Rape is a lived experience, not a literary motif

Published

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Credit: Rosie Wilson

Holly Hallam
Writer

Content Warning: Discussion of extreme sexual and physical violence, and mental health problems

My name’s Holly, I’m a third year English and Scottish Literature student at Glasgow Uni, and after a lengthy course of therapy and legal support with Glasgow Rape Crisis, I was eventually diagnosed with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It’s been wild. So when I heard that a student publication was recently disaffiliated from the SRC for publishing a “Jack-the-Ripper style” rape and murder story, I got wild. It was triggering – no shame in that, I’ve got a life-altering mental health problem. I don’t know if there’s any overlap between the men who make “triggered” jokes and the ones that grope me in bars, but they stop laughing when they activate my fight or flight response and they win “fight”.

As a Glasgow University Feminist Society board member, right wing free speech advocates love to accuse me of refusing to enter into The Discourse. Usually, I love to refuse to debate because I’m a very busy woman. But today, I felt like putting my reading degree and unfortunate life experience to practical use. Reading the statement released by the paper, their only defense of their decision to publish the story is its “powerful and intoxicating descriptiveness”. In other words: it’s good because a woman gets raped and murdered and it’s detailed. I’m not sure where literariness comes into that, but I decided to take a closer look anyway. If I finished 120 Days of Sodom and only cried twice at the end, I could read anything!

Although the paper’s editors compared it to McCarthy and Welsh, I thought it was thematically closer to de Sade with a sprinkling of Carol Ann Duffy’s high school anthology poetry (which I love, by the way). What surprised me the most was the Iain Banks-style gender twist at the end revealing the killer to be a woman, revealing the story to be a clear metaphor for women’s self-hatred and internalised misogyny! It’s like the short film Quentin Tarantino would make if he was trying to chirpse Julia Kristeva. So it begs the question; in springing to the defence of the story as a piece of sophisticated literature, why did the editors fail to cite any of its really rich cultural allusions? Because it kind of looks like they read a nuanced piece of writing exploring a relationship between internalised misogyny and violence against women and went, “dude, gnarly”.

They’ve displayed a bizarre cognitive dissonance concerning the actual repercussions publishing a story like Women has on their fellow students. Editors include a content warning, advising that some readers may find it genuinely upsetting, but accuse Kate Powell and Pritasha Kariappa of “affected” outrage. They assume that the anger they’ve provoked is somehow not genuine, it’s just political correctness gone mad. It’s incomprehensible to them that students care about the appropriation of extreme misogynist violence for “artistic” and “literary” ends that are ultimately self-serving.

I hate to break it to you, but there are people you study with whose experience of gender-based violence is a lived experience, not a literary motif. About once a fortnight we get to hear a lecturer launch into reading a “rape fantasy” in Bartholomew Fair, another student clumsily unpacking “rapey imagery” in a Liz Lochhead text, a seminar group sat around laughing at the sex workers in an Allan Ramsay poem. Literature staff and students often love to talk about these things as though they haven’t actually happened to anyone in the room. They have. The outcome isn’t some Bildungsroman epiphany or dramatic gothic turn; it’s registering with the Univesity’s Disability Services, a lot of re-sits, and wondering how Police Scotland managed to lose your clothes that were taken in for evidence. I usually bite my tongue when the bad-rape-takes come up in class, but I did enough research to work out that at least some of the boys from this newspaper are on my English Lit course and they evidently need to be schooled.

Marquis de Sade and Robert Browning are dead. Bret Easton Ellis is a creep. Shock literature worked in a pre-internet era when it was the only way that most people could witness the sights, sounds, and sensations of extreme violence. It was special and interesting then in a way that it is not now. If women want to write graphic pieces of misogynistic violence as an exercise in their writing ability to submit for private grading, that’s their choice; I’ll never have to know about it. However, when that text is under-read, seemingly only valued for the extremity of its violence against women, and appropriated by a notoriety-seeking editorial team who are utterly ignorant of the reality of sexual violence, that’s mingin’. We’re not asking for censorship of gendered violence in literature; writers like Alice Sebold, Maya Angelou, and Alice Walker have deservedly cemented such representations in the literary canon(s). We’re asking you to approach the subject with an ounce of decorum. We’re asking you to show some respect for your peers who have lived through violence you’ll (hopefully) only ever read about and still manage to turn up to class.

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If you’d like to do something that’s genuinely helpful for sex workers at risk of violence, you can donate to or contact Umbrella Lane.

You can find out how to access Glasgow Rape Crisis here, Archway here, and reach the Uni’s Disability Department on + 44 (0) 141 330 5497/5121.