Tiffany Jenkins: Obsession with rape ‘a moral panic’

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The common depiction of sexually violent men and vulnerable women is a distortion of the true picture and makes for uncomfortable viewing, says Tiffany Jenkins

There is a moment in Nirbhaya, Yael Farber’s harrowing new play about rape, on show at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, based on the true story of a 23-year-old woman who was gang raped in New Delhi last year and who later died from her injuries, that made me uncomfortable. There were, of course, many such moments – after all, it was about the horrendous assault of Jyoti Singh Pandey, a young woman who became known as Nirbhaya (the fearless one), which is difficult to comprehend, let alone stage – but the one that is significant here is when the different members of the cast stood tall with their arms raised, looked directly at the audience, and said: “We will be silent no more.”

It was a powerful statement, but if I am truthful my first thought was: are we still silent about rape? In the past year, Jyoti Singh Pandey’s story has, understandably, become the subject of global outrage, discussed in newspapers in every language. Nor is it just this act of violence, or those of the other women whose abusive experiences also feature in the production – rape is on show and discussed across our culture. There are multiple productions this year at the festivals, including Our Glass House, based on interviews carried out with women and men who have experienced domestic violence; and Alan Bissett’s Ban This Filth!, a thoughtful and funny show in which the novelist and playwright takes us through his life as he reflects on his experiences with women and his sympathetic encounters with feminism, in particular the writings of Andrea Dworkin, the radical feminist known for her critique of pornography which she linked to rape and violence against women.

The proliferation of discussion about sexual abuse is a development that you would think would be positive, but I am not so sure. Whilst sitting in the dark in front of the cast of Nirbhaya, I wondered why I was watching a play, which lasts 90 minutes, that is unremittingly focused on gang rape and sexual violence by men against women. The seven different performers, most of whom have experienced the actual abuse they act out, take us through the rape and beating of a young girl by her father, sexual abuse by an uncle, groping hands on a bus by anonymous men, being forced at gun point to give a group of lads oral sex, being called a whore, and being dragged across the floor by the hair by a once loving husband. One woman was disfigured when her husband doused her with kerosene.

I am sure it’s therapeutic for the participants, but what about for those of us watching? “Women are raped for entertainment” suggests Alan Bissett in his show when he describes pornography. Isn’t there something that is similarly voyeuristic in our interest in the horror of sexual violence? What are we really saying about women and men when we stage these stories again and again? Because we are retelling these stories, again and again.

Remember the BBC drama, The Fall, with Gillian Anderson as a police officer investigating the murders (by a male social worker) of a series of young, attractive women in Belfast? It was a well-crafted series, but there were rather too many shots of desirable girls before, after and during their abuse and murder. The women were all strong and gorgeous, but ultimately victims of nasty, predatory men.

It was the third episode of Top of the Lake, a beautifully shot crime drama on BBC2 directed by Jane Campion, that jarred. Up until that point, the programme was haunting and mysterious. But by the third week the story line sped up and a reductive explanation for all the darkness was proffered. The central character, the female detective, had been brutally gang raped when she was 15. An exceptionally awful act was presented as ordinary: an extension of everyday male abuse of women in a small community set in New Zealand.

Women are raped and abused, we are constantly told, they cannot recover. And what about men? They are all rapists, wife beaters, or about to commit an act placed on a continuum of sexual violence, even if it’s just a leer or a threatening line. This picture has become the dominant narrative, a little like the paedophile trope that is used to explain many a criminal act in novels, has been at the centre of many a play at the Edinburgh Fringe, and in TV dramas such as Broadchurch. This STV series about the murder of a young boy was great until the last episode and the revelation that it was the husband who had accidentally murdered the underage lad he had fallen for. If the men are not touching up girls, they are killing young boys. And no-one is surprised.

We are creating a two-dimensional narrative of nasty men and vulnerable women that is limited when it comes to drama which needs and benefits from nuance, some light to offset the darkness or even, shockingly, a happy relationship. Although in Nirbhaya there is poetry in parts of the writing, the message is black and white: Indian men rape Indian women, it seems to say. Is that right? What’s more, ironically, in the process, the individual stories are lost in well-intentioned propaganda.

Every now and again an important problem is raised, often in response to an act or an event, such as the rape and death in New Delhi, which becomes emblematic of how we see ourselves. Our obsession with rape and abuse has the feel of a moral panic. Let me qualify that this isn’t to say women are not raped, or killed, just that every so often one event or an act becomes the prism through which we discuss the broader question of who we are, through which what we are really talking about is not this one tragic act, but how we see ordinary men and women: our husbands, wives, lovers, brothers, sons, daughters and friends.

We need to talk about rape, certainly, but not like this. The suggestion is that there is a culture of misogyny and that rape is endemic. But there isn’t and it isn’t. It is time to speak out. I can be silent no longer. Not all men are rapists and not all women are victims. Some of us get along together just fine.