I go to a discussion group every now and again and this was the second time that the representation of rape came up. Specifically, we were discussing the representation of rape by J. M. Coetzee in Disgrace. Now, I haven’t read the book but from the description given by our presenter it struck me that the rape of a female character is told only from the male narrator’s perspective while the female point of view is eclipsed or rather, silenced. When I mentioned this was problematic, another discussion group member countered: ‘It’s just another perspective’.
But is it?
If rape is an act of violence predominantly committed against women, and further, an act of violence predominantly committed by men, is her point of view ‘just’ another perspective? (The Oxford Dictionaries online platform defines rape as a ‘crime, typically committed by a man’; while a Home Office Overview of Sexual Offending in England and Wales shows that the victim/survivor is ‘a woman’ in most instances.) Is a woman’s point of view then not the other perspective? The one we most need to hear?
Rape has been used as a metaphor for conquered land, as a central theme in Greek mythology, and as an image in literary texts. However, it is only ever a metaphor, a theme or an image from a male perspective. It is anything but from a female point of view, as Roxane Gay shows in her novel An Untamed State.
(Un?)Surprisingly, the comment in the discussion group wasn’t made by a man, but by a woman. Unsurprisingly because patriarchy trains us well. We learn to read as men, we learn to think as men; reducing the violence committed against our own bodies, against ourselves to ‘just another perspective’.
And it’s not easy to override this life-long conditioning – not so long ago my favourite novels were written by men about men with women as mere caricatures, stereotypes or simply non-existent. But it’s not impossible. One way to oppose the dominant (male) point of view is by becoming ‘resisting readers’. Judith Fetterley’s fantastic book The Resisting Reader: A Feminist Approach to American Fiction shows how.
Another is to read novels written by women, or better, feminist women. Like Gay, Anneliese Mackintosh writes about sexual violence in Any Other Mouth and it’s not a metaphor, it's not silenced, and it’s certainly not ‘just another perspective’.