have something to offer in this work.
I mean, think about it: rape is sensationalized as an act of violence perpetuated in spectacularly violent ways by a strange man against a vulnerable woman. The rapist is always figured as a stranger, though we know that a large percentage of rape and sexualized violence is done by people we know. By an early age I had learned to fear the man following me in his car; but no one taught me that I might have to fear people I knew.
A large part of the supposed 20% is that you have to know what rape means to even say you were raped. I was recently talking about this encounter with my therapist and how deeply the perpetuated myth of the rapist goes. The mace on your keychain given to you by your mother won’t help in the bedroom of someone you know, trust, or potentially love.
Horrific acts of violence are done by strangers to strangers, but pathologizing a rapist primarily as a singular monster just beyond the margins of culture is not only inaccurate, it is also a narrative that sustains rape culture. The rendering of rapists as alien “others,” as strangers, in turn renders rape “other” and inhuman. Situating the rapist outside of the culture that he supposedly violates, the rapist remains an anomaly rather than a product of patriarchal culture.
For a concrete example of what I mean, think back to the structure of shows like Law & Order: SVU. These shows are based on reckoning with rape, but it’s a strange kind of reckoning. Here, more often than not, the violence is framed as an encounter with a monster, not a neighbor. The structure of SVU, for example, moves from a violent event to the hunt for the monster, from working with the victim to the monster’s day in court. The moral arc of the show tends to reinforce the otherness of violence without asking us to consider the systems in which the violence is fostered. The rapist is always a sadist and not “normal.” What gets punished, then, is the difference the rapist manifests—his strangeness, his sadism—rather than the rape itself.
We cannot afford to let rape remain alien, other, or strange because clearly that narrative doesn’t work. It doesn’t stop anyone from raping. Rather, it offers an alibi to the more common occurrence of rape by friend or acquaintance (or a loved one or a family member or new dating interest or co-worker or boss) and to the quotidian nature of violence against women and the cultural structures that foster that violence.
Talking about violence against women (and not rape in particular), Nicole Brossard is unequivocally clear on this point. In her incisive essay, “The Killer Was No Young Man,” published shortly after the 1989 Polytechnique Massacre in Montreal, Brossard refutes the media’s narrative of the killer as a “lone wolf,” which makes him a stranger, different from other humans, singular. The media emblematized the murdered women as victims of an enraged gunman thus allowing the public to disregard the fact that the gunman’s act was predicated on a historical and legal legacy of viewing women as non-subjects. All things considered, says Brossard, M.L. was no young man. He was as old as all the sexist, misogynist proverbs, as old as all the Church fathers who doubted women had a soul. He was as old as all the legislators who ever forbade women the university, the right to vote, access to the public sphere. M.L. was as old as Man and his contempt for women.
Brossard asserts that the killer’s actions, though denounced as uniquely reprehensible, were enactments of the same violences that have been performed for centuries and are still being performed now in rhetoric and in daily life. And notice Brossard’s sleight of hand: rather than articulate his proper name, she refuses M.L. the power of direct reference. Her refusal to name the killer underscores her larger refusal to perpetuate linguistic violence, which is inseparable, as she states, from physical violence. By refusing M.L. the spotlight of the proper name, Brossard refuses him the infamy of his violent acts. This isn’t about M.L., alone, with his anger and his gun. This is about the history of misogyny. At the same time, Brossard doesn’t anonymize M.L. to the point of unrecognizability. Rather, she uses his initials, appending his actions to him, and she contextualizes him and his reprehensible violence in the long history of patriarchal culture. Brossard unmasks M.L.’s strangeness, situating his actions within a history of patriarchal violence. By refusing to situate him with his proper name and refusing to make him a stranger, Brossard forges a middle ground from which M.L. emerges, part of a lineage. He is a figure bound to and borne of a history of violence. In so doing, she removes the haze from the horror.
Sara Ahmed also writes of the dangers posed by the figure of the stranger. For her, the figure of the stranger is both fetish and fear embodied. Fascinating and fearful, the stranger lurks at the limits of my knowing. And that liminality—for the one cast as strange and for me, taught to fear strangeness and strangers—is damaging for everyone.
In Strange Encounters, Ahmed unpacks the ways in which strangers circulate as cultural commodities and tools of fear. She borrows from Marx’s explanation of commodity fetishism to propose another kind of fetishism: a fetishism of figures. In Marx’s explanation commodities gain both stature and financial value not through their inherent worth but through their fetish status. Ahmed dislocates fetishism from the commodity and affixes it to the way that ideas about character types—figures—get fetishized. In other words, she suggests that a general sense of character types—the mom, the bro, the stranger—sediments in our minds through fetish function. Her analysis focuses on the figure of the stranger.
Ahmed posits that the stranger can appear as a figure, one we assume has a life of its own, by being cut off from the history of its determination. To write about this figure is to give it a history; but of course, it is always possible that in following a figure one can retain it as a fetish, as if the qualities it has acquired can be contained by its form. Picture a silhouette, maybe one of those profile paper cuttings done in black of a Victorian child. The silhouette, indistinct, faceless, could be almost anyone. Now flesh it out and make that silhouette whole; put a body on it. We can recognize the form—a person—but the form is still anonymous. Embodiment allows the stranger to move through the world, but the shadows remain: the stranger is never wholly knowable. That, I think, is what Ahmed is getting at: the stranger becomes a figure, a conjurable being we can imagine and to which we can give form, but one whose specific identity is always unknown. Rather than casting a light on the stranger, we find it easier, more manageable, to leave him strange.
If the only narratives about rape that we have in mainstream culture are of random acts of violence undertaken by a monster, then how can we ever hope to give the space and respect and language needed to speak to the myriad of experiences that are outside of this myopic account? What if we articulated the haziness around definitions and articulations of rape and rape culture—the spectre of rape—as a making strange of rape? Maintaining the figures of the stranger or the monster or the lone wolf as figures for rapists saves us from having to cast light on who rapes whom. Without specificity we don’t have to look at loved ones, family, friends, or colleagues. We may not have to look at ourselves. The rapist remains strange and a stranger.
Instead, borrowing the language of Publius Terence Afer, it would be more productive to say: I am human, and nothing of that which is human is alien to me.
Erin advises the following: "trigger warning that it's all about rape culture."
 Anne Thériault of Belle Jar wrote “Being A Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence.” It blew my mind and legitimized the violences in my own life as experiences worth naming, trying to name. http://bellejar.ca/2015/12/03/being-a-girl-a-brief-personal-history-of-violence/
 Vito Acconci’s piece “Seedbed” was first performed in 1972 at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. The piece involved Acconci lying under a wooden walkway in the gallery masturbating while his spoken desires about viewers walking overhead were projected on a loudspeaker in the gallery.
 Transforming a Rape Culture. Ed. Emilie Buchwald, Pamela Fletcher, Martha Roth. Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 1994. xi.
 Claudia Rankine, Don’t Let Me Be Lonely: An American Lyric. Minneapolis: Grey Wolf Press, 2004. 72.
 Cassandra Troyan “The Body Always Remembers: An Interview with Amy Berkowitz. The New Inquiry. http://thenewinquiry.com/features/the-body-always-remembers/
 Brossard, “The Killer Was No Young Man.” Malette, Louise, Marie Chalouh, eds. The Montreal Massacre. Trans. Marlene Wildeman. Charlottetown: gynergy, 1991. 31 – 33.
 Anderson Cooper enacts this same kind of refusal when he reads the names and ages of the forty-nine people massacred at Pulse and explains his refusal to give space to or say the name of their murderer. http://news.nationalpost.com/news/world/anderson-cooper-breaks-down-while-reading-names-of-orlando-shooting-victims
 Ahmed, “In the Company of Strangers.” Feminist killjoys http://feministkilljoys.com/2013/11/10/in-the-company-of-strangers/
Ahmed’s book interrogated the history of inherent racialization, and racism, associated with the figure of the stranger.
 Publius Terence Afer a.k.a. just plain old Terence said that. While he was enslaved, Terence was educated by a Roman senator who eventually freed him. Terence became a playwright and wrote six plays before his death. All of the plays survive to this day. I am not an expert in the history of Roman slaveholding, but it seems to me that one tactic that societies participating in slave economies use to justify their acts of violence against other humans is to make those enslaved humans less-than human. With this in mind Terence’s statement becomes even more radically open. He claims his humanity and the humanity of others. Terence’s words don’t make room for an escape from our own acts. There’s no place for making strange and making strangers. There’s just people doing things to other people.
Erin Wunker lives, writes, researches, and teaches in Halifax, Nova Scotia Canada.